Tuesday, December 23, 2008

15 Tips for Writing a Movie Review

1) Study all of the classic films and read Pauline Kael's reviews and the works of other major critics religiously. Quentin Tarantino once said "I would study Pauline Kael's reviews like class assignments." Philip Lopate's American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now (Library of America, 2006) provides an excellent survey.

2) What is one's basis for judging a movie? I like Pauline Kael's answer in her essay "Outside the Circles or What is a Film Critic?":

"new films are judged in terms of how they extend our experience and give us pleasure . . . our ways of judging how they do this are drawn not only from older films but from other works of art, and theories of art . . . new films are generally related to what is going on in the other arts . . . a wide a background as possible in literature, painting, music, philosophy, political thought, etc., helps . . . it is the wealth and variety of what he has to bring to new works that makes the critic's reaction to them valuable."

So, develop a background in all that as well.

3) Choose the movie and the theater. I prefer afternoon screenings due to the relative cheapness and lack of a crowd, although a large enthusiastic audience on a Friday evening can definitely affect one's review. You don't have to pick the most critically noteworthy releases. I like the critical challenge of writing a good review on a stupid movie.

4) Once you have selected a film, very carefully stay away from reviews, other people's opinions, Rotten Tomatoes averages, etc. before you write the review. I usually encounter at least one yahoo who likes to blurt out what he has read on a given movie, whereupon I stop him by saying SHUT UP! and running from the room.

5) Bring a small notebook and a pen, and take notes while watching the film. I usually write down the interesting dialogue, but also sometimes other responses (written cries of disgust, for instance) can make for a good lead.

6) Go home and sleep on it. Sometimes, I might brood over a film for several days, but usually one good night's sleep helps let the movie marinate in my brain for long enough.

7) The next morning, get out your laptop and write down all of the quotes that you can read from your notebook.

8) Then consult with the Internet Movie Database for basic information about the director, actors, studio, etc. IMDB will usually also guide you to the studio webpage promoting the film. Browse in that as well. Production notes are often useful.

9) Start to draft your review. Listen to your gut response and never cave in to the general buzz around a film. Over time, I've learned that in the competitive world of film blogging, having a differing opinion from the consensus view helps make your review stand out. You have to be faithful to your gut. That's really all you have.

10) Try to make your review entertaining, engaging, and free of cliches. Look for patterns in the directors and/or the lead actors' previous films. Try to support opinions with evidence from the film. Enliven your writing with details. Try to imagine what the studio's goals were in making the film. Who is the targeted audience? Imagine the original pitch that theoretically made the film an attractive thing to produce. I like Griffin Mill's take on what makes a film marketable in Robert Altman's The Player: "Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings."

11) Beware of writing spoilers. That usually means you should try to not include the latter third of a film. It can be difficult to analyze a film effectively without including the ending, but I usually just hint at the structural problems of a movie without giving the ending away.

12) Show your review to someone else who can edit it. I'm still surprised by the many mistakes my wife can find in my reviews on a sentence by sentence basis. Watch for repeating words and sentence structure. Beware of boring the reader with a pedestrian and overly long plot summary. Try to keep your style lively by maintaining a conversational voice.

13) Watch for relying on glib snarkiness. Put downs are great fun to write (check out Roger Ebert's great compendium of snide comments in "In the meadow, we can pan a snowman"). I often get excited by the anticipation of panning a bad film for that reason alone, but vicious slicing remarks can become a bad habit. Strive for a more nuanced and level-headed critical response even as you try to make the review fun to read.

14) Pauline Kael was quite good at incorporating quotes from other critics into her reviews, usually to show how they didn't get the film. Kael shows how juxtaposing the style of another critic with your own can help create interesting tensions in your review.

15) Publish your review and listen carefully to feedback.

Other suggestions?

13 comments:

JUS said...

Certainly good advice, FDr.

I'd add that a love of the craft of movie-making must be apparent in each review. That love will add sincerity and compelling energy to both good and bad reviews. The true movie lover exaults the achievements and is wounded deeply by shortcomings of the films they review.

