How to review a film

Analysing and Evaluating Film

By Daniel Dercksen

If you want to become a master at reading a film, it is important to start seeing film outside your world view and from an objective point of view.

It is important to always keep in mind that no matter how awful a film might be from your own experience and world view, that each film has a very specific audience.

It is essential for you to grasp this understanding and take a seat inside the zone of the audience and outside your comfort zone.

Never say that you did not like or dislike a particular film. Rather state that the film worked or did not work for you and explore why it worked and on what level.

If you dislike the musical genre, it should not deter you from analysing a film as a work of art and rate its artistic and dramatic merits.

First rule: Remove yourself out of the evaluation: It is not about you, but what the film, stageplay, novel or painting is saying (refer to The World of Film: The Language and visual dynamics of film)

If you want to become a critic it is important to always keep in mind that your primary function as a reviewer is to ultimately educate your readers or listeners in film or theatre, and not deter them from visiting the cinema or theatre.

It is important to take the director and screenwriter’s reasons for creating a particular film into consideration.

On our website, production notes containing the views of the director and writer are placed which makes it easy for you to take a step back and see the film though the eyes of the storyteller.

In analysing and evaluating a film, it is important to objectively take the following points into consideration:

The Idea

When you are looking at the basic idea of what the film is about, it is important to understand the premise of the basic idea and what the concept was in writing the story.

  • The premise is the basic idea: if the premise is ‘family is more important than becoming the most important artist of your time’, does the film succeed in showing us how important family is, and why family is more important that individual freedom? Is the premise original and compared to other films with the same premise, is it unique, fresh and original?
  • Does the concept live up to its promise? If it’s a High Concept (an event driven story) the events cause the story to happen and unfold. It’s all about the physical action and spectacular adventure. If it’s a Low Concept, the characters drive the narrative; it’s all about the characters and has lots of emotional (internal) conflict, the actions of the characters allow the events to unfold). If it’s a huge blockbuster the film should be both he High Concept and Low Concept; there is a lot of action and spectacle, but also well-defined characters whom we care about.
  • Was the idea original? Was the idea original, refreshing and captivating? Remember that a story is not what you say, but how you say it. Was it a a meaningful experience.  Did you leave the cinema with food for thought and took the story home with you? Were you introduced to new ideas, new worlds, and new experiences that made you think about issues that were covered in the story. Did you laugh, cry, or were you afraid? Did you respond to whatever the story demanded?

Does the IDEA work?  It could have a great Premise but the Concept failed. Or it had a dull Premise but it was not fresh and original. An IDEA usually works if it has a great Premise that delivers a killer Concept and is fresh and invigorating. Yes or No.

Genre

What type of story is it and does it live up to its expectations? If it is a thriller, was it filled with suspense, or a horror that scared you to death?  Read more about genre and genre plots

Each genre imposes certain conventions on the screenplay. The choice of genre sharply determines and limits what’s possible within a story.

Theme

If story is what happens and plot is how the what happens, the theme is why the what happens.

What is the thought or controlling idea behind the story? Does the film deal with good and evil? Romance? Greed? Courage? Revenge?  It could be a large theme like the ‘futility of existence’; or it can be smaller, it could be ‘family life is great’, ‘the underdog triumphs’, ‘triumph of the human spirit’, ‘coming of age’.

Most films that are dramatically successful express some underlying idea that has universal appeal for audiences, who can identify with the characters and situations.

Most stories can have more than one theme. This is what causes conflict and drama.

Theme gives meaning to the activity of the plot and purpose to the action of the characters.

Great stories have powerful themes, but they are told in an entertaining way. You have to ask: What is the filmmaker trying to say and does it work?

Does the theme have resonance and is it relevant?  Yes or No.

Action and plot

The plot is the arrangement of actions designed to tell the story.

Story is what happens. Plot is how the what happens. It is the action line.

The plot is the story developed from beginning to end. If the plot is executed successfully, the film will make sense. Even if the plot is reversed, telling the story from back to front (‘Memento’), it all makes perfect sense.

If the plot is confusing, the audience will get lost and not be able to follow the journey the characters went on.

It is important to understand the difference between the main plot and the subplots. The main plot, or main action is the external journey of the protagonist (your main character). It represents the conflict that unfolds in the story, which provides an opportunity for the growth of the characters.  The subplot is the internal journey. It carries the emotional and thematic content.

