Meta on movies – how do I evaluate movies and how do I decide what movies to watch?

I wrote this blog post hoping you’ll learn something from the way I watch movies.

alles banane - Cinema Studio,
alles banane – Cinema Studio,

Initial note: I’ll try not to give too many spoilers and ruin the pleasure of watching some movies, but, at times, it’s inevitable that you’ll have the pleasure of seeing the movie the first time a bit affected after you read some lines below. You’ve been warned. :)

I’ll digress, and start with a story of watch when I am to watch television. You see, in Bucharest I don’t have a TV. Actually, for the past 10-15 years I spent most of my time in places where the TV was not the main entertainment form („What? Watch TV? When I have Internet?”). Yet, I go home from time to time, in Năvodari. And, in there, I sometimes I put myself in bed and just browse some channels. I watch small parts of sports / docummentaries / already-seen-movies / TV shows just for the cultural reference. I don’t watch full matches, full documentaries, full shows. But I enjoy watching ads. I enjoy them so much, that when the ads on the channel I currently watch end, I just switch to a new channel until I catch some other ads. And I do so for around 10-20 minutes, until I get bored and go to the PC.

To me, ads are one of the most compressed form of effort put into making something with a clear aim – „convince the viewer to buy”. And for me to decompose „What did the authors of the ad want to do with that thing?” is just beautiful. Reversing the psychology, trying to see the strategy and tactics of the ad-makers. Ah, so lovely! I get many insights by using this tactic. And I can watch the same ads a few times, trying to catch new cues. You never know 100% that you „got” what the ad maker wanted. So, I keep watching the same ad, again and again.

Online, you get the best & most creative ads shared by others, but on TV I can see the less-performing runners. And understanding them is quite nice.

I don’t like all ads. These year’s NFL ads were so grotesque, I stopped watching. I saw the top 10, I didn’t want to see the whole series. In the previous years, I used to watch them all.

On the Internet, on the other hand, banner advertising seems, by comparison, so silly, that I have AdBlock.

OK, now let’s get to the movies part.

There are just a few reasons I watch movies for:

  • To enjoy the process (to laugh, that is).
  • If I don’t laugh, to learn something from that different emotion. To make it useful.
  • To be able to understand the movie easily.
  • If I don’t understand it easily, to learn something from this.
  • To have a cultural reference („Ah, that movie, yes I know that one”).

Some requirements I put to the movies I intend to watch:

    • The scenario should be well made.
    • I should get an insight from each movie I see. That insight can be a fact (like a documentary in which you learn something scientific, but my criteria is lower than this), or a way to handle an emotion (and I need to be conscious about this).
    • There are two ways of solving a situation – by insisting or by finding a creative path, and I HATE the insisting solutions (for example, a character can solve a situation by thinking out-of-the-box or by pushing things harder). Don’t think that I am obsessed with this idea or anything, but it’s probably the biggest criteria I have for a movie. I wrote, of course, without being obsessed about this, 5 articles which refer to insisting in movies. No obsession, I repeat.
    • Have a look on how in „A few good men” they make fun of insisting („I strenuously object? Is that how it works? Objection. Overruled. No, no, no, no, I strenuously object. Oh, well if you strenuously object, let me take a moment to reconsider.”):

  • Not obsessing with the previous idea or anything, I should not see a specific line / theme / idea in the movies I watch. So, if I watch a movie about ecology, I should be able to see that the producers and directors can get an opposite view and allow it in the documentary. Or, at least, if you try to prove me that „Yin and Yang” symbol is white, and certainly not black, have some creativity. Give me some arguments on why black is white (fight the opposing arguments). Show me that you are able to put a little non-white in there (you allow the space for other opinions). Show me that you can un-insist, at times.
  • Also, while I agree that the movies are meant to be viewed by large audiences, I want some ideas not-in-my-face. I want a little subtlety. The movies transmit a message. You can say it bluntly, or with a little subtlety. I prefer the latter option.
  • Something has got to change. To travel from A to B by fighting and overcoming an obstacle (on the exterior level), or an improvement in the character’s personality (internally, to win a personal issue). Something should be different at the end of the movie. There has to be some lacking thing, which, by watching the movie, should be filled-in.

