Ziven’s Movie Review Rubric

[WARNING: This is an extremely long post.]

Many of you have heard my movie reviews and debates on the show (and if you haven’t, you should go and listen!).

I’ve been hinting at and mentioning standards for watching films for a while now, but I thought that perhaps it is time to go ahead and list an actual rubric, so that you guys have a bit of a clue about how I think when I watch them.

First of all, I would like to add a disclaimer. I am by no means implying by the publication of this article that my rubric is the best, or that my standards should always be used. This is what works for me, and what I personally believe is a fair way of reviewing or considering films – you can feel free to disagree or decide that I’m going about this in an incorrect fashion.

You also, of course, have the option of not reading this article if you are not interested in anyone’s opinions other than your own. No offense will be taken.

Secondly, I am not going to list a numbering system or grading system in this article. I think that grading systems and numbers differ slightly from person to person. FYI, I typically give an overall rating out of 10 – with 9 being the highest achievable rating.

After several conversations with MetaBARON, we’ve agree that no film is perfect but that it is a very high achievement to be close to what would be considered perfect for any particular film genre. Actively remembering that there is no such thing as a perfect movie also helps the reviewer to really think about what earns a nine.

I have occasionally also mentioned grades (A through F, etc.), and sometimes I use them interchangeably. I honestly feel as though so long as you can get the general idea of how you rate the movie across, and you add reasons as to why you rated it in that way, it doesn’t matter what scale you use. A more detailed just allows for more detail in terms of “how good”, “how mediocre” or “how bad” a movie is.

In short, I would rather focus on the elements that should be considered for rating a film properly, and how those elements relate to each other than a physical numbering or grading system. A 5 for you wouldn’t be a 5 for everyone else, apart from the issue of whether or not they thought differently about the film than you.

Because of this, I feel that it just adds to the difficulty in telling others why you like or dislike a film to focus on the ratios rather than the reasons.

I would like to emphasize, before I begin, that this rubric is for attempting to review a movie objectively. If you’re just telling someone what you personally thought of a film, rather than trying to be logical about it, then just keep doing what you’re doing. Everyone is allowed to have their own opinions, likes and dislikes, and there’s nothing wrong with that until you start telling people that your personal opinion is objective.

Because it isn’t. No one’s is. The keyword here is trying to give an objective opinion.

So, without further ado…

I’m going to separate this into two sections: Pre-film and During film. The reason why I am doing this is because I feel that even for those who aren’t paying attention, we start preparing to form an opinion on a film before we even see it.

Pre-film:

Trailers and Standards for them

I personally believe that the very first thing that should be taken into consideration is the hype surrounding the film, and trailers if you’ve seen any. This is not part of rating the film, but the prepare for rating the film. You need to ask yourself questions like:

  • What is this movie promising to do?
  • Did the trailer make me excited about this film?
  • Was I interested in this film and in seeing this film before actually going to see it?
  • Did the trailer make me disinterested in seeing it? Was I not looking forward to this movie before going?
  • Is this film in a genre that I prefer or that I like to watch normally.
  • If someone suggested this movie off hand, and I knew nothing about it, would I want to see it based on that information alone?

Trailer quality

The reason why the above questions are important are mainly for three reasons:

  1. A movie should follow the premise in the trailer.
  2. Based on what the movie is promising, you actually know what sort of things to expect to be delivered by this film.
  3. You need to decide what your mindset is before going to this movie so that you can mention it when you talk about the movie, and so that you can adjust your review accordingly.

If you’re watching a movie trailer and have no idea what the movie is about when it’s finished/you have to look to external sources (Google, Wikipedia, IMDB) to get a real grasp on what the movie is supposed to be about, then the trailer was shit. Of course, a bad trailer is not always an indication of a terrible film. However, it is definitely not an indication of a good film.

