The bigger the cinephile you become, the more specific and technical your filmmaking preferences and opinions grow. Movie-buffs become more nuanced in their evaluations of their favorite and least favorite films, picking out distinct filmmaking techniques that they notice, time and time again, that can either elevate a film’s material or drag it down into the muck.
This article concerns the latter of those trends — my particular view on cinematographic, acting, or editing trends that, more often than not, hinder a movie’s artistic success. As even laymen know, filmmaking is hardly an exact science, and exceptions to the rule and contextual details of film production are as important to film history and popular film culture as the most reliable screenwriting-101 rule. A film does not always require a protagonist, a character need not always possess an arc, an eye-line match need not always follow an actor’s glance, a wide-angle lens is not always the default option for an action sequence, an establishing shot isn’t the right opening edit for every single scene, a character need not always have a flaw or always be particularly competent, a practical prop or design isn’t always the ideal first choice for a special effect, and a feature film may not always work best at two hours in length or less.
But usually, those rules do apply. For example:
5.) Stationary handheld cinematography, i.e. “shaky cam during dialogue” — Many cinephiles lament the overuse of handheld or the general visual incoherence of filmming action scenes, chase sequences, or long-takes without a dolly, tripod, or SteadiCam, but at least in those instances, consideration of handheld techniques is understandable, if not necessary. Conversely, I scratch my head almost every time a director uses a handheld camera to conduct basic, over-the-shoulder, shot-reverse shot dialogue.
This is a trend that’s become more popular in the last ten years or so, as cameras have become lighter and the prevalence of HD-cameras has skyrocketed. You’ll notice the obvious floating, unsteady frame of the camera in otherwise ordinary dialogue or exposition-scenes from small, chump-budget independent films all the way to massive tentpole Hollywood blockbusters like The Winter Soldier (2014). In most cases, there is no need whatsoever to shoot dialogue-driven scenes without a tripod or dolly. The only recent film that comes to mind that frequently used handheld during dramatic scenes was Birdman (2014), but that film’s entire cinematographic style was built on sustained, free-flowing long-takes, most of which were filmed on a Steadicam. Otherwise, you have these basic, straightforward shot-reverse-shot sequences that are constantly distracted by an obvious, completely unnecessary floating frame dancing around the actors’ heads. It makes the scenes feel cheap and sloppy. Just put it on a tripod!
4.) “Strong” female characters, i.e. the “Tomb Raider“-effect — I have no problems with well written, interesting female characters played by talented actresses. What I am referring to are the comical, one-dimensional heroine-caricatures that receive endless, hallow praise from Screen Junkies to the New York Times for being competent at kung fu and also possessing a vagina. I call this pet-peeve “the Tomb Raider-effect” because that is the most influential modern stereotype of this overdone phenomenon, where a female character (sometimes a protagonist, sometimes not) happens to be proficient or even phenomenal at defending themselves, and that’s the extent of their character.
If the aforementioned character traits were possessed by a male character and actor, it would be at best generic and at worst a cartoony stereotype. Contrary to popular opinion, the greatest performances of the 1980s action canon — widely considered the most over-the-top, hyper-masculine era of the American action film — were portrayed by actors and characters who subverted, rather than blindly embraced the meat-head ‘Roid-monster caricature of that age. Predator (1987) was and still is interesting because we witness this seemingly invincible commando team get picked apart and hunted down, one-by-one, by an unseen, cryptic, and intelligent adversary. Even the mighty Arnold Schwarzenegger himself is tossed about like a ragdoll at the hands of the titular beast, and has to rely on his wits and skill, rather than his muscles and machine guns, to defeat his foe. Die Hard (1988) is beloved because its hero, John McClaine (Bruce Willis) is an otherwise Average Joe-cop who takes down a team of terrorists through his street-smarts, heart, and perseverance. He didn’t even have shoes, much less rocket launchers or miniguns!
This is where most modern attempts at the “badass leading lady” fall flat for me; characters like Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow (2014) or Milla Jovovich in the Resident Evil franchise (2002-2012) or Michelle Rodriguez in the Fast and Furious (2001-2015) or Angelina Jolie in all of her action films are little more than female versions of the same action-hero caricatures we’ve always had.
Conversely, examples of true strong modern heroines include Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in Fury Road (2015), Emily Blunt in Sicario (2015), Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2 (1991), Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997), Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl (2014), and Daisy Ridley as Rey in The Force Awakens (2015). These characters’ traits extend beyond their proficiency at physical combat, and in some cases (e.g. Sicario, The Terminator, Jackie Brown, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl) have little to nothing to do with it. They are well crafted characters who are female, not Ronda Rousey.
3.) Overly long films, i.e. lack of editing — This one is rather self-explanatory. Films, particularly action-blockbusters, have been getting longer and longer over the past fifteen years, to the point where 2.5 hour superhero films are commonplace, if not expected. Rare is the occasion when I see a mainstream tentpole feature that actually justifies its long running-time, that is able to hold my unwavering interest for a full 150 minutes (let alone 165-180 minutes). Even rarer is the high-profile action movie that manages to tell an excellent story in less than two hours!
I don’t understand the point behind making such elongated, over-stuffed movies. You’d think major studios would be in the business of maximizing profits and cutting production costs, rather than ballooning their projects to mammoth proportions with one bloated set-piece after another. Perhaps the mindset is similar to the increase in fast food meal-sizes, or the assumption that customers demand larger, more epic spectacles as their appetites for entertainment grow. Or perhaps the blame can be laid on the few creative auteurs still capable of demanding such epic runtimes, like Christopher Nolan and his near-three hour space opera, Interstellar (2014), or glorified corporate hacks like Michael Bay willing to push CGI-mayhem to its nauseating extremes.
