Writing Movie Reviews

With Roger Ebert’s death this week, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to movie reviews and how difficult they are to write.

The same goes for book reviews.

I’ve written a few of each in my day and I think the greatest challenge is to explain enough of the plot so that the reader knows whether they want to experience this movie or book, but not give away so much as to spoil major plot points.

This is not an easy task.

Another factor a reviewer needs to consider is his or her own biases – both positive and negative.   For instance, I recently gave a rave review of the movie Les Miserables while a number of my friends thought the movie was mediocre at best and a major disappointment at worst.

What I didn’t share in my review – and in hindsight I probably should have – was the fact that I walked into the theater loving the movie.

They had me at Hugh Jackman.

Give me the Les Mis score with Colm Wilkinson in any part – including Fantine if he wants it – and I will fork over $10 for the ticket and thank you for the privilege.  The same can be said for almost any movie starring Jimmy Stewart, Peter O’Toole or Gregory Peck.  A good script and strong director are nice extras, but give me George Bailey, T.E. Lawrence or Atticus Finch and I will unconsciously ignore any negatives that surround them.

The same thing happens when confronted with one of my many film prejudices.  I almost universally hate physical humor.  The moment a movie resorts to Jerry Lewis pratfalls or Three Stooges “woo-woo-woos” I mentally check out.  (I will, however, give a pass to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton only due to their creativity in inventing the genre.)

The final difficulty I’ve found in writing reviews is trying to write for a broad audience.  Take a recent movie I saw – The Quartet.  It was sweet, funny and poignant.  If you want to go see a well-written, superbly-performed movie about a group of former opera singers who are in the twilight of their life, this is a wonderful movie.  Now, that said, not much happens in this movie.  Old relationships are revisited, people grow as they interact with one another and there is a musical performance at the end.  This movie is a collection of lovely, quiet moments.

Much like life, itself.

Die Hard 16, though, it isn’t.  In writing a strong review, you need the Die Hard fans to understand that this might not be the movie for them while (bringing us back to my first point) not spoiling the story for the fans of quiet British dramas.

So what does this rambling post have to do with Roger Ebert, you ask?

The man had an extraordinarily difficult job.  He did it well and he did it with courage, dignity and a love for film that shone through every word he wrote – both positive and negative.  He went into every movie – whether it was Pulp Fiction or Hot Tub Time Machine –  with a hope that the movie would be outstanding.

And when it wasn’t, he told his audience in no uncertain terms.

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