Guest Post: On Writing a Film Review

Jacob Lusk is a Jacksonville, Florida native, a high school English teacher, and an amateur film critic, who writes about movies on his blog,  The Panned Review. You can follow him on Twitter. Check out his tips and suggestions for composing a film review.

Some Suggestions for Writing a Good Film Review

  1. Watch the film actively. Even if you’re writing about a movie you’ve seen before, watch it again and take notes. Taking notes while watching a movie may seem strange, but it helps. When it comes to note-taking, there are no bad notes. Write down any thoughts that come into your mind as you watch, write down dialogue that stands out, write down observations, no matter how slight: the color of someone’s scarf, the dim lighting in a room and the way that lighting exposes a character’s silhouette; the way a scene goes from sad to funny and back to sad again. These notes may or may not be useful later, but taking them ensures that you’re giving the film your full attention.
  2. Getting Started: Finding a Through-Line. With a review, you may find yourself scrambling to think of something to say other than, “I liked it,” or “I didn’t like it.” So ask yourself, “What about this film jumps out at me as the most interesting or noteworthy element?” Maybe the movie itself was junk, but a particular actor’s performance was so good you didn’t mind; maybe the film was a mess, but you admired that it tried so hard to break from conventions; maybe the writing felt incoherent, and that ruined the whole movie for you. Find the specific thing that speaks to you, and you’ll have a place to start.
  3. Getting Started: Just write something. If you’re struggling to “start” your review, try writing about any aspect of the movie, and remind yourself that you can always re-arrange paragraphs later. Maybe you don’t know how to begin your review, but you can likely write about specific elements of the film that would go in the middle of it. You can worry about the introduction later. And in the process of writing the middle, you may find all kinds of new insights you didn’t know you had.
  4. The review vs. the summary. If you’re putting on the critic hat, remember that plot summary shouldn’t be your primary goal. Yes, a few details about the movie are helpful for readers who haven’t seen the film–or even those of us who have, and might have forgotten them–but the bigger, more important, and more interesting job is making connections and judgments about the movie that are sharp and thoughtful and that give the reader a fresh perspective on the movie. As Pauline Kael says, the job of the critic is to help the reader see something about the work that s/he didn’t see before. And of course, you should try to persuade the reader why the movie is worth seeing (or skipping).
  5. Find fresh, vigorous, specific ways to describe the movie. Cliches like “roller-coaster ride” and “on the edge of my seat” have lost any power that they might have once had. They’re vague and dull anyway, so don’t use them. Instead, be specific. Try to get at the heart of what makes a movie work or not work. If a movie was genuinely suspenseful, talk about a specific scene that exhibits this quality; talk about your own response, and if you saw the film with others, you may even want to write about their reactions: did the audience jump in unison during a terrifying moment? Did everyone jeer at the screen when a character did something stupid (like walk up the stairs of the dark, spooky house, when she ought to know better)? Find a way to make the experience of watching the movie come alive to the reader who wasn’t there in the theater/living room with you.
  6. Don’t read other reviews of the movie you’re reviewing. The opinions of other critics will likely influence you whether you want them to or not, and you want your work to be original.
  7. Exception to #6. One way to write a strong review is to forcefully disagree with another critic. Perhaps you thought Owen Gleiberman’s review of The Martian was all wrong, and you’re here to set the record straight. That could make for a compelling through line.
  8. But what should I write about? How should my review look? There is no one right way to write a film review. There are so many elements in play: your own response will dictate the nature of your review; in addition to that are all the elements of a film: the acting, directing, writing, editing, cinematography, makeup and effects, music, costumes and sets; there’s also the structure of the film, the themes at work in the film, the conversations being had about the film by filmmakers, critics, industry people, and regular moviegoers. If the movie is part of a particular genre, you may want to evaluate it in the context of other horror movies or comedies; if it’s a sequel, you might want to compare it to its predecessor(s); if it’s a comic book movie, you’ll likely be thinking of it within the greater comic book universe. If it’s an adaptation of a book, and you’ve read the book, you may want to compare the two. (Although please avoid saying “the book is always better” because that is a cliche; give specific reasons instead.)
  9. Write to a general, educated movie-going public. No matter what, make sure what you’re saying makes sense and is specific. Using pompous language–especially lots of film jargon–often impedes these two goals. It’s one thing to describe a particular shot of a film, it’s another thing to overuse words and phrases like “tracking shot” or “foley mixing.” (Occasionally a phrase like that might be necessary, but usually it’s not.) Most readers won’t be familiar with these terms, and your goal should be to invite readers into your review rather than alienate them from it. Also, assume your reader is intelligent enough to come along with you for the ride.
  10. Analyze, don’t moralize. You may have been taught that analyzing literature and film is ultimately about identifying the moral of the story. But boiling texts down to a one-sentence bumper sticker statement like “Be careful what you wish for” or “Don’t take anything for granted” is a simplistic reduction. If a movie really is that simplistic, it’s often a sign that the movie has been overly compromised by studio heads wanting to appeal to a global audience. (This happens a lot.) It’s not a cause for celebration when a movie bravely reminds us to “see the glass as half full.” A movie should illuminate something about the human experience, and it certainly might criticize injustice or other social problems, and as a critical writer, you want to discern between trite moral lessons and complicated depictions of real life. Even fantasy films have something to say about reality (calling Doctor Strange). How does a movie speak to us about real life? Is its tone poetic? Angry? Curious? Terrified? Explore these avenues, and resist the urge to oversimplify.

