I’ve been regularly reviewing movies on this blog for coming on 4 years now, often – well, almost always – investing time and effort disproportionate to my traffic numbers and readership feedback. As someone who labours over the task of criticism and strives to do their best in the hope of giving value for browsing time, it’s curious that I have not thought much about what constitutes a good review.
A recent comment from a regular reader who goes under the classy nick of Keyser Soze has prompted me to action on this account. Mr Soze complimented me – sort of – on a “top review” of Rolf de Heer’s latest
misstep movie, The King Is Dead!. While I am always gratified to elicit any positive reaction from the good and exactingly discerning Mr Soze, a self-declared pedant from whom praise is hard-won and usually reserved at best, I was pretty sure he had not seen the film, and therefore found myself wondering by what standards he might have arrived at his generous declaration.
In other words, what makes a good review?
Much of the time, for many folk, I suspect it’s mostly a matter of agreeing with the assessment of the reviewer. Not so with Keyser, obviously. If you haven’t seen the film, you can’t know whether you share the reviewer’s opinion on its worth.
Well, I’m merely thinking aloud here and speaking personally, not venturing anything prescriptive, but here are a few criteria for a good review that spring readily to mind.
- A good review should be reader-directed, not a vehicle of self-promotion for the critic. The main purpose of a review should be to clarify for the reader whether the movie is worth seeing.
- In so doing, aspects that should be covered include a basic synopsis, a general categorisation of the film in terms of its genre or style, and a rundown of where it succeeds and/or fails, along with the reviewer’s reasons for their assertions. Unsupported claims are worth shit, as far as I’m concerned, and amount to lazy reviewing.
- Acting performances are usually fundamental to a film’s success – leads at least – and should therefore be subject to some critical comment.
- Anything outstandingly positive or negative should be mentioned, providing the critic is equipped with the knowledge to comment usefully. There are technical areas of film-making that I do not know enough about to criticise with any validity – some aspects of cinematography, for example. I therefore refrain from commenting unless my experience of the film has been significantly impacted by just such an element. In this case, I think it wise to stick to basic non-technical description in lay terms, referring to one’s personal responses rather than attempting to impress by, say, lifting Wikipedia-sourced terminology that probably won’t mean anything to the average reader anyway. The key, in my opinion, is to ensure you do not assume or attempt to imply expertise you do not have. Astute readers will always pick a bullshitter, and once busted, there goes your cred. A review has to be sincere.
- On occasions, there may be factors that interfere with your reception of a movie (eg: ill-health, tiredness, mood, even personal experience that skews a viewing response). In this event, I think as a matter of integrity the reviewer should alert the reader to any bias or major obstruction to objectivity that may be operating.
- While the critic is not an entertainer, s/he has a responsibility not to bore the crap out of the reader. A review should be of digestible length, then, and written with some colour and, where appropriate, wit. The film under review is the main event, so grandstanding by the reviewer is not on, but I see nothing wrong with allowing the person behind the keys to emerge as a personality unto themselves. This contravenes the conventions of yer standard mainstream review, which is generally written in formal third-person, but I think first-person critiques of the type that feature on this blog allow the reader some insight into the personality of the reviewer that can enrich the review. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it until someone convinces me that I should not.
OK, that’s about all that comes to mind at the moment. I welcome comments from readers on criteria I have neglected to mention (or, for that matter, on criteria you do not agree with, or think require further elaboration).
I’ll finish off with some brief observations on the flipside of the above: what makes a bad review?
- Merely re-telling the story. A review is more than an exercise in precis-writing, ferchrissake. In my early reviews, I saw re-telling the story as a complete waste of time and neglected to include any sort of synopsis at all. Truth to tell, I find writing out a synopsis tedious. However, in recognition of reader expectation, I now head all my reviews with a story overview. Hopefully, readers find this a convenient format. And I’d rather get this boring task out of the way from the outset so I can focus on the review proper.
- Striving for originality. Too many critics try to distinguish themselves from the crowd by taking contrary stances or searching for a unique angle from which to pitch their write-up. Just tell it how it is for you, I say, and trust that your voice/style/personality will emerge naturally in the process.
- Undeclared sub-agendas on the part of the critic. This is one of my pet gripes. How often do you see good ol’ Margaret and David (At The Movies) extravagantly praise a new Aussie film, or go easy on an Aussie mutt that would cop short shrift if it came out of Hollywood? They clearly have an agenda to support the national film industry. Well and good, but they should state this as a disclaimer.
Ditto critics whose political leanings colour their judgement – this species is common both among blogger reviewers and in the mainstream press. So, a leftie will be well-disposed to anything Ken Loach trots out, regardless of merit. And a rightie will be down on Michael Moore’s latest before even seeing it. Ludicrous! And dishonest, if the reviewer does not declare their politics as a critical influence.
That said, I don’t necessarily agree with Keyser Soze’s implication in this comments thread that a good movie review should always focus exclusively on the movie, although I think he’s touched on a sound reviewing strategy generally speaking. However, I would contend that there are various extra-textual perspectives, readings and interpretations that can be validly brought to a film as long as the critic declares their vantage point from the outset, thus giving the reader the opportunity to decide whether the review is likely to be of relevance to them.
This post comprises but a superficial treatment of a subject that lends itself to expansive discussion. I’ve banged on enough for now. Interested in what others might have to say. See ya in the Comments thread.