Big Ideas, Delivered With Impact

How to Write a Film Review

In Resources, Writing on June 11, 2009 at 1:01 pm

DTaylor-thumbnail-headshotAnother month, another guest post. This time, Dave Taylor takes the reins. Dave is a well-known entrepreneur here in Colorado. One of his latest ventures, FilmBuzz, you can find on Twitter. I’ve asked him here to talk about the business of writing movie reviews. Read on for his expert tips, and when you’re finished be sure to check out my review of CrossOver for Mac at Dave’s tech support blog.

By Dave Taylor

Have you ever watched a movie?

Yeah, I thought so.

Everyone reacts to a movie while they’re watching it, laughing, gasping in fear, snickering at stupid plot points or smiling at a really cool action scene. When the film ends, you turn to your companions as you walk out of the theater (or get up from the couch to use the bathroom, as the case may be!) and say “great film!” or “jeez, what a dog” or “whatdja think?” or similar.

In that sense, we are all film critics and we all have the basic ingredients to be film reviewers. Yet I’ll wager a new DVD that you don’t write any sort of reviews of the movies you see, and at most perhaps you “Tweet” your friends with a ten-word micro-review. “Star Trek?  Awesome. Go see it!” may reveal to others whether you liked the movie or not, but this tweet misses a fundamental element, the core of all good movie reviews: “why.”

I’ve been interested in movies since I was a little squirt and I conservatively estimate that I’ve seen at least 10,000 films since becoming an adult. Only recently have I taken to writing movie reviews, however, and it’s been interesting to learn the difference between talking with my friends about movies and being an actual critic.

The most important difference is that while everyone talks about the story of a film, essentially summarizing the plot, very few people talk about *why* a film does or doesn’t work, and even fewer pay attention to the many, many elements that contribute to the full movie experience, from soundtrack to titles, acting to set design, wardrobe to dialog.

When I write a film review, I include a summary of the storyline, but spend more time on my reaction to the story elements and talk about whether characters “worked” (that is, whether they made sense as people in the story, with reasonable back stories and understandable motivations for their behavior throughout the movie). I also highlight technical elements that I thought were notable, either because they were terrific or lame, and try to put the film in a contextual framework, comparing its elements to other work by the actors or director.

Just as importantly, I do my very best to never include spoilers, and when I feel I must, I warn the reader so they can skip that paragraph and not have a denouement or significant plot twist ruined by reading my review prior to seeing the film. (A depressingly large number of film critics — especially those who write online — ignore this and I’ve had more than one movie ruined by finding out The Big Plot Twist before I’m even in the theater, but that’s another story.)

As an example, I just wrapped up a review of the delightful film “The Brothers Bloom” and if you read it, you’ll see that I try to tell you whether I liked the film or not within the first paragraph. I call it setting the stage, and if I liked it, you know I’ll explain why, and if I didn’t like it, you’ll get my explanation of what didn’t work for me. In this particular review, I spent some time talking about how the distributor (Summit Entertainment) had released seven minutes of footage and how that hooked me and was the reason I went to the theater to see the movie.

Then the review continues with me explaining the genre within which the film exists, listing a number of similarly-styled films and explaining why The Brothers Bloom was such a good addition to the list. This is the “setting a context” I talked about earlier. By seeing the list of other films I really liked it helps you, the reader, know my tastes and therefore be able to weigh my review against your own tastes.

The last half-dozen paragraphs are a summary of the story arc with my commentary about what worked and why it was so engaging, and I end with a recommendation: “Go see it. You’ll thank me.”

Now, next time you walk out of a movie theater ask yourself what specific aspects of the film you liked or disliked and why. Is it a great addition to the director’s oevre?  The actor’s body of work? Would you go see it again?  Would you recommend that your Mom or kid-sister see it?   Now, write that all down and make sure you don’t give anything away as you go.

Congratulations. You’re a movie reviewer too.

Dave Taylor writes film reviews for his film blog Dave On Film and will start publishing reviews in a variety of print publications this summer, too. He also runs the popular @FilmBuzz news and information channel.

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  1. Dave, thanks for the tips. I want to start writing movie reviews,and the advice you give is a big help to me.

  2. Really glad to help out, Cynthia. Now, what’s your favorite film? And why? 🙂

  3. Assumptions can put readers off, as you assumed most who read this do not write movie reviews. Not true. (And not totally put off, as I kept reading 😉 As a reviewer of music, books, art openings, theatre and yes, movies, I think that the most interesting thing about reviewing is how much I reveal about myself. My reviews show nothing but my own perspective. My reviews will reveal how much I know about a particular genre, therefore making me at times look exactly as I am, a beginner. I remember one of my first reviews of a rap artist. I thought I was really being clever, and I was actually simply highlighting something that years later I learned was probably a very blaring error to which the serious rap specialists must of known just how much of a beginner I was based on my sophomoric knowledge and uneducated observations…Like all areas of expertise, reviewing films is a very particular skill, acquired over years of writing. And it is difficult, because of the nature of films being the work of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. So many toes to step on…I wish you much luck on your quest, but my tip…own your opinion, it is yours and yours alone and if you are honest, you will stir stuff up, so carry a big spoon.

  4. Thanks I was given an assignment to write film reviews for 2009 hit movies and this article helped me

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