Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts


Dos 'n Don'ts of Reviewing

Posted on September 14, 2011 at 7:00 AM

A while back I did a video about reviewing and critiquing film. It was mainly geared towards the internet realm which are often more about tossing out opinions rather than trying to get to the root of why something is or is not good. However, I never really took the time to detail some things to do and not do when reviewing something.

Now this isn't a "review" in the sense of putting together a 20 minute video with comedic skits and puns, which is often the popular thing to do. Those are, at best, an analysis, but more in line with simple entertainment. These dos and don'ts are for those that might want to actually have a view taken seriously and with respect:

DO: Write notes and get facts right when watching the film. You aren't going to remember everything, and putting down a basic line or two of what happens and point out right away what worked and didn't work for you is pretty much the foundation of the review. There's nothing worse than getting something wrong. I know I tend to be a horrible speller, for example, and still go through old reviews correcting those mistakes.

DON'T: Expect those notes to carry your review. It's not just pointing things out, it's expressing those points to an audience that, as far as you should be concerned (because it's true) have no idea what you're talking about. They are a blank slate, so draw a picture. Often times, things make sense in your head and you might forget to explain something. You should always go back and re-read or re-watch your review from the point of the view of your audience. Which leads to:

DON'T: Write or record a review literally right after you see a film and just throw it out there. Oh, you can do that, sure, if you just want to ramble into a camera or on paper with little intellectual thought or contexts. However, it's not even the lack of putting thoughts together that concerns me as much as it is the stance of complete subjectivity.

After seeing a film, whether you loved or hated it (especially if you hated it, however), you're speaking more from the emotional and immediate response, not necessarily a film reviewer. You haven't had time to digest, think, contemplate. Writing up a review an hour after seeing a film or, even worse, shooting your reaction as soon as you get home and turn your camera on isn't even amateur hour, it's just joe-blow not giving a shit which makes me wonder why I should give a shit either. If a reviewer doesn't take the time, I won't either.

DO: Understand that it's your OPINION that is important, not the timeliness. If people come to your site or watch your videos, it's because they respect you. They like your personality. They like your intelligence or like-mindedness. They appreciate your opinion as is. Rushing out half-cocked with a review that's far too emotionally out of left field and poorly written only to get it before someone else shouldn't be a concern of yours in the slightest.

Besides, if you're reading this you're probably an amateur reviewer to begin with, like myself, so you're not going to be seeing or watching nearly as many films as professional reviewers in the first place. Take a breath, gather your thoughts, work on your craft. That's what's important, not a vlog at one in the morning.

DON'T: Write for yourself. You aren't there to stroke your ego and prove anything. Trust me, nobody will be impressed, you don't know everything (nobody does, film is an always-learn art and you'll always discover something new) and most will point out the fact you're either taking yourself way too seriously or you have an ego the size of the Titanic and that reality-iceberg is drifting right towards you. Honestly, having fun with your job and sharing your love of movies should be your first priority. Leave that ego behind.

DO: try to relay your experience and understand the relative nature of your film. This is an Ebert rule as well, because the "experience" of watching a film is completely reliant on what type of film it is and you need to be able to present that experience to an audience. Not everything is trying to be Citizen Kane, so know and understand that. You might find yourself enjoying more and actually able to criticize better as a result.

DON'T: Write Hyperbole. When someone says "this was the worst film I've ever seen" - you need to think about that. Seriously sit and think. Was it, really? If you jump right into a review and toss it out there, you'll be saying phrases like that. Sit back. Think. Contemplate. With patience comes less hyperbole and with less hyperbole comes a sense that you don't sound like a twelve year old.

DO: Pay attention. Even the bad movies, the ones you roll your eyes at and constantly keep shifting in and out of your seat on, deserve your attention if you're going to write a review on it. If you're just a casual movie-goer, paying attention isn't that important. If you're expected to tell others what you thought, you better know what you're talking about.

Take the restroom break during the trailers (trailers are fun, but far from important), get comfy, turn off the phones, sit in an area you won't be disturbed in but still have a good view (hard to do when seeing a kid's movie, which is why I avoid kid's movies until DVD usually). Get out the paper, you don't need a ton because it's used for recall more than anything, and watch. Just watch.

DON'T: Disrespect your audience. You need to value their time of watching and reading you.

DO: Have fun. Yes, you might be some film-student grad that wrote a fifty page essay on Bergman, but you know what? They're just movies. Yes, they may be the biggest cultural element of the past hundred years, but you never want to act as though everything is the end-all, be-all with them.

