Monday, January 21, 2019

My approach to writing movie reviews

There are college courses on film criticism. I never took one. If I did, I think I’d fail it. Having to write a long analysis of a movie, comparing it to Russian speculation fiction films and uncovering all the symbolism and providing overview and perspective and literary references is not what I do. God bless those who can.

I read some of these reviews and tip my hat while also saying, “What a bunch of shit?”

Reviews can get pretentious. Reviews can get precious. Reviews can be self-indulgent.

There are a few reviewers however, that I admire (even if I don’t always agree with them). Anthony Lane in THE NEW YORKER is one. He’s occasionally very droll and funny, and it’s clear he puts a lot of thought and effort and research into his weekly reviews.

Way more than I ever do. Or ever would.

Now that we’re in award season (God help us), I’ve been reviewing more movies for this blog. (Thank you studios for the screeners.) But I’m not a professional reviewer. (That’s probably clear by simply reading one of my reviews.)

So to better understand my reviews (for you to decide whether to give my opinions any credence at all), I thought you should know my approach.

It’s more a “take.” It’s more of a “reaction” to what I’m seeing. Did I like the damn movie? Yay or nay and why? How were the actors, director, writers, explosions? Would I recommend the movie to you and why?

But I try to write in broad strokes, with some laughs along the way. I have very definite tastes and generally will not see a movie I have no interest in just because it’s a “contender.” Life’s too fucking short. You could make the world greatest horror film. I’ll never review it because I’ll never see it. Sorry.

When I was young I felt almost an obligation to see every movie that came out. It was homework I needed to do. Now? If it looks like something that will bore the crap out of me I give it a pass. Will I miss seeing some good movies that I am stupidly avoiding? Sure. But so what? The good news is if I’m reviewing your movie it’s because I’m expecting to like it. The bad news is if I don’t, watch out.

But in any event, a few paragraphs should cover it. I read three page reviews for movies that can be distilled down to “formula comedy” or “avoid.” You should get the idea by paragraph three what my take is. I try to write them as soon as I can so the film is still fresh in my mind. And sometimes that’s 2:00 in the morning so factor that in.

My hope is that my reviews are somewhat unique in that they’re in my voice and style (if it turns out I happen to even have one – the jury’s still out). And they’re also an excuse to invite you to weigh in on your opinion. So this isn’t film criticism; it’s a cyber water cooler.

Thumbs up.


Anonymous said...

Earl B writes:

The late Don Thompson often reviewed movies, TV shows, comic books, music, etc, etc, and he could recognize when he wasn't the target audience for something. So rather than trash something he didn't care for, he would say "If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you'll like".

Mike Bloodworth said...

I have never had a problem with the way you review movies and TV shows. I can't say you're an "everyman" because of your show business background. That gives you a different perspective than an average viewer. And since I've never seen much of what you've reviewed I have no idea if I agree with you or not. Even if I didn't, so what? It's your blog and your opinion. And opinions are subjective.

Many years ago, here in Los Angeles, we had a film critic named Gary Franklin. He worked for a couple of stations, but is mostly associated with the local ABC affiliate. His trademark was "The Franklin Scale from 1 to 10. "Now, there's a guy I had a problem with. I used his rewiews as a REVERSE barometer. If he liked a movie chances are I'd hate it and vice versa. One example, Franklin thought "Mac and Me" was a better movie than "E.T." In fact, sometimes you had to wonder if he was deliberately trying to be provocative just for the publicity.
One time I saw him at a gas station. I was a typical, Hollywood hypocrite when I told him I was a fan, even though I wanted to punch him in the face.

Don't worry, Ken. I have no desire to strike you.

Mike Barer said...

