Everybody’s a critic, or so I’m often told. So the pre-meme old saying goes. Especially when it comes to movies. On any given weekend night in AnyCinePlex America, you can hear the debates in the lobby, the restrooms or walking to the parking lot.
But what separates the loudest gal/guy at the end of the bar’s opinionating from an actual film review? What goes into the process of forming an opinion and stating that opinion in a way that might win an argument with that omni-present, half-baked chunk of the movie-going public content to say “It stinks” as if that’s all there is to it?
As this question comes up more often than you know, let’s address it.
Film reviewing is opinion writing, a form of analytic essay which you probably had to practice in school in one form or other. It takes in rhetoric and persuasion, starts with opinion-forming and ends with opinion-defending in written form.
Here are some thoughts from a guy whose first published review with for “Rocky IV,” and who’s been doing this since high school. That would be me.
Start here — you see a movie, decide whether or not you like it, and sit down to make your case.
Consider the originality of the story, believability or at least entertainment value of the characters, the quality of the dialogue, the polish of the production and pictorial sophistication of the blocking, lighting, framing, shooting and editing of the images put on screen.
Your opinion is just that, “subjective” opinion. But you’re going to have to defend it. That’s why serious critics take notes, jotting down moments that work and why they work or don’t work, casting decisions that seem off, or lines of dialogue that are original, and aptly hardboiled, witty or moving, or the screenwriter’s inability to manage that. I’ve sat next to Pauline Kael at the New York Film Festival and behind Roger Ebert at the Toronto one. They, like me and most of the folks I know who’re good at this, took notes and if we’re still among the living, continue to do so.
There are a lot of ways to organize a review, and you’ll find most reviews written by journalists (a shrinking minority on Rotten Tomatoes, these days) follow this “news story” formula.
“Tell’em what you’re gonna tell’em, tell’em, then tell’em what you just told them.”
You lead off with a general descriptive statement and add an up-top value judgement (your opinion) of the movie. Relate a rough sketch of “some” of the plot. You don’t want “spoilers,” but the reader wants to know what the film is about, so you tell them. Plot points and characters introduced in the first and the early second-act (midway) are fair game for inclusion in a review. The overall theme of the film, the reason the story is compelling, etc., is all a part of that.
You’re setting up the conflicts between characters — the lovers who haven’t gotten together, and some of the most obvious obstacles to that happening; the dynamics of a quarrelsome group; the demands of a “mission,” the warring sides in any sort of debate, tug of war or real war.
You finish by summarizing your conclusions. The last third of a review is where your value judgements and the reasons for them are laid out.
And then you try to leave the reader with the sense that it’s all a part of a whole, cohesive in structure, maybe echoing lines from the lead paragraph for your hopefully-pithy finale.
If you’re new to this and want your review to “hold up in court,” rough out an outline for what you want to accomplish, the evidence points you to bring up and take your first shot at the “big finish” you want to end with. Professional academic writers from an essay writing service advise on writing an outline for your critical analysis. You can do this on your notepad, or type out your bullet points in your draft on screen, remembering to delate them or merely expand on them, point by point, as you work towards that final draft.
Then you proof-read. It’s not just radio and TV writers who read their copy aloud to see how it sounds, not just how it scans.
Read any blog, website, TV station or network’s page or even your favorite newspaper or magazine and you will see errors. Typos, run-on-sentences and the like are the easiest way for a reader to attack your work. Copy editors are an endangered species everywhere, but there are online editing and essay-writing services that go way beyond the foolishly-fallible “spell check” that can fix your grammar and point you to ways of better organizing your thoughts and arguments.
Manage all that in a review and you’ve done something. Want to get better? How’s the old joke go, the lost tourist asking a musician how to “get to Carnegie Hall?”
“Practice, practice practice!”