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Guest blog: What’s it like being a film reviewer? by Andrew Dickens, Film Editor at Shortlist

Posted May 31, 2013 - Blog Posts

Andrew Dickens is an award-winning writer and is currently the Film Editor at the UK’s leading men’s magazine, ShortList. His job allows him to interview famous people and to write about a vast range of subjects such as sport, music, film and television.

We all like to have a whinge about our jobs. In fact, as Britons, we like to have a whinge about most things: the weather, the economy, other people whinging. It’s a national pastime and we’re very good at it. Sometimes, though, you need a little perspective.

When I whinge about my job to my non-journalist friends, I get looks ranging from incredulity to ‘you’ve just kicked my dog’. I’ll complain that film screenings eat up my private life. This is true; if I wanted to, I could fill every evening with anything from a superhero blockbuster to an independent Latvian comedy about singing goats. My friends will then point out that I haven’t paid to see a film since The Artist 18 months ago – and that was only because I was too late to get into a West End show that I’m too embarrassed to name here.

Then there’s the travel. I started writing this on an EasyJet flight, on my way to interview Michael Douglas at the Cannes Film Festival. I had a whinge about getting up early, returning home late and being away from the ShortList office when I’ve got a ton of work to do. But, on the other hand, I went to Cannes to interview Michael Douglas. And I drank some wine with a baguette.

And this is the balance. I`ve got a daily email count in three figures, the hours are long and the travelling anti-social (I’m nearly always alone and it’s often at short notice). Last month, for example, I was covered stories in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The total trip was four nights, I barely slept and the jet-lag seemed to last a fortnight, but I was in Las Vegas and Los Angeles and I’m well aware that most people are elated if they get to pop out of the office to buy a KitKat.

I also get to interview people who some fans would pay to be spat on by. It`s a privilege if, like me, you have a curiosity (read `obesssion`) with people who live very alien lives – like actors. Occasionally you get some quality time with them – lunch or a coffee somewhere (, but, and I’m sorry for bursting the glamour bubble here, most interviews are done at ‘junkets’; a production line where the interviewee is parked in a hotel room and visited by a succession of journalists for anything from 5 minutes to an hour. You know the bit in Notting Hill where Hugh Grant gets ushered through for a chat with Julia Roberts and claims to be from Horse & Hounds? Pretty damned accurate and, if you’re ever going to feel sorry for multi-millionaire actors who have their entire lives organised for them, that’s when it’ll happen because, for the most part, they’ll be answering the same questions with the same answers in the same room all day; and they’ll do this in city after city. Which is why, when they get something a bit different – even if it`s from a hapless idiot – they seem so pleased, just like Mila Kunis in this clip…

(I spend years trying to do interviews properly and that joker goes viral. There’s no justice in the world. Yes, I’m whinging again.)

Another major part of my job is reviewing films, something that leaves me torn. On one hand, why should my or any other critic’s opinion matter? There’s no accounting for taste. Some people might love The Intouchables, while others go crazy for The Untouchables. (I’m lucky in that I can find something to enjoy in most films. Most.)

On the other hand, reviews do provide three services: one, they’re a conversation-starter that can make you think about the film in a different way or point out subtleties you may have missed; two, they allow good films with smaller publicity budgets to gain greater recognition, the valued ‘critical acclaim’; and three, they act as a filter. This means we have a responsibility to the reader because they’ll be using that filter to decide how they’re going to spend their hard-earned time and money. Personally, I’d always suggest reading at least half a dozen reviews to get a consensus, if you can be bothered.

I actually find reviewing films quite difficult. Some people are very academic in their analysis. I am quite instinctive – which is a lot harder to put into words. Neither way is better, but I /have/ been a victim of hindsight. When I first saw Avatar, for example, I was so entranced by the pretty blue people and 3D wizardry that I completely missed the atrocious dialogue, lazy plot and general patronising of tribal cultures. That said, when I saw it that first time, I was blown away – and I wasn’t the only one – so perhaps it was the right opinion to have. Just not as right as my new opinion.

Instinct aside, there are a few things that I want in a film. Here they are in convenient list form:

1. A storyline. Call me old-fashioned, but I like a beginning, middle and end, which is actually very hard to do well. I’m not a fan of meandering films that don’t seem to go anywhere. Best end to a film ever: The Italian Job.
2. Originality and imagination. There are hundreds of films made every year, so doing something different is nigh on impossible. It could be a twist or a scenario or a concept, but it’s nice to be surprised. Think The Usual Suspects.
3. A ‘look’. The look of a film can do wonders for my opinion of it. Style can, if not outweigh, compliment substance.
4. A great soundtrack or score. I interviewed Danny Boyle once and he said that most of our cinematic experience isn’t visual, it’s aural. Watch a film without any music and you’ll see exactly what he means. Sound amplifies emotions, whether they be tension, joy or drama.
5. Strong performances. An average script and bland direction can, on occasions, be carried by an actor or actors.
6. Stands up to repeat viewing. See Avatar.

And there you have it. I`m not sure what that`s taught you, other than that I complain about really ridiculous things, but I wish you very happy viewing.

Andrew Dickens Image - v2


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