Do it Right! The Basics of Film Review
To write a worthwhile review, it is not enough to think back on movies you've recently seen. Try to watch the movie you've chosen in the theatre or on a large screen, and be sure to take notes as you watch. If you are bent on professionalism, it is never a bad idea to watch the film multiple times before sitting down to write your review.
And, as all ways, some of the best advice for anyone who wants to write is read, read, read. Look at other film reviews and engage with them: what tone they use, their length and structure, their use of language-- observe all of it. If you read well-written reviews, you'll be able to pick up on the proper rhythm and writing style quickly.
If you plan to write multiple reviews or critical pieces on film, it's important to get the hang of writing boilerplates and synopses.
A boilerplate should include:
Film's title and release date
Director and relevant contributors
Source of film, if it is not an original screenplay
Leading cast members
Genre of the film
Just because this happens to be a list does not mean that you should simply list the elements of the boilerplate. There are unique, organic ways to work the boilerplate details into the introduction of your review. For example, if your film is characterized by a strong performance of a central actor, your lead sentence could give a brief, but enticing description of the character, placing him or her in the setting as it does so. Experiment with ways of incorporating the essentials into your lead-in for a more dynamic, engaging style. Your readers will appreciate you for it.
Strike a balance between giving your audience an idea of the main interest of the film and a summary of the entire plot. Remember that if your reader is interested in the film, he will watch it for himself-- he doesn't need you to fill in the details.
And, of course, alert your readers to possible spoilers.
(This article pertains to a standard review. For writing film essays and analyses in, for example, an academic setting, look for my upcoming Hubs on the subject.)
Decide what kind of review to write
The standard medium length review is 500-750 words long, while a "feature-length" review can be as long as a critical analysis. Before you start writing, think about what you want to say and what form will serve your purposes the best.
Ask yourself what angle you are taking with your review. If you are writing of your own accord, it is likely that you already have something you want to say about a film. Define what that "something" is, and be concise. Some aspects around which reviews are often centered are:
These aren't mutually exclusive categories, but good reviews that hold readers' attention usually don't attempt to put equal emphasis on every aspect of a film. If you see your comments tending towards one of these elements (or another that hasn't been listed), it may be best to confine your review to an analysis of how the given element plays out in the film. Remember, you are writing a review for an audience, and you want to be able to hold that audience. With that in mind...
Target your audience: Monitor your word choice and use of rhetorical devices like irony, wordplay, and double entendre. Most of this is obvious, but it's important to keep an idea of your target audience in the back of your mind at all times. Making allusions to other films, either overtly or in a playful way, may work if you're writing for film buffs, but leave the average viewer at a loss. Some of the devices mentioned above, like irony, will not always come across in text format.
Body of the Review: Basic Components
A good film review has two tasks: to give a basic description of the film in question (much of which should be done with your boilerplate) and to take a subjective stance on certain of its elements. This can be a difficult balance. Looking at how standard elements of essays work in film reviews can help you broach this task.
Lead-ins/ introduction: As with any essay, draw your reader into the review at the outset. Opening a review with a description of an exotic setting, for example, is one way to get an important part of the boilerplate out of the way and to pique the reader's interest. Think about the most interesting of the film's basic attributes and you will probably find an obvious starting-place.
Topic sentence: This does not have to appear at the beginning of the paragraph; it simply means that each paragraph must be cohesive enough that it can center around a single sentence. Using topic sentences in an outline will help you stay on point as you progress through your review.
Thesis: It may be harder for you to see a thesis statement in a casual film review than, say, in a college-level essay. Nonetheless, if you read examples of well-executed reviews, you will see that they do work towards a thesis. A standard review should be insightful, but do not feel as if you have to make a deep point about the film. Your thesis could be as simple as "(Given film) treats the topic of gender difference in a humorous, humane, and understated way."
Points: Once you have an idea of your thesis (which should be informed by what you found most notable in the film), it is your job to use the film to illustrate said thesis. Using specific scenes may help support your statement, but it is not your only recourse. Is there a notable theme or motif that can be found running through the film? Look for thematic and narrative elements as well as individual scenes to express as best as possible what you're trying to say. Remember, every statement requires evidence.
Conclusion: Remember when your high school teacher told you that your conclusion should restate the thesis statement in different words? Not always the best advice. You certainly want your conclusion to relate to everything you've just said, but you don't want to be repetitious. This may be a good place to make your final recommendation as to whether or not your reader should watch the film in theaters, on DVD, or not at all.
Always remember, if you want something to be taken seriously, you must show yourself to have mastered the language in which you are writing. Even if you come up with a deeply insightful, useful review, you could undermine yourself if you choose to neglect some aspect of your review. Some readers are forgiving enough to overlook your punctuation, spelling, or grammar mistakes. Other readers will only put up with one or two before they move on to the next article.
As with an essay, you will also want to make sure your review is structured in a logical, orderly way. Do you open with attention-grabbing sentences? Do the transitions from paragraph to paragraph or subject to subject make sense? Is there any way you can make your review more concise and accessible? All these are questions you should ask yourself if you want to reach an audience.