Film reviews — a way to shape the writing craft (Part 1)


I’ve been pondering the power and place of film reviews ever since I took up a film criticism and analysis module nearly a decade ago, on my way to completing a Mass Comm Masters.

Back then I took up the module for the simple fact that I, like millions of other folks around the world, love film and all things cinema.

But, unlike the same millions of others, I wanted more.

I wanted to really understand why film, despite being a ‘relatively new’ art form (when compared to visual and live performing arts), holds such immediate allure for the widest possible audience.

Why does film draw fans like me in unexplainable and inexorable ways? And what is the power and place film reviews occupy? For the reader, do film reviews enhance or detract from the enjoyment of the film?

I believe, if done right, it should always be the former. It is what drives me now and then to pen my own film reviews here.

In fact, I also believe that the act of writing film reviews can be an excellent training ground for aspiring writers to hone their writing craft for any format or genre of writing.

Let me explain.

1. Film reviews answer the question…

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Photo by Ann H on

One of the first reasons a film review exists is obvious: it tells us what a movie is all about.

Many are the times in the past when I look at a poster featuring a movie with a title like “Mulholland Drive” (is it about a residential district?) or “Lion” (but there’s no actual lion in the poster!), and wonder what in tarnation is this film about?!

So much for the adage “a picture paints a thousand words”!

In the days prior to the Internet and Netflix, one either finds out by asking a friend who’s seen it, buys a cinema ticket to find out for oneself, or turn to the entertainment sections of newspapers and lifestyle magazines to read, you guessed it, a film review.

Cos at the very least, even the most convoluted piece of film review written for the eyeballs of Cannes Film juries, must at least contain a line or paragraph that gives a snapshot or synopsis of what the film is about.

Which is something novice writers must do well to remember. Unless you’re writing an Agatha Christie whodunit, never keep the readers guessing. They may just look away and never return to your piece again!

I was told The New York Times has a general in-house rule that by the fourth paragraph of a 750-1,000 word piece, the writer better lay bare the “what” of the writing.

Good rule of thumb wouldn’t you say?

2. Film reviews answer the question…

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Photo by Ann H on

The next obvious reason for having a film review is to convince the reader why s/he ought to drop everything now and go check out the movie.

Or not.

Either way, the film review must offer the answer to the eternal question “why”.

Maybe the reason to watch is to just goggle at our fave celebrities. Tom Hardy/Holland/Hanks anyone? Or maybe it’s Lily Collins/James/Tomlin?

Maybe the reason to watch is for the cinematography. Gravity? Gladiator? The Grand Budapest Hotel?

How about the editing? Spotlight? Schindler’s List? The Sound of Music?

Or maybe it’s the theme that grabs you. Romance? Revenge? Rescue?

Like film reviews, every piece of writing must shape up towards a universal purpose. That is, if it wants to attract readers. Otherwise, it’s just another diary entry that no one else but you are interested to read.

And by the way, I’m sure if you’re like me, there’ll be days not even you wish to read your own messy verbose!

3. Film reviews answer the question…

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The third thing film reviews do is they can compare and contrast one movie with another.

The most obvious examples are no doubt those within the same genre, especially if the films were released within the same time period. For example, I can recall in 1998 the end-time genre movies Deep Impact and Armageddon were often compared and contrasted one to the other, given they were released less than three months apart (the former in May; the latter July).

Reviews would contrast them, saying though both were apocalyptic in theme, the former was more introspective while the latter more action-oriented. And the reader would have no trouble following that line of logic, especially those who had watched both films.

Or take Star Wars and Star Trek, each with their own loyal fanbase that “never the twain shall meet.”

Aside from the obvious science-fiction genre similarity, the pacing, feel and tone of both film franchises were literally galaxies apart!

Therein lies the truth of many a good piece of writing that answers the “which” question.

For often, comparisons are de rigueur in writings because they help readers connect using familiar items — in the case of film reviews, that would be the mention of other films. Which often helps an audience better understand and decide whether to watch a film or not.

Good writing in any genre or format should do what film reviews do. They should offer up examples and illustrations that are preferably as universal and ubiquitous as possible, to allow for instant connections and moments of “Ah ha! Got it!”

Imagine for instance writing a piece about, say, cross-cultural communication (CCC), yet giving the readers no real-life associations or experiences of the challenges of CCC to hang their understandings on! How cruel is that?!

Still with me? Want more? Then stay tuned next week when I reveal the other questions or, if you will, functions film reviews and good writings ought to serve.

Including what to me is the most important thing writing film reviews, well, reveal.

See you next week!

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