I’ll start by talking about the movies I saw in 2015 and give you some insights I had.

A. The TV Series – Two and a Half Men (TV Series 2003– )

  • I don’t watch TV series, in general, but one TV series, that I can accept. It helps me understand some processes.
  • Most TV Series take too much time, time in which I can see individual movies, which are generally much better made (instead of seeing 4 episodes of a TV series, I’m better off, generally, seeing a single movie).
  • One of the reasons to watch some TV series is the cultural reference. Game of Thrones, for example. But have a look at this graph:

I can view at least 7 „regular” movies for even the shortest TV series. And for the longest TV series, the time is much higher. So, I prefer to watch individual movies.

  • The thing I like most about the TV Series is the familiarity. There’s generally not a single character, but you have time to learn about much more other „secondary” characters.
  • You feel at „home” watching some TV Series.
  • Also, the regular restraints („same” something – characters / type of setting / type of movie) allow for some creativity in other parts – in „Friends” they discuss new things, all the time. Even if the characters are pretty much the same, and the setting is similar from one show to the other, the enforced creativity has its niceties.
  • In the Internet-era, I watched until now Friends two times, Sex and the City almost 2 times (now, I don’t really understand why, for the latter one), recently some Simpsons. Previous to my access to Internet, I watched various TV shows which were on TV (I remember M.A.S.H., Cheers, even a soap opera, surely there were others, but I mostly forgot them). Strangely, I couldn’t stand Seinfeld when it aired the first time, now it’s OK (not lovely, but if I were in 1990s, I’d give it a chance).
  • Another thing I have a problem with is the budget. Compare the effort, time, money, resources invested in producing an expensive TV Series episode vs. a regular movie. It’s the advertisements scenario, all over again. I prefer to see a poor movie with lots of efforts invested in it, rather than a well-made episode, with lesser efforts.
  • I used to think that I could just watch a few episode of a TV series, to have the cultural reference. Well, it’s not deep enough. Sure, if a person says something about some character, and you have at least a basic idea what the character is about, it’s better than nothing. But it’s not as if you watched Friends two times and you know quite a few of their gags even now. I thought about watching just a few episodes, but it’s mostly a bad idea. When someone talks to you about a character, you get „some” feeling of what the person is talking about, but, certainly, not quite enough.

B. The hero in movies: „He can do this!” „NOT!” The Boxtrolls (2014)

Generally, I like to see character getting from A to B. He improves, he becomes better. But I want a bit of logic in the evolution, and I want the scenario to be OK. The evolution should be nice & subtle, which generally isn’t.

In Boxtrolls, it’s all about „Yes, you can do this! You have the power, Captain Planet!”. It’s just so obvious, it’s yuck!

On trailers:

  • I close to never watch a trailer. You get almost no relevant measure on how the film will be. On the other hand, you spoil all the fun, and some trailers tell you half of the story. That’s so bad.
  • Most trailers focus on the spectacular, on the action, but it it’s what happens at the meta level that is important to me (so not the battle, but what I „get” from the battle). In this way, yes, it’s important where the action takes place, but I got a lot of insights from a movie filmed in a room, black & white – 12 Angry Men (1957). Trailers are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you gonna get.

C. Watching the movie again, catching an idea: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

There are some movies which I want to watch two times. For example, certain scenes are just adorable. Like the scene in which the lobby boy meets the chief of the hotel. In action movies, there are a few scenes which I watch a few times, the most relevant ones. In Escape Plan, the first escape in the movie. In Skyfall, the scene with the elevator. In The Dark Knight the scene with the magic pen. Something very relevant and intense.

But in the Grand Budapest Hotel, I wanted to see the movie again with a different eye. After I saw the movie the first time, I realized, at the end of the movie that I really like the main character’s courage. He was brave. But because he was also very strange and atypical, the first time I saw the movie I was mostly surprised and couldn’t see his courage. After all of this diluted, I watched the movie again (only a week or so after I saw it the first time), this time with big eyes on the courage.

