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The Little Things:
Pet Peeves, Movie Critics, & Other Insignificant Things.
By: Mickael
That little dot over a lower case “i” is called a tittle. It’s the smallest part of any word in any sentence. No matter your profession, your workplace has a variety of little things that you must do right to be considered successful at your job, beyond whatever expectation of productivity was stated to you during your orientation. There is a laundry list of “cost of entry” items that are the basis for everything else you do. Whether these expectations are related to organization, safety guidelines, or general workplace appearance; it can be frustrating to be an employee who believes that you perform all of your job functions to the letter, only to later receive a workplace inspection from a “corporate type” and learn that they didn’t notice any of that work because they really want you to assign someone to tidy up the break room. This is insanely frustrating. Cleaning the break room isn’t in your job description. Didn’t you do precisely what you’re paid to do? You hardly notice the tittle over an “i” when it’s there, but when missing, that tittle is so conspicuous that it can distract you from the true content.
Film critics are much like the corporate inspectors of the movie world. Untalented, do-nothing, overweight parasites with too much power and too little responsibility; whose personal inclinations can sink a production. Critics are to the creative process as a genital wart is to human reproduction: highly visible and with the sole purpose of dissuading you from entering. The only difference is, there are no negative repercussions from seeing a bad movie. Also, there is no objective measuring system for what renders a flick “good” or “bad”. We all have pet peeves that ruin movies for us. Poor continuity, derivative stories, and outdated topical humor are all common missteps. Personally, I hate the misuse of technology in film. The nerd archetype that carelessly taps away at his laptop to instantaneously disrupt all traffic lights, or one whom “hacks” an ATM causing money to violently shoot out are my affliction. These depictions cause me to instantaneously abandon my suspension of disbelief. If something as ubiquitous and easily researched as everyday technology tricks are handled with such insulting exaggerations, then surely everything else in the film is suspect.
The point is, it’s not just the film as a whole that is subjective; literally every decision within can ignite someone’s personal contempt inferno. Law enforcement officers may find themselves rolling their eyes at the inappropriate reactions of first responders in many super hero movies, even though they know it only matters to a select few audience members. Motor heads will always lament the lack of realistic car chase scenes in Hollywood, the only place on earth where the good guy in a Mustang can outrun a bad guy in a Koenigsegg simply because the Ford has been “tuned”. The critics come in to a film with their own checklist of pet peeves. Each critic sees the film through his or her own unique pair of spectacles, equipped with lenses constructed over years of personal experience, augmented by the opinions of their university’s film professor, transformed by their affinity for film theory, and finally modified by the requirements of their editor. This is why there is occasionally such a grand divide between the viewer’s opinion of a movie and the critic’s consensus of the same film. When making a movie is your obligation to the critics, or to the audience?
The checklists of “musts” that many critics expect a film to complete within its runtime is staggering. Things involving subtext, character arcs, being open to audience interpretation, thematic consistency, containing analogous themes that tantalize their intellect, so on and so forth. The average audience member has their own checklist, and for some of us it’s as simple as this: be worth the $15 I just spent on this ticket, don’t be so long that my butt hurts in the uncomfortable theater seat, engage me enough to distract me from my problems, and show me at least one thing that I’ve never seen. I’m a simple man, I know. If a filmmaker decides to give me some dark humor, sexually perverted dialogue, and blood that isn’t CGI; well, then you got yourself an all-time classic. All art, by its nature, is subjective. It is intended to be viewed by an audience and is therefore judged by the feelings it provokes in that audience. Outside of the basics; like plot, casting, visuals, and sound effects, there are many things that I think lend to a movie’s entertainment value. The following highly subjective areas are often taken for granted, because even if they’re done really well, the filmmaker almost never receives credit for doing them right...
#5: Pace / Editing Style:
A lot of people do talk about the pace of a film, but I’m just talking about individual scenes. I always appreciate an editor who decides to just occasionally let a scene “breathe”, without inserting rapid-fire cuts to generate a false sense of energy. Good editing establishes a new scene with a visually captivating shot that indicates location, and at the end of the scene they linger a little, allowing you to consider the developments you just witnessed. Being judicious with your cuts allows the audience to sort of exist within the cinematic universe for a moment and appreciate its details, instead of the constant barrage of nonsensical music-video-style cuts saturating so many films lately. In this scene from Iron Man 3, there are 10 shots in 10 seconds... I loved the movie, but I’m willing to bet they could have crafted the scene with half as many cuts and told the exact same story.