I am aware that some film trailers thrive on lack of detail to the audience. However, there is a difference between a lack of detail for intrigue and “WTF is this movie about?”. In a trailer lacking detail for effect, the point is to let you know what sort of movie it is, but to either withhold the ultimate goal of the film or specifically the main villain/antagonist.

To distract from those things the film usually focuses on outlining the journey that characters have to make, or some of the other minor difficulties that they’ll have to face. You’ll know if it’s adventure or action or horror. The genre is nearly required, and it’s not hard to tell what genre a movie is by simply what’s happening on the screen and how the film is edited. Usually, by watching a trailer you also know the general plot. Whether or not teens are being chased in the woods by something (unknown but) scary, if a monster is attacking a city and they have to fend it off, or if it’s a spy film.

If a movie trailer is missing those things, it’s not really a very good trailer. If those things are vague, then it’s okay, in my opinion, but it could be better.

For an example, I would like you to watch the trailer for The Happening. I’m not going to lie – I am not fond of this trailer nor the movie, and that is why I am using as an example.

Note that you can tell that the genre is a suspense/thriller by the vibe of the film, and you know that the characters are running from …something. I’ll grant that this trailer works a bit more hard to conceal it’s lack of detail.

You know that streets are empty, and the guard walking through suddenly dies while doing so. But you’ve no clue where everyone’s gone – have they abducted? Is this some sort of alien thriller? Is there an attack on the city? What’s happening?

…and then, the fucking bees. “Oh, the bees are disappearing. Does anyone want to guess why?” It invites the audience to guess why bees would flee and/or be all dead, and so early on in the trailer, how the fuck would you know? It could be anything at this point.

What if plants are just dying? Then that’s a completely different problem. But of course, why would he mention bees disappearing all over the news if flowers were also dying – I’m aware of the plot of the film, but from an I’m-just-hearing-or-watching-this-for-the-first-time perspective, what were they expecting you to think? I think that scene grinds my gears the most about this trailer, because they’re completely irrelevant not to the movie but to the rest of the trailer.

There’s a hint to biochemical warfare, which rather implies that they may be fighting something – but the scenes that are cut in between, including the ones that detail that they’ve lost contact with “everyone” really gives this film a war  refugee feel. It’s not that the film doesn’t give you enough; on the contrary, it gives you too much in an attempt to cloud your idea of what it is.

Because of this, when you’re done watching, it’s difficult to tell what fuck you’re supposed to expect when you see this. It’s bewildering to see a movie and not know what to expect, because you aren’t sure how to judge its quality.

Since having seen the movie, I can easily fill in the blanks of that information. But I shouldn’t have to see the movie to understand the trailer better. It should be the other way around.

For an example of a good movie trailer, I would like to direct you to the Prince of Persia movie trailer. Regardless of if you thought that the movie was good or if you like action movies, this trailer tells you in an interesting way what genres the film fits into (Action/Adventure/Fantasy) and what the plot is (that the main characters have to take the magical time-dagger to a specific location to stop evil from winning. BOOM).

Call it simple if you’d like, but it gets the job done. You don’t know the character’s origin, nor do you know the circumstances of the villain – or, actually, who the villain is. You can see a sinister looking man, but there’s is no direct acknowledgment that he is the main villain. For all we know, he could be a sub-boss.

Not all trailers have to be this direct, but they should have those two elements, regardless of what is being obscured for the sake of intrigue.

What you think about the film before you see it

Of course you should also include other things that make trailers bad quality-wise when making your assessment, such as graphics, small moments or scenes that come across awkwardly, or scenes that are spliced together that don’t seem as though they should have been.

Moving away from these examples, you should note what the film is promising, based on the trailer as well. Is the movie telling you that there will be romance? Mind blowing special effects? Action-packed adventure? Cool gadgets? A Great Story? All of these promises don’t necessarily have to be made verbally – some of them are in text, and some of them are heavily implied by the piece of film that are selected from the trailer.  Still identify what they are and try to keep them in mind.

