Monday, 20 April 2009

Cinema Scope

When it comes to films, I generally try to keep an open mind. I'll give most films a try and stick them through to the end (I've never walked out of a film in the cinema, and I've been to see some boring/excrutiating/embarrassing films in my time) mainly so that I can form my own opinion of them knowing that I've experienced them fully. Of course, there are films that I can be fairly certain I'll love, and others that I'll have a feeling I'm going to despise, based on past experience and personal taste. I try to go into a film with an open and objective mind, but obviously this can only be done to a certain extent.

I like to have an opinion on a film, no matter whether I'm already placing it within my all-time favourites or hoping my eyes and ears will never be besmirched by having to view or hear any portion of it again, and this opinion is invariably expressed through several outlets. Conversations with others is typically the starting point. These could be simply asking someone I know has seen the film too what they thought of it, or, if I'm speaking to someone I know is a fellow avid cinema fan, a more in-depth verbal analysis. Then there's reviewing films, which falls somewhere inbetween those two scenarios in terms of depth, but also has a separate function all together. I write a review of a film not just to let people know what I thought of a film, but also to record my own feelings about the film for my own reference, and thirdly, to produce a piece of writing that is coherent and engaging - basically, so that it's something other people will actually want to read.

My reviews currently appear in two places. I first write them on the Flixter application of Facebook. This application functions as a scratchpad for my immediate and initial thoughts and feelings on a film, where I usually write no more than a few sentences summing up what I think of it. Initially this decision was made as I became aware that the Flixter app is in no way linked to the Flixter website, and as such there's no storage of my reviews. If the app disappears for whatever reason, as far as I know so do my reviews, so I don't want to lose anything too detailed that I've actually put a fair amount of work into crafting. The primary reason now is because I much prefer my full reviews to appear in my second place: here.

And so, I finally head towards the crux of this entry (yes, there is one - and thank you for sticking with it so far). I've written quite a few reviews, some very basic, others more detailed. But ultimately, whether on Facebook or on here, they all boil down to the same conclusion: a score out of ten. And this is where I often find the greatest difficulty in my reviews. I can ramble on and on about the cast, the writing, the special effects, the direction, and any number of other things for as long as you like. But when it comes to giving a film a score, I often have to work very hard to not make it an arbitrary figure chosen as part of a trite exercise.

Here's the general rule by which I work. A totally average film - one that doesn't particularly do anything wrong, but also doesn't do anything particulary well - will receive five out of ten, roughly in the middle. Films I've given this score include such forgettable fodder as Along Came Polly, My Super Ex-Girlfriend and 17 Again. All films within roughly the same genre, the romantic comedy, which, whilst maybe seeming a little narrow-minded, actually helps me to demonstrate rather neatly what I mean. Speaking objectively, there's nothing specifically wrong with these films. If you have a strong personal dislike for anything involving Ben Stiller, you might score Along Came Polly more punitively than I have. If you're a big fan of superheroes, the treatment that that particular topic receives in My Super Ex-Girlfriend might have a bearing on whether you would give the film anything higher or lower than five. However, those are both highly subjective factors that, arguably, should be for the most part disregarded when reviewing a film objectively. In the end, none of these films are cinematic masterpieces (in itself a subjective label but one that hopefully is generally understandable and relatable), but neither are they embarrassingly bad films. So, they get a middle score.

But there's more to consider here. All three films are rom-coms, and as such adhere to rom-com conventions. You'll find stereotypical characters that include a man and a woman - one of whom will be very good-looking, but neither of which will be "ugly" (unless the person playing them is very famous or a guaranteed box office draw) and one of whom at least is unlucky in love; a "bad" current or former boyfriend or girlfriend; a caricature who is usually the best friend of one of the main characters and provides mainly comedy, etc. Present too will be a simple-to-follow and over-the-top plot that usually involves some kind of misunderstanding or crossed purposes, but resolves itself happily where the "good" people "win" and the "bad" people "lose". It's a format that, to varying extents, all rom-coms follow. This means that it's not particularly challenging to create a successful rom-com as long as these conventions are present.

