Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

How to write a film review (Part 2)

(Continued) In your review, you should also refer to the narrative, but DON’T give away any secrets that would spoil the fun for audiences (as some reviewers did for The Crying Game!), and DON’T “tell the whole story”, or even try. That is not your task as reviewer. Usually one would combine one’s discussion of theme and narrative, for instance in the form of an opening question: “What do you get when a talented crook with a plan to get his wife back and simultaneously take revenge on the man who thieved her from him, hatches an impossible plot to enlist the help of other talented crooks with a view to robbing a strong-room as well-protected and as rich as Fort Knox? You get the updated version of what is allusively associated with The Rat Pack, this time packaged as the remake of Ocean’s Eleven. Whether or not his plan goes awry or succeeds, is for moviegoers to find out when they view this almost unbearably suspenseful movie from a director who has distinguished himself with films such as Sex, Lies and Videotape, Kafka and Out of Sight, namely Steven Soderbergh.”

When we put all of these things together, you would get something like this (very briefly, on Bob Fosse’s film, Cabaret):

“Can a ‘musical’ address serious social, cultural and political questions? It may not usually fall within a musical’s scope, but with Bob Fosse’s film, Cabaret, we obviously have an exception to the rule. With admirable understatement Fosse’s film uses the convention of the cinematic musical to give us a glimpse, in retrospect, of early thirties Germany, where anti-Semitism and all manner of portents of doom are in the air, and where there is a corresponding descent into hedonistic decadence. The principal characters are a nightclub cabaret artiste (‘divine decadence’ Liza Minnelli) and an English doctoral student in philosophy (Michael York), in Berlin to make money by giving English lessons to the locals. The narrative revolves around their initial friendship and incipient romance, which becomes intertwined with another ‘friendship’ of theirs, with a rich German playboy aristocrat who believes that the Nazis, who ‘control’ the communists, could themselves as easily be ‘controlled’ if necessary. But at the center of all the intrigue is the nightclub where Sally (Minnelli’s character) performs – and does she perform! – and, of course, MC, superbly portrayed by Joel Gray, and where the musical numbers function like an ancient Greek chorus as commentary on the events in the narrative. So, for instance, the song, Money, comments on Sally’s susceptibility to Maximilian’s wealth, and ‘If you could see her through my eyes’ on the dilemma of the young man (Fritz) who is in love with a beautiful Jewish woman. And on the fringes of the narrative, in and out of the nightclub, one witnesses the increasing power of the Nazis, sinister and compelling at the same time.”

Here is another example of a critical film review, on Accidental Hero:

“Stephen Frears’s film, Accidental Hero (1992), is not exactly your formulaic Hollywood comedy-drama, although at first sight it may appear to be just that. As before in Dangerous Liaisons (1988), based on an 18th century novel, Frears has chosen a familiar theme and made it into something which may not exactly attain art film-status, but certainly goes beyond the run-of-the-mill movies associated with Hollywood.

“The theme in question could be stated in various ways, but fundamentally it concerns American (if not every) society’s need for heroes, and the social as well as communicational mechanisms that operate in the construction of such heroes. In his treatment of the theme, Frears comes up with some interesting developments of certain stereotypes, in this way imparting to the film a level of seriousness not commonly associated with popular appeal.

“The central character, Bernie La (‘The’) Plante (Dustin Hoffman) is a crusty hustler cum conman, who makes a living out of petty crime and evidently has a hard time staying out of jail. In an effort to prevent him from being locked up, his lawyer persuades him to display some family values in his behaviour, lest the court find no redeeming features justifying leniency. The values at stake involve spending time with his young son who lives with his former wife, Evelyn (Joan Cusack). On his way to fetch his son Joey for a movie, Bernie witnesses a passenger jet crash-land near him, and with great reluctance, complaining all the way about being delayed on his way to see Joey, he answers the frantic passengers and crew’s cries for help by opening the cabin door – which is stuck – from the outside. He even proceeds assisting passengers in getting out of the burning aircraft before it eventually explodes, picking the pockets of some in the process. Afterwards, when rescue services start converging on the scene of the accident, Bernie disappears, minus one of his $100 shoes, to see Joey.

“Unbeknown to Bernie, one of his beneficiaries is an award-winning Channel 4-journalist, Gayle Gayley (Geena Davis), who sets the ball rolling, while recovering in hospital, in an attempt to trace the missing hero who saved fifty-odd people’s lives. Channel 4 management, sensing a golden opportunity for self-promotion, puts up a reward of one million dollars for this mysterious benefactor, and predictably they are swamped by fortune hunters. Among these there is a homeless Vietnam veteran, John Bubber (Andy Garcia), who happened to have given Bernie a lift after the rescue episode, and not only heard Bernie’s account of his part in the event, but received the remaining $100 shoe, useless by itself, from Bernie as well. The rest of the plot is predictable – or is it?

“In his direction of the unfolding narrative Frears shows a remarkable degree of insight regarding the human condition. It is commonplace on the part of people to assume that, ‘once a thief, always a thief’, and this is no different in their attitude towards Bernie. His former wife tells her son, who desperately wants to believe that his father is capable of doing something good, that ‘it is against his religion to stick his neck out’. The ironies concerning human character do not end here either. Just when one thinks that one is witnessing an opportunist gold-digger in action (Bubber), unexpected, somehow incompatible actions emerge on his part.

“Throughout the film Frears plays on the sometimes dubious, always central role of the media in our (post-)modern society, highlighted, perhaps, in a show-stopping acceptance speech by Gayley, using a mere onion as a powerful metaphor for the media’s sensationalist prying into people’s lives. And while Gayley’s quest for a more ‘inspirational’ story in her search for the ‘angel’ of Flight 101 initially raises the possibility of the film degenerating into just another Hollywood feel-good fantasy, alienated from social reality as we know it, there are several twists in the tale which mercifully prevent this from happening. In the final analysis the film is a salutary reminder that human behaviour is not, after all, completely predictable.

“Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of ‘Bernie The Plant’ is so convincing that one instinctively shares the prejudices of his acquaintances towards him. Geena Davis brims with the intelligence one associates with an ambitious journalist, and Andy Garcia fits the profile of a charming impostor with a conscience almost too well. The camerawork is excellent, with Frears’s alternation between light and dark creating the appropriate mood in several scene-sequences. Admittedly, this is no Fellini masterpiece, but nor is it a second-rate pot-boiler. It is a popular movie that successfully addresses important issues, and as such I can recommend it to anyone who is selective in their choice of cinema.”

These are just some suggestions for anyone who might want to develop their ability to write film reviews, whether it is to do so while working in the media, or as a student in media studies. One could approach it in a more sophisticated manner, of course, but I believe this could do as a starting point.

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