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Reviewing for dummies

Observer Scene | Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Writing a movie review is kind of like ice skating; you see everyone out there slipping and sliding and you think, “That looks easy!” Then you give it a try and realize that, whoa, it’s actually a lot harder than it looks.

Anyone who’s ever tried writing a movie review realizes that it’s a pretty tough thing to do. It isn’t enough to say, “This movie sucks!” or “This movie rocks!” A good review is a well-reasoned argument, even though the basics of it seem pretty simple: “Did you like the movie? Tell why or why not. Be brief.”

That last point is important – if brevity is truly the soul of wit, then a good review should feel in spirit like a gospel choir. Remember, though, that good films deserve more words than bad films. Nobody wants to read a 3,000-word discourse on “Big Momma’s House 2,” especially because it probably means you expended more effort reviewing it than the filmmakers did making it.

We have a saying around The Observer office: “You’re not Roger Ebert, so don’t try to write like him.” This is a little misleading, because it’s not to say that the once-rotund Chicago Sun Times writer isn’t a good critical role model. Readers respect Ebert’s opinion because he’s a seasoned professional with years of experience and a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism (the first of its kind). These same readers are less inclined to care about the opinion of a college kid who can’t remember when George Lucas was considered a good filmmaker – unless said kid’s writing is particularly articulate and well-reasoned.

Ebert gets away with stuff Observer critics couldn’t. Some of his highlights include:

“‘Armageddon’ reportedly used the services of nine writers. Why did it need any? The dialogue is either shouted one-liners or romantic drivel. ‘It’s gonna blow!’ is used so many times, I wonder if every single writer used it once, and then sat back from his word processor with a contented smile on his face, another day’s work done.” (“Armageddon,” July 1, 1998)

And while something like that is cleverly insightful and could thus be approximated by an Observer critic, some of his other stuff couldn’t:

“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.” (“North,” July 22, 1994)

See, that’s the writing of a Pulitzer-Prize winner. Get that far in your career, and then you can make such base judgment calls. Until then, there are a few basic guidelines for a good review, and I try to follow them in everything I write.

1) Don’t be stupid and don’t be obvious. Seriously. Remember during the Fiesta Bowl when Troy Smith said that the best thing about Ohio State is that it’s in Ohio? Not exactly a bastion of insight. Similarly, if the most insightful thing you can say about “Alien vs. Predator” is that there are aliens fighting predators, you’re not exactly going to instill a reader’s respect for your review. And please, avoid the obvious. If you think your audience knows it without being told, then they probably do. Your review shouldn’t aim for the indisputable. It should go without saying that “Schindler’s List” is great cinema and “Freddy Got Fingered” is not. So don’t say it.

2) Avoid hyperbole. While “‘The Wedding Planner’ is the greatest movie ever! Ah!” may truly be your opinion, there are a thousand better ways to phrase it, most of which will be considerably more effective. On a related note, try to avoid absolutes, especially clichés like “greatest film of all time” or the like, because we all know that “Raging Bull” is without doubt the finest American film of all time.

3) Don’t be afraid to express your own opinions. It’s like that episode of “Seinfeld” in which Elaine was the only person who didn’t like “The English Patient.” Life’s like that sometimes. You’re not going to like every critically-acclaimed and/or commercially-successful film. On the other hand, you’re probably going to like some films that are unpopular. It’s okay to feel this way so long as your opinions are expressed in a way that allows a reader to understand exactly where you’re coming from.

On a similar note, be sure to scale your reviews accordingly – most reviewers give films too much credit. I myself have been guilty of this from time to time. In retrospect, 2.5 stars for “The Ring 2” was actually a gift worthy of the Magi. More important than that little star rating (or clover rating, in our oh-so-cleverly-Irish case) is the body of the review itself. The rating should reflect your general opinion, but the text is your more detailed justification.

And that’s it. Writing reviews can actually be fun and rewarding. And don’t worry about critics of critics. So long as you express yourself well, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to slam your opinions. Unless, of course, you really think that “Freddy Got Fingered” is a better film than “Schindler’s List.”

Contact Brian Doxtader at bdoxtade@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.