|by Scott Weinberg
I've been asked several times over the years (OK, once) what I think goes into a quality movie review. Despite my earlier insistence that all you needed for a good review was rampant vulgarity, I decided to come up with 10 things that are essential when writing a movie review...as me, that is. If you're someone OTHER than me, however, please use this list as a somewhat time-consuming article that offers a brief insight into how my diseased and puckered brain works.
1. Enough of a plot synopsis to either pique someone's interest or tell them enough to know they're not interested in this one. Rarely should a plot synopsis be longer than three paragraphs. (I usually shoot for two, unless you're dealing with the plot of something like Fight Club...or Frankenhooker.)
2. The synopsis should not be an A-B-C rehashing of the plot. It should skip around, perhaps describe the plot from a different angle than what's onscreen and NEVER give too much away. It's unforgivable for a movie reviewer to ruin a film for someone just because they're content with rehashing the plot blow by blow and ending with "It sucked". Unless of course the movie quite simply sucks. Then say it. Then go have a sandwich.
3. Not only should you never have spoilers in a review, but a good writer won't even make REFERENCE to a 'twist ending'. I'm of the belief that if you're even EXPECTING a twist (thanks to a shallow review), then you're being robbed of some of the movie's impact. Never allude to plot twists or shock endings in any way. (By the way, Rosebud was the sled, Bruce Willis was dead the whole time, and the skinny naked guy was really a skinny naked girl.)
4. A real sense of how you felt. The overall tone, if you will. (Yes, I realize that "if you will" is currently #1 on the list of all-time most pretentious phrases, but I'm in that kind of mood.) It's tougher to praise a movie than it is to bash one, but you want to leave the reader with a real impression of how you felt. If Mommy J from Iowa is watching the artifice that is Patch Adams and she flashes back to your descriptive skewering of this movie's depravity, she will then like you. And isn't that what life is all about? To have total strangers admire you? Plus it's just so much fun to come up with new sentences like "Driven is such a bad film that I felt compelled to drive nails into my penis with my forehead and remove them with barbed wire."
5. Compare the movie (in any way) to other films. That's not to say that you should rate Blade 2 in relation to the original, but it helps a reader when you give comparisons. Plus most movies nowadays are so damn unoriginal that it's impossible NOT to mention comparisons to other (undoubtedly better) movies. Conversely, saying that Crocodile Dundee 3 is similar to Crocodile Dundee 2 as well as the original Crocodile Dundee simply smacks of laziness. On the other hand, mentioning that The Matrix borrowed liberally from Dark City is a good way to show your stuff.
6. Briefly mention the actors and a few of their other roles. When people are looking for a movie to see, familiarity with the actors plays a large part. If Mommy J from Iowa is looking for a movie to rent and you mention that The Mummy stars "George of the Jungle/Encino Man/that gay gardener from Gods and Monsters", it may help her decide what movie to rent. And if you steer her right the first time, she'll trust your opinions again. And if you steer her wrong, fuck it. It's not like you're Roger Ebert or anything.
7. Deep underlying metaphors, subtle and meaningful acts of symbolism, unspoken subtext, movie freak in-jokes, director's cameos, film-school textbook stuff, contorted camera angles and mood lighting intended to display the twisted nature of the axe-wielding maniac, etc. Don't be afraid of the smart stuff. The beauty of movies is that anyone can be an expert. All you need is a DVD player. And while it's important to write intelligently and sound smart, you don't want to go overboard with the DePalma/Hitchcock comparisons or the Fruedian analyses of Albert Brooks, and the final truth about what Pink Floyd: The Wall is REALLY about, or you risk losing your reader. People respect smarts, but nobody likes a know-it-all. I know this from experience, because I used to be one smug bastard before I discovered the beauty of self-medication.
8. Mention the writer/director. Let your readers know who David Fincher is. Make sure that when someone writes an atrocious screenplay, they get the credit they deserve. Imagine the pride you'd feel (as a writer) if you help deepen someone's appreciation for Mel Brooks, Steven Soderbergh or John Carpenter's body of work. OK, maybe pride is the wrong word. Hatred. Yes that's it. Oh, what wonderful satisfaction you'll feel knowing that you're familiar with John Waters' entire filmography, while other people out there are content to merely have lots of sex and make money.
9. State your opinion! Do NOT fill a review with terms like "I think that..." and "In my opinion..." OBVIOUSLY it's your opinion...you're the writer! You should state your opinion with the belief that it is the ONLY correct one in the universe, but with the knowledge that it really isn't. (Example: Me saying "I really think that Shrek is a great movie" is weaker than "Shrek is quite simply a great film.") You write a review to state your analytic opinion. Don't feel the need to defend the movie as you're writing about it. If people read your review and feverishly disagree with you, oh freakin' well. At least they read your review, and that's what it's all about, be it HBS, EFC, Juggs, your school newspaper, People Magazine or even Cracked. I once received a scathing email from someone who couldn't comprehend my hatred for Patch Adams. A fellow writer wisely told me that there's no such thing as bad feedback. If someone bothered to read and write (regrardless of why), then you're probably doing a good job. (And it's really fun to fight off the Pokemon defenders!)
10. Be funny or somehow particuarly individual. Anyone can write three paragraphs about Top Gun. What makes a reviewer special is the unique stamp they put on their analysis, opinions and observations. But I'm a rambling hack who generally makes no sense at all in his reviews, so my advice is to find a critic you really enjoy & admire, and learn from him/her.
So I have no way to end this piece up, except to say that I consider myself in no way a real expert on how to be a professional writer. I was just compelled to write something, and this happened to show up. Hope you had fun. I'm going to sleep.
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originally posted: 05/01/01 03:47:25
last updated: 05/14/05 15:27:10