Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

How to write a film review (Part 1)

There are good and bad film reviews. This could either pertain to “bad” as opposed to “good” writing (that is, an ungrammatical, sloppy, vocabulary-poor way of writing in contrast to a grammatical, fluent, clear, richly worded mode of expression), or to the structure of the reviews in question, or to both. Every person who wants to write for a living in any language(s) of their choice has the obligation to improve his or her linguistic mastery themselves, with or without help from others. The same may be said about their knowledge of compositional structure and their ability to manipulate this flexibly and skilfully. Film review writing is no exception in this regard, especially if the writer wishes to impart to his or her writing a critical dimension that surpasses mere reconstruction of what is nowadays called the “storyline” (that is, the narrative) of the film in question.

From this you may already gather that it is not part of “good” film review writing merely to summarise the film narrative, even if, in the course of the review, something cursory or brief is said about it. Nor is it part of a good film review to respond to the “story” merely on the basis of a gut reaction where your own personal prejudices are imposed on your readers. What would a “good” (or well-written) film review look like, then? The following provisional guidelines may help you:

– If at all possible, identify the genre to which the film under review belongs. James Cameron’s Terminator films, for instance, belong to the genre of cinematic science fiction (or “sci-fi”, for short). They (especially the second one, Judgment Day) also belong to the genre of film (neo-) noir, as well as to that of “suspense thriller”. Such an overlap of genres often occurs. In Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, too, three genres converge, namely suspense thriller, postmodernist cinema and neo-noir. In Souleymane Cisse’s African film-masterpiece, Cisse (“Brightness”) one encounters an unmistakable representative of occult cinema (combined with realism), which compellingly thematises African beliefs in magic, and would yield an interesting comparison with comparable western cinema, like the Harry Potter films.

– Identify the theme and sub-themes of the film in question. For example, the theme of James Cameron’s Terminator films is a possible scenario of future domination of humans by machines — a theme that one frequently encounters in science fiction, although it is not restricted to this, as Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 demonstrates with its allegorical treatment of aliens to comment critically on humans’ treatment of other humans identified as foreigners (“aliens”). The theme of Notting Hill and Runaway Bride is romantic love between a woman and a man (ie heterosexual romance; very mainstream Hollywood). A Hollywood movie that thematises homosexual love is Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. Remember that although the theme among a number of films may be virtually the same, the treatment of the theme may be very different. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (which combines war realism with sentimentalist patriotism) addresses the theme of war very differently from Terrence Malik’s The Thin Red Line (where the psychological anguish of the soldiers constitutes the cinematic perspective).

– Make sure who the director of the film is. If you are aware (as you should be, or should find out) of other films by the same director, say something comparative about the film under review and the previous ones directed by the same person. In a review of the second Terminator movie (Terminator II – Judgment Day), you could point out the recurrence of the same kind of time paradoxes that occurred in the first one, and if you happen to be familiar with a movie like 12 Monkeys, you could point briefly to the occurrence of the same type of time paradox there. In other words, it is enlightening to your readers (who you should inform about movies, after all) to learn from you, their reviewer, about the director’s previous work, about certain predilections or favourite themes addressed by this director, and so on. If a prodigious shift in interest or style of direction seems to occur in a film by a certain director, say so, and justify your observation. For example, few directors (Hollywood ones, anyway) have shifted their attention as often as Ridley Scott among very different genres and themes. Compare his Blade Runner (both versions), which is a postmodernist neo-noir science fiction film, to Thelma & Louise (feminist, or at least woman-centred thriller), or to Gladiator (epic historical drama), or to Hannibal (horror thriller) and Blackhawk Down (critical historical war thriller). Simply thinking about these aspects of a film’s director already gives you a lot to say, even if you have to find ways to say them succinctly and clearly. To be sure, sometimes you are confronted by a “first” film on the part of a director. In such a case you should point out that it is a debut film, and perhaps be kinder in your criticism than otherwise.

