Film writer Alan Scherstuhl has published his writing advice for film reviewers. I don’t necessarily advocate for every single thing here, but it’s all valuable and it’s all worth considering. With Alan’s permission, I’ve reproduced his entire list below. My favorite bit:
Do not forget that some 14 year-old version of you might happen into reading your piece, and that that 14 year-old wants to be invited into the world of culture and ideas, not shamed away from it for not knowing who Jafar Panahi is, so when you mention Jafar Panahi provide some enthusiastic context that might make that 14 year old look Panahi up rather than think “Fuck off, you snob.”
Always good to remember where you came from and how you got started.
Alan is one of the smartest, most astute film writers I know. Follow him on Twitter and check out his wrap up of 2018 in movies. And one last thing that Alan wanted me to share: a good writer can break any of these rules at any time.
My advice on reviews is simple. First, the don’ts:
Do not open with plot summary
Do not write a paragraph of plot summary
Do not ever write this sentence: “CHARACTER’s NAME (ACTOR’S NAME) is an L.A. architect suffering from ennui in the years since her professional chef husband CHARACTER’S NAME (ACTOR’S NAME) had to close his dream restaurant and bury their child CHARACTER’S NAME (ACTOR’S NAME, adorable in sad flashbacks to a happier time)”
Do not forget that it is your job to highlight what is important and memorable and unique, whether good or bad, and to dash the rest to the rocks
Do not only characterize performances in parentheses
Do not laundry list, meaning don’t give us a paragraph of intro, one on the story, one on the actors, one on the direction, and then one of opinion
Do not just rely on adjectives to characterize a performance or a scene or a feeling. Instead, draw upon every bit of descriptive power within you to capture exactly you are attempting to capture. Summon up the moment itself rather than just how you feel about the moment.
Do not despair that the above is hard.
Do not put scare quotes around “wacky” or “zany” or other words. That asks the reader to guess what you think the word usually means and then what you intend it to mean this time and whether you’re putting it in someone else’s mouth.
Do not presume that your understanding of/tolerance for wackiness or zaniness or pretension is the universal standard. These words mean little on their own and demand you clearly characterize whatever strikes you as wacky/zany/pretentious rather than trust that tossing the word in there is enough.
Do not be all, “I don’t know, there were some decent action scenes.”
Do not rely on adverbs that merely add emphasis: “very” or “really” or “wonderfully” in front of an adjective characterize that adjective only in degree, not in character, and more than anything else they suggest that the adjective you’ve chosen is inexact and needs some help. “Stunningly” is just “very” with its eyes bugged out; “profoundly” is just “really” with a beard and its voice lowered an octave.
Do not use “titular” or “myriad” or “gleefully” or “iconic” or any of those godawful Variety terms like “actioner” or “laugher.”
Do not write sentences where the reader could start skimming halfway through and still know what you were going to say.
Do not ignore the real world and the film’s social/political context
Even if you’re exercised about that context, do not ignore the formal choices the filmmakers have made
— how is this film shot and edited, and why? Is it effective? If someone reading your review had never heard of the movie, would it be clear from the review that this was, in fact, a movie and not a play or a TV show?
Do not tut down at regular folks who might not ever see the challenging movie you’re savoring.
Do not write, “In a perfect world, [INSERT MOVIE YOU LOVE HERE] would be a huge hit.” You’re not the Commissariat of Enlightened Taste. Argue for what you love — don’t whine that it’s not as loved as you’d like it to be.
Do not assume that people who do not love what you are championing – or who love what you’re panning – are doing so in bad faith.
Do not forget that some 14 year-old version of you might happen into reading your piece, and that that 14 year-old wants to be invited into the world of culture and ideas, not shamed away from it for not knowing who Jafar Panahi is, so when you mention Jafar Panahi provide some engaging context that might make that 14 year old look Panahi up.
Do not think of your review as just one of the many reviews this film will get, as just a datapoint for the Tomatometer, as just some piece of consumer advice only likely to interest people already engaged with whatever you’re reviewing. Instead, think of your review as an event itself, as something that needs to win people over and get them to care.
Do not think that reviewing simply means setting down your subjective opinion. Key to it is to marshal as much objective evidence and memorable detail as you can to a) make your case, b) give readers a feeling of the experience of actually watching this movie, c) participate in the art yourself, as recording what you witnessed is immortalizing the work in another medium, and d) prevent you from spinning your wheels with dull-ass plot summary.
Again: DON’T WRITE PLOT SUMMARIES ANY LONGER THAN A LINE OR TWO. If you would skim it in other people’s reviews, they’re sure as hell gonna skim it in yours.
Do not worry much of what other critics have said except in the rare revisionist piece where you are proving everybody else wrong a month or so later.
Do not forget that Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael panned 2001. Their reviews of it are persuasive.
And here’s a do:
Engage with the art, open yourself to the art, process the art, and respond to the art. If you ever sit down to watch something and think “Jesus, I don’t want to do this” the same way so many of those sad bastards we all see in the screening rooms seem to, ask me to re-assign because, seriously, there’s someone else who *does* want to do it.
And a Word on Profiles and Interviews:
I prefer our pieces be about how we “get” someone — as in offer rare context and insight — rather than how we “got” someone, as in put some famous person in the paper.
And here’s words I will always cut from reviews so don’t try to sneak them in:
titular, palpable, triptych, myriad, “pokes fun at”, groan- or chuckle-worthy, astonishing, stunning, iconic, painterly, veritable, fever dream, gleefully, plethora, laugher, actioner, most uses of “very,” and the very idea of the setting as a character which it just isn’t, ever. (Note the acceptable use of “very” in the preceding line, rather than the usual “very pretty” or “very funny,” where “very” is less a descriptor
than it is an admission that the adjective it’s paired with is insufficient.)