The Democratization of Movie Critiquing

Online, everyone is a critic. There are hundreds of critics whose reviews are promoted on Rotten Tomatoes, and there are countless blogs out there maintained by budding amateur critics who hope they’ll one day get paid for their writing talents and see their words on a DVD or Blu-ray case. In an age where everyone has a voice, it’s hard to isolate the good reviewers out of the pack.

This has actually drawn quite a bit of controversy online, to the extent that being a critic is no longer anything special. And if you set out with the goal of being paid to write reviews, you’re facing stiffer competition than ever before. You have a better chance of winning the lottery, to be honest, and the pay is not going to be overwhelming. I myself wrote my first movie review in 2003. Ever since, I’ve taken it up as a hobby. I hold no delusions that I’ll be a professional, paid critic someday, so reviewing remains a personal interest which in no way interferes with my career aspirations or job searching.

Over the decade that I’ve written reviews, I have come a long way, learned a lot of things about how to effectively structure a piece of writing, and I’ve read a lot of reviews from a lot of critics. I find there are a few whose pages I always read, but there are multiple critics who rarely write anything of note. I do not pretend to know everything, of course, but I’ve found there are several pratfalls that too many reviewers fall into. Even I’ve fallen victim to these in the past; and when I read my writings from as close as 3 or 4 years ago, I cringe.

Here are a few observations about the less successful reviewers:

1) “Brevity is the soul of wit”

That’s a Shakespeare quote, and he’s right on the money. There’s nothing worse than reading a completely bloated review that takes a long time to say very little. Review lengths need to be earned, not put into place by obligation. I have my own reviewing formula, but I frequently abandon it if there is not much to say. If I’m reviewing the latest Steven Seagal direct-to-DVD actioner, I don’t need 6 paragraphs analysing every aspect of the production; you hit the bullet points with precision. Now that’s not to say that you should not provide an analysis of several areas, I’m saying that you should be direct in your analysis, rather than following several tangents and reiterating the same thing over and over.

2) Beware adjectives

Adjectives get your point across, but they should be used as sentence enhancers; not sentence developers. For instance, someone should not write “This movie is exciting, exhilarating, riveting, pulse-pounding, amazing and incredible, an awesome thrill ride–“ GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE! Half of those words mean the same thing. Most professional reviewers avoid this, but the amateurs fall for it, mistaking adjectives for sophistication. It’s like Joey from Friends, when he uses a Thesaurus on every word for a letter to make himself sound smarter. What matters is your sentence structure, rhythm and flow, not how many big words can be shoved into your thesis.

On one website, I came across a reviewer whose writings were literally adjectives, saying the same thing over and over and over again. For instance, he opens his Only God Forgives critique with “A stylish, grim, bone-chilling, viciously nasty and brutal thriller. A bizarre, intense and hard-boiled neo-noir that takes no prisoners. Director, Nicolas Winding Refn crafts another dark, compelling and mind-blowing masterpiece, one of his best and most absorbing films. [sic]” That’s barely a quarter of the piece. He skimps actual analysis in favour of surface-level sophistication, and as a result makes no argument and actually says nothing. It’s a waste of a voice. You could literally use those exact words for another motion picture, substituting the name of the director for someone else.

3) Sometimes, we just don’t care…

A lot of reviewers fall into the trap of telling us stuff we do not care about. This falls into two categories: personal anecdotes, and too much history behind the film.

In the first category, we get reviewers saying something to the tune of “I saw this movie on the shelf at the video store for years and years. I never thought to rent it. None of my friends had seen it. I finally rented it. I enjoyed it.” We don’t care about your life story, pal. The same sentiments can be summed up by saying “Although I had no interest in this movie, I liked it upon finally viewing.” I get that you’re trying to connect to the audience on a personal level, but it has the opposite effect on me. It sounds like gratuitous filler, and can be used for literally any movie.

In the second category, reviews of famous movies and sequels are often filled with useless malarkey, giving us every single detail of a famous film’s accolades, or a new film’s predecessor. It can take up to two or three paragraphs. Rather than dry fact-stating, facts can be woven into a review to make a point that’s relevant to the movie in question. For instance, “Rocky was nominated for the Best Screenplay Oscar, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a wonderfully-designed narrative focusing on dramatic growth and character development.” Or if you’re talking about a sequel “Raiders of the Lost Ark earned a handful of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, but Kingdom of the Crystal Skull falls way short of this excellence.” See what I mean? We don’t need a history lesson; we want to know what the fucking movie is like.

This comes back to the brevity argument. We want the essential facts, and we want them in a way which enhances your writing. If we want extra production info, Wikipedia or the IMDb trivia page will scratch that itch for the interested peeps.

4) Brisk plot synopsis, pl0x

This is the big one. Even professional reviewers fall into this trap. For my reviews, I write a brisk, one-paragraph plot synopsis, because that’s all that we need. If the person reading the review has not seen the movie, they want a brief overview of what to expect, rather than being spoiled by information of a film’s three acts. If the reader has seen the movie, your four paragraphs of plot synopsis are nothing but redundant reiteration to someone who doesn’t care. We do not care about how well you can provide a film synopsis; we want you to get into the analysis. And if the person reading the critique has seen it but cannot remember it, a brisk synopsis is all they need to jog their memory.

Some critics actually forgo plot outlines altogether, using only one or two sentences to establish the general gist of the movie. There is nothing wrong with this.

5) Either too sophisticated or too colloquial

This is a very tough one. A reviewer has to state their case in an engaging, sophisticated manner, but not to the extent that they alienate the readers, leading them to wonder what the hell you are saying. Likewise, if you’re too colloquial, you sound like a churlish idiot.

The big rule I find for the latter point is that one should avoid using first-person tense as much as possible. I’m not saying you should never use it; I’m simply saying that you should only do it when your writing actually calls for it. Most of the time, I actually refer to myself in the third person in my reviews, using the phrase “this reviewer” as opposed to “I” or “me.”

Wrapping up…

Amateur reviews may read this and find that their writing applies to a number of, or even all of the above. Likewise, I’ve seen professionals fall victim to a few of these pitfalls. I’m not out to start a flame-war with you guys, I’m simply telling you that, from my perspective, there are things to keep in mind which can improve your critiques and stand out from the crowd. I don’t pretend to be the best reviewer in the world, but, since I started avoiding these pratfalls, I’ve developed more readers and I am now a reviewer for an entertainment website. I’ve been quoted on Blu-rays, too.

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