It's interesting that you can tell a lot about someone's personality by the movies they watch. In Seattle over the years, watching the right movies can be a status symbol.
I went to see the movie Chicago with my wife and mother in law some years back. It was in the now defunct theatre in the Bellevue Galleria. My wife pointed out that sitting in front of us was Bill and Melinda Gates. She and my MIL were talking about this that and the other thing when Bill and Melinda took a different seat. I was thinking "wow, this guy changed the world and now, because of us, he changed his seat". When we were leaving I heard Bill say "great movie", I thought, wow, if the cast of the movie would have heard that.

Roger Owen Green said...

"a few paragraphs should cove it" - true enough
Did you see The Favourite? It was NOT my favorite film of 2018.
I write reviews on my blog just to remind me - oh, yeah, I DID see that in 2007.

Steve Bailey said...

I didn't realize that brevity was a virtue in movie reviews until I started writing them for my wife's newspaper. When I realized that she'd edit anything I hadn't pre-edited, I realized that I had to make every word count. Pauline Kael of the New Yorker was a goddess to me when I was growing up, but I look at some of her stuff now and realize she could have really used a good editor.

Jeff Alexander said...

The best published film critic, for my money, was the late Pauline Kael (Anthony Lane's predecessor in "New Yorker." Yes, she could be pretentious. Yes, many of her reviews could have been edited down a few paragraphs. And, yes, there were many times I didn't agree with her reviews at all (she RAVED about "Nashville" from 1974 and when I saw it on DVD, my reaction was a mild "eh!").
But there were many films she reviewed that caused me to WANT to see them -- the long version, not the hacked-up, shorter version of "Once Upon A Time in America" (1984), although I have seen both; both "Godfather" movies; and the remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1978), to name a couple.
She's probably one of the few critics that approached "Mommie Dearest" (1981) seriously, not with an eye on its camp value.
She and I shared an appreciation for "1941" which many did not and still don't, unfortunately.
Sometimes I'd see a film and I didn't really feel like I appreciated it until I read a review of hers. I didn't have that sense with Roger Ebert, Gene Shalit (whose reviews often were too jocular) and other critics. Mostly because she had a "voice" in her writing - you could almost hear it as you read it. I think that's important in all writing and you do have that, Mr. Levine, whether reviewing or just blogging.

Peter said...

My favourite film critic was Roger Ebert. I didn't always agree with him, but he was always witty and intelligent. He was also never the pretentious type of critic that Ken mentions here, who use reviews as a way to try and flaunt how intellectually superior to filmmakers and audiences they believe they are.

One of my favourite Ebert reviews is Jaws The Revenge. It's hilarious.

The best bit:

"Ellen Brody has become convinced that the shark is following her. It wants revenge against her entire family. I believe that the shark wants revenge against Mrs. Brody. I do. I really do believe it. After all, her husband was one of the men who hunted this shark and killed it, blowing it to bits. And what shark wouldn’t want revenge against the survivors of the men who killed it?"

Enjoy the full review here:

Craig Gustafson said...

As someone interested in comedy, have you seen "Stan & Ollie"? I went in with Grave Doubts, because as a fanatic I can pinpoint every bit of Artistic License taken with the facts. But I loved it anyway.

Mike said...

Has any PR person or writer or actor or anyone associated with the movie you review, reached out to you? Has anyone tried to correct your perception of their movie?

I am sure many Hollywood insiders follow your blog and would have spoken to you about your review.

I can think of Aaron Sorkin for one, who commented here once. Please tell us if any one else has come after you :)

A separate blog or Friday question would be great.

Unknown said...

I think i have said it before. We need more award shows.

sanford said...

I think every bio pic takes Artistic License. We just saw on the Basis of Sex. I didn't know much about her early life. The movie begins when she goes to Harvard. I read an article on what they got wrong with the movie. Her are two examples. Her husband was discovered to have prostate cancer. In the movie he had collapsed while playing a game of charades. In real life he was in a car crash on upon examination that is when it was discovered. Her first case before a court was in front of the tenth circuit court. When she gets up in front of the court she looks quite nervous and hits the mike. That did not happen. I thought the movie was good. I didn't think they had to change facts or even invent a couple to make it any more dramatic. I have twice seen the trailer for Rocketman. As the trailer says it is a true story based on a fantasy. The movie is about Elton John. I am sure the music will be great, but will probably be like Bohemian Rhapsody when it comes to the facts.