Write loose and fun, this isn't an analytical essay you're going to be graded on, and stay away from expressing that sense of elitism you paid 30k for at college. It's unnecessary and a complete turn off for your audience.

DON'T: Take things personally. If you're a reviewer, you should probably have thick skin yourself.  More importantly, if someone disagrees with you, have a discussion, not an argument. Arguing achieves nothing, but a discussion can be fun and enlightening.

As long as all the parties know that, most likely, they aren't going to magically change opinions of the other, they can discuss their views in a more cordial and respectable manner...and from that comes great discussion on film. Hell, there's been fantastic books just about dialogue between critics as a result of being respectable and understanding it's just a job/profession, not who they are as human beings.

DO: Read and re-read. Does your review have a flow and is it well-structured? Again, taking your time will automatically solve most of the problems I've brought up here, but at least have your opinion expressed well and make it a good read in the process. Casual writing is actually more preferred in film reviews, so a casual voice is a nice attribute to have as long as you can write and speak your view clearly.

Hyperbole and too-broad/blanket statements are a downfall to a lot of internet criticism. Here's a badge for those people. Pieces of flare!

DON'T: Constantly compare to judge. I mentioned this in my little video, but I have to re-emphasize it because so many fall victim to it. You bring up other films to give your audience context of what you're reviewing. They can get the "idea" you're talking about (say the similarities in a Coen brothers film) by bringing up the filmmaker's previous efforts and comparing it based on what it does and doesn't do like those. You never want to actually judge one to the other, however.

Saying "This did it better" and actually give something a good or bad review based on that is a pitfall I see a lot of film reviewers online fall victim to.

DO: Understand the scope. Nitpicking isn't reviewing, it's just nagging like your mother telling you your collar isn't straight. Bringing up a few little things in the span of one movie that didn't sit right with you and aren't that impactful to the entirety of the film is just not the way to go about critiquing and judging a film as a whole from it.

You're going to base your whole review on that one little moment that you thought "that's silly?" Now if it turned the entire film on its head and suddenly you're watching a slapstick comedy when you started out as a drama about the Holocaust, then yeah, critique away...but that wouldn't be nitpicking, that would be a major facet of the film. As they say: don't sweat the small stuff. Move along and find something actually worth criticizing.

DON'T: Try and be like others. Look to be inspired by other reviewers, but never try to copy a certain style. Some are great wordsmiths, others great storytellers. Some keep it straight and completely professional, others like to make you feel like you're in their living room and they're chatting over tea. Go with what's most comfortable with you and find your own voice.

DO: Read the works of others and writings about film. There's a ton of books to read yourself and seeing others do it (and probably better) is a great way for you to refine your own ability and become more knowledgeable on film itself. Taking the time to become better at what you like to do puts you ahead of a lot of other would-be film reviewers that haven't even read The Making of Citizen Kane.

DO: Understand the purpose of a review: it's more than just your opinion, its a combination of you, a person who is knowledgeable about film, sharing your experience with those that aren't as knowledgeable and letting them know whether a film is worth their time and money. You aren't there to preach or pound your hatred into the heads of others, or stand on a soap-box and claim your view superior.

DON'T: Write an essay. It's not analytical, folks. It's a film review. More importantly, you have to understand how the mind of a reader works. What looks appealing? What will draw their eye? What words will get them to read further. The psychology of a reader is just as important for you to understand as the craft of film or the use of the English language.

And lastly:

Feel obligated to write a good or bad review. It doesn't matter if a film is universally praised or panned. If you felt otherwise, then write a review and state your case. It's in your knowledge and words where you can back up your view if you feel differently.

Everyone's a critic, but is everyone constructive with it?

Who am I to give such pointers, though? Nobody, really. Truth is most of these tips you'll learn in your basic criticism, creative writing and journalism classes (so go grab those AP Stylebooks, kids) and education is probably the best step any would be film-lover/reviewer could do. That and reading publications, such as Cinema Nation or Ebert's Great Movie series  or even his blog where he discusses his methods right on your screen. Truth is, a lot of it is common sense, but the internet tends to make people lose such lofty senses. Being a critic is universal, everyone tends to be one, being a reviewer less so as that involves structuring your thoughts and expressing your opinion intelligently. But being good at it is all about effort blended with knowledge and ability. If you want to, then do it.

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