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How to Write a Film Review

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Feature films and documentaries are sometimes useful as research sources. They are also used quite frequently as supplemental learning tools in the classroom. A common writing assignment is a critical review or analysis of films.

Your instructor will choose a specific film or documentary for a reason - because it relates to the material at hand in some way. A good review will explain how the film has enhanced the learning experience, but it should also provide an account of your personal response.

The components and format of your film analysis will depend on the course and instructor’s preferences, but there are several standard components of a review.

Components to Include in Your Review

The elements listed here do not appear in any specific order. The placement of these items (or the omission of them) will vary, depending on relevance.

You’ll have to decide, for example, if artistic elements are so important that they should be included in the body of your paper (as in a film class), or if they are so seemingly insignificant that they appear at the end (perhaps in an economics class).

Title of the film or documentary: Be sure to name the film in your first paragraph. State the date of its release.

Summary: What happened in this film? As a reviewer, you must explain what happened in the film and express your opinion about the success or failure of the film maker’s creation.

Don’t be afraid to express your opinion, but include specific reasons for likes and dislikes. You can’t say “it was boring” unless you provide justification.

Film maker: You should do a little research on the person who created this film.

Is the director or writer a controversial figure? Is the film maker known for a political stance? Does the film maker have a significant background?

If the film maker is known for controversy, this segment of your paper can be lengthy. Devote several paragraphs to an assessment of his or her other works and establish the significance of this work in the film maker’s career.

Significance to your class: Why are you seeing this film in the first place? How does the content fit into your course topic?

Is this film important for historical accuracy? If you are viewing a motion picture for your history class, be sure to make note of embellishments or over-dramatization.

If you are reviewing a documentary for a history class, be sure to observe and comment on the sources used.

Is this a motion picture based on a play you’ve read in English class? If so, make sure you specify whether the film illuminated or clarified elements you missed when reading the play.

If you are reviewing a film for your psychology class, be sure to examine the emotional impact or any emotional manipulation you observe.

Creative elements: Film makers go to great lengths to choose the creative elements of their films. How are these elements important to the overall product?

Costumes for a period film can enhance a film or they can betray the intent of the film.

Colors can be vivid or they can be dull. The use of color can stimulate and manipulate moods.

Black and white shots can add drama.

Good sound effects can enrich the viewing experience. Bad sound effects can destroy a film.

Camera angles and movement can add elements to the story. A jagged transition adds intensity. Gradual transitions and subtle camera movements serve a specific purpose, as well.

Actors can make or break a film. Were the actors effective, or did poor acting skills detract from the film’s purpose? Did you notice the use of symbols?

Formatting Your Paper

The order and emphasis of your paragraphs will depend on your class. The format will also depend on the course topic and your instructor's preference. For example, a typical documentary review for a history class will follow guidelines for a Turabian book review, unless your instructor states otherwise. A typical outline would be:

  • Introduction, to include film title, topic, and release date
  • Accuracy of the depiction
  • Use of sources
  • Creative elements
  • Your opinion

A paper for your literature class, on the other hand, should adhere to MLA formatting guidelines. The film would most likely be a feature film, so the outline might go like this:

  • Introduction, with title and release date
  • Summary of the story
  • Analysis of story elements - like rising action, climax
  • Creative elements, use of color, camera techniques, mood and tone
  • Opinion
You conclusion should detail whether the film maker was successful in his or her purpose for making this film, and re-state your evidence. It may also explain how the film was (was not) helpful for illuminating and providing a deeper understand of a topic in your class.
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