Enlightenment Guaranteed - A Review and a Journey

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15 May, 2008

Karen's Weekend Assignment this week asks us to review a film:

"Review a film. Any film. ... But there's one catch: the film should not be on your personal list of favorites; nor should it be a film you despise."

I read this and groaned.

I didn't want to review a film! I've never thought I was any good at writing reviews. I don't think my opinion is any more informed than anyone else's, and I don't know what goes into a review besides "I liked it" or "I didn't."

... and that's what writing assignments are for. Being asked to write something I wouldn't ordinarily write gives me an opportunity to learn - to find out what goes into a review besides my raw opinion, and to learn how to craft a review to make it more interesting to the reader. Once I've completed this assignment, I'll no longer think I can't write reviews, and I'll at least have some idea of how to go about it if I want to do more someday.


So, my first step is to take a look at what other reviewers do, with a focus on reviewers I respect. I'm a fan of Roger Ebert; I think he knows and loves movies deeply, and he knows how to help others see more in great films. A second object of study is always helpful, and when I told a friend about this assignment, he mentioned Anthony Lane, film reviewer for The New Yorker.

I read several reviews by each of them. I looked for reviews from 2000-2002, since I haven't seen many movies lately, and I wanted to include at least a few reviews of films I'd seen.

I went to the Chicago Tribune site and read Roger Ebert's reviews of:

I'd seen all of these.

Then, I went to the New Yorker site and read Anthony Lane's reviews for :

  • Bridget Jones's Diary (157 words)
  • Billy Elliot (173