Other Random Tips

  • Use active verbs in the present tense [fashions, jolts, arranges, redeems, scowls, frets, maneuvers, obliterates, renounces].
  • Avoid seems and appears. They tend to weaken our writing. [“Director Sam Mendes seems aware of our culture’s current need to psychoanalyze movie heroes to death.” → “Director Sam Mendes understands our current need to psychoanalyze heroes to death, and he subverts this impulse at every turn.”]
  • Avoid very and extremely and other intensifiers. Very scary? Terrifying. Very slow? Sluggish. Very serious? Morose. Somber. Extremely dark? Dark.
  • Avoid phrases such as “Chris Evans does a good job playing Captain America.” You’re not giving Chris Evans his job evaluation. Instead, describe specific characteristics that stand out about a performance or any other element of the movie.

A Good Boy for Emily [Guest Perspective]

I am lucky to enjoy regular correspondence with York’s puppy raiser, a dynamic and intelligent woman named Melissa. A few weeks ago, she sent me an essay she wrote about the emotions of Puppy Raiser Day – the day when a student meets the family who raised their dog for a year. With Melissa’s permission, I am sharing her piece here.

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Guide Dog Puppy Raisers are given a fantastic opportunity, one not readily available to the average Joe. For a short time we are allowed to possess an elite dog. A dog of extraordinary intelligence and unparalleled breeding. Dogs with “guide” level acumen are special and I was blessed to have the companionship of just such a dog for eleven amazing months.

A puppy raiser picks up a nine or ten week old puppy from the kennel and returns a one year old dog for guide training. In between you feed, you housebreak, you practice obedience, you attend meetings, you expose the pup to all kinds of environments…sounds…people, you try not to fall in love and fail miserably. You fail because it is impossible to raise such a dog correctly and not love, if you can raise without love you’re doing it wrong.

Being a puppy raiser is a yo-yo thing. You want so much for your pup to be successful but at the same time it is so hard to think of giving him up. Only a percentage of the dogs bred for guide work actually make it as working guides. The best of the best, the elite puppy corps. When the news comes that your puppy has matched, and you know he will be a guide, there is a moment of incomprehension. The puppy that ran “zoomies” around my house is trustworthy enough to guide someone? My goofy puppy is to be depended upon for someone’s safety? There is an arc to puppy raising. You start with a goofy pup and just about the time you think, “I could live with this dog”, you’re asked to bring them back for training. The dog you bring back is not the puppy you picked up so you know in your heart the dog you raised is ready.

