How to think critically about movies


After two years of retirement, Sammye Johnson is returning in the spring to teach her Arts Criticism course. photo by Amani Canada, photo editor

I believe my eclectic movie tastes were informed by what I watched during the cold winter months in Wilmette, Illinois (a North Shore suburb of Chicago) from the time I was eight until I went to Northwestern University as a journalism major at 18. I’d have bouts of bronchitis ― in December, January, February and March ― where I’d miss up to a week of school. I’d be at home coughing and wheezing, with a humidifier steaming up one side of the room, as I watched “old” (now considered classic) black-and-white movies on WGN television. I cried over “Now, Voyager” and “Casablanca,” laughed at “His Girl Friday” and “Bringing Up Baby,” was caught up in “Double Indemnity” and “The Maltese Falcon” and was intrigued by “City Lights” and “Metropolis.”

My first experience as a film critic was sitting in the screening room of the Balaban and Katz Chicago Theatre, on North State Street just a few blocks from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. I was the newbie feature writer straight out of graduate school who was tapped to do film reviews from time to time.

Sometimes I’d be the only one in the screening room, but more often Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were there as well ― all of us sitting in different rows as far apart as we could. I didn’t know then that Siskel and Ebert would become iconic film critics, with their trademarked “Two Thumbs Up” for their “At the Movies” TV series. And I certainly didn’t think I’d end up teaching an arts criticism course that involved film.

What do I look for when writing about film or reading a film review? First and foremost is recognition that it’s an opinion. A.O. Scott, the current co-chief film critic at The New York Times, says, “To be a critic is to offer up subjective judgments ― well defended and cogently argued, if you’re doing it right ― that enter into public discourse.”

Robert W. Butler, former Kansas City Star film critic who now has a blog, “Butler’s Cinema Scene,” states, “The act of watching is only the beginning. Criticism ― any writing for that matter ― is about organizing your thinking, taking the dozen ideas bouncing around in your skull and arranging them in an effective manner. It is not about having the right opinion (there is no such animal) but about the ability to express and defend the opinion you have.”

Here’s my five-point list of what should be covered in a movie review that will help you decide how to approach it as either a writer or a consumer:

1. The genre, time period, and setting of the story. You need to know whether you’re watching comedy, thriller, sci-fi, romance, horror, action, drama, western, mystery, fantasy, film noir, adventure, crime, history, war, musical, biography, superhero ― or a combination of genres. When the movie takes place is a factor: Current time, the future, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the 1920s or whatever specific decade; the location (which may be different from where it was filmed) is also important. Consider the romantic coming of age drama “Call Me by Your Name” and its lush Italian setting in 1983 versus the biographical drama “The Post” in the early 1970s in Washington, D.C. versus the action war movie “Dunkirk” about the 1942 evacuation of Allied forces by British civilian boats.

2. The director. According to Ebert, “Most good movies are about the style, tone, and vision of their makers. A director will strike a chord in your imagination, and you will be compelled to seek out the other works. Directors become like friends.” For those who follow auteur theory (with the director as the primary creative force), it matters whether a film is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Guillermo del Toro or Steven Spielberg. We make assumptions about what each will produce: action thriller, fantastical beasts and compelling storyline.

3. The actors. Most people think of films in terms of the actors and go to a particular movie because of its stars. Pointing out the importance of actors, Pauline Kael, The New Yorker’s film critic from 1968–1991, wrote, “The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance or the joy in just a good line. An actor’s scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit of sense.” Acting makes a big difference in our enjoyment of movies.

4. The script source. Original scripts written especially for the screen are judged differently from adaptations of novels or plays. These are two different categories at the Academy Awards. Some say it’s impossible to move a storyline intact from one medium to another. But I’ve seen dozens of successful book adaptations, including “Gone With the Wind,” “Jurassic Park” and the “Harry Potter” series. In play to movie adaptation, there’s “The Sound of Music,” “Hairspray” and “Fences.”

5. A remake or part of a series. The number of remakes (how many times can you redo “King Kong”?) and series (exploitation horror flicks like “Halloween” and “SAW”) reflects a lack of risk taking in Hollywood. While there are remakes that are just as good or better than the original, I agree with Siskel, who observed, “A film that aims low should not be praised for hitting that target.”

In the final analysis, critics agree there are three questions that reviewers and moviegoers should ask themselves: What is the filmmaker trying to do? How well did he or she do it? And was it worth doing? Or, as Ebert said, “The point is not to avoid all Stupid Movies, but to avoid being a Stupid Moviegoer. It’s a difficult task, separating the good Stupid Movies from the bad ones.”