Regardless of the principle reason, average run-times for Hollywood films have continued to grow at the expense of good pacing and tight editing. It’s gotten so bad that even romantic comedies like Bridesmaids (2011) are frequently breaching the two hour-mark. I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it yet again: If a movie is to be over two hours (120 minutes) long, it had better have a damned good reason to be so. Most movies are not Lord of the Rings (2001-2003).
2.) Unnecessary dialogue or voiceovers — One of the most ubiquitous problems in television and feature films has long been the over-reliance on dialogue, exposition, or over-explaining of things to the audience. This can be as simple as characters who articulate, beat-for-beat, their own character arcs, plot points, and a movie’s entire theme (e.g. Gravity , Dope ) to movies that come right out and scream their character’s emotions at you in cringe-inducing, awkward fashion (e.g. Diary of a Teenage Girl ). I understand that certain occasions call for a complicated plot to be broken down into digestible chunks so that the audience can keep up, but most of the time, much conversation or exposition is unnecessary.
One of the worst examples of this in current (as of this writing, 2016) pop culture is The Walking Dead (2010-present). Most detractors of the show criticize its comical melodrama, bad acting, or the cheesiness of its dialogue, but its real problem is the pervasiveness of its dialogue, the sheer number scenes where characters do nothing but talk at one another. Most of the time, these bland characters are describing, in excruciating detail, the exact emotional status of other characters in that scene or the thematic significance of some event that occurred in a previous episode (usually a significant other or friend dying). This pattern is repeated ad nauseam in most episodes of every season. It’s gotten to a point where this show feels like a bad melodrama, a series of impromptu therapy sessions with occasional interruptions by hordes of zombies.
It’s one thing if your teleplay or screenplay is loaded with sharp dialogue (a la Quentin Tarantino) or you’ve engineered a long-take where the dialogue informs about a character (e.g. the 17-minute static shot in Steven McQueen’s Hunger ), or if you have actors capable of delivering all that jargon in a convincing way. Most of the time, though, film is an overwhelmingly visual medium, and if you have to keep explaining your plot, character motivations, and thematic content to your audiences, chances are your project is either talking down to your viewership or your project isn’t well written to begin with.
- Found-Footage “Cinematography” : I hate this trope more than life itself. I do not know why general audiences have taken to this filmmaking “style” so readily, other than an illusion of faux-realism. The gimmick makes sense from a studio-perspective, as found-footage movies are almost always cheaper to make, but I have not watched a single film whose story or concept justified the use of this technique, including Rec (2007), Rec 2 (2009), or Cloverfield (2008). This is one trend that just refuses to die, and seems content to drag the entire horror genre down with it.
- Repetitive scene transitions, i.e. too many cuts, few dissolves or fades: Dissolves, wipes, and fades seem to have all but disappeared from the modern language of film editing. Imagine how refreshing it was to finally see fades to and from black (and white!) in Fury Road and wipes aplenty in The Force Awakens. I can’t remember the last time I saw a dissolve in a theatrical release. What, is it considered too old-fashioned to dissolve from one take to the next? Do we have to go with jarring, abrupt hard-cuts with every single scene transition in every single film?
Possession melodrama, i.e. acting through shouting: Extreme emotions are the easiest to perform on command in most situations. Even non-professionally trained actors can scream and yell on camera, yet it takes far more skill, precision, practice, and in some cases, raw talent, to convey subtle emotions and minute character development through little or no dialogue.
As such, whenever characters are possessed by antagonistic demons or undergo an exorcism, it’s generally carte-blanche for that actor to go as wild as possible with as many emotions as possible in a short time-frame. The end result is a complete mess, with actors yelling, spitting, screaming, mumbling, twitching, and drooling ad nauseum for an entire scene.
- Muted Gunshots: One of my more minor complaints is something Michael Mann does superbly in every crime drama he’s ever made, namely mix and edit gunshots at loud volumes. Oftentimes he records firearm discharges live on-set, so you get to hear the true punch of each round. Most other filmmakers use fake or pre-recorded gunshot sound FX so that the final result is like hearing a pea-shooter, or a muffled, emasculated excuse for a silencer. Guns are supposed to be loud.
1.) Bloodless PG-13 Violence — I’ve bemoaned the modern censorship of movie-violence for some time now, but this particular complaint has to do with the lack of blood-squibs, digital or otherwise, in mainstream filmmaking. Though things may finally be changing for the better with the massive box office success of Deadpool (2016) and the overwhelming critical success of Fury Road, we still have a ways to go before adult-oriented action filmmaking becomes the norm again in Hollywood.
My single biggest complaint with most action-scenes today is their lack of blood and gore. Seriously. I see people getting executed with a gun to the head, point-blank, in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2015) with no blood, zombies eating people alive in World War Z (2013) with no blood, riot police gunning down scores of Brazilian gangsters in Fast Five (2011) with no blood, Wolverine stabbing people ad infinitum in the X-Men series (2000-present) with no blood, Nazi-death cult members shooting civilians in The Winter Soldier with no blood, and children literally hacking each other to death in The Hunger Games (2012-2015) with no blood!
I’m not some hemophiliac — I just get distracted when watching otherwise brutal, hardcore violence depicted on-screen with no sense of stakes, consequences, or bodily fluids on display. Does this shit not bother anybody else? How do characters get shot, stabbed, punched, run over, and blown up with zero blood-loss? How?