Reviewing Movies


You may have noticed we will be including a movie review in the paper some weeks. And you may have noticed that I am rating movies on a grade-letter scale. The reason I do this is two-fold — one, because everyone understands letter-grades; and two, because if you grade on a scale of 100, readers are not sure what average means. To one person a 5/10 may mean average, and to another person it means the movie is unintelligible.
With letter-grades, the reader understands what I mean if I give a movie a D- or an F. And if the reader prefers to translate the letters to numbers, it gives them the context of what a 75/100 means for the reviewer.
When a movie is an F, it is not worth watching except as a joke, which may qualify it for a passing grade like Troll 2. A movie that sinks below a score of 60 (I am using a college grading system), then it is a failure. I believe that if a show or movie sinks below a certain point of interest and entertainment, it is beyond the point of return.
You will see that sometimes I will critique the overreliance on computer generated effects in movies and sometimes I might give CGI a pass. Sometimes it is okay to use CGI to bring to life something that does not exist like a giant robot or a spaceship, but it crosses over to soullessness when the actor is not even on green-screen, when the character and the background are all in the computer. CGI works best as a tool for subtraction. It allows you to animate a puppet with a thick, visible stick or to film an actor dangling on the outside of a real airplane because the computer can be used to remove the puppeteer’s stick or the actor’s safety wires. When it is used to create a fake version of New York for a fake car chase — there is no point. You can take a camera to a street in NY or a visually similar big city, and you can do a car chase on real streets. These things exist. There is no purpose in recreating in a computer which you can just go catch on a physical camera.
Spider-Man should be filmed climbing on a fake, horizontal building exterior in front of a black background. The tools of film should be used to create an illusion to make the scene appear vertical. Great film comes from the challenge of figuring out how to get something in your lens. Without the failures of the robotic shark in Jaws, Spielberg’s film would have never had to rely on the minimalist suspense created by a rubber fin sticking out of the water. That image became the dominant iconography of Jaws and became a symbolic of the unseen in horror cinema.
Illusion is everything that film is built on. Two actors may not even film a scene together. The editor can piece them together, cutting back and forth between close-ups, and the audience reads the geometry of the background to place the two actors together in their minds. Film is a magic show. There is no craft in filming a scene with a still camera facing two actors in the same frame like the filming of a play. The language of film is in a slow-zoom or a close-up for reaction. We read what these things mean without knowing it and we never think about the fact that we do not see the world in cuts. These tools have been around since 1928’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. The camera affects emotion with movement, length of shots, zooming in or out (or both at the same time as per the dolly zoom in Vertigo), and more.
When you take away the camera, it shows. You lose the knowledge of the Director of Photography-- you lose the shaky camera in Peggy Sue Got Married. You cannot replace a professional DP with a team of computer animators.