#4: Energy:
While the pace of each scene has a lot to do with energy, the sequence of events is even more important. Does the film feel like it’s building to something larger, with a sense of momentum? In 2003, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen was released with a unique style and plenty of energy. The film constantly builds upon each of its scenes with cooler set pieces and fights highlighting the strengths of its incredible cast of characters until the very end. LxG is considered a “flop”, but it earned $175 million worldwide on a budget of $78 million. Its beleaguered production was well-documented, leading to film legend Sean Connery retiring while up-and-coming director Stephen Norrington (who had already scored a huge hit with Blade) to effectively be blacklisted. Its 17% on Rotten Tomatoes is in stark contrast to the 5.8 it gets on IMDb. Critical derision can poison public perception and destroy careers. Meanwhile, that same year Underworld was released and earned $78 million less than LxG but was considered a hit that launched a franchise which is getting a 5th film this year...
#3: Color Palette:
Speaking of Underworld, I’ve seen black-and-white films with a broader color palette. It’s muddier than an adobe pueblo toilet on taco Tuesday. It looks like it was directed by the offspring of a German expressionist and a German Shepherd. On the other end of the spectrum from Underworld, there stands Crimson Peak in defiant contrast. Crimson Peak, like Underworld, is a Gothic horror film with a bleak tone and yet, somehow, it takes place in a world of vibrant imagery containing a diverse selection of bold colors. Color can be used to evoke emotion (red = anger, blue = loyalty, etc...) or to simply draw the viewer’s eye to a specific section of the screen (yellow is the first color the human eye notices). But, to be perfectly honest, color matters in cinema simply because film is a visual medium. When painting oils on a canvas, the artist must convey meaning with a palette limited by the variety of pigments they can afford, the size of their physical palette, and the size of the canvas. In movies, thanks to digital production design, artists can use literally any color ever conceived...
#2: Production Design (Costumes & Sets):
Real quick, remember 1997’s Batman & Robin, where the suits have nipples and they play a hockey game against Mr. Freeze? Okay, now think back to The Fifth Element. An over-the-top, wild Sci Fi world with memorable, quirky, occasionally ridiculous characterizations, but... they worked. Luc Besson created an entire future that was completely engrossing and believable, and he did it with $32 million less than Schumaker’s version of Gotham City, which looked like an off-Broadway stage production. That’s the power of awesome production design.
#1: Likeable Characters:
Even if the plot has holes, the score is weak, the movie runs too long, or any other common problems are prevalent in a film, I find that having engaing characters can absolve many cinematic sins. Charismatic stars like Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Depp, and Jennifer Lawrence are able to carry otherwise subpar films thanks to their magnetic personalities. It’s not just star power that disguises a film’s weaknesses, though. New stars are created everyday simply by playing an affable, charming Average Joe (or Average Jane) who’s quick with the quips and doesn’t take themselves too seriously. Chris Pratt wasn’t a star until he cranked up his amicability machine in Guardians Of The Galaxy, just as Ryan Reynolds is doing right now with Deadpool, and Dwayne Johnson has done in everything he’s been in since 2007. A smile, a self-deprecating joke, and a wink to the audience pretty much gives any character the Herculean strength required to carry any movie for far longer than the antiquated brooding emo-boy antiheroes of yesteryear. Any film whose protagonist is equal parts snark and sensitivity will be identified with easily, because we all wish ourselves to be that well-balanced of a person.
Final Thoughts:
Are the critics’ opinions tainted by the fact that they, typically, watch more movies than the average fan? By having “seen it all”, they more easily identify a film as being a derivative work, spun off of a superior movie from some long-forgotten time in cinematic history? And so, at every twist and turn and scene transition, they’re unwittingly making a series of unfair comparisons; holding Michael Bay accountable for failing to live up to the standard set by Francois Truffaut? In perhaps their largest act of hypocrisy, the critics themselves mold their writing and opinions into something that is palatable to their own audience. When a filmmaker makes a movie targeting a specific demographic, it may be held against them by the critic. But, when the critic writes a review specifically worded to appeal to their publication's demographic, they’re merely “doing their job”. If you need any evidence that judges and critics are quite often worse at their jobs than those whom they criticize, remember that Charlie Chaplin once failed to make the final round of a Charlie Chaplin impersonation contest. So, even if you remember to tittle all of your i's and crossbar all of your t's, someone will be waiting to nitpick the little things...
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