Writing Film Reviews
"You’ve probably gone over it before, but I’d like a refresher for how you go about choosing the movies you watch - I’ve got Netflix and Amazon Prime, but your titles always seem to go all over the place. Did you ransack a Blockbuster Video before it went bankrupt?" Rambling Redshirt. I was asked the above question recently, via Discord chat, because I do appear to post a rather eclectic range of film reviews. So, I thought I’d clarify my respective process (or lack thereof) as to which movies I choose to write about. I’d also like to share my thoughts on what I consider constitutes a good film review and the procedure I use when writing about the films I’ve watched.
First off, here’s a little background about my relationship with cinema. Both my parent grew up during the thirties and forties when the primary form of entertainment were films and radio. Hence when I was a child, watching movies together was a common family activity. Mainstream network channels showed a lot more movies during the seventies, where now they’ve been replaced with property, cooking and quiz shows. Satellite and cable options did not exist in the UK at the time and there were just three analogue terrestrial channels. Sunday afternoon was a day where there’d be a movie scheduled on BBC Two mid-afternoon. We’d have our Sunday roast and then settle down to watch the likes of The Mark of Zorro or Top Hat or The Dam Busters. As these were my most formative years, my passion for film was kindled. This was how I was introduced to the works of Ray Harryhausen, George Pal and Hammer Horror.
As a carer, I now have a fixed schedule which although busy, provides me with periods of time that I can use to pursue my interests. Thus, during a week, I will watch about three or four movies. Because I don’t go to the cinema so often these days, some of these will be recent releases, especially now that the gap between the theatrical and video-on-demand release is as little as two months. I also have a “watch list” that contains both old and new films, that regularly has new titles added to it. These will be recommendations from critics or genre classics that I want to familiarise myself with. I often re-visit films I’ve previously seen for a re-evaluation, especially if it has recently been “dissected” on any of the film related vlogs and podcasts that I subscribe to. However, there is not a great deal of rhyme or reason to the order in which these movies are watched. All can potentially be written about.
I do not consider myself a casual watcher of films. I believe film making to be an art form and I can find merit in all genres. Many people see films as disposable entertainment. Something you passively observe and then move on from. That’s fine. You do whatever is good for you. I however, watch, analyse and reflect. I like dialogue and they way it’s written. I focus and consider the composition of shots and the construction of scenes. Lighting, production design and style are all important to my enjoyment. I can also remember details and visualise how scenes played out, after I have watched a film. As I have this level of interest, I naturally read and seek out data about film stars, makers and production. If you like sports you will often become knowledgeable on the subject, especially stats. I do the exactly the same with films. Why? Because they bring me pleasure, they tell stories and they entertain. And this passion drives me to write about them.
Moving on, here are the rules that I broadly try to apply when writing about a movie. Just for the record, I often sit on the sofa with a pen and notebook in hand to write my thoughts down as they occur to me. This can be a little confusing to anyone watching with me.
1). Be sure to establish the genre of the film in question. Is it a comedy, a drama, a horror? If so, judge the film within the confines of said genre. Don’t make the mistake of comparing apples to oranges. All movies require a degree of “suspension of disbelief”. You have to vary this according to what you are watching. A drama such as On the Waterfront does not need to be watched with the same objective removal from reality as Dog Soldiers.
2). Consider all aspects of filmmaking when writing your review. Reflect upon directing, writing, editing, acting and other aspects of the production. Did they contribute positively or negatively to your experience? Where they of note contextually? IE with regard to the budget of the movie. If you have points you wish to highlight, then give specific examples in your review.
3). Imagine that your readers know nothing about the film in advance. It’s your job to introduce it to them and to provide them with a succinct and salient summary. How would you describe the film to a friend in one sentence? That may not always be possible with movies like Cloud Atlas but strive to be concise. Also do your best to avoid spoilers. If there is a dramatic event that serves as a surprise, don’t reveal this in your review. Provide enough information to intrigue readers so that they can choose to watch the film if they see fit.
4). When summarising your overall experience, think about who would enjoy this film, what its appeal is and in what circumstances. It helps to contextualise this, so if possible, why not make a broadly equivalent film comparison. IE Under Siege is Die Hard on a ship. Watership Down is essentially The Wild Bunch but with Rabbits. Any movie with Ben Stiller, is like a good comedy but with all the humour, talent and enjoyment conspicuously absent.
Finally, I’d like to finish with a quote from top UK movie critic Mark Kermode. Here are his top five ingredients for a proper film review, taken from his book The Good, The Bad & The Multiplex. Needless to say, I think he’s spot on.
“Opinion, description, contextualisation, analysis and entertainment.
Saw 3D is rubbish.
2. Opinion and description
Saw 3D is a horror film that is rubbish.
3. Opinion, description and contextualisation
Saw 3D is the seventh episode and the first stereoscopic instalment in a long-running horror series, and it is rubbish.
4. Opinion, description, contextualisation and analysis
Saw 3D is the first instalment in a series that began life as a tortuously inventive low-budget chiller but which has descended over the course of six sequels into gory, boring torture porn which is rubbish.
5. Opinion, description, contextualisation, analysis and entertainment
It took the once-inventive but increasingly depressing Saw series seven movies to resort to the hackneyed headache of 3-D, but despite the promise that this is ‘The Final Chapter’ (just wait till the sums say otherwise) you keep wishing those protruding spikes would leap a little further out of the screen and puncture your eyeballs to ensure that you never have to watch rubbish like this ever again”.