So does that mean that a rom-com that does all these things should get ten out of ten? Well, no. When a rom-com is made, the people making it to my mind limit themselves in how good their film can potentially be. A standard rom-com, like the ones above, all receive an average score. A rom-com that does things particularly well, or that mixes things up in an interesting way, could gain a score of six. Anything higher than that and usually it will have to stray significantly from, or add significantly to, the rom-com formula. If a rom-com is particularly lazy or unoriginal, or just simply poor in its execution, it'll slip down to a four or a three. Three and below and we're talking about a film that not only wasn't interesting, but was actually physically frustrating or irritating for me to watch. But generally, even if a rom-com does most things right, in the end it'll never reach the heights of an eight or a nine, simply because those making the film have chosen to produce something that isn't challenging, unusual or particularly difficult to do.

It isn't just rom-coms of which this is true. Family comedies follow a different set of conventions, but again a set that doesn't exactly raise the bar in terms of cinema, and I find it very difficult to give them anything more than five or six, even if there was nothing particularly wrong with them. Horror films also follow a formula, and unless they are especially adventurous or out of the ordinary in their execution, again I find it hard to give more than a six.

So, what constitutes a high-scoring film, the eights, the nines and the tens? Films that get eight or nine are ones where the people making them have set themselves a challenging feat. They haven't decided to make something that's been seen countless times before, or something that simply follows a set of easy-to-follow rules. They've attempted to make a film that is more than that, that will stand out as a real achievement. But obviously attempting it is not enough. To get such a high score the film has to actually achieve its goals in some way. The more successful, the higher the score. Tens are pretty much reserved for films that not only do things right and to a high standard, but also have that certain intangible quality, that magical quality, that when I'm watching them, I know somewhere inside me that I'm watching something special or momentous - a film that will stay with me forever. Some films have it, and some don't. Ten out of ten to me doesn't mean I think the film is perfect. What it does mean is that the film sets the bar high in several ways and, in my opinion, it achieves everything it set out to do.

So, this entry's ended up being pretty rambling and sprawling. I've watched a wide variety of films recently, and I started thinking about how I form opinions of films and why I reach the conclusions I do, and it ended up as this entry. I'd be interested to see how others view and review films in different genres, and how different people arrive at the scores that they do. There's a few other people who write film reviews here, so I look forward to any comments or follow-up posts on the same topic.

1 comment:

Hanspan said...

See, I'd give My Super-Ex Girlfriend something like 0 or 1 because what I perceived as it's anti-women sentiment just annoyed me, plus it wasn't that funny.

But then, rom coms like 10 Things I Hate About You 0r Sliding Doors, I would score much more highly, probably around 7-9 because I found them really intelligently funny. Though you could probably argue that they do something different because they are a) an adaptation of a Shakespeare classic or b) a rom com based around quantum theory.

I generally don't rate rom coms just because I don't like that kind of film. I went to see Marley & Me with people from work, left to myself I would never have chosen that film and I was pretty bored for the majority of it. If I'm going to see a rom com it has to be surreal or sarcastic for me to like it.

I'm fairly simple in whether I like or dislike films. If I find them gratuitously sexist, I don't like them. If they are overly reliant on fart gags or similar, I don't like them. If films are exceedingly violent, I don't like them. It's not that I automatically object to these things, but they have to have some point to move the film along.

For example, I really didn't like 300. I will admit it was stylistically bold and interesting and the cinematography cleverly evoked the graphic novel it was based on. But I really don't enjoy that amount of stylistic violence. There was virtually no let up and it was unbearably grim. I found the portrayal of most of the women in the film degrading and the historical inaccuracy annoyed my inner historian. The weight given to one Spartan death who, sob, had been brought by his father, even though he was too young as compared to the total lack of remorse shown for all the people they slaughtered. All of it combined to piss me off. And I just couldn't take Leonidas seriously, every time he said "This is Sparta" it sounded like he was channelling Brian Blessed. The only good bit was when Gorgo got her revenge on the senator.

I think my rating of films tends to depend on whether they're the genre of films I like. Mostly I will go to see fantasy, comedy, adventure, sci-fi, surreal, drama, cartoons, documentary, but not horror or romantic films. Stuff that doesn't fall into my preferred category will be more likely to be rated lower.