To further explore some of the principles in Chapter 3: Words, this bonus chapter will break down a review of Django Unchained.
You should always, always take notes while watching the film you’re going to review.
Plot points, themes, character names, lines of dialogue, details that jump out at you, thoughts that pop into your head. Any little gemstones and curiosities that might make your review sparkle. They could prove to be useless. Or they might be crucial elements that help you build your review. You will definitely forget them if you don’t jot them now.
No, you don’t need a little torch or an illuminating pen. Your notes will look like they were written by a learning-impaired serial killer (see below), but you’ll be able to read them.
Here are my notes from the press screening of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained back in 2012.
Right page: Django Bacalov Django song — link | Hate, murder and revenge | Scarred back | Not homage -> curation | Last chance fancy pants | $125 | Wobbly tooth | N-bombs | It’s a nigga on a horse!
Left page: Pouring pints | Waltz | Manners — hat off the table | Cheery | Tony and Fritz | Blue shirt | Bags on head — eyeholes | More artfully, calmly shot — classically | “I + horse”?
Right page: Kill white folks and get paid, what’s not to like? | Could listen to Waltz read anything | Siegfried and Broomhilda | Western in the snow — snowman | Candyland | Violent but not gratuitous — deaths off screen
Left page: Coconut drink straw | Colours: it’s a yellow dress | SLJ — cheeky black brother — great! | Surprising music choice — good | Literacy and illiteracy — what words mean | SLJ — trembling outrage, crippled
Right page: Angry that they wasted his time | Battle of wits + verbal cat and mouse | Purchases must have a receipt | Cake candles | White hats, black hats | Goodies are good, Baddies are bad
Left page: Humour — Black humour | Old QT: like all of it | New QT: like bits | Revisit history, rewrite it or should have been | Justice | Mandingo fighting | Historical catharsis | Aldo Raine
Left page: mock epic | No feet | Foxx — Texas | D is silent | DJAMIE
So what’s going on here?
The italicised lines are ones that actually made it into my review. In case you’re wondering why half of it is upside down: I’m left-handed, so I write on the right-hand page, then flip the book round, so I always have a page to lean on.
What are the vertical marks scattered all over the pages? I think I tried to record the number of people who were killed in the final shootout, to check later if it might be Tarantino’s most violent scene. I also seem to have started writing the letter F. This may have been some ludicrous attempt to count the number of swears, which I clearly abandoned.
Here’s what these notes became.
This is the laid-out lead review that we published in the Django Unchained issue of Little White Lies magazine.
How did I get from those screening notes to that review?
Honestly? I’ll never really know. You’re not alone if you feel like writing just sort of ‘happens’ as you slalom endlessly between writer’s block and flow state until you have a finished piece. Writing is… really hard to put into words.
But to try to answer the above question, I’ve attempted a breakdown of this Django Unchained review. You can access it here. Have a read, then come back.
Content and structure: a closer look
So to recap. Very broadly, the content of a film review will break down into four things.
Plot: telling the reader what happens in the film, setting the scene
Context: showing the reader how the film fits into the world outside of the film (e.g. other films)
Judgement: making a critical judgement on something in film
Evidence: noting/describing key moments from the film that back up a point you’re making
The 892-word length of my Django review divides up roughly like this. As you can see, plot occupies the smallest proportion and I spend most of my words on judgement.
Perhaps more interesting is what we can see in the structure. At the beginning of the Django review, I spend most of my words on contextual setup. I then gradually feed in more plot details. But the second two-thirds of the review is devoted mostly to a big judgement/evidence/judgement sandwich. The finale is a uniquely even mix of all four types of content.
Obviously, no one ever scientifically thinks about proportioning their reviews in this way. But it’s something interesting to be aware of when you’re writing and structuring yours. Hopefully, this helps a little bit to illustrate some of the principles in Chapter 3: Words.
For example, this is what we mean by ‘weaving’ in the plot. You can see that only two paragraphs are dominated by plot — and they both come strapped with judgement and/or context. Plot details are otherwise drip-fed through the review rather than just being dumped wholesale at the start.
For another example, there are some awfully long sentences which could probably benefit from being broken up.
You can decide for yourself what you like about this review, what you don’t and what you might do differently.
One final thing to note
This review was proof-read by at least two other people, who suggested valuable edits (which, as editor of the magazine, I had the privilege of actioning or ignoring). I wish I still had the printouts with their mark-ups, because they deserve to be included here. This external feedback is another vital, unseen phase of every good film review’s creative journey.