Peter said...

This has made me browse other Ebert reviews for the yucks and found this gem, a review of the Jerry Lewis film Hardly Working, which I'd never heard of until I came across the review.

"Hardly Working is one of the great non-experiences of my moviegoing life. I was absolutely stunned by the vast stupidity of this film."

"Jerry Lewis, as director, has no sense of timing--and timing is the soul of comedy. He has made his film into an educational experience: See it, and you will learn by default what competent film editing is."

The last line of the review is gold.
"Once, a very long time ago, Jerry Lewis made me laugh. I was seven at the time. He still seems to be making movies for the same audience."

Andrew said...

I've always enjoyed your reviews, Ken. In fact, I wish you would do more of them, especially older movies (like you did for The Heartbreak Kid). You could make it a feature. What in your mind are the classic comedy films, and why? Which ones are underrated and seldom seen? Which ones don't really hold up anymore?

Consider this a Friday question: Which movies have you seen that you expected to dislike, but they surprised you? And which movies did you expect to love, but you were sorely disappointed?

Henry Lawson said...

Re Anthony Lane. I also rely on his reviews, not just for the artistic judgement but also for the wit. His review of 'An Acceptable Loss' in the latest New Yorker is very funny indeed.

PolyWogg said...

I do occasional movie reviews, but am very out of practice. However, I adapted my review "style" to become my approach to book reviews so I feel it is a fair representation...I basically break my reviews into four pieces:

- Plot or premise just as background
- What I liked
- What I didn't like
- Bottom line -- distilling my review to one line

I have a small list of "topics" that I consider for liked/didn't like, mostly to remind myself in case I forget to consider something, and I did take a small film appreciation class through the local college just to augment my list. Most of the time, my review is closer to your "take" I suppose, but once in awhile, I look at my list and think, "Oh YEAH, I almost forgot that!". For example, I would almost never comment on lighting...but in Almost Famous, there is one scene where the character of Penny almost GLOWED despite the fact she was facing a really harsh reality. And it made the scene one of hte most memorable of all time for me. Timing, sure; the plot, sure; the dialogue, the acting, the scene, all sure; but the lighting brought it to magic levels. Most of the time the reason I like a scene is something special in it and the list helps me think about the mechanics of the scene. That probably comes naturally to you though. :)

But I doubt that I will ever rise to my nephew's rating system, created by the time he was about 25, from a family that DEVOURS movies:

0/1. Oh. Gawd. (Bad)
2. Meh.
3. Watchable
4. Enjoyable
5. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Now THAT's a take :)


PJ said...

I don't know if he still does it, but there used to be a guy who reviewed movies for an English language magazine in Tokyo. He always made me laugh. in a review for one of those loud action movies (Vin Diesel or someone like that) his review was something like, "Save your money. Put a metal trashcan over your head and have someone bang on it for 90 minutes. You'll have the same experience."

MikeN said...

My complaint is that you review movies in context. Don't helicopter into the latest movie in a series and say you don't understand what's going on. An attitude like that would have denied an Oscar for The Return of the King.

Tudor Queen said...

As it happens, Anthony Lane is one of my favorite critics - his review of "Braveheart" some years ago is a brilliant and funny takedown of the movie, the genre and a lot of other things.

I think you qualify as a movie critic because you write reviews and I read them with great enjoyment. I never, ever tire of you reminding comedy writers and showrunners that the basic rule for writing comedy is "It needs to be funny." In fact, one of my rules when I see a trailer or promo for a comedy movie or tv show is, "If I didn't laugh during this, where they're trying to get me to watch what they created, and therefore include some of their best material, well, I doubt I'll want to see it.

blogward said...

"Get Out" is quite a good horror movie for people who don't like horror movies.