Today is the fourth anniversary of Killing Time! We’ve been consistently stabbing minutes here for four years now, and I was wondering how best to mark the occasion when I got a question from a KTer over at the Facebook page (YES, we’re on Facebook: www.facebook.com/killingtime2014). His question was so good that I decided to make it the anniversary showcase because it goes to the heart of the site. He asked, “What do you look for when criticizing movies? I will never understand critics and what they out of movies.” I’ve been doing this now for actually about 10 years in various forums and no one has ever asked me that, and it is a perfectly reasonable question to which I’ll try to give my best answer.
Films are art; art is subjective; therefore, any criticism of it is-by extension-just as subjective. Rotten Tomatoes has grown to be the base metric people use for measuring critical response to a film, but as it happens, the three films I probably hated most this year: The Witch, Sausage Party, and Manchester by the Sea, have sterling ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. Manchester will likely win Oscars. Doesn’t matter; still hated it. On the other hand there are films I really love (and I recently used the Underworld series as an example of this) that I know are shoddy movies, but I have fun with them (except the last one) and could care less what critics thought. So, in a way, the beginning to my answer is: “It could not matter less what anyone but you thinks about a particular movie. If you liked it; awesome, it’s good to you.”
For people who like analyzing cinema enough to actually maintain a blog daily that is primarily devoted to anticipating and reviewing movies, asking what their criteria are is so fundamental, I’m kind of surprised it took someone so long to ask. This goes to the heart of everything I do on the site, so there’s a simple answer and then there’s the long-winded one. Films are stories. Like books, TV shows, video games, entertaining bathroom stall graffiti, in the end, what I care about is did you tell me a good story? That’s the base for every review I write and based on how well I felt the story was told I assign it a point value in quarter point increments 0 to 10. Some people use letter grades, Siskel & Ebert got by with thumbs-up or thumbs-down, lots of people use stars; they’re all the subjective view of the person who experienced the story.
All storytelling has similar elements, and those are the aspects on which I focus when I’m analyzing a story.
- Words: how was the screenplay? Was it a well-written narrative? Was the dialogue true to the characters it created? Was it obviously derivative of another work I’ve already seen?
- Acting: how well were the words brought to life? This also encompasses casting; was the right actor or actress playing the right role, and what did they bring to the project? Not only are the actors delivering the lines, it’s everything they do that’s not on the page: facial expressions, body movement, non-verbal cues that combine with the spoken words to create a well-rounded character.
- Directing: how well were the words and the actors guided by the film’s director? The best directors enhance both the screenplay and augment the effort an actor brings to a role and, if they do their job well, all the elements come together as a focused, coherent package.
- Production Values: how well did the cinematography, sound, score, special effects, costumes, editing, make-up and all the other components that serve to enhance what began as words on a page turn those words into a better or worse story? What would Star Wars, for example, be without the iconic sounds, effects, costumes, make-up, camera work and John Williams’ operatic score? Each of those things is an integral part of transporting you in any movie to an event that we all experienced somehow collectively (like 9/11) or to another world altogether in a galaxy far, far away.
Those are the four pillars on which I base the logic of any review I write. At the same time, you can get so wrapped up in trying to analyze a film as you’re watching it that movies stop being fun and that defeats the entire purpose of escapism. We want stories to transport us out of our lives. These days, we need that more than ever before, so at times I have to take a step back and reboot by watching something like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, The Dark Knight, Apollo 13, The Shawshank Redemption, and other movies that made me fall in love with film in the first place. I think we all have those kinds of movies, and going back to them is a mental reboot for me.
I go into almost every movie wanting to like it. I have friends who make movies and I’m aware that behind every movie there are years of effort and hundreds or thousands of lives that have devoted time to making it good. I start with a 10 in my head as a film’s score. How many points it loses off that 10 is a subjective call on my part, but it’s based on how well they executed my four pillars. I do not like writing reviews where I tear a movie apart. That’s not any more fun than watching what I think is horrible movie is. And I want to note something done well in every movie, because even truly crap films can have, say, a phenomenal score (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End….awful film; gorgeous score). It’s my opinion that you can find that in almost every film, and if I really can’t…..then I may enjoy ripping it a little, but that rarely happens.
What I do with Killing Time is really just a larger version of what I do with my friends: I want to talk about stories. Be it a cool story I just experienced, or what looks like a cool story to come looking at casting news, trailers, stills, etc, I just want the shared experience of loving stories to bring us together. That’s Killing Time’s mission statement (to the extent that it has one), and hopefully that gives some insight into the formula that burps out my subjective view on a piece of art. Thank you all for making writing this blog a worthwhile and enjoyable experience for me. I’ve made lifelong friends through this site as we discuss the things we love, and its been a steady constant during the most unsteady period of my life. For that and for all of you who take the time to read it, I’m very grateful, and I’ll try to keep killing time with you for years to come.