The first time I saw Saving Mr. Banks, I cried half of the movie. I watched it again a few weeks after, very afraid that I wouldn’t cry again. I cried, not so much, only a little, but, still, I cried again.

I saw Le notti di Cabiria a few times. There’s a scene in the movie which was the first scene in a movie which ever made me cry. I was afraid that by watching the scene too much, it wouldn’t make me cry again. But it did, lots of times. Also, I have a feeling in my hair. It’s physical.

Below, I watched the dance scene from Beaauty and the Beast quite a few times. :)

After I watch a movie long after I saw it the first time, I get sometimes a „the hell was I thinking?„.

D. The old movies: The Absent-Minded Professor (1961)

  • Generally, in old movies, there’s fewer things happening, nothing is so alert.
  • On the other hand, some dialogues are a bit forced, they feel unnatural.
  • You need to adjust to the specific technology of that time, which is sometimes a bit hard.
  • Special effects are funny. :)
  • Generally, I tend to be a bit bored in trying to find something valuable in an old movie. At least, in a modern movie, there’s a lot of non-valuable things happening fast. At least they get my attention, if not my curiosity.

E. Social stuff, emotions, one idea: The Good Lie (2014)

  • It was a good watch, but I didn’t get a single thing. But the characters were ethical and nice, and the movie was fun to watch.

On genres / directors / types of movies I see:

  • I like to have fun watching a movie. On another hand, lots of comedies tend to be quite silly. So, it’s a mix.
  • I used to think that watching drama / horror (OK, a bit too extreme) would make me unhappy, but quite the opposite is true, studies show. Still, I tend not to watch too many unhappy movies, although I plan to change this.
  • I don’t like watching westerns, in which I generally get little to no new ideas.
  • I tend to avoid movies not released in cinema. For example, Tinker Bell has 6.9 average. But it says, clearly, „Video”, which probably means it has low budget and from this generally comes a poor movie.
  • Also, I tend not to watch movie released after 2000s which have few votes (less than 5,000, for example, but I prefer to watch movies with more than 15,000 votes).
  • A movie with a few Oscars in his sleeve is generally nice to watch. Sure, there are notable exceptions- The Hurt Locker (2008).
  • I think it’s been at least 10-20 years since I have watched a bad horror movie. I watched some light horrors (The Exorcits), but not so much very very scary.
  • I like to watch blockbusters, but with some little brain. So, Godzilla got too poor grades. Spiderman, I watch one film in the series, I didn’t want to watch the rest. X-men, it’s a series of average movies, so no.
  • It matters who the actors are, but I’m generally less critical with the director, who can provide surprisingly different movies. If I like the director, I watch the movies, but if I haven’t heard of him, this doesn’t matter so much.
  • It matters who gives me a recommendation for a movie.
  • There are poor movies from which I learn a lot, and there are very good movies (as rated by others) from which I learn little. The latest Batman trilogy – superbly made, big grades, learned nothing. The „Lord of the Rings” / „Godfather” / „Harry Potter” / „Star Wars” – great movies, beautifully made. I learned nothing from them.
  • It’s nice to see a movies at the cinema, it’s nice to see a movie with friends & close ones, but it’s perfectly similar if you watch it on a PC / laptop. It’s not that much of a difference.

F. The documentaries (learning something you already know, stuffed down your throat, from a single angle): Planet Ocean (2012)