Hype is important, too, especially for an adaptation or a remake. Remakes and adaptations have to face comparisons to the source material and how they were able to represent said material, and usually are more direct about making promises to the audience in comparison to the original content that they were drafted from.

(If you didn’t read/watch the original source material, don’t feel terrible or inadequate. Keep reading, and I’ll address this issue just a teensy weensy bit later.)

Next, of course, you need to think about what your mindset is going into the movie:

  • Are you expecting it to be bad?
  • Are you expecting it to be good?

These are important because it’s easy to taint opinions in the direction of preconceived notions.

Quietly as its kept, the less you are anticipating a film, the more nitpicking you will do to find things that are “wrong” with it. Even if you can’t control it, you can still help out the person you’re talking to by letting them know that you “weren’t looking forward to this movie” or if you were, then the opposite. It let’s them know that you are trying to be honest even if your feelings shine through a bit. It also lets the person you’re talking to know to try their best to pay attention and think about what you’re saying, and decide whether or not you’re being too heavy-handed in dispensing opinions.

Distinguishing between types of films when you review

If the movie is an adaptation or a remake, you need to ask:

  • What material do you feel is necessary to keep the ambiance of the original work?
  • What are you hoping to see, as either a fan or simply a person with previous knowledge?

I know that some of you are asking why this information is important, and here’s the reason why:

When you review a film, there should not be one, not two, but three opinions that you have of it:

  1. Is this a good film? Taking into consideration what the movie promised, what it delivered, how it was delivered, and the quality of what was delivered – and any extra goodies that were thrown into the movie – did this movie induce what it was supposed to for the audience? Apart from being an adaptation (if it is), if someone had never read/seen the source material would they still enjoy this movie? There are other guidelines, too, but I’ll go into them a little more in the ‘During film’ section.
  2. Is this movie Enjoyable? I’m going to go into this later, but sometimes bad films are enjoyable. I’m only listing this separately because people always mix it in with the first point. A movie being enjoyable doesn’t make it a good film, necessarily, although the viceversa is usually true. If we’re talking about laughter, or action, sometimes what’s happening on the screen is more important than the structure behind it – and because some people value awesome scenes above plot and development, enjoyability needs to be taken into account on a separate note.
  3. Was this a good adaptation/remake? Sometimes a movie is one and not the other. Does it keep the vibe of the original material? What has been changed? What hasn’t been changed? Were there parts that fans wanted to be changed that were or weren’t? How good of a job does that film do at drawing in a new, unfamiliar audience? Does it balance catering to the old and the new? I thought that I would add, at the end of this, that a movie “based on” a novel is not the same as an adaptation.

I believe that it’s important to keep these three things separate, because, as mentioned above, a film can be one, two  or all three (or none of them). If you haven’t seen the source material for an adaptation or you know nothing about it, then feel free to say so and conveniently leave out that portion of the review – it doesn’t make very much sense to talk about something you don’t know much about.

In some cases, not being familiar with the source material can help you to be more objective about how the film was, just as a film and nothing else.

It’s nigh impossible to separate your personal thoughts from your opinion to be objective – but if you separate what you personally wanted from the film from what is absolutely necessary for a film to be considered at least “good” or “okay”, then you have a comparative scale to work with for placing how well this film rates.


During film:

Movie Genres and Types, and Standards for them

The first thing that needs to be taken into consideration is the film genre. Why?

Because every film genre has its own expectations and forms for stories and plot. If you watch a lot of horror (I don’t, btw), you know the patterns, the character archetypes and how they fit together, you know what works and what doesn’t work.

If you’re reviewing for a film genre that you’re unfamiliar with, you should say so when you’re talking to someone else about it. A perfect example would be horror, actually. A lot of fans will easily tell you that there is a difference in movie type between silly-type horror with cheesy composition (whose goal is to simply startle you by catching you off guard) a film whose true intent is to literally scare the shit out of you.

You would rate each differently. Less serious horror is known for cheesy acting and plot elements and archetypes. The Scary Movie franchise is structured to accentuate, exaggerate, and parody to some extent these elements. If there’s a parody of it, we definitely know that it exists.

