There’s a lot of advice out there about writing film reviews from a critic’s perspective, each with varying degrees of advice. I’ve been analyzing movies critically for six years, and I’ve personally found that reviews don’t need to be complicated. Rather, they need to be honest and encourage discussion. Here are the steps I take from start to finish, when screening films.
Step 1: Before You Watch the Movie
The hardest part of this first step is going to be avoiding doing too much research or reading other reviews prior to watching the movie (as tempting as it may be.) I find that it’s more liberating to the experience to go in with an air of unfamiliarity.
Ideally, when I start on the path of reviewing a film, I will know very little about it—aside from the actors and the director involved. If I’m not familiar with the cast and/or the director, I’ll do a little filmography research, but only about their past work if I’ve never seen it before. Avoiding exposure to the movie can be more difficult than it sounds when it’s a popular film—as trailers and marketing run rampant. But if you can avoid watching the trailers and reading about other peoples’ opinions prior to watching, you won’t have any preconceived judgments and can go in with an unbiased perspective.
Trailers work well to provide some context and tone prior to watching a movie, but they can also be filled with spoilers, which is why I do my best to avoid them when possible. As for reviews, reading about what others think of the movie before watching or writing a review can affect your opinion heavily. And when you’re in reviewer mode, you want to be as honest with your own opinion as possible, and not allow any outside voice to alter it. Of course, after the review is finished, I always welcome a discussion with fellow cinephiles to hear and understand what they enjoyed and didn’t.
Without being affected by the trailers, marketing, and other reviews before watching a movie, you can really put your best foot forward to creating your authentic opinion and turning that into a movie review people can trust.
Avoid trailers and other reviews prior to watching as to not sway your perception.
Step 2: Watching the Movie
I believe you only need to a see a film once in order to critique a film. Of course, there are those who prefer at least a couple viewings, but from my experience multiple viewings can actually skew your assessment.
What works for me is to watch the movie in its entirety without distractions in order to get a grasp on what the director intended. If you spend your first viewing pausing, playing back, and re-watching segments at a time, you won’t get a sense for the way the film was meant to be enjoyed.
I also try not to take many notes while I watch the movie—if you’re jotting down a long critique or opinion while watching the movie, you can miss brief, yet vital moments. I will however, write down a word or phrase that stands out so that I can recall scenes or story information that catch my attention and that I deem important. This will help later when I’m constructing my review—for brief summary recaps, breaking down the themes, and reflecting on the direction or acting.
In general, I think of pausing, rewinding, and taking notes as interruptions that will bring you out of the film—literally and emotionally—and that can play a role in how you view a film from a critical standpoint.
Avoid trailers and other reviews prior to watching as to not sway your perception.
Step 3: After You Watch the Movie
The window of time immediately following the viewing is critical. Since I don’t take a lot of notes during the movie, one of the most important aspects of writing a critique is to stay focused and write down all of the things that stood out to me about the film. And since collecting my thoughts after seeing a movie can be chaotic, I need to be sure that I jot down everything that struck my radar as soon as it’s over. It’s better to get it all down on paper, and then evaluate what’s necessary to convey to the reader later. Being precise in your commentary and incorporating specific examples from the movie to back up your opinions is key.
This is where the checklist comes into play. When I write a review, I do my best to cover all aspects of filmmaking that went into creating the final product, including:
- Plot: What was the movie about? Was it believable? Interesting? Thought-provoking? How was the climax revealed? How did the setting affect the story?
- Themes and Tone: What was the central goal of the movie? Was it made to entertain, educate, or bring awareness to an issue? Was there any strong impression the movie made on you? Did any symbolism come into play?
- Acting and Characters: Did you like how the characters were portrayed? Did the acting support the characters, and help them come to life? Did the characters display complex personalities or were they stereotypes? Were there characters that embodied certain archetypes to enhance or diminish the film?
- Direction: Did you like how the director chose to tell the story? Was the pacing and speed of the movie too fast or too slow? Was the direction comparable to other movies this director has created? Was the storytelling complex or straightforward? Was there a certain amount of suspense or tension that worked? Did the director create a captivating conflict?
- Score: Did the music support the mood of the movie? Was it too distracting or too subtle? Did it add to the production and work well with the script? Were the music queues timed well for the scenes they were supporting?
- Cinematography: Were the shots used in a unique way to tell the story? Did the coloring and lighting affect the tone? Was the action coherently shot? How well did the camera move? Were actors or settings framed well?
- Production Design: Did the sets feel lived-in and believable to the story or characters? Were the costumes suitable for the characters or story? Did the created environments heighten the atmosphere on camera?
- Special Effects: Were the special effects believable? Did they align with the era and tone of the movie? Were the effects overboard or too subtle? Did they integrate well to the purpose of the story?
- Editing: Was the editing clean or choppy? Was the flow consistent? What unique effects were used? How were the transitions between scenes?
- Pace: Did the movie flow well? Was it too fast or too slow? Was it clearly organized? Did certain scenes drag down the movie?
- Dialogue: Were the conversations believable or necessary? Did the dialogue bring context to plot developments? Did the words match the tone of the movie and personality of the characters?