  • OK, there are documentaries and documentaries. I will tell you some general observations, but not all documentaries fit my description.
  • One thing I don’t like is that certain of them (like the one cited above) tend to present only one view. They’re one sided.
  • People already know most of the things a documentary wants to present (so, it’s not so good to tell too many obvious things). On the other hand, it’s good to reinforce some old ideas, it helps remembering them. Between these two extremes, a documentary producer needs to settle two opposing parties – to present some things, and to skip presenting others. I dislike the choice, most of the times.
  • Most of the ideas of most documentaries can be put in an article. What a documentary does better is that it makes you think the perspective through the lens of the director. But, mostly, I prefer to read articles, rather than watch documentaries.
  • I get bored easily. Most documentaries are boring. They try to be objective (they’re not), they try to balance the facts (generally, they don’t even try this). It’s hard for me, as a viewer, to know if X is lying in the documentary or not. It’s hard to verify a claim.
  • The last movie I’ll comment in this list is Big Hero 6. It’s a poor movie, but, still, it’s probably much better than any documentary on robots I could have seen. It’s wrong and false, but, at least, it’s just a tiny bit engaging, and I prefer to learn something with interest, even if it’s not as right.
  • Finally, a lot of documentaries have low budgets. Which shouldn’t matter when analyzing facts, but my comparison is not „Should I watch documentary X or Y?”, but „Should I watch a movie made with effort or a documentary made easily, which can be abridged in a small text?”
  • There’s a lot of liberty on the market on what can be said and what can’t. If you want to find a documentary claiming exactly what you already think / know, you will, likely, find that. Thus, I’m not looking for new things from a documentary.

G. On watching cartoons: Escape from Planet Earth (2013)

  • In this specific movie, they tend solve most things by insisting. No creativity. Also – a very poor scenario. Enough said.
  • Still, you’ll see in the list that I watch a lot of cartoons. I want to say the following things in my defense („Why do I watch cartoons?”)
    • I can specialize in a specific genre. You can’t watch all the movies in the world. But you can watch all the movies in a specific genre. My niche is „most popular Western cartoons, all-time”. This means that if a new cartoon appears, and I go to „see related movies”, I already saw around 80% of the movies in the list. It gives you a good feeling.
    • They’re funny.
    • I generally understand the message. Some movies have a complicated message. Never with cartoons.
    • It’s almost always with a happy ending.
    • They tend to be soft, not powerful & tough. And this is nice & kind of them.
    • There are much fewer scenario/creativity restraints. Before 2000s, there were some constraints, but not so many, even then. After 2000s, most cartoons have little to no constraints (regarding scenery).
    • In 1996 I had Cartoon Network at home. The first two weeks I had it, I wasn’t doing anything else the whole day. After a while, I reduced the consumption of cartoons, but, still, it was my favorite channel.
    • I watched quite a few cartoons when I was little.

H. Top 250 IMDb: Beauty and the Beast (1991)

On top 250 movies:

  • It’s the second genre I specialize in – seeing movie with high ratings on IMDb. I used to go for „Must be in IMDb’s top 250” to see it. I think this is a poor idea, mainly because some movies need to be seen only you have a certain cinematographic culture. To me, Ingmar Bergman‘s movies are hard to understand. I prefer to postpone watching them until I’m capable of understanding them. The same goes for other films in the list. I jumped right into seeing Akira Kurosawa‘s movies. The thing is, he paid a lot of attention to all sort of details, which I tend to ignore, so, even if I saw some of his movies, I liked little to none. I will resee them, sometimes. Currently, I postpone to see movies by Alfred Hitchcock for that same reasons. I saw a few, and I liked none (I didn’t dislike them either, but it wasn’t something incredibly nice about them).
  • I tend to look for certain directors. I like all the movies by Quentin Tarantino, altough I don’t have a particular movie I like extremely much. I like Clint Eastwood‘s movies, altough, again, not one in specific. I would love to like more „art”ish directors, but I don’t.
  • That being said, I’ve seen 90% of the movies in top 100, and 75% of the movies in the top 250. But some of the movies I didn’t understand at all, while I understood others only partially.
  • If a movie is in top 50, it’s a good movie. But at the bottom of the top you’ll see some movies about witch you may have your doubts. Also, there’s a lot of competition for movies just below the mark.
  • Besides cartoons, and some highly recommended movies, I avoid watching movies with grades less than 6. I watch some movies with grades between 6 and 7. Above 7, I take informed decisions. Above 8.5 – pretty much everything, within some limits.
  • National movies can have very high marks. For example, Romanian movies have very high marks because the ratings are given by Romanians. Indian movies tend to be liked a lot by their audience group – Indians. Mihai Viteazul (1970) was in the top list of historical movies on IMDb due to its 8.4 grade. Now they only count „popular” movies, so he’s not there. And so on. So, when you see something non-International with high marks, consider a skewed rating.

