Sunday, July 02, 2006

How I rate a movie

I belong to a movie club.

Currently, there are six of us in the club. Rusty and Pepper started the club. Rusty is a computer programmer and Pepper owns an art gallery. I was invited to join when the club first started meeting (and even went to the first film that was attended as a club), but didn't start attending regularly until I was re-invited a couple of years later. Diane is an audiologist. Rusty and Pepper met her at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. Kevin is a writer. Michael is a political consultant.

We call ourselves the "Manny Perry Movie Club" in honor of the stunt man who was featured in the anti-movie-piracy trailers a few years ago. We flirted briefly with calling the club "Friends United through Cinema, Kind Of." But that didn't stick. It would've made a terrific t-shirt, however.

Every Sunday a different club member picks a movie (we take turns alphabetically) and we go to the last matineƩ screening and then go out to dinner (the restaurant is also picked by that week's picker) where we talk about the movie and whatever else comes up in conversation.

There are rules and by-laws of the club. The most important one being that all films have to be "fresh" (over 60% positive ratings) on Rotten Tomatoes. If a film isn't fresh, but if it's close and that week's picker really wants to see it, that movie can be picked if the other club members agree to relax the rule.

At dinner, we rate each movie on a scale from 1 to 10. Everybody in the club has a different method for scoring a particular film. For most, it's generally a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" proposal, their score being an indicator of how far up or down their thumb actually is. Mine is generally regarded as the most elaborate (i.e. weird) and complicated and I think I'm the only one who fully understands it. But it makes sense for me.

My scoring system is basically a composite scoring of three different elements of a film: the Technical Element, The Intelligence Element, and the Creative Element. Each element has a possible score of zero to three, and added together those make up my total score for any given film. A two in any given category means the film makers were generally competent in that area, and a total score of six generally means a film is well made, makes sense, and entertained me.

On the technical level, I'll give a film a one if its in focus, the boom mic isn't in every other shot, and the lighting doesn't switch suddenly between day and night within the same scene. Most Ed Wood films, for instance, would not get scored even a one on the techincal element. I'll rate a film a two in this category if the method of film making is skillfully employed and integrated into the other two elements of the film. A prime example of this is in Brokeback Mountain in which director Ang Lee cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto contrast shots of wide-open vistas with shots of cramped interiors to portray through the external scenery what the characters are experiencing internally. Threes are reserved for films that do something technically that is extraordinarily creative or innovative. This doesn't just mean special effects (though, certainly I would rate, say, Star Wars or Toy Story as a three for technique), but would also include innovative editing or shooting techniques, such as Christoper Nolan's Memento, Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, or Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.

The other two elements are a tad more subjective. For intelligence, a film would earn a zero if it insults my intelligence. The first Bad Boys movie, for example, I felt like I was stupider when I went out of the theater than when I went in. I'll award a film a one if it's scripted and acted in such a way that it doesn't take an unreasonable suspension of disbelief to enjoy what's happening on the screen. Most films get a one or better. A two goes to a film that is thematically complex, employs metaphor, symbolism, complex motivations, irony, etc. In other words, it gives you something to think about. Woody Allen's Match Point is a good example. I save a three for films that challenge what I know or perhaps even teach me something new. Like Judy Irving's The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, for example. Or Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon.

The creative element is usually the easiest to score. It's all right brain. Or left brain. I forget which is which. If a film so fails to hold my attention that I walk out, that's a zero. If a film bores me, but I make it all the way through, that's a one. Twos go to films that keep me consistently interested and entertained. A three is reserved for a film that moves me, that causes me to empathize with the characters and the situation on the screen, that, ultimately, gives me a feeling of catharsis. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon moved me in such a way. As did Pulp Fiction and Rebel Without A Cause.

Now, those of you out there with advanced math degrees are surely thinking, wait a minute, it's a ten-point scale, but you rating scheme only goes up to nine. That's true. And, for that reason, I hold in reserve a "Magic Point" for certain films. I don't always award the Magic Point so much to films that I think are "perfect," that is they score a three in all three elements. (Though I do have some ten-point movies. The Godfather I and II, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Pulp Fiction, for example). More often than not, I'll award the Magic Point to a film that I enjoyed more than my "objective" scores would indicate. Napoleon Dynamite is a perfect example. Taken separately, each element of that movie warrants about a two, give or take a little. But the alchemic chemistry between each element gives it a little extra bump when I take it in as a whole.

You might wonder how I can possibly enjoy a film with all that going on in the back of my head while I'm watching it. But, to be honest, I'm not really thinking about all that while I'm watching the movie, unless the movie can't hold my attention. And in that case, it's probably going to get a lower score. That's where reflection and discussion over dinner, and the other members' challenging or assenting viewpoints, really helps me to see a movie's merits or lack thereof. Though everyone else still says they can't quite understand how my rating system works.

A good movies usually gives us a lot to talk about. Bad movies usually give us less, but we have the most to say about movies over which we disagree. Napoleon Dynamite, for instance, split the group right down the middle. Half of us thought it was brilliant, the other half thought it was wretched. And the debate continues even today. But even though we don't always agree on how good any particular movie is, we enjoy seeing them. More than that, we enjoy seeing them together. Half of our current members we met for the first time while standing on line to see a movie. Which is why I thought our originally proposed name was so appropriate. We really are "Friends United through Cinema, Kind Of." I say kind of, not only because it gives the desired ending to the name's acronym, but because even though it was movies that brought us together, our friendships have all extended so that we've become invested in each others' lives. The story of which may or may not make for a good movie (or even an interesting blog post). But I bet it qualifies for a Magic Point.

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