Think of what those elements are. Even if you think that they’re stupid, even if you don’t think that they should be elements or pieces, but the fact of the matter is that people expect to see those things when experiencing a film. This is one of those places where you have to differentiate between “what you like” and what “the average person who is going to see this movie would like”. You’re already a cut above the rest if you’re even going about reviewing a movie in as objective a view as possible.

Most people end up downgrading or misjudging a movie based on common elements. Here’s why: It’s difficult, some of the time, to tell between tropes/frequently used patterns in films and laziness/these tropes not being done well. There are some opinions that certain elements are terrible no matter who is using them or why. Others think that the context determines if they’re good or bad, and others think that they need to be included to be a ‘classic’ example of a film genre. You need to make a decision about how you feel about those elements and stick to it.

What isn’t fair is when you like one movie for the same reasons you hate another and you cannot explain why or how. If you think that a film element or trope worked in one movie and didn’t in another – explain why. Include why you felt it cheapened the story, or why it didn’t fit with the film’s theme or mood, etc. You start slipping when you can’t explain the reason why you feel a certain way. That’s what fans do.

Remember that crazy girl that doesn’t like female characters in her anime simply because they stop male characters from being gay and kawaii together? You start turning into her when there’s no justifiable reason to apply a foreign concept to an unrelated subject or content.

Plot, baby, Plot – and Development

This is going to be a small section, because it’s pretty obvious at this point what makes a good plot. If the movie was meant to be complicated, you can judge how the plots develop, whether or not they’re complete or if they’re left hanging (which is covered a bit in the next section), if they make sense or puttered out in certain places. How all of the characters tie together and how they meet and whether or not it makes sense is a part of plot. The story and characters need to follow the plot of the movie. It’s pretty easy to tell when plot is off, because usually at that point you’re either unsure of what’s going on or unsure how anything on the screen actually makes sense.

In terms of development, this is not always a factor, either. Many films these days are made about characters who persevere being who they are, and only in adventure/heavily story dependent movies do characters develop and change. An example where a character doesn’t really change is Rambo (2008). At the point that the movie starts, the character has already developed (during the course of other films featuring the character) and there’s not a lot of need for development or change in the character, as it’s the character’s current state that allows the story to advance in the way that it does in the first place. Sure, he ends up helping out those missionaries in a change-of-heart scenario, but that’s not really a change within the character – it became obvious that he had been battling with the decision of helping them from the beginning.

Promises fulfilled and broken

Flashing back to the analyzing we did before actually viewing the film, it’s time to bring that information back to the forefront – does this film meet the goals that were set in the trailer (however general they may be)?

Further than that, what goals does the film set for itself while you’re watching? Now that you’re watching the film, it should be obvious that the goals is. The hero is defeating evil, discovering things about their life; the horror victim is trying to figure out what’s going on and stop it (although failure of this is a common trope for horror films and thusly should not be judged negatively), the adventurer is filling in promises to companions and those met along the way to accomplishing whatever task is set before him, etc.

The above are important, but not always the things that you should be looking for. They are obvious and usually when writing scripts the overarching plots are the first to be considered. Sometimes there are emotional plots that need to be unraveled and resolved as well.

Judging a film’s capacity to deliver what it has promised is easy – namely because those things are labeled in the film itself in the script, settings, interactions, trailer, etc. What is really difficult is judging whether or not a film delivered according to its genre. The qualifications for successfully satisfying  the goals a movie presents fluctuates depending on the approach of a film (see the horror example above), and sometimes certain events become or create exceptions. A small example of this would be subplots that are left unresolved to leave space for sequels.

This is why it’s important to be able to argue for your opinion. Hands down, everyone is not going to agree that a movie was moving in the same direction, or that it was the movie’s intent to leave certain questions unanswered for a specific purpose. What’s important is that you actually *watch* the movie. Pay attention (only if necessary).

