Some Thoughts on Film Criticism, Part 2

This is a continuation of this blog post: Some Thoughts on Film Criticism
This is a long one, but bear with me, if you will. These past few months have been a bit of a roller coaster for me, which is why my writing has gone down, but I don’t blame the lack of it on anyone but myself. I started a blog almost three years ago, and writing reviews almost five years ago. And except for the occasional freelance article last year, I never got paid for any of it – I did it purely for the love of film and writing, and told myself, especially on days where I didn’t feel particularly like writing anything, that in the long run it would pay off. But then a little thing called laziness set in, I wrote less and less, and somewhere along my motivation bottomed out and I wrote practically nothing for the longest time.
Nowadays, as I sit here in Richland, with nothing to do except work and write and read books and watch movies and look for different work, I’ve been watching a lot of the classics that I never got around to in Seattle (Vertigo, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Some Like it Hot, Bringing up Baby, Jaws, etc.), and I’ve rediscovered something of that love for film that was lost in the time taken off right after graduation. At some point I stopped writing because there was no perceivable reward for it, but then I realized, I mean really truly realized, that I never wrote for perceivable reward – I wrote because I love sharing my thoughts with others, I love discussing the art that is film, I love analyzing pop culture and all its stupidities and idiosyncrasies, and I love perfecting the craft that is my writing. It saddens me, in a way, that somewhere along the line I lost that, but I am determined to get it back, and so I thought I’d start by finishing up the blog post/note that I wrote so long ago, where I talked about what makes a good film a good film and the different between a film that’s fun for what it is and a film that truly stands tall as well-crafted piece. In this post, I’m gonna go into the way I craft a review, which I think is oddly appropriate now that I’m “coming back” to movie writing.
So. The Review. What’s important about a review, is that, it is first and foremost READ. I may enjoy going back and looking at the evolution of my writing skills over the years, and marvel at how awesome I am (hmmm…), but the review is not for me, it’s for the moviegoer. With that in mind, a review, above all, needs to entertain and enrapture and engross. There’s no point to writing something that readers will not enjoy reading – otherwise why should they bother reading it?

There are many ways to make a review entertaining, but speaking for myself, what I try to do is take the reader through the “story” of my review, by spicing up the language and the transitions, so that they don’t get bored, and the words themselves work to pull the reader through the review. I believe it is also hugely important to be aware of basic film history, or the history of the director/actor/actress whose movie you’re watching. If I wrote a review of Edge of Darkness and said absolutely nothing about the fact that this is his first role since “Signs” almost eight years ago, what kind of critic would I be? The history of the people who are involved with the movie is important in order to understand how good the movies are. As I said in part one of this blog post, movies are not made in a vacuum, no matter how much some people pretend they are. And the fact is that some readers will want to know how this movie compares to other movies the director/actor has done before. In writing the review, though, I try to keep in mind both the people who don’t give a crap about what’s come before, and those who do. It’s a tricky line to toe, but chances are if they’re reading a review in the first place, they already have more than a passing interest in the film. Moving along.

With the first sentence of the review, I try to summarize how I felt about the film as a whole and maybe pick a key image or scene or that stuck with me – something that the reader can latch onto. This serves the purpose of right away giving the reader something about the movie itself – the main reason why they’re reading the review in the first place. From that first sentence/paragraph, I go into plot, but not too in depth. The film critic for the Seattle times once told me, “Movies are not about what they’re about.” It is not a critic’s job to give a plot synopsis. The reader can get that anywhere, even from the trailer, and in any case, it’s boring to read a plot synopsis in a review. I’ve read so many reviews that simply kill themselves by having over half their review talk about the plot. It is, however, important to give the reader a basic feel for the story and what it’s about, but in the interest of space and holding the reader’s interest through every word a plot summary shouldn’t be any longer than a paragraph, sometimes just a sentence. But since it’s a review, and not a summary, the next part is the fun part: the analysis.

Here’s another part that reviews sometimes kill themselves in. Many a reviewer will simply say something along the lines of, “Actor A was good. Actor B was not. Great chemistry between the leads. The plot was slow. The ending was all right.” Maybe nothing so simplistic, but you get the idea. There’s no reason to write a review like this. Sure, you can talk about the actors, heck yes talk about how the plot was slow. But geez, do it with some creativity. Don’t act like you’re going down a numbered list. I try to make the review like a story about my time at the movie. There are the basics of how to get from beginning to end in a review, but the way you do it is all the fun.

But along the way, the important thing is to BE SPECIFIC. Saying that an actress “shines” in a role may sound nice, but it tells you absolutely NOTHING about the performance. When you read that on a poster all you know is, “that actress was really good.” Well whoop-de-friggin-do. What’s helpful, I find, is maybe comparing her to previous roles, or similar roles in other films by different actresses. Maybe talk about ways that she moves in a scene, the stiffness her face/body, what she does with her hands, how she’s able to give a seamless believable character arc. All of these things tell you more than that she “shines.”

Along these same lines, I try to avoid tripe-like phrases like, “The feel-good comedy of the year!” or “Uproarious!” or “Sexy, built to thrill!” or “Visually the movie is a powerhouse!” or “Wild untamed imagination!” These kinds of quotes, unfortunately, are what are plastered all over movie posters, because they roll right off the tongue and are great sound bites. But great sound bites do not a good review make. NONE of those quotes tell you much about the movie at all. Every single one of them is basically saying, “hey, this is a good movie.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone and Pete Hammond of ex-Maxim fame are great examples of the kind sound-bitey reviewing I try to avoid. When Travers calls “Youth in Revolt” a “Tasty comic treat!” what exactly is he saying? Does the movie taste good? Is it like a chocolate chip cookie? There’s also the danger in overdoing it. You can’t call every other movie the “funniest movie of the year!” – and when you browse through Travers’s reviews, especially at this site
, try counting how many times he’s used a superlative about the funniest movies ever and you’ll quickly stop from exhaustion. “You’ll stand up and cheer!” Really, Travers? Have you ever known ANYONE to stand up and cheer at a movie? EVER?

Me neither. So why write it in a review? Easy. Because you want to get quoted a bunch. But it’s dishonest, and that’s what every review, I think, should have. Honesty. I try to do a lot of things in my reviews, but above all, I try to honestly communicate how I feel, and tell a story about those feelings. What a good review does, I think, is inspire you to watch a film, gives you a sort of kinship with the reviewer. Some of my favorite critics the world, like Manohla Dargis of The New York Times or Roger Ebert, do this in every single review, and they have such a gift for writing that it’s astounding to me and even if I’ve never seen the movie they’re reviewing something about their reviews just speaks to me. But even though I read reviews all the time (first rule: writers READ), I try to keep my expectations neutral before going into a film. It’s not really possible, truth be told, though what is possible is, before the start of every film, clean my brain’s slate, and watch it with an open mind, hopeful for the best. I can only hope, in the end, to show my opinion of a movie, why I have that opinion, and wish you luck. Because no matter how many reviews of a movie you read, you haven’t seen it until you’ve seen it.

One Response to “Some Thoughts on Film Criticism, Part 2”

  1. Wow, thanks for sharing this. 😀 I have a sorta film review blog too but I’m pretty bad at it actually. lol. just writing because I love to. 🙂 glad i came across ur blog!

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