Anatomy of Review

May 20, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

I'm occasionally asked if I have to be "inspired" in order to write a review. The simple answer is "no," but a little inspiration always helps. The sad truth is that when it comes to the motion picture industry, inspiration is in short supply. That's why there are so many sequels and re-makes. When it comes to movies, familiarity does not breed contempt.

What inspires me as a writer? Usually, it's the result of a film being very good or very bad. In the former case, the reason is obvious - if I'm passionate about a movie, I want to shout that from the rooftops and that sometimes results in a review that sparkles. In the latter case, I can often be energized to rail against a particularly horrendous waste of time and money. I have been told by more then one reader that the zero star/half star/one star reviews are often the most enjoyable to read.

Of course, not every very good/bad movie is inspirational. But it's a rare thing for me to be inspired by something in the middle of the road. I have noted that the **1/2 films are the most difficult to review, because I rarely feel strongly one way or another about those movies. They're not good. They're not bad. They exist. They don't merit much in the way of praise or condemnation. In a thumbs-up/thumbs-down situation, a **1/2 movie would get a thumbs-down more often than not, although if there was such a thing as a thumbs-sideways, that would be more appropriate for these movies.

Is writing a review hard? Fifteen years ago, when I agonized over every word and sentence and was still struggling to find my "voice," I would have said yes. Now, it's all second nature. Most reviews, even those that aren't inspired, flow. I sit in front of my computer screen and the words tumble out, sometimes faster than my fingers can keep up. The key to writing reviews isn't so much inspiration as it is practice. That's where the saying "10% inspiration, 90% perspiration" applies.

I do not have a standard format for reviews, but there is a structure to them. In my view, the point of a review is to provide an informed opinion. That means that if you read one of my reviews and, when you're finished, you can't figure out what I thought about the movie and why I thought that way, I haven't accomplished what I set out to do. Another thing I incorporate is enough bits and pieces of the plot to provide readers with an idea of what the movie is about (hopefully without spoiling key elements). I also like to structure most reviews so that the first paragraph functions as a summary of my feelings. That way, people who want a snapshot of my opinion without reading the entire review can absorb the first paragraph.

How long does a review take to complete? As with any piece of writing, it depends on the subject. An average review - one that runs about 750 words - requires about 60 minutes from first word to posting. That includes the initial writing (after which I generally like to leave the draft overnight before coming back to it with fresh eyes in the morning) and the editing. Some reviews are written immediately before they are placed onto the website; others have been kicking around for days or weeks. Politics play a part in when a review is posted. Studios can get very upset if a review appears much before the film opens (unless it's insanely positive - then they look the other way).

I don't like letting a lot of time elapse between watching a movie and writing a review, and I don't like it when I develop a backlog. When I write, I like to focus on a movie when it's fresh in my mind and when the impression is not clouded by other films. I used to be a rigorous note-taker, but I no longer bring a pen and pad with me. (The exception is documentaries, where there are usually enough facts that it's worth jotting a few down.) I assume that as I get older and my memory starts failing, I'll go back to note-taking. For the moment, however, it doesn't enhance the reviews and it decreases (albeit minutely) my enjoyment of the movie.

Hopefully, this has provided some insight into my approach to writing reviews. It's a fairly popular e-mail topic, so this was designed as a FAQ of sorts for those with interest.