I. Trying to see how close a movie is to a book vs. Disney adaptation: Beauty and the Beast (2014)

Book vs. movie vs. Disney

  • I haven’t read the book. :) But the current movie seems to be relatively closely reflecting the book.
  • Thus, sooo boring.
  • The Disney adaptation was much simpler, some music, very adapted script, lots of cliches, and yet I liked it a lot.
  • The 2014 movie, by wanting to tell you everything, made everything complex. Disney, by cutting to the essence, could focus on making the view entertaining.

On watching similar movies:

  • If I really like a movie, I want to watch some similar movies. But, strangely, it’s only for certain movies. Jesus Christ Superstar (I plan to see all the adaptions). A Christmas carol (I’ve seen a few versions of it, even a modern one, one which I didn’t like).
  • I don’t know, exactly, I don’t want to see the adaptations for all movies, just for some. :)

O listening to the soundtrack:

  • For some movies, it’s a must. I tend to do more and more of this, in recent times. It helps me remember the mood of the movie.

On reading comments on IMDb about the movie / reviews:

  • I used to do so. The thing is, after a while, you get really good at seeing movies through the perspective of other people („Oh, the scenery, and the script, and the camera movement”). And I don’t want this, I don’t want to watch the movies through the filters of other people comments. So, I read some comments for some movies, but, generally, avoid reading too many things.
  • It’s interesting to read comments which are a bit „higher level”. So, not „the film is 8 out of 10, the script was so and so, the director was so and so, the actors were so and so, you should watch the movie” (a rational synthesis of the movie), but a bit more poetic and metaphoric than this („This idea reminds me of this atypical thought, which you haven’t had”). This is quite nice, it brings me pleasure to think of something new. As long as it’s not too new. :)

J. Reuniting old friends: Dumb and Dumber To (2014)

  • It was a nice movie, better than the first (as much as I can remember).
  • It’s like a TV series, watching a sequel. You somehow feel forced to.
  • I used to watch the cartoon series of Dumb and Dumber . :) It seems that they’re made after the movie, not prior to it. Who knew, back then? :)
  • When I was little, I used to watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Then, in 2014, they made a movie. You don’t have an option, no matter how lame the movie is. You have to watch it.

K. Proving me that I’m not so smart: Birdman (2014)

I saw the title of a review, which I didn’t read prior to seeing the movie. Yesterday, I finished watching Birdman and then read some reviews. Some thoughts?

  • I had two insights:
    • Life can be difficult.
    • The scene with the arguments against the theater critic was powerful and inspiring. And the aggressiveness was toned down.
  • It’s a smart movie, too smart for me. Even the review, which I read with big attention, wasn’t very illuminating.
  • In the review, there’s a link to the script writers discussing the movie. They’re so smart, that when they say:

„The critic makes a really good argument about the movie business being a place where they are handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography, where they take themselves too seriously and think they can do everything.”

„That’s what I am saying. Superheroes…just the word hero bothers me. What the fuck does that mean? It’s a false, misleading conception, the superhero. Then, the way they apply violence to it, it’s absolutely right wing. If you observe the mentality of most of those films, it’s really about people who are rich, who have power, who will do the good, who will kill the bad. Philosophically, I just don’t like them.”