– You may wonder why I haven’t yet referred to movie actors and actresses. Aren’t they the main reasons why people choose to go to one movie rather than another? That may well be the case — just to see your favourite Hollywood or Bollywood icon on screen in a new movie always promises a vicarious thrill of sorts. Didn’t Freud say that all of us are subject to “scopophilia” (the love of looking)? Sure. But don’t forget that, as numerous film theorists have argued, film viewers are “constructed” by the “point of view” of the film camera. In other words, the more the characters portrayed by the actors are “glamorised”, the more the viewers (unless he or she is already a “critical” viewer) are likely to buy into an “attachment” to the image constructed, indirectly, of the actors involved. The philosopher Theodor Adorno talked about the “star principle” according to which the so-called “culture industry” works. This means that the true quality of a performing art — whether it is music or (acting in) films — is obscured by the “star” reputation of the performing “artist”, so that, in the end, it is not the music that one hears, or the film narrative and characters that move us, and one understands or identifies with, but the “stars” that fascinate one. This is shown so clearly by the fact that many moviegoers talk about “Julia Roberts” or “Matt Damon” doing this or that in a film, instead of naming their characters, like “Vivienne” in Pretty Woman or the eponymous “Ripley” in The Talented Mr Ripley. In any case, of course you would refer to the relevant actors and actresses in film reviews — it’s just that they are not really as important for judging and anticipating the quality of a film as the question of who the director is. Anyone familiar with Kathryn Bigelow’s earlier films would have known to expect something good, with a strong emphasis on powerful women when her neo-noir, Strange Days, first appeared, and the fact that James Cameron of Terminator, Titanic and Dark Angel fame wrote the script was a clear signal to expect a science fiction-thriller element in it too. Sure, some actors, like Daniel Day-Lewis, only choose strong and important roles, and the fact that they appear in a film is already a recommendation, but most mainstream actors/actresses accept pretty much any role in a Hollywood kitsch movie that has box office appeal.

– But you should say something about the actors’ performances — not simply that their acting is “bad” or “excellent”, but something either comparative regarding their own previous work or in relation to the performances of the other actors/actresses in the film under review. For example, of Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut one could say: “Were it not for the outstanding performance of Nicole Kidman opposite Cruise in what turned out to be the last film directed by one of the great masters of cinema of the 20th century, Stanley Kubrick’s choice of the then husband/wife team might have proved disastrous. More than once Kidman rescues a scene that requires the convincing projection of emotions like deep distress — something that Cruise is not really up to. A charitable take on Cruise’s (lack of) persuasive acting would be to say that he fits well into the role of his fairly superficial yuppie medical doctor character. It makes one wonder why Cruise is so utterly convincing in his portrayal of a woman — or “pussy-” bashing macho character in Magnolia.

(To be continued.)

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    • Anton

      I am glad, Bert, that you have raised this topic. Contemporary film reviewing in South Africa is in a dire state. Reading the the rubbish that regularly appears in News24’s various outlets or in City Press makes this all too evident, and that is before one even begins to compare local reviews with what routinely appears in British or American newspapers ( e.g. The Guardian, Village Voice) or online news sites (e.g. Salon.com) .

      I suspect that part of the reason for this is a lack of resources — when it comes to the arts, struggling news organisations seem neither willing nor able to pay for knowledgeable critical writing. But beyond that it seems to me that this poor reviewing is evidence of the media’s abdication of their public role. Instead of disseminating cultural knowledge and promoting critical engagement, what they publish is either promotional material (what used to be called advertorial) or personal response, as if they were chatting to their friends of Facebook. And the fact that contrary opinions are occasionally printed side by side makes very little difference, since all we get are 2 Facebook-like opinions when before we only had one!

    • Bert

      Thanks Anton – You’ve hit the nail on the head. The reason why I posted these two pieces was prompted precisely by noticing some very naive, “facebook”-type attempts at movie reviews in the local press. One wonders what people who end up writing these for newspapers are taught at university, quite apart from the obvious thing, namely that the phenomenon of facebook is leaving its imprint of utter vacuousness and superficiality on every aspect of culture, here and overseas. When I taught film studies, most students did not realise that I was really teaching them philosophy (philosophy OF film, with the emphasis on what images are and how they operate in film, as opposed to language, but also philosophy THROUGH film), and in the process they not only learned to write “critical” film reviews, but they also learned a bit about what it is to think. Nowadays people believe that if they know how to operate a smartphone, they can think. Adorno, who wrote in Dialectics of Enlightenment, decades ago, that the “weakness of the theoretical faculty” is simply astonishing (or something to that effect), would turn in his grave if he could witness the flattening out of culture today. “Idiocracy” here we come.