Dr. K said...

All of this is really good advice. Some of the worst film criticism today tends to revel in the gossip and other detritus surrounding the movie's production and not on the work itself.

Some of my favorite reviews that I wrote involved moments that you touch on in number 10, where I could see that a better movie had been lost in a weak one, and I was challenged to figure out where the good movie had gone off the rails. Those happen to be the most disappointing movies, however.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, JUS. I like your point about critics being wounded by the shortcomings of the films they review. It becomes a perpetual condition.

Thanks, Dr. K. Did you see Roger Ebert's journal post about film criticism and the celebcult? He discusses your point about the excess of gossip taking over film criticism.

Sam Juliano said...

Outstanding piece and a wake-up call for all of us who write reviews. Perhaps nobody is guiltier than me for violating many of the no-nos your rightly point out; I got into trouble as a result of my looking at reviews beforehand and have learned my lesson the hard way. It's all due to laziness and taking on too much, but that's another story.
Pauline Kael is a perfect example of the truly great film critic, and I have all her volumes, but my absolute favorite os Stanley Kauffmann of The New republic, who is still writing at age 95. Andrew Sarris and David Thomson are other critical luminaries.

Thanks for this great piece. I'll be sure to copy it.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Sam, for your kind words. As a Kaelite, I've read a little Sarris, but not much Kauffman. Is there a particular book of his that you recommend?

Sam Juliano said...

Yes indeed, film doctor, A WORLD ON FILM is his most definitive and essential volume, but LIVING IMAGES is excellent as well, as it gives an excellent contemporary survey.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Sam. I'll check out World on Film soon.

christiandivine said...

I would say read all of John Simon's 60's and 70's film reviews. He can be a brutal bastard, but the wit and insight is often staggering.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Mr. Divine. I will look up Mr. Simon's work.

Peter Nellhaus said...

One can rely on IMDb up to a point. They are often useless in getting basic information on Asian films, especially older films. I also tried several times to get the filmography of Curtis Harrington corrected to included his experimental films, with no success.

FilmDr said...

Peter,

Thanks for pointing out some of the drawbacks of IMDB. I had not noticed those.

Jake said...

I'm reviving an old post, but I just wanted to say how helpful this is. I'd been slowly adapting to many of the criteria before stumbling upon this, but I've noticed a clear difference lately in my current writing with stuff I wrote mere months ago. And I have painful memories of not following #6 with Bruno. I left the theater, went home and wrote a highly praising article, woke up the next day and ended up seeing it with a different set of friends and felt like I'd been taking substances the first time. Thank God my blog doesn't get huge traffic because that shameful postscript would have killed me. But, we fall down so we can get back up again, right?

I completely agree about the snarkiness. I've written some pans that I'm downright ashamed of, such as a childish denunciation of The Reader, one that sticks out at me so badly I almost want to watch that wretched film again just to write a better review of it. I can compare that to a recent post I wrote for New Moon, which was snarky and negative, but I also wrote a paragraph distancing my view of the film from its legions of fans (as so many are doing), and when I read it back I just felt so much better about myself, you know?

I used to be terrible about #4, sometimes just quoting a line of another review to say "That about sums it up," but I still quote critics sometimes without setting up my disagreement (a la 14). For instance, I jokingly mentioned Rosenbaum's defense of Pan's Labyrinth's torture scene as "artistically justifiable" as pullquote-worthy given his occasionally hysterical diatribes against cinematic violence.

Anyway, thanks for this and your other brilliant posts as well.

FilmDr said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Jake. I think the main problem now is the sheer multiplicity of reviews available. It diminishes one's efforts in advance if several thousand Fantastic Mr. Fox reviews come out at the same time. I try to pretend like I'm the only one who has seen the film, and block all of the rest out.

I've also noticed that the easy snarkiness has gotten worse over time. I like Manny Farber's idea that we should strive for more balanced film criticism.