  • , that the comments on the article don’t even get that they don’t refer strictly to superhero movies, but to the whole idea of „in a movie, a character moves from A to B, both internally (becomes better), and externally (goes through some obstacles). Thus, always, but always, he’s a superhero, beating himself and the obstacles”. The commentators don’t get this and focus strictly on „but I like superhero movies” / „hmm, there are other types of movies, besides superhero, they’re not the only ones Hollywood produces”.
  • On IMDb, the movie has 8.3 (very big grade), and it’s the 138th movie from all the database. That’s big, right? IMDb commentators are smart, right? There’s a catch, though: „For the Top 250, only votes from regular voters are considered.” If you read the reviews, on the first page of reviews there’s a single comment out of 10, considering the movie a „masterpiece”, the rest of 9 comments are highly infavorable of the movie, and they have been voted by others as being represenative for the movie. So, no, the vast majority of IMDb users don’t „get” why the movie has 8.3 out of 10.
  • Me? I don’t either. It’s a smart movie, I enjoyed some scenes. But I couldn’t focus for most part of the movie, I wasn’t waiting in suspense. Also, it had little to no script. I didn’t like the jazzy (boh-oh-boy!) music.
  • The movie had lots, and I mean lots, of surprises. But too much sugar makes you puke. It was just too much. I couldn’t relate to most of the things in the movie. I need some familiarity, it was filled with too many surprises.
  • So boring.
  • Would I watch the movie again? Just the scene with the critic. Otherwise, perhaps in a few years, when I will forget the script and I will be able to enjoy jazz. :)

L. Big Dissappointment, the 6th from Disney (Big HUO! 6): Big Hero 6 (2014)

  • It’s Disney. They should know how to make a movie. From the past 15 years (see the list), from all the movies they made, I liked: Monsters, Inc. + University. Lone Ranger was OK. Saving Mr. Banks, of course, I loved it. Brave was cool. Cars 1 & 2 – OK, I guess. Toy Story 3 – very smart. Up – cool. So, for the last 15 years I only liked a few of their movies. I think this is kind of bad. Pixar does good movies. Dreamworks, so and so. But this is Disney, I had some expectations. Some of the movies in the list are very nice. But we’re talking about 15 years, here. Very disappointed, overall. And they’ve launched many more movies than the ones I listed.
  • I know some IT / technology / programming / networking. Basic things, I work with Internet for a while, and I’ve had a form of programmable computer since 1991. Almost all my life was spent in front of a device called „computer”. The movie is so poor on so many levels. The script, the logic, the lack of innovation, the „what the computers can do”. Very silly movie.
  • Also, they copied How to train your dragon and Ironman. It was so silly. Come on, you’re Disney, you can do better than DreamWorks and Marvel. They did some cool things, but you’re Disney. It’s a cartoon, you don’t need to limit yourself to what others have made.
  • Of course, the movie has 8.1 on IMDb and the reviews on the first page start with positive affirmations. Aaargh, I was so frustrated after seeing this movie.
  • Frozen was a poor movie. But at least the script was generally logic, and you could make some sense into the movie. Lots of things happened, and it was a nice view. And it managed to give me very well the emotions of „cold”. I watched the main action in Frozen quite a few times, it’s nice. The movie, overall, isn’t. But Big Hero 6? They want me to have emotions regarding a robot who I can copy on a flash drive.
  • I don’t think there’s a single scene in Big Hero which I would like to see again.
  • The main problem I have with Disney movies in general, and this one in particular, is that they tend to solve situations by insisting. They „strenuously object”!

Disney insisting in „Frozen„:

  • Run! Then run faster! Insist on running! „Run, don’t you hear me?”
  • No help? But I insist. No, don’t help. I insist harder!
  • You don’t have true love? But I have it! I insist!
  • You almost set me on fire! But I insist, I haven’t!
  • It’s hard to jump. No-no, we can do this. We can insist. We will barely make it, but if we insist, we’ll make it! Let’s insist!
  • All the arguments in the discussion are solved by insisting.
  • You almost fell. But you insisted, and you survived. How to get out of troubles? Insist! The whole scene is a prove that by insisting you can get ahead in life. No creativity at all.

Some conclusions?

  • I think I’ll skip watching TV series altogether. I want to finish seeing „Two and a half men„, but that’s it.
  • I’m trying to become good at guessing, without the trailer, and without reading too many reviews, if I would like the movie or not. I need to work on this skill, and decide what movies I will watch.
  • The biggest improvements should come from watching movies like Birdman, much higher than my current level.
  • Cartoons are (generally) nice.

P.S. #1, 2015.02.08: In the defense of insisting, you can make a good scene just by insisting.

In any role I’ve seen so far by Christoph Waltz, directed by Quentin Tarantino, keeps on insisting and makes it in just a lovely way. It’s very nice how he does that.

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