What do I mean by that? I say “only if necessary” because some films aren’t meant for you to follow minute details – some films are made for you to sit back and enjoy action, or romance, or death and screaming, etc. This ties into the genre point I’ve made above just a tad, but sometimes it’s obvious that a movie is not being marketed for a deep plot and if that is the case – you are wasting your time by holding the film to high standards that it is reaching for itself. You wouldn’t watch Barney with your little sister for deep, thought-provoking introspection, right? So don’t do it with The Expendables, either. In those situations the only person losing is you, and you come off looking like an idiot and an asshole.

Adaptations and Enjoyability

Of course, you should always rate the film on how much you enjoyed it (see notes above for rating separately on enjoyability). In the same way that songs with shit lyrics can be catchy and awesome for dancing, some movies are shit composition wise  but still enjoyable. Writing, acting, location, effects, story, development, etc. are all things that make films good or bad, but sometimes a  movie can excel in one or some and absolutely fail in others. Whether or not a movie is enjoyable despite that depends, most of the time, on how the movie views itself. How seriously does this movie take itself? How detailed oriented is the movie during the beginning, middle and end?

However closely the movie looks at itself should be how close you look at it in the theatre, and as mentioned previously many movies are not consistent in this way.

If the movie is an adaptation, there are a few things extra things that need to be taken into account. Depending on what a film is adapted from there may be iconic scenes or information that you expect to be provided. It’s important to tread the line here carefully. Film adaptations are made, mostly, to bring in new money and a new audience. Some things that you expect as a fan may not be included, and you need to try your best to decide what needs to be included for an accurate representation of the character/plot/idea (or the version of the character/plot/idea that they are using). It’s difficult to be objective about this – so like with everything else, explain why you think it’s necessary or it should be/should’ve been included.

Logic and Trick

(yes – I just made a Phoenix Wright Soundtrack Reference.)

Aside from the detail level introduced by the film and whether or not that remains consistent, there is also a level of logic that a movie needs to maintain. In terms of the thoughts and reactions of the characters. A lot of people tend to mix acting and performance with how characters behave in a movie.

Look for things like lines that sound awkward or weird, or reactions that don’t make sense given the situation – or lackluster conversation, thought processes, etc. Characters should all have established personalities that are developed and defined during the film. When in danger, does the tough guy character run or grab the nearest weapon? Do characters very clearly ignore options presented to them in a crisis? It’s up to you to judge, but as always, try to explain why you think characters should have taken a specific turn or made a choice that made more sense.

Sometimes it’s not the characters, but the setting of the movie itself that doesn’t make sense. An infamous example of this is shown in Terminator: Salvation, where the protagonists’ group receive a radio call minutes after an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) had been detonated. EMPs, by nature, disable and render electrical devices useless – so how could anyone have received any sort of radio call?

Of course, prior knowledge of setting helps you pick out logical fallacies better – and if you don’t know any better, you just don’t. But don’t let your love of a movie cloud your view of things that don’t make sense – especially if you’re going ahead to give others your opinion and claim it to be “better” or “more considerate” than other reviewers. If a fan or viewer comments to point a logical fallacy out to you, one that you didn’t know, just take it in stride and think about whether or not it makes or breaks any particular judging area of your film critique. Sometimes smaller fallacies don’t, and by the same token you don’t have to treat every single one like they’re the end all be all of a review. To a certain extent, movies are fantasy, so they are allowed mistakes – so long as you take those mistakes into some sort of account, you should be fine.

When in doubt explain, explain, explain.

Doing their job

This and the above section are not the same thing, particularly because actors have to follow the script of a film to a certain degree. Acting is how the actors  deliver lines, their body language and facial expressions – not the lines, not the actions of the characters. Characters in a film can be weak even though the actor is a strong or good, and also viceversa. Keep this in mind. It’s not always the same, although sometimes they may cross over. In this day and age I would like to say that acting isn’t normally an issue but sometimes it is. Just keep your eyes peeled for anything that looks particularly bad or unbelievable.

