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What makes a good film review?

As someone who has spent most of their teenage life reading and listening to many people’s opinions about films, I have read an excessive amount of film reviews. Now being the editor for the film section, I have to read many reviews with a critical eye and seemingly “review the review” in a rather meta turn of events. But what makes a film review worth reading? More importantly, what gives someone the qualifications to be a film reviewer? What makes one judgment necessarily better than another with regards to film? Isn’t it all just purely subjective anyway? Why even read film reviews at all if that’s the case, yet considering the usual correlation between the amount of praise a film receives and its box office returns, clearly there is a use in film reviews and there is such thing as an ideal film review.

I can tell you what makes a bad film review quite easily. Thankfully I can’t say I’ve actually seen any since taking on editor, but I can say that in the 4 years of film ‘journalism’ I have done, I have pumped out some real duds. A bad film review can fall into a number of bad habits. It can spend too much time listing the actors and crew members involved – which offers no analysis of a film and is not exciting to read. Another bad habit comes from people having no real idea what they are talking about, you’ll get blanket statements like ‘The cinematography was good’ or ‘This actress gave an amazing performance’ and there will be nothing to describe how the cinematography was good or why she gave a great performance. These two usually go hand-in-hand in bad reviews. One of the quotes above may even be me quoting myself…

Sometimes I think that film reviews are bad just because there isn’t really much to say about the film. When writing a review for The Gentlemen I found it a bit of a struggle to fill the word count demanded by the then (much meaner than me) film editor, hence listing people in the film is just an easy way to fill out the word count. On the other hand, having watched films like Sonic, The Platform, Casino, Shame, Out of Blue, all of these films I felt had elements that could be dissected and talked about.

My least favourite buzzword commonly used in film reviews is ‘subtle’. Whenever a performance or any element of a film is described as subtle, usually that translates to a reviewer saying ‘I don’t really understand why this was good but it was good’. Of course, this word is fine to be used when it is then explained how the element of the film was subtle and why it was effective.

Whenever a performance or any element of a film is described as subtle, usually that translates to a reviewer saying ‘I don’t really understand why this was good but it was good’.

A problem that many film reviews also have is that they are incredibly dry reads which aren’t the most insightful pieces of literature you’ll ever read. This can be due to the film being reviewed having nothing much to be said about it, but this can also be due to the reviewer being limited and required to be overly formal. I think the latter arises from news media having the outdated worldview that film reviews should be written as if they are as objective as possible – which I see as completely unnecessary. Roger Ebert, probably the most famous film critic ever, was known for being charismatic as well as being able to still get across what made a film good or bad. YouTube stars like Jeremy Jahns and Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw have audiences who watch their content as much for their personalities as watch for their reviews. Mixing your personality in with your reviews shouldn’t be as chastised as it is in so-called ‘mainstream’ film reviews as it is.

Of course, you can have too much personality in your reviews as well. I’ve read some reviews where someone goes on about their personal life too much instead of reviewing the film I read this article to hear about. Personally, I think that the ideal film review strikes this balance while really explaining to the common reader why a certain film is good or bad. A baseline knowledge of how films are made, the equipment used for making them, what makes good writing and what makes a good performance is key to explaining the quality of the film and hopefully for would-be film reviewers reading, your personality should do the rest!

Mixing your personality in with your reviews shouldn’t be as chastised as it is in so-called ‘mainstream’ film reviews as it is.

A good question to ask while wrapping up is what is the purpose of reviewing a film and publishing your review for many to see? Is the main purpose to make sure that scammers parading as artists have their films exposed for the cons they are? Is the purpose to inform the public merely what’s worth watching and what isn’t? Should every film reviewer have an idea of what their ideal film industry is? Personally I think a film reviewer should be scrupulous in taking apart a film, there’s a difference between how a reviewer watches a film versus how the public will watch a film. A film being just entertaining is fine for public consumption, yet a film reviewer should be offering suggestions as to where it could be better still. If they aren’t relentless in their analysis, what’s the point? Anyone can tell me that a summer blockbuster or some Oscar-bait drama is fine, yet a film reviewer needs to suggest where it could be better.

But of course, this is all subjective opinion (much as film reviews are similarly subjective takes on someone’s work). Yet I think that trust and experience are key factors which can make certain opinions more valuable than others. I wouldn’t ask my bus driver his opinions on my health, I’d ask my doctor. Likewise, I wouldn’t ask the books editor for her opinion on a film, I’d ask one of the film writers, some of whom have seen many more films than I have…

Of course, I can’t say that my credentials make me qualified to tell you what the best way of writing a film review is, yet here we are 1000 words later. At least this saves me having to write a guide to writers as to what I’d like to see in a review. All joking aside, I like to think that what I have said above not only holds water but will also allow the untrained reader to spot more fraudulent writers (of which there are too many in mainstream film criticism).

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