Jacob Lusk is a Jacksonville, Florida native, a high school English teacher, and an amateur film critic, who writes about movies on his blog, The Panned Review. You can follow him on Twitter. Check out his tips and suggestions for composing a film review.
Some Suggestions for Writing a Good Film Review
- Watch the film actively. Even if you’re writing about a movie you’ve seen before, watch it again and take notes. Taking notes while watching a movie may seem strange, but it helps. When it comes to note-taking, there are no bad notes. Write down any thoughts that come into your mind as you watch, write down dialogue that stands out, write down observations, no matter how slight: the color of someone’s scarf, the dim lighting in a room and the way that lighting exposes a character’s silhouette; the way a scene goes from sad to funny and back to sad again. These notes may or may not be useful later, but taking them ensures that you’re giving the film your full attention.
- Getting Started: Finding a Through-Line. With a review, you may find yourself scrambling to think of something to say other than, “I liked it,” or “I didn’t like it.” So ask yourself, “What about this film jumps out at me as the most interesting or noteworthy element?” Maybe the movie itself was junk, but a particular actor’s performance was so good you didn’t mind; maybe the film was a mess, but you admired that it tried so hard to break from conventions; maybe the writing felt incoherent, and that ruined the whole movie for you. Find the specific thing that speaks to you, and you’ll have a place to start.
- Getting Started: Just write something. If you’re struggling to “start” your review, try writing about any aspect of the movie, and remind yourself that you can always re-arrange paragraphs later. Maybe you don’t know how to begin your review, but you can likely write about specific elements of the film that would go in the middle of it. You can worry about the introduction later. And in the process of writing the middle, you may find all kinds of new insights you didn’t know you had.
- The review vs. the summary. If you’re putting on the critic hat, remember that plot summary shouldn’t be your primary goal. Yes, a few details about the movie are helpful for readers who haven’t seen the film–or even those of us who have, and might have forgotten them–but the bigger, more important, and more interesting job is making connections and judgments about the movie that are sharp and thoughtful and that give the reader a fresh perspective on the movie. As Pauline Kael says, the job of the critic is to help the reader see something about the work that s/he didn’t see before. And of course, you should try to persuade the reader why the movie is worth seeing (or skipping).
- Find fresh, vigorous, specific ways to describe the movie. Cliches like “roller-coaster ride” and “on the edge of my seat” have lost any power that they might have once had. They’re vague and dull anyway, so don’t use them. Instead, be specific. Try to get at the heart of what makes a movie work or not work. If a movie was genuinely suspenseful, talk about a specific scene that exhibits this quality; talk about your own response, and if you saw the film with others, you may even want to write about their reactions: did the audience jump in unison during a terrifying moment? Did everyone jeer at the screen when a character did something stupid (like walk up the stairs of the dark, spooky house, when she ought to know better)? Find a way to make the experience of watching the movie come alive to the reader who wasn’t there in the theater/living room with you.
- Don’t read other reviews of the movie you’re reviewing. The opinions of other critics will likely influence you whether you want them to or not, and you want your work to be original.
- Exception to #6. One way to write a strong review is to forcefully disagree with another critic. Perhaps you thought Owen Gleiberman’s review of The Martian was all wrong, and you’re here to set the record straight. That could make for a compelling through line.
- But what should I write about? How should my review look? There is no one right way to write a film review. There are so many elements in play: your own response will dictate the nature of your review; in addition to that are all the elements of a film: the acting, directing, writing, editing, cinematography, makeup and effects, music, costumes and sets; there’s also the structure of the film, the themes at work in the film, the conversations being had about the film by filmmakers, critics, industry people, and regular moviegoers. If the movie is part of a particular genre, you may want to evaluate it in the context of other horror movies or comedies; if it’s a sequel, you might want to compare it to its predecessor(s); if it’s a comic book movie, you’ll likely be thinking of it within the greater comic book universe. If it’s an adaptation of a book, and you’ve read the book, you may want to compare the two. (Although please avoid saying “the book is always better” because that is a cliche; give specific reasons instead.)
- Write to a general, educated movie-going public. No matter what, make sure what you’re saying makes sense and is specific. Using pompous language–especially lots of film jargon–often impedes these two goals. It’s one thing to describe a particular shot of a film, it’s another thing to overuse words and phrases like “tracking shot” or “foley mixing.” (Occasionally a phrase like that might be necessary, but usually it’s not.) Most readers won’t be familiar with these terms, and your goal should be to invite readers into your review rather than alienate them from it. Also, assume your reader is intelligent enough to come along with you for the ride.
- Analyze, don’t moralize. You may have been taught that analyzing literature and film is ultimately about identifying the moral of the story. But boiling texts down to a one-sentence bumper sticker statement like “Be careful what you wish for” or “Don’t take anything for granted” is a simplistic reduction. If a movie really is that simplistic, it’s often a sign that the movie has been overly compromised by studio heads wanting to appeal to a global audience. (This happens a lot.) It’s not a cause for celebration when a movie bravely reminds us to “see the glass as half full.” A movie should illuminate something about the human experience, and it certainly might criticize injustice or other social problems, and as a critical writer, you want to discern between trite moral lessons and complicated depictions of real life. Even fantasy films have something to say about reality (calling Doctor Strange). How does a movie speak to us about real life? Is its tone poetic? Angry? Curious? Terrified? Explore these avenues, and resist the urge to oversimplify.
Other Random Tips
- Use active verbs in the present tense [fashions, jolts, arranges, redeems, scowls, frets, maneuvers, obliterates, renounces].
- Avoid seems and appears. They tend to weaken our writing. [“Director Sam Mendes seems aware of our culture’s current need to psychoanalyze movie heroes to death.” → “Director Sam Mendes understands our current need to psychoanalyze heroes to death, and he subverts this impulse at every turn.”]
- Avoid very and extremely and other intensifiers. Very scary? Terrifying. Very slow? Sluggish. Very serious? Morose. Somber. Extremely dark? Dark.
- Avoid phrases such as “Chris Evans does a good job playing Captain America.” You’re not giving Chris Evans his job evaluation. Instead, describe specific characteristics that stand out about a performance or any other element of the movie.
2 thoughts on “Guest Post: On Writing a Film Review”
As an aspiring film reviewer, thank you for these insights. Some I learned already, but some I need reinforced. I admit, I do fall into the cliches of passive verbs and “seems/appear.”
When my students were writing about a film or a play, I’d have to drive home the point, “Don’t tell me the story. Tell me how the story was handled,” etc.