Puppy Raiser Day is a yo-yo day. You’re so happy your former pup is one of the elite few. You did it! Everything you worked for has come to pass. You’ve accomplished what you originally set out to do which was to give someone a gift they couldn’t give themselves. You want so much to be selfless and useful and kind. The cost of the gift you give is the loss of the companionship of a being with which you have spent nearly every moment for almost a year. It leaves a void. It is hard to be a puppy raiser, it’s not for cowards. Some raisers believe it is wise to get another pup the same day their old one goes in for training. That works for many people but for me there was the fear I’d look at the new pup and think, “Who are you and where is my dog?” I couldn’t do that to an innocent pup. It seemed to me reasonable to allow myself time to grieve and accept the loss of this close companionship. Reasonable, acceptable, sensible. My sorrow made my gift more meaningful to me. A gift that comes at no cost has no value. But in the end I was given more than I gave. Upon reflection it is hard to conceive of an entirely selfless act, that would be a rare thing I think.

The person who is matched with a raiser’s former pup is called a “student” for the duration of their time in training with their new dog. For four weeks the student and dog reside together at the Southeastern Guide Dog campus living and working as a team. If we are to be truthful then we must admit that students are given a dog who is still in no small part puppy. A dog who will require patience and diligent attention to training methods for some time before they reach maturity. While this dog comes to the student at no monetary cost there is still a price to pay. This price is paid in constancy, in patience, in commitment, and in love.

Puppy Raiser Day is the day a class of students and their dogs’ raisers meet for the first time. It falls at the end of the on-campus training of the new guide dog team. On Puppy Raiser Day students are asked to walk a short route with their new guide dog for the puppy raiser before everyone meets. Puppy raisers are asked to wait quietly a short distance away so as not to distract their former puppy. It is an anxious time for student, puppy and raiser. My former puppy, York, lifts his nose into the air, sniffs, pauses and makes direct eye contact with me as he arrives at the first curb of his route with his new forever person. He is, as always, too clever and observant for his own good. With every fiber of my being I will York not to break, not to run to me. With everything in my heart I silently ask him to stay with his forever person. You see, I had taken my job as a raiser very seriously. York went almost everywhere with me consequently anytime it became necessary for me to leave him home, either in his crate or with my husband, York was very unhappy. He simply couldn’t conceive of any reason he should be separated from me. At the end of these short partings York’s joy at our reunion was unbounded. No one, nothing would have kept him from me in these moments.

I will treasure forever the zoom lens photo I have of that exact moment York made eye contact with me on Puppy Raiser Day. He saw me, he knew me but he stayed with his new forever person…guiding. I was so proud, my bright boy did his job. Clever boy, good boy.

Emily & York PRD

Melissa’s zoom lens photo: York looks straight at the camera as he helps Emily negotiate a turn.

After the route, polite introduction is made, small talk and the shaking of hands. York thrums with energy, trying with all his being to get my attention. I am delighted with my initial impression of York’s forever person Emily. We were read a short biography before the route. Emily’s bio makes it evident that she is smart and energetic and funny but she is obviously also captivated by York. I like her already. It is custom and courtesy to wait to be invited to visit with your old pup so I politely ask, “May I pet your dog?”, while York spins circles around me. Emily’s answering smile lights the day. She assents and removes York’s leather guide harness. Guide dogs are not to visit or play in harness, the wearing of it is meant to represent serious work time in their mind. York is a wiggling, happy mess. I leave my thoughtful husband to carry the brunt of the conversation with Emily because I’m having trouble taking my eyes away from York. I am riveted by the story York is telling with his ears, his tail, his eyes, the entire movement of his body.  I still hear the puppy heart that always spoke to me, it beats a language I understand.

York lavishes me with kisses then turns to Emily as if to say to me, “Do you see her, do you see my Emily?!”
While turned York says to Emily with his doggy tongue smile, “Look! Look! My old people are here!” We are old to York not in years for dogs do not see their people that way. Dogs do not see age or infirmity or disability or race, they see us only through the eyes of love. We are York’s old people. Old and dear and loved like a cherished childhood teddy bear now outgrown.

With a touch of his nose York tells me he has missed me, but he turns quickly to check on Emily. He lets me know how wonderful he thinks she is.

York noses the leather harness Emily has handed off to a trainer to take back to her room. He urges me to see this brilliant contrivance that allows him to be truly connected to Emily. “See…See this, together Emily and I do wonderful things with this! Have you ever seen such a great thing?”

