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How to watch movies like a critic

Every year in journalism I have a short movie review unit where I teach students how to analyze film from a movie critic viewpoint and write a movie review.

After taking a film studies course in college, I learned how to analyze films for color, camera angles, sound, acting, dialogue, music, action sequences, lighting, and pacing. It opened up a world of looking at film as an art form rather than describing a movie as "Good," "Okay," or "Bad." The goal of the unit is to get students to understand what makes a film one of the three aforementioned by looking at all of the characteristics of it.

When I was in film studies, we looked at such films as American Beauty, Singin' in the Rain, and Run Lola Run. In each of the films, we paid attention to certain film elements. In American Beauty, we paid attention to the use of color that highlighted American elements - the white picket fence - the red door set against the rain, etc. In Singin' in the Rain we looked at the use of sound. In Run Lola Run, we noticed the pacing and storytelling.

When I introduce these elements to the students, I show clips from different movies highlighting the use of certain aspects of the cinematography in that particular film. The examples below are what films I show them and why.

Good Will Hunting - Bar Scene - "My Boy's Wicked Smart"

I teach this scene from my favorite movie to show the importance of dialogue in a film. Good Will Hunting's strength is in its use of dialogue, and this scene shows the difference in Ben Affleck's character (Chuckie) and Matt Damon's character (Will). Chuckie tries to put the moves on Harvard student Skylar (Minnie Driver) but does not have the mental capacity to pick her up as he is berated by pompous jerk Clark (Scott William Winters). Will is able to intellectually outperform Clark, thus showing both his genius, his friendship to Chuckie, and Chuckie's average IQ in the process.

The Dark Knight - Interrogation Scene

This is a perfect scene that shows a good use of lighting. When the scene begins, all we see is Joker's white face surrounding in a shroud of black. But once those lights go on, the only black we see is Batman. It's the perfect contrast between good and evil, only this time, the good is in the dark.

The Wizard of Oz - Color Changing Scene

To my surprise, not a lot of students have seen The Wizard of Oz, so it's the perfect movie to show an example of color. The contrast between the use of black and white and color that is used to both literally and figuratively to jump Dorothy into the land of Oz makes for a great film. It is a movie that has really stood the test of time.

The Matrix - Camera Angles/Action Sequences

What better movie to show for action and camera angles than The Matrix? The subway scene shows both as we get a number of different camera angles as Neo (Keanu Reeves) learns how to take his skills to the next level and beat up on a machine. Kids seem to understand how future movies borrow from the effects in this scene.

Jaws - Chrissie's Last Swim Scene

There are a number of scenes that I have used for sound in the past. I used Fantasia a number of times too, but I found that Jaws works particularly well. Students don't need to see the shark to know that it's coming, and that's what makes this movie so powerful. It also works as a great example in camera angles.

Later on in the unit, we normally watch a film and I have them write a review of that movie using the elements we talked about. I am amazed at how they morphed into such critics. Hopefully you too can now look at movies with a critical eye as well. Happy viewing!

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