Column: Why, and how, I review movies

First things first, and believe me, based on some of the reactions I’ve gotten in the past, it bears importance starting out with this: I don’t consider myself a film expert.

If I did, I wouldn’t be writing about movies. I’d be trying my hand at making them. And potentially making a hell of a lot more money than I do now writing reviews (which amounts to exactly zilch. What’s up, Rolling Stone?).

But I don’t. I watch a lot of movies (some people might think too many. Sorry, Mom), and I feel like with each one I’ve seen – even the stinkers – I’ve learned something new about the medium. But through nearly 22 years and four months of life, never has that led to a particular desire to create a movie, no matter how much I respect the hell out of people who do, on any level.

But movies were my first love. For sure. Something about the medium has always resonated with me more, and continues to do so, than any other art form. The movie theater is my home away from home, the big screen an entryway into some special kind of nirvana that I can never get anywhere else.

And, starting fairly recently, the pen and notepad has been my companion to the theater.

Why I do it

I’ll admit it: I have an insatiable, somewhat pretentious, definitely obsessive need for people to know my thoughts on the films I watch. If you’ve followed me on Twitter or Facebook for any amount of time, you probably knew that.

It’s a need whose obsessive nature correlates to how extremely good or bad I believe a movie to be. Yes, you should offer your time and money to go see Blade Runner 2049. No, you’d be much better off spending two hours of your life watching grass grow than seeing Suicide Squad.

When did I start doing that in formalized, written, extremely amateur blogger form? Weirdly enough, with 2014’s Chef. I spent my free afternoon that summer going to the theater to catch a film that looked interesting enough to be worth my money.

Actually, I was working at the movies that summer, so it was totally free. But that’s beside the point.

Who knows what it was about that day, that experience. I’ve never had a particular fascination with Jon Favreau (his movies are fine), Sofia Vergara (Modern Family is fine) or the food truck culture (it’s deliciously fine).

But something about that day, that experience of watching a movie alone and perhaps picking through details more than I had up to that point, led me to go home, immediately open up my laptop, and write down my thoughts.

In about 600 or so words that probably came across as more like thought vomit than a legible review, I gave my thoughts to the world on a simple movie about family and food. I threw them up on a blog that was created somewhat hastily the previous semester for a class. I shared it with my friends and family, inviting them to read.

And a new hobby was born that has since turned into a lifestyle I’ve become passionate about, over the course of the few dozen reviews I’ve written since then.

Money (small amounts) has come from it a handful of times. Criticism of my criticism has come more often. I even found myself driving back to my Albuquerque apartment with a New Mexico Press Association award one time because of it. Others have resulted in only one or two views, let alone recognition I never expect to receive.

And with every single page of indecipherably written notes I’ve jotted in dimly lit theaters has come a growing appreciation for the art form.

But I don’t do it just for myself. I want people to have an idea of what they’re getting into when they decide to take a trip to the hallowed halls of Cinemadom. That much has remained the same with my reviewing, and just like any good journalist, I try to stay as objective as possible.

The method to the movie madness

Since I’ve started writing about films, my consumption of other reviews and movie commentary of the written variety by others has increased exponentially. From Peter Travers to A.O. Scott to the various movie podcasts out there, I’ve tried to open myself up to as many perspectives about individual films as I can after crafting my own opinion of them.

Sometimes, I’m too stubborn to change that opinion. Sometimes, it’s completely changed the way I see a movie. That’s the beauty of any piece of art, after all – it’s subjective, and completely open to interpretation. That’s partly why I never consider myself a film expert; just someone with one opinion mixed in with a million others.

But among the (very) few things that truly irks me about some professional reviews: the free-for-all attitude when it comes to plot.

It isn’t really related to quality. Some of the best reviews I’ve ever read go all in when it comes to spoiling a movie. In my opinion, that goes against the purpose of reviewing new films.

For some, though, that’s the point – to discuss it freely and openly. And that’s fine. That’s their method.

But if you’ve never read one of my reviews for fear of the subject at hand being spoiled, know that that’s always at the top of my head. I rarely, if ever, go into details about plot beyond what is being explicitly expressed in a film’s marketing. The same might not be said for a movie’s themes, etc., but that’s my interpretation of it.

And it’s an invitation for you to interpret it your own way. At least, it should be. Because if I want my reviews to be a bastion for anything, it’s discussion.

Maybe that’s the journalist in me. I’ve always been taught that my first loyalty as a professional journalist is to the reader, and it wouldn’t do to have a movie spoiled if the reader hasn’t seen it yet.

There’s another big way my inner journalist has influenced my evolution of movie review-writing. I always try to stay as objective as possible. I’m not going to fib and say that some movies don’t affect me in profoundly personal ways; some of my favorite films do so every time I watch them.

But I also don’t believe that equating films to some of my personal experiences is the right way to go about it, at least for me. I know readers don’t care about how that one scene reminded me of that one kickback in college, or the way a line of dialogue took me back to a life-changing conversation I had with an important person in my life.

They care, in objective as terms as possible, about what they might experience when they go see a movie. The direction, acting, potential meanings, cinematography, etc. etc.

That isn’t to say I don’t write about a film’s emotional impact; not doing so would neglect the purpose of film. But I strive to do it in ways that I feel are intentional and far-reaching; writing about techniques with broad implications, whether those are societal or historical.

Simply put: I try to keep out the Me’s, Myself’s and I’s as much as possible, instead focusing on the audience and who I believe the film’s intended audience to be. Hell, even thinking about who that audience is is part of the fun when contemplating a movie I’ve just seen.

I’ve also adopted a bit of a different lens to watch movies through when I know I’m going to be writing a review about it later. That’s just what has naturally happened. I try to pay attention to some of the finer details that I might otherwise neglect. The way a line of dialogue is given. How a room is arranged. Why the camera dances at some moments and sits idly by at others, like just another member of the audience. Why the director do this? Did the scribe subtly mean X when she wrote Y?

Does that mean I might be more critical of a movie that I’d be blindly enjoying if I was just watching it to watch for my own amusement with my brain turned off? Sure, maybe…to an extent.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching movies in this way – which I’ve recently noticed I’ve been doing with any movie I see, whether it will lead to a review or not – it doesn’t do any filmgoer to watch a movie just to soak it all in, a way to pass the time.

Movies are meant to engage. They’re meant to challenge. They’re meant to show us things we’ve never seen before. To make us fall in love with, to get pissed at, to be utterly perplexed by the events unfolding onscreen.

That’s what I hope people get out of them (yes, even the bad ones). And also my reviews; I want them to spark some legitimate reaction. Above all though, I hope that people understand it’s just the thoughts of one interpretation in an endless sea of them. It’s a privilege to have the means to do it, to have a way to share them and to have people who read them.

Just don’t ever expect my experience to be an exact carbon copy of yours.

 

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