Welcome to FTS’ brand new feature Word Around the Campfire where all of the FTS’ contributors take turns answering the question or topic of the month. This month we’re looking at our review writing process and style.
How Do You Review?
I’ve developed this thing where I try to set the scene of where I was or who I was when I saw whatever film. I’ve been trying more and more not to go with first impressions and let it set a bit more before giving an opinion. As far as my voice/style, look, I didn’t go to school for this nor do I ever take myself seriously. I try to write as if I was having a conversation with someone. This is French Toast Sunday, we ain’t pretentious (though sometimes I do get a bit snobby with the art house/foreign films I watch… I will admit that)
My reviewing style tends to veer toward analysis, which is sometimes intentional– I try to make it a point to include concrete evidence of why it’s either a good or a bad film, based on techniques or formal style, script or acting, editing and pacing, etc. I sort of feel like that’s my duty, otherwise the judgement may seem unfounded and unsupported. I also make it a point to include something positive even in a review of something I disliked, and vice versa, something flawed or negative in a review of something that I loved and enjoyed quite a bit. I feel like that’s only fair. I’ll also try to incorporate humor and mesh accessible language with more academic language; I want to be funny and entertaining while also being as eloquent and mature in my prose as possible, but the exact balance or ratio may depend on what I’m writing about. I guess that’s kind of my main goal– to be balanced and fair, funny and smart, egalitarian and honest in everything I write.
When I watch a movie, I take copious amounts of notes. This is for two reasons; firstly my memory is terrible for pretty much anything other than actor names and lines of dialogue that are unintentionally funny and I’m the only one laughing at (case in point, during the poker scene of Casino Royale, any time they refer to one of the other players, Fukutu. Yes, I’m immature). The second reason is that I rarely review a film immediately after watching it. I’d like to, but life gets in the way and sometimes it can be a couple of weeks before I get a chance, and also straight after a film I don’t always know where I sit with a film without thinking on it for a while first or hashing it out with whomever I watched it with. If it takes me more than 6 weeks to get to the review I cut it off and will need another viewing. Thus, when I come to review, I read through my notes, which invariably make no sense or are illegible – I swear some of my notes from Furious 7 read “Cheese Disney trifle,” “preggsed chin from Japan, waving phone call” and “all skod is a line farming city” (you try writing in a dark cinema without writing over something twice) – and try to make head or tail from them and whatever snippets I can recall. Like most people I begin with a brief synopsis, then touch on some personal connection or anecdote if appropriate, then essentially delve into the bits I liked, disliked and overall feelings. It’s hardly a revolutionary approach to film criticism, but it makes sense to me.
When I had my own blog and was serious about it (that was usually a few months per year), I used to write notes while watching movies or right afterwards and then start my review from there. However, I have grown either too lazy or too indulgent to do so – I just like to spend the little time of my life that I do watch movies actually watching movies. And due to the current busy-ness of my life, I also don’t write notes afterwards. So when I write my review I start by reading bits of the wikipedia entry on the movie to get back “into it” and sometimes spice it up with IMDB trivia or RT reviews. Then I just start writing what comes into my mind, which is sometimes genius but very often confusing. So at the beginning of writing a new review, I often have pauses of 5-10 minutes where I stare at the screen blankly or just cut my split ends because I cannot focus on writing and don’t know what to say. However, when I do get into it, I try to be humorous when it comes to the writing, and furthermore give the movie a fair chance. I enjoy writing about the themes and emotions of a movie more than analyzing it technically. That’s a different kind of review; one I may enjoy reading but just don’t feel knowledgeable or willing enough to write myself. I try to find some kind of connection between the beginning and the end of my review if possible and to start and end it in a “cool” way. Ahem.
I try to focus on my essential takeaway from the movie. Sometimes it’s hard to really get started when there’s not much to dwell upon, but it helps if you can narrow down to something precise. Then again, if it’s a movie that left a big impression I tend to find plenty of things to focus on and my reviews can go on and on. Those are the ones I enjoy best though, whether the movie was great or not, because it’s fun to really dive into writing. I do like using some of the staples of our rating system to assess how that movie played (or didn’t) to its strengths, especially within its genre. I usually rate a movie against other movies of its type. I think it’s important to say how good a hard R comedy is against other hard R comedies, for instance, and not how good it is against all movies of all time. One last thing is I’m never afraid to throw in a few cuss words as needed.