York continues his back and forth dialogue with me for several minutes. So happy to see me, so thrilled with Emily. Finally he slows a little and I undertake to join in on the conversation between Emily and my husband, worried that I might seem impolite by not participating more fully in exchange. When York notices that I am occupied he lowers himself to the ground next to Emily. He closes his eyes and sighs, his chin hugging Emily’s feet. He tells me how much he loves her. I must remind myself he’s a dog, he’s a dog, he’s a dog, he doesn’t really speak to me, but my heart knows otherwise.

Puppy Raiser Day includes a delicious brunch. York sits quietly under the table on Emily’s feet during brunch but he presses the flat of his nose against me. The more I get to know Emily the more I feel York has hit the puppy lottery. Emily is wonderful and kind and funny, a talented writer, a gifted vocalist. She leads a very active life, which is just perfect for the energy-filled York. They are, in so many ways, a great match. The brunch, the day, pass quickly and in a blur. When we’re making our goodbyes I give Emily a hug. I whisper in her ear, “Give him a job, he needs to work.” I hope she understands that work is something I can no longer give him now that his puppyhood is past. Real meaningful work, something York with all his breeding, truly needs, something Emily can give him, the special thing they would share. I cup York gently around the ears, kiss his nose and tell him to be a good boy, a good boy for Emily. York walks away with Emily without hesitation, head and tail up, wearing that happy, goofy, tongue hanging dog grin I recognize so completely and then they are gone. In that moment I know I’ve played my part well.

York is the best of the best, a member of an elite puppy corps. I was lucky to have him even for a short while. I will never forget him or be incognizant of the rare opportunity I was given to know such a great dog.  I will be always thankful for the joy we shared for eleven wonderful months.

I’ve come to think of guide dog puppy raising in a very specific way. Being a puppy raiser is a bit like opening someone else’s gift. Some generous soul has allowed that you should borrow their astonishing new gift and play with it before they even get to see it.

Thank you, Emily, for lending me your puppy. IT. WAS. AWESOME.

Practising Inclusive Access [Reblogged from Dr. Hannah Thompson, UK]

I’ve decided to share a post from Blind Spot, a fantastic blog written by Dr. Hannah Thompson. In this blog post, she presents several simple suggestions for making conferences and meetings more accessible to disabled participants:

“As I become more involved in Disability Studies as a discipline, I find myself increasingly invited to attend disability-themed events at both my own and other institutions. These range from academic conferences where I present my work and discuss the work of others, to talks for a general audience about issues around disability, and meetings and workshops about improving support for both disabled students and staff across the HE sector.

The organisers of such events do a great job of ensuring that they are always wheelchair accessible. But disabled access is about a lot more than wheelchairs. Recently I have found myself in the somewhat paradoxical position of discussing the importance of disability awareness-raising during a number of events which were not fully accessible to me. Powerpoints are almost always used, but I rarely encounter a speaker who takes the time to describe the images on the screen. Handouts are often circulated but unless they have been sent round in advance, I am unable to access the information they contain.

Practising inclusive access is not as onerous as it sounds. In fact many of the suggestions I list below are incredibly easy to incorporate.”

Read the full article here.

I can’t count the number of blindness events I’ve attended that have ignored principles of universal access. Even events designed to help or encourage blind people forget to enlarge their handouts or direct newcomers to the meeting with accessable signage. What kind of message does such forgetfulness extend to a newly blind person?

These guidelines are not just for disability-related organizations. Failing to extend access to all participants in a discussion is like printing 24 handouts for 26 students – or deliberately printing the materials in a foreign language. If we take this access out of a disability context, the measures become inexcusable; you wouldn’t expect a student to “just listen and follow along” without a handout when everyone else has their own copy to annotate.

As a moderator, teacher, facilitator – as a leader of any kind – you have a responsibility to welcome everyone at the table. Inclusive access is no longer about doing the legal minimum (“Well I’ll address those needs in the future if she happens to come up and tell me about the problem”). It’s about empathetic planning. The essence of forethought is that it attempts to anticipate what others may need.

We all know our clients, our students, our staff. Many of our disabled staff give us regular visual reminders – a dog, a wheelchair, a white cane, a hearing aid. Let’s decide in this moment to be proactive, to engage in a dialogue about effective methods of presentation before the meeting even starts.

Everyday empathy is what builds a just world.