Let’s take the special effects as an example. I want to evaluate them based on utility, use within the film, and obviously how well it looks on screen. When I saw Mad Max: Fury Road, I was blown away with all the practical effects and how everything served a purpose to the story. It looked like everything was well crafted and built with love to develop such a brilliantly inspired wasteland.
On the other side of the coin, the Transformers movies, as detailed as the robots look, most of the time while I was watching the movies, I felt like I was watching a jumbled mess of computer animated metal smashing into each other. It didn’t look stimulating. You want the special effects to complement the story rather than just being used as a visual device.
After you watch the movie get your ideas down as quick as possible.
Step 4: Writing the Review
After I have all of my thoughts down, I take as much into consideration as I can and then work on the flow. I put a lot of care into the organization of my review, and make sure my thoughts are read in a cohesive manner to help my audience understand where I’m coming from. I prioritize what’s most important to include and let the rest go.
Hands down, the most important component to address in a movie review is how it made you feel. Anyone can write a summary of a film or create lists about the highlights. But good reviews should convey to the audience how the movie resonated with you.
If you don’t put your voice into your critique, your audience will find it difficult to understand your perspective, connect with you as a reviewer, and most importantly, they may not be able to trust your opinion. And if they don’t trust you, they wont come back to read more of your work. And you want your review to provide value to the reader, right?
I want to ensure that my thoughts encourage readers to create a constructive discussion around the film, or help them decide whether or not the movie is for them. And hopefully, the audience will have as much fun reading my review as I did writing it.
The most important component to address in a movie review is how it made you feel.
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Tyler Schirado is the founder and editor-in-chief of TurnTheRightCorner.com, an entertainment blog focused on providing honest opinions on the world of film, television, gaming, and more. Legend has it that he’s said to have rid on the back of a T-Rex and has the natural survival instincts to live through the zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Twitter @TyRawrrnosaurus, and you can find TurnTheRightCorner.com on Facebook and Twitter as well.
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When John le Carré appropriated a nursery rhyme for his 1974 book about spies and spy-catchers, he borrowed just three words, “tinker, tailor, soldier,” then sexed up the whole thing by adding a fourth word, “spy.” The new film “Breach,” about the F.B.I. counterintelligence agent Robert Philip Hanssen, who sold secrets to the Soviet Union and later Russia for more than two decades, suggests that it’s time to dust off the rest of that same rhyme: “rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.” Now in prison, where he’s serving a life sentence, Mr. Hanssen was a little of each; he was also greedy, pathetic, malevolent — a creep’s creep.
In the spring of 2002, an assistant director at the F.B.I. explained Mr. Hanssen’s success as a spy this way: “Succinctly put, security, other than physical security, was not inculcated into the culture as a priority that must be practiced, observed and improved upon every day.” No kidding. For many of the 25 years he worked at the F.B.I., he covertly thrived in that culture, like a stealth malignancy. On the February 2001 morning of his arrest, he attended Mass at a Roman Catholic church where the services were in Latin and many in the congregation belonged to Opus Dei. Later that day, he dropped a garbage bag stuffed with intelligence secrets in a Virginia park not far from his home.
One of the strengths of “Breach,” a thriller that manages to excite and unnerve despite our knowing the ending, is how well it captures the utter banality of this man and his world. Unlike Kim Philby, an aristocratic figure who swanned across the world while passing classified British and American information to the Soviets, Mr. Hanssen, played by the stellar Chris Cooper, comes across as a middle manager type, a drone in a suit. The real double agent practiced his tradecraft in Washington and New York, not Cairo and Istanbul, and delivered the goods — more than 6,000 pages — in garbage bags secured with tape. With his weekend casuals and Ford Taurus, he might have been just another suburban dad bagging leaves.
The director Billy Ray, who wrote the screenplay with Adam Mazer and William Rotko, uses a young agent-in-training, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), to jimmy his way into the story. (The real Mr. O’Neill, now a lawyer, served as a consultant on the film, which helps explains why it feels true in tone and texture.) Shortly before Mr. Hanssen was caught, the bureau assigned Mr. O’Neill to work for him. The younger man had been told only that Mr. Hanssen was a sexual deviant (he had some freaky habits), not that he was a turncoat. This lack of knowledge about the assignment and its dangers suits Mr. Phillippe well, largely because he always looks as if he were hiding something behind those nervous eyes of his.
Mr. Ray last directed the 2003 drama “Shattered Glass,” about that artful dodger Stephen Glass’s tarnished tenure at The New Republic. Like the earlier film, “Breach” is about secrets and lies, and smart, arrogant men waylaid by their own pride and pathologies. “Shattered Glass” has its moments, if not enough of them; as in “Breach,” Mr. Ray’s unapologetic seriousness is one of the film’s strongest assets. Even so, only a filmmaker with a naïve, blinkered view both of journalism and human nature, and with so little grasp of what can happen when youthful ambition meets institutional self-importance, could have been surprised by a Stephen Glass or reached such dizzying heights of outrage.Continue reading the main story