Similarly, much of movie criticism consists of deciding whether to describe a film as half-full or half-empty. Obviously, a few movies, such as the Lord of the Rings films, simply work on all levels. And a great many others don't much work at all.
The hard ones fall in the middle.
For example, is Caddyshack a juvenile mess of a movie with awful special effects made by a bunch of Hollywood types on prolonged drug binges? Or is it a handful of great lines like "So I got that goin' for me, which is nice"? Is Idiocracy an underbaked dramatic effort or is it a bunch of indelible images and lines?
In theory, a fair-minded critic would give equal measure to both a film's full and empty elements, but that's really boring and increasingly unnecessary. There's not much point any more in the traditional review that laboriously lists the elements of the movie that the critic like and disliked and then sums up an overall rating. You can get a better overview of how good a film is by looking at the average scores on an aggregator site like Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB that give you the wisdom of crowds. (You just have to keep in mind the biases of the various crowds, whether underemployed ex-English majors on Rotten Tomatoes or bachelor fanboys on IMDB.)
Therefore, one of my usual approaches is to pick one perspective or the other and try to make a coherent argument why the film is half-full (while mentioning its flaws in passing) or why it's half-empty (while briefly admitting its virtues).
My general prejudice is to view over-achieving films made by underdogs through the glass-is-half-full lens and underachieving ones made by overdogs through the half-empty lens. Thus, recent Quentin Tarantino films tend to annoy me because Tarantino long ago demonstrated his enormous talent, and elaborate meta-explanations about why it's cool that he's wasting his powers making ingenious crud bore me. It's not that I'm not intellectually sophisticated enough to understand the rationalizations. I just don't care.
Still, there's an irreducibly arbitrary element. Consider the two main Best Picture contenders from a couple of years ago: No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. A few minutes of viewing will reveal that they are both made by superior filmmakers.
Both movies, however, are uneven. Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem are great in No Country, but Tommy Lee Jones is incomprehensible. I guess that makes the glass two-thirds full, and, indeed, I was an enthusiast for this film, but actually more because it quietly solved a long-standing problem: how to make a movie that conveys the pleasures of a first-person shooter video game. Instead of making the action more frenetic, slow it down so that the viewer can think along with the characters.
Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing in Blood, as is the cinematography, but what the hell is the movie about? Why does this competent, self-disciplined entrepreneur suddenly turn into a violent lunatic around the wan preacher?
The more I researched the story behind There Will Be Blood, the more frustrated I became with the movie. The movie is inspired by the first half of Upton Sinclair's novel about oilman Edward Doheny, Oil, but Paul Thomas Anderson didn't finish the book, so he didn't seem to be aware that Doheny became involved in the great the scandal of age, Teapot Dome. And after Sinclair published his book, Doheny's story climaxed with the still unsolved murder-suicide in LA's biggest mansion involving the oilman's son and his secretary, presumably over testifying in the oilman's Teapot Done trial. This case an its cover-up inspired the subsequent career of a failing LA oil company executive named Raymond Chandler. The more I learned, the more my review turned into an argument that There Will Be Blood is half-empty .
Now, Paul Thomas Anderson is an artist and artists tend tget their inspiration from idiosyncratic sources, and thus, presumably, fail to get inspiration from what should have obvious sources. Perhaps, if he'd tried to use the tremendously dramatic real-life events, his artistry would have dried up. Still, as memorable as Blood is, it struck me as underachieving. Clearly, though, that's a personal judgment. My hope is that was a more interesting perspective than most other reviewers came up with.
Similarly, I tend to write reviews about movies that are at least partly misunderstood. For example, Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is universally seen as a Jewish revenge fantasy, which, in part, it is, just as District 9 is described as an "apartheid allegory." There is some truth in both conventional interpretations, but it's clear from interviews with the filmmakers that much is being missed. As Neill Blomkamp has explained repeatedly to uncomprehending interviewers, District 9 is at least equally a post-apartheid parable. Similarly, the Jews butchering Nazis theme didn't much inspire Tarantino's intelligence, which is obvious from how underdeveloped those limited parts of the movie are, while what really fascinated Tarantino was the multiform idea of being in show business under the Third Reich. For example, what would it be like if instead of having to rely on Harvey Weinstein to scrape together money for your movies, you could persuade Hitler to provide you with the full resources of his totalitarian empire?
Perhaps it's just as well that most people don't pick up on Tarantino's fascination with Goebbels, but, still, it's not exactly subtle.