As far as my process is concerned, I try my hardest to just write from my gut. I don’t take any notes (I honestly don’t know how anyone does it, although I admit there are occasions when I’d like to jot a line or name down) and I usually let the movie rest with me for a bit. I stay away from other reviews and stick to talking it out with whoever attended the screening with me. Before I write, I will read 3 or 4 random reviews I’ve written in the past to get a bit of an idea of how these review things work (I always seem to forget) and try to improve my writing in the next review. This sounds terrible but I don’t think of myself as much of a writer. I’m competent and occasionally I write something I like but I’m really just trying to boil something down for prospective movie goers. I try to lay out all of my bias or previous knowledge of a film and then review as if I was talking to a friend (this often includes profanity.) I also try my best to make a recommendation on a film based on the type of person seeing it. I don’t pretend my opinion is the end all, be all.
I’m not as prolific when it comes to reviewing as some of my FTS buddies. To go through the entire process – I like to take notes when I watch a flick. If I’m in the theater I jot them down on little notepads, usually Moleskines (which I’ve become addicted to) and if I’m at home I’ll type them up on my iPhone. After I’ve got the notes in a Google Doc or something I usually try to break them down into different categories – acting, story, technical, etc. Then I’ll try to bang out a rough draft. At some point I’ll print out a draft and write out edits/improvements/new stuff. There’s just something about physically writing on paper that makes me focus and get creative. My tone usually fits whatever genre of movie I’m reviewing. If it’s a drama or something I’m more serious and if it’s a comedy or so-bad-it’s-good I try to have a little more fun. That’s about it!
I try to think of writing a review the same way I would talk about a film with a group of people asking what I thought. I try to touch on the cast and the story and the way that I felt about the movie on an entertainment basis. I don’t tend to be too critical of films if they were an overall positive experience. I’ll stick more with talking about what I liked or what I wish was different rather than focusing on negative aspects unless something in the film was noticeably poor. I like to put in a simple qualifier at the end of my reviews to help guide the reader as to whether they may like the film personally, by including similar films and styles to the one I’m reviewing.
I love being a movie blogger/podcaster, but I must say, the one thing I struggle with is the review aspect of what we do. Whenever I write for the site, I try to strike a good balance between an informative almost-academic tone and my usual personality. Sometimes it can come across as two different people writing an article, so I take time to reconcile those two voices and make it one congruent piece for the reader. Also, in my writing I like having “side conversations” with the reader and this usually happens within parenthesis. I use the parenthesis to tell little side stories that aren’t always completely related to the subject at hand, but I think it gives you guys a little glimpse of how the gears turn in my head.
As far as writing reviews I definitely have a structure that I like to follow. I start off with my abbreviated opinion of the movie. I find that no one reads whole articles these days (unless your on the toilet or really hate your job) so I try to give you the pertinent info upfront. After that I describe the premise of the movie without telling the whole story. If the reader is still sticking around I dive into what didn’t work in the movie and what does work; I do it in that specific order because I think its easier to tear something down than to build it up, so I try to end with the pros of the movie than the cons. Some movies make this harder to do than others. Lastly, I reiterate my overall opinion of the movie and tell you the ideal situation to view the movie (some movies should only be viewed on Sunday morning while nursing an hangover, I’m looking at you Bucky Larsen).
I’m not certain I have a particular style when writing reviews. Honestly, I barely even have a strategy. It sort of starts out as just a stream of consciousness; I basically write a paragraph with all of the key points I’d like to hit on. From there I try to create some semblance of structure. Typically I’ll start with a synopsis and call out the major actors/director (if they are noteworthy) and then dive right into my initial thoughts. I try to create one or two supporting paragraphs out of the giant text blurb I started with. Typically these will go over particular scenes I liked or the individual strengths and weaknesses of the films attributes. I know my writing often looks somewhat polished but it’s basically me copying and pasting my raw thoughts and then shaping paragraphs of detail around them. I think this is why many of my reviews are written sort of casually which is to say, they are written the way I might discuss the film in conversation, jumping between points and speaking in plain English. I do try to add a bit of technical detail at times, particularly if the sound, or cinematography or some other technical attribute deserves merit but in general I stick to what was really impactful about the film. I like to believe this makes my reviews more honest, or at the very least more of what you would expect if you bumped into me and said, “hey, what did you think of that new movie?”
Do you write reviews? What is your process?
Let us know in the comments below!