[insert title here]

Yeah, I really mean that. Sometimes films just do really cool things to try to grab your attention. These are extra things that aren’t specific and don’t necessarily belong under any single category – but let’s face it, sometimes those “things” succeed and make the movie a bit more awesome than you expected. Sometimes it’s a stunt, a fight, cool gadgets, a small side plot that works really well, graphics, the way that a particular concept is portrayed, etc. These things up enjoyability and when done right, the quality of a movie in general.

Objectivity

This is the difficult thing, so I’ll only say a few words about it: Look at your review. Look at your other reviews. Do you hate something about this film that you liked in another film? Unless you can explain why and what the difference is between how it is acceptable in one circumstance and not the other, you’re full of shit. Just wanted to get that out of the way since we’re near the end.

When in doubt, explain.

Comparisons

Also very important. Most people make film comparisons, but I wanted to make a note about it here. Not all comparisons make sense, especially across genres. Each film is its own special set of circumstances, and they don’t all translate well. Tread carefully when doing so, and don’t be upset if someone calls bullshit on your comparison. Take it in stride.

Wrapping it up

What’s most important, while writing a review, is pointing out what things you were personally expecting from the film and why. Sometimes, for less complicated films, you only were expecting one or two things, sometimes you expect six or seven or more. To put your review in perspective for readers, you should always wrap up by reiterating what you expected, what you weren’t expecting but were awesome, what you didn’t like so much about the film, what you did get in the film, how much you enjoyed it and what you feel about it over all. If, during the course of your review, you’ve already listed why, it’s not necessary to repeat that – you’re simply grouping together  all of the information you’ve gone over during the course of your review to make it easy to see. If you break your review up into different categories and rate them separately, then go ahead and do that. Don’t forget what I’ve said about about separation:

1. Is it a good film on its own? – If someone went to see this movie just knowing the genre and not much else, would they like it?

2. Is it enjoyable? – For all of the technical mumbo-jumbo, for all of the mistakes or setbacks

3. Is it a good adaptation? – this is separate from the other two, because an adaptation is compared to source material, while “original” films are not.

And there you go – you have a moderately functional movie review.


I’ve said all of the above, and I’m going to leave you with this:

There’s no such thing as a through and through objective movie adaptation. No one’s opinion can be completely objective and for that reason, you should simply try your best to justify your opinions. Movie Reviewing is a lot more work – even when you’re simply trying to be fair rather than objective – than reviewers make it look, and them half-assing it online for thousands of fans doesn’t mean that you have to compromise your notion of fairness to keep up with them.

It’s all critical thinking, when it comes down to it, because there are a lot of exceptions and factors that influence other factors. I’d like to say that I wish that people wouldn’t review if they don’t mean it, but the internet’s for everyone, I guess.

Happy reviewing, and be sure to let me know what you think in the comments – or ask questions about this article!

~Ziven

2 thoughts on “Ziven’s Movie Review Rubric”

  1. I love it Amber!!! I had to read it in sections but I finally finished and I now have to rethink how I review movies & films. 🙂
    That trailer for The Happening is a little different than I remember…. I was so taken back by how good the movie looked that I had to remind myself of how much of a disaster it really was on screen. Same thing with the Prince of Persia trailer only I didn’t see the movie and now that I’ve viewed that trailer I really want to…. btw, what ‘s up with these Disney movies not getting a fair chance to succeeded before people put them down? I remember part of the reason I didn’t press to go is because I received so many “luke warm” reviews about it that I became uninterested. Now, had the happened with John Carter of Mars, I would of truly missed out on a remarkable story! Bought the Bluray and everything…. back to your Rubric… It is soooooo thorough. I thought I would have to correct you on something regarding Rambo but as I kept reading you addressed that very thing thing, and very accurately might I add…. You are too smart to be so young. I’m glad that you are my friend. I’ll be picking your brain for a mighty long time:)

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