What Makes A Good Movie Review?

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.


8 thoughts on “What Makes A Good Movie Review?”

  1. I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said, rolanstein.

    The main point I’d like to make about reviewing films is to distinguish between critique and criticism, because while criticism has a perfectly good meaning in English that encompasses “evaluation”, it’s often understood as being merely critical in the negative sense, whereas critique is more readily understood, I think, as being an exercise in weighing up the merits as well as the shortfalls of a film.
    Even where a film falls short merit can be recognised for effort, or good intentions, or coming damn close to pulling it off. And for me, identifying things that may be considered shortfalls – such as a film being corny, having lowbrow humour, or whatever – can be elements of critique that in no way imply criticism.

    Analysis and extra-textual perspectives are valid, I agree, and yes, I agree too that reviewers bring their own shit, both personal and cultural, to any review. After I wrote my review of Margaret, I read Thomas Caldwell’s (http://blog.cinemaautopsy.com/2012/06/14/film-review-margaret-2011/) and while I can see where he’s coming from with the America-as-adolescent analogy, I found it a bit laboured, and while not totally irrelevant to an Australian audience, certainly less compelling.

    I’m well aware I often go in to a film with a predisposition to like or dislike, but I’m readily swayed by the actuality of what’s offered. And can I mention good will? The fact is, filmmaking is a huge collaborative creative (and technical and financial and administrative!) venture and I’m always admiring that a bunch of people did the hard work and got the product out.

    Good reviews draw the reader’s attention to the art and the craft of a film and a good reviewer has an appreciation of how those things marry to create a satisfying whole. I bring my own shit to some of the “craft” bits, I confess, with prejudices about camerawork, lighting – focus , even, for god’s sake! But I recognise most people are not quite so interested in these aspects.

    Hey, rolanstein, I reckon you get it right pretty often. I don’t think I have to agree with you all the time to find your reviews useful, but I always enjoy reading them.

  2. Can I point out a problem with your suggestion that a review can only be evaluated by someone who has already seen the movie? First of all, odds are that any new movie (which is what you generally review) won’t have been seen until some time after the review has been posted – by which time it’s probably lost somewhere in the archives. Secondly, people tend to agree or disagree with reviews insofar as the reviewer likes the same things they do, or vice versa. In practice, this tends to be a matter of approving or disapproving of the reviewer’s basic attitudes. Almost all reviews I read are based on assumptions (which are rarely spelled-out and are probably not even consciously subscribed-to) that have only a passing relationship to the movie itself. Which is why the same movie may provoke radically differing evaluations even though the critics are watching ostensibly THE SAME THING! What critics do is TRANSLATE what is on the screen into something else and it’s their particular mode of translation that determines how they evaluate it. The self-contradictory nature of this should be apparent when I express it in these words. Think of it: if you say a movie (or book, or piece of music, or painting) has to be “explained” to be made intelligible you’re saying that the original is inferior to the explanation. So why not make the explanation or interpretation the original itself?

    I believe that the only non-contradictory way of evaluating anything is to assume that THE THING ITSELF is what counts – not what remains AFTER it’s been translated into OTHER modes, whether symbolic, social, political, psychological, or anything more critically amenable to “analysis” or “interpretation”. The more untranslatable it is the more successful; its import is primary, not secondary or derived. Of course, any criticism (using words) is by definition a translation of the original. What’s important is that it should never pretend to be anything but: it should never substitute itself for the DIRECT EXPERIENCE of the thing being evaluated. Of course, most movies only fitfully provide a fully untranslatable experience (something that is KNOWN BUT NOT UNDERSTOOD) but this doesn’t mean that they don’t aspire to this probably unattainable goal. And it’s the critic’s job to understand this……..

  3. Hey Keyser, I think you’re right when you say “people tend to agree or disagree with reviews insofar as the reviewer likes the same things they do, or vice versa”. I reckon you get a feel for a reviewer’s preferences and by extension you have an idea of whether you will enjoy a film, based on that reviewer’s opinion.
    Your idea that a film aspires to be intelligible perfectly within its medium is a good one, and the reviewer’s job, surely, is to assess how well it does that. So the difficulty, with a film like Anatolia, for example, is understanding just what is depicted. When the main character gazes at a photograph of his ex-wife, does he regret the dissolution of their marriage, or is he glad he’s not still tied to her, or glad that she’s not tied to him? The filmmaker has various tools at her or his disposal – not least,of course, the skill of the actors – but in the end each person watching the same sequence will bring their own shit (i.e. assumptions that have only a passing relationship to the movie itself) to the interpretation.
    The thing itself is indeed what counts, and a reviewer can make some observations that might give you a sense of what the thing IS. Identifying genre is one thing, a broad, crude thing, but a useful one for enabling a reader to decide whether they’re likely to enjoy a film, or even bother going.
    Comparisons can help, too. If I say (can’t think of an example from film off the top of my head) Beirut’s song “He’s the only one who knows the words” sounds like it could have come from John Cale’s album Paris 1919, Cale fans might have their interest piqued.
    I certainly hope that people who read reviews on this blog go and see the films and then come back and post comments, even – or maybe especially – if they disagree with the reviewer.

