I've posted this before, but thought I'd do a new post about it.
1. Review the Show you are seeing, not the show you want to see.
- THIS is my most important rule above all others.
- I see it all the time. A reviewer goes to see a play or a movie and they don’t like the subject matter. They don’t like the set because they hate the color brown or they think an actor is “too old” to play a role or they find a pet peeve in the show that sticks in their craw- whatever. Or they went to a show and they wanted to see Shakespeare and instead they got Sam Raimi. It is not my job to tell you about the show I wanted to see- it is my job to tell you about the show that I am seeing. If a theater decides to insert post-modern sensibilities into the tale of Romeo + Juliet, then did they do it well or was it a jumbled mess that confused everyone? If I watch “Evil Dead: The Musical”, did the actors pull it off and did the gore get the crowd excited and were the jokes hitting or is the blood not plentiful enough? My “taste” has nothing to do with what is being presented and I may not exactly BE the target audience… but the target audience may read what I am writing and I have to serve as a guidepost for whether they choose to bring their money to this product. It’s not fair of me to impart MY tastes on their decision. Only my interpretation of what is being delivered and what sensibilities I feel are being aimed for. Write about whether the show achieves what it sets out to do, nothing more and nothing less.
2. Buy something.
-This may seem a little odd, but I honestly don’t believe that anyone has the right to say word one about a show or movie if they don’t put skin in the game. You might get a free offer to see a show, but while you are there you had better buy a concession item or two and you better not act as though you “deserve” a freebie just because you’re writing. Some people have told me that I deserve a free ticket because my writing helps to sell a show, but the truth is that I have nothing to write without the show to begin with. So I often buy my tickets- I support the arts when I can and the only time I even accept a freebie is when I simply can’t afford a ticket because I’m on a low a budget. And, even then, I occasionally scrape some funds together to see a movie or a play because I have a special interest in it. The added bonus is that I can say whatever the hell I want because I laid down some skin to watch it or see it or read it and that makes it, essentially, “mine” to do with as I choose. Buy something, for heaven’s sake.
3. Don’t take notes during the show:
I really HATE it when I see people writing in a journal as they’re watching a show. They see something, they jot something, and they’re missing something else that’s happening. You want to keep it fresh, wait for intermission or set change or whatever- but don’t take a note in a book while you’re watching a show. You are MISSING something if you do. If you’re there in a “professional capacity”, then act like a professional and absorb the full experience before you start writing an opinion on something that might become further informed as the show progresses. I’ve read several reviews that have left me completely confused because the plot they describe is NOT the plot taking place on the stage, or a line of dialogue is taken completely out of context solely because the writer glommed on to something and started to take a note rather than pay attention to the rest of the scene.
4. Take a Program or Read the Credits:
This shouldn’t even need to be a rule, but here’s the thing: I’ve seen names misspelled, I’ve seen characters misidentified, and it’s annoying as hell. Even with the program, I occasionally make a mistake- but I always try to correct it in the editing. A Program for the play or the Credits of a film will often give you the most basic information you need to have in identifying who is involved with what. With the creation of IMDB, this is even easier for reviewing films because the names are there to do research on and see other projects the people are involved with.
5. Identify and be specific-
- I’m going to give an example of what I mean for this- I dislike James Cameron’s film “Avatar”. Not only do I dislike it on a personal level, but on a professional level as well- that doesn’t negate the fact that I realize it is an amazingly beautiful film with fantastic special effects. It doesn’t mean that I don’t acknowledge the action or that certain actors in the film do a good job of presenting the story. What it does mean is that I call out James Cameron for writing a near carbon copy script for “Dances with Wolves” or "Fern Gully" and created such a generic and passé series of driving motivations that he literally chose to use the word “unobtainium” in order to describe his MacGuffin. I’m describing precisely what I did not like about the film, precisely where I found fault, and exactly why it didn’t work for me. But I also praised precisely what I thought was incredible and worthwhile for someone who WOULD like the film and that there is value in it.
- Too many times these writers simply try to create an art form unto themselves in tearing apart something they don’t like. They offer zero credit to anyone or anything and the review becomes about them or about their cause. I don’t have to love everything, but there was hard work put into a production and the good stuff needs to be pointed out just as much (probably more) as the bad.
6. DO NOT SPOIL:
- There are ways to talk about a movie or film synopsis, to talk about specific performances, to talk about specific “moments” without spoiling the rest of the film. I’ve read a number of reviews where the writers just flat out tell you the whole of the story, including the twist ending and then stared at the article wondering if I should bother seeing the movie or show. What’s the point? It’s already been spoiled.
- First off- these reviewers are occasionally wrong. They totally miss the point or they see something happening that is not happening. It’s confusing and you feel at a loss, but chances are more than likely they had their head down while taking notes and missed something. Don’t spoil the show.
- Star Wars: A New Hope features the story of a young man who joins an elderly old warrior to help rescue a princess from the Galactic Empire- we need never read about the death of Luke’s Aunt and Uncle because that is a twist in the story, a dramatic moment that loses all impact the moment the audience is informed of it. Don’t talk about the twists in a review, don’t spoil the ending, and don’t spoil the show.
7. Be fair: “It’s Personal- take responsibility for it.”
- A review is always a personal interpretation of what the reviewer is watching, reading, or listening to. Not only that, but the art they are reviewing is a personal thing that is being created by someone(s) who is likely going to read those thoughts if they are published in any medium (even a lowly blog on the interwebs). As much as I may wish to say something “isn’t personal”, it is and I’m responsible for what I write. As such, I have a responsibility to the performers, writers, and producers to be fair in what I’m writing. To view their product on a level where, even if I don’t understand it, I’m being fair with it and I’m not letting my personal feelings interfere with an honest review. But that doesn’t mean “lie”- be honest and responsible for that honesty. If I don’t like something, I owe it to myself and my credibility to say that I didn’t like it and to explain why. If I do like something, I owe it to myself, my credibility, and any readers that what I am writing is worth their time.
8. Keep a ratings scale:
-Thumbs up, thumbs down, that stuff doesn’t fly for me because there are so many levels to regard whether something is good or not. I used a five point rating scale based on the Netflix *Star* program, mostly for ease of effort. I've changed to 10 points in recent years. Much of the scale is subjective and occasionally may seem inconsistent when set against my reviewing history.
Let me be blunt; I enjoy B movies, zombies, horror, bizarre comedy, and thrilling adventures… A family drama surrounding the personal problems of a daughter, son, mother, or father is not necessarily my cup of tea. It’s not something that cries out “Come see me!” and then sends me running to my piggy bank in hopes of cashing out- but they can be really good and really well done. On the other hand, something appeals to all of my senses but maybe came off a little oddly- something wasn’t perfect and it could have been any number of things, including my particular mood.