Inside the Mind of a Movie Reviewer

February 25, 2013 at 10:43 am

Inside the Mind of a Movie Reviewer | Zack Mandell |

by Zack Mandell

Zack Mandell is a movie enthusiast, writer of movie reviews, and owner of which has great information on movies, actors, and films like Snitch. He writes extensively about the movie industry for sites like Gossip Center, Yahoo, NowPublic, and Helium.


When I was 18 or 19 a good friend of mine was throwing a party and invited me to attend, suggesting I arrive several hours early so we could hang out before it started. I did so to find he had his hands full with party preparation more intense than he’d anticipated. As I couldn’t be of much help he suggested I watch a movie in his room until the party started. This friend had been a film student for a while and had an excellent collection so I was happy to oblige. I liked movies but wasn’t a committed film buff or anything. Remembering a positive endorsement from my mom (who has great taste in movies) I put on Unforgiven, the Clint Eastwood Western and became increasingly engrossed.

William Munny (Eastwood) and his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) are aging ex-gunmen who’ve been hired by a group of prostitutes to kill two men that had slashed up one of their number in a Big Whiskey, WY brothel. Opposing Munny and Logan is Big Whiskey’s protective, brutal ex-gunslinger sheriff- Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman). Munny, by his own admission, had himself been an incredibly cruel, drunken, sadistic and murderous desperado as a younger man before being reformed by his (since deceased) wife. Much of Munny’s youthful sadism had been inspired by liquor, which he’s sworn off.

[Spoiler Alert] Near the end of the film William Munny is preparing to return home when he finds out that someone very close to him has been been captured and tortured (inadvertently) to death by Daggett. At this revelation Munny takes a bottle of whiskey he’s spurned several times and drinks while learning the details of his friend’s ordeal from a terrified prostitute, who in turn reveals details about Munny’s exceedingly vicious past. As we watch, William Munny the father, loving husband, pig farmer and homesteader is dissolved by the whiskey and William Munny the dangerous, bloodthirsty, ruthless, ice water-cold gunfighter emerges. His transformation precipitates and precedes probably the best sequence ever filmed for a Western.

I was transfixed. Everything about Unforgiven seemed backwards: the good guys are hired assassins and the villain a small town sheriff just trying to protect his little patch of territory. The prostitutes seek revenge for their cut comrade, who is perhaps the only one of them not intent on vengeance. One of the men the assassins were hired to kill is good-hearted, hadn’t done any violence himself and was mostly guilty of running to his partner’s aid on instinct, unaware he (the partner) meant to cut up a woman.

Colorful characters enrich Unforgiven’s universe without conforming to cliché, notably incredible turns by Richard Harris as another hired shooter, “English Bob”, and Saul Rubinek’s W.W. Beauchamp- Bob’s Western-mythology-smitten pulp biographer- both of whom put in amazing performances. The primary players- Munny, Logan, Daggett and English Bob, were all old men who’d long since past their prime. It was like watching the hangover following a John Wayne and/or Gary Cooper Western. The tough cowboys, brave sheriffs and slick gunfighters had grown up and grown old. No one is spared (or spared from) the gritty reality of Western life. I’d never seen a movie like it, particularly a Western. When my host came to fetch me for the party (which started about halfway into the movie) I thanked him but requested time to finish. That viewing of Unforgiven affected my initiation into movie buffness.

Obviously, my description of a great movie is nothing at all like watching one and that’s maybe the best case to be made for reviewing movies. Since even the best review can’t really capture the movie experience, good or bad, reviewing appeals to me as a tool for steering viewers toward something they’ll never forget, or at least enjoy. Just as a well-done review can deliver an innocent from a bomb intent on stealing $10 bucks ($44 if concessions are purchased) and two hours of their time. My advice, such as it is, for anyone interested in writing reviews is to write toward a purpose. If you haven’t been assigned a particular movie to review, write on one that stood out to you or had some feature that stood out, whether good or bad. If a movie employs some tired convention or is representative of some trend that bothers you (or that inspires you), point it out.

Write what you think; not what you think you should.

Beware of prevailing review-trends though and learn to recognize them. The woman who wrote for the art and entertainment page of my college newspaper epitomized trend reviewing. When the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movies were being released she sang their praises, as did everyone. However, when the backlash that inevitably accompanies any widely-popular entertainment phenomenon struck she immediately began referencing the LOTR films as the embodiment of boredom and filmic pretension.

Also- be aware of your disposition and situation and let a movie sit with you for a little bit before writing about it. More than once I’ve seen bad movies in some strange mood or with an enthusiastic watching buddy that totally colored my consideration of it, and led to some unforgiven recommendations. Likewise, I’ve watched great movies in a bad mood and judged them too harshly. On a number of occasions something I didn’t immediately like, or even actively disliked, nevertheless stuck with me. Despite an initial neutral-to-negative reaction, if I find myself chewing a movie over for several days afterward (if I’m not thinking on how overtly horrible it was) I almost always come around to digging it.

Another trend in reviewing that’s gained popularity is an attempted populist-appeal. A crappy action movie with the requisite inclusion of explosions and shootings will score glowing reviews from columnists intent on proving how absolutely they dismiss film snobbery and embrace regular-Joe cinematic taste. That being said- both the audience and genre should be kept in mind. If you’re writing a review for Best Car Chases Ever! dot com, the terrible Fast and the Furious sequel you just watched should be weighted regarding the content of the chase scenes with less attention given to the ridiculous dialogue. To be at all successful and satisfied, I think a writer of anything has to write from a place of passionate opinion. If you hate a popular movie or love a “terrible” one- I guarantee there are people out there that agree with you. Write what you think; not what you think you should.