  4. Hi Karen,

    Sorry about this delay in responding – caught up in some tedious work stuff that I’ve thankfully almost finished.

    Yeah, Thomas Caldwell’s take on Margaret is a prime example of a reviewer striving for an ‘original’ angle – at least, that’s my strong suspicion, based on past form. Thing is, he knows a hell of a lot about film, and doesn’t need to resort to clever-clogs stuff, as he so often does. Have to admit, his tendency to moralise I find a little irksome, also.

    I, too, am mindful that film is a collaborative form – in fact, I think it’s a minor miracle when the disparate forces cohere in a great film, or even a quite good one! I don’t think a review should take this into account, though. However a work is produced, once out there it should be assessed as is. Does it work? How? Why/why not? These fundamentals should be considered independent of the mode of creation of the piece, IMO. Which is not to diminish admiration and respect of all involved for their determination and commitment in getting their work up on screen.

    To your concluding comments in your first post, I can only say thank you and ditto!


  5. Keyser,

    Thanks for your excellent comments. Well, I would assess them thus, wouldn’t I – since I agree with just about everything you’ve said!

    Just a couple of things. I wasn’t actually suggesting that “a review can only be evaluated by someone who has already seen the movie”. That comment was flippant in nature (at least, that was the intention, signalled, I’d hoped, by my tone and context), also functioning as a lead in to the content of the post proper.

    I would contend, emphatically, that a movie can’t be evaluated by someone who hasn’t seen it, whether on the basis of a review or genre or directorial or actor preferences, or black magic, or whatever – but I’m sure we have no argument here, since inherent in this assertion is the very argument you make for the purity of the source text over any secondary discussion, interpretation, criticism etc.

    Re movie reviews being lost in the archives by the time the film in question is publicly released: I don’t think that applies to anyone familiar with blogging platforms. In fact, I doubt it applies much at all, since I have set my blog to feature the 10 most recent posts before the fold. Sure, they are accessible only by scrolling down, but I think most folk are well used to the scroll function by now.

    If ya don’t wanna scroll, just click on the ‘Archives’ link in the navigation menu under the header, and that will take you to a page on which all movies reviewed over the past 4 years are listed in alphabetical order, with links to the reviews. And if you haven’t noticed that menu item, at the bottom of all reviews is a link to the Archives. Then there’s the search window, top right of header, that works well and will bring up any movie reviewed, or even referred to, when typed in. Then there’s the ‘Recent Posts’ links second from the top of the right side menu…

    No, there really should be no problem finding a particular movie review, even one that is not relatively recent. The problem is attracting would-be readers to the blog site in the first place. Type a movie title into Google, and most of the time The Boomtown Rap doesn’t come up on the first page. That’s a significant impediment to hit numbers. And remedying it is not so easy. It’s mostly a matter of time and having a site that attracts visitors – and more importantly, prompts return visits.

    Discussions such as on this thread, in which multiple parties engage, are also a big plus, as are external links to the site or to the specific reviews within it. So guys, pls bear that in mind if you get a chance to link here from another site and it’s appropriate. I’m sure you’ll agree, the more the merrier with these Comments threads.

    Pity there wasn’t more divergence of opinion in this one! Agreement doesn’t stimulate ongoing discussion. But how it is is how it is…


  6. Thanks, I found this helpful. I have been writing reviews about Korean Dramas that I watch. I’ve been doing it as a hobby but now that I have some extra time on my hands, I’ve decided to work on it a little more. I’ll be looking for volunteers to watch dramas then write reviews about them to post on the Facebook page I made for it. Korean dramas can be from 16-24 hours on average so you can see how I might need some help. I am working on developing a template for what I want the review to look like before I ask people to write; my research has brought me to your page. Thanks for the great advice, i’m going to have people read this along with the template I give to them just for direction. I plan on editing and discussing the reviews before posting them so that the page will have quality content while maintaining the individuality of each review. Thanks again.

  7. Glad you found the post helpful, Rachel.

    Which Korean dramas are you referring to? I have a good friend in Melbourne who has sent me lots of DVDs of Korean films. Some have been excellent. But since the ‘dramas’ you mention are 16-24 hours in duration, I assume they’re episodic TV shows?


  8. Rolanstein,

    Yes, they are TV shows but I also watch some movies as well. Some that I remember the title to are My Sassy Girl, 300 Pound Beauty, My Little Bride, Punch Lady, Blind, 3-Iron, Windstruck, My wife is a gangster, Perfect Match and more. I find that there is more adult content in the movies I’ve seen then the TV dramas that I have watched.


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