Did you follow what happened or did you get lost along the way? Was the plot confusing? Could you feel your heart racing after watching an action film? Yes or No.

Characters

The character (s) must compel the audience’s attention. Audiences invest emotionally in characters that will transport them on a journey both foreign and familiar.

  • Is it clear who the story about (protagonist)? Who prevented the protagonist from achieving his or her goal (antagonist)? Was there a guide or interpreter? A mentor?

Interest in character is generated both by the audience’s familiarity with the character’s goal and by the actions the character performs to achieve that goal.

Were you involved with what the characters experienced and not enslaved by the beauty of the performer? Did the cast bring the characters to life and added their own individual and unique dimension. How were the development of the characters? Were you convinced?   Yes or No.

Language or verbal expression

Most of the film’s action and meaning will be articulated through what a character says, how a character speaks.

Good exposition through dialogue will tell an audience what it needs to know and will create an event, change the dynamic of the plot, and alter the character’s lives.

Dialogue is a function of character. It is action orientated and must deliver exposition (what has happened), depict action (what is happening), and promise future action (what may happen).

If a character is a gangster, does the character sound like a gangster? Characters can express themselves by saying nothing. Their actions (body language) will tell us what is not expressed verbally.

Was the dialogue functional and understandable? Yes or No.

Sound

It has always played a major part in film. Film is word and image. There are three types of sound in film:

  • Dialogue: You understood what the characters were saying and what they said gave you information about their story, their world and their actions.
  • Music: The music contributed to the theme, story, and characters.
  • Sound effects: The sound effects  startling and dazzling, and pulled you into the story.

Did the sound contribute towards the telling of the story and the emotional journey of the characters? Yes or No.

Spectacle, image or visual adornment

Spectacle makes audiences say “Wow”.

It is when an ordinary event escalates into an extraordinary event; here, excess and an exaggerated reality are at play to magically emphasise a kind of magic realism.

This could be achieved in big special effects, or in small effects gestures (the lighting of a candle). It is primarily a visual element (framed action).

The costumes, production design and make up contributed to the spectacle, authenticity and enhanced the illusion of reality.

Was it spectacular?  Yes or No.

Cinematography & lighting

It was an overall visual experience.

The visual images contributed to the story, mood and setting.

It was not a travelogue or catalogue to some foreign destination.

You could smell and taste the food, feel the heat, and felt uncomfortable when the character entered a strange or dangerous environment.

Did the cinematography contribute to the overall success of the film? Yes or No.

Editing

There was pace, rhythm and tempo.

You were involved in the action and captivated by the silence of a dramatic, internal confrontation.

You experienced what the characters were feeling and going through and felt exhausted after the car chase.

You experienced the chaos of the big city as opposed to the tranquillity of the countryside.

Did you get a sense of pace, rhythm and tempo during the telling fo the story?  Yes or No.

Direction

The director is the captain of the ship and provides an overall vision that unifies all elements in the story.

The director is a visionary; the vision of the director is unique and re-invents the genre. When the story calls for intimacy, the director perfectly captured the intimate moments between the characters. When the story screams for visualisation and spectacle, the director opened up the story.

The director did tell the story visually and understood the story, theme, situations and characters, taking the audience on an emotional journey.  Yes or No.

Personal taste

The film worked for you though it was not your favourite genre.

You will watch it again. Buy the video or DVD.

Your personal comment on how you viewed/ experienced the film and how it affected you is is not a review, but your point of view.

Self Task

Go to the movies!

  • Leave your comfort zone and watch a film on circuit in a cinema near you.
  • Be daring and watch the film you know nothing about or would usually avoid.
  • Don’t think about the film when you are watching it.
  • Let the film happen and wash over you.
  • Allow yourself to be flooded by the story and the world the filmmaker created.
  • Believe in everything and don’t doubt anything.
  • Don’t work out what will happen, take the journey and see what happens.
  • Once you get home, sit down and think about what you experienced.
  • Now take your notepad and go through each point carefully and explore what worked for you and what did not work.

Remember, this is not about like or dislike, but about developing the write vision and learning how to see film as a storyteller. 

Did this article help you?  If so (or if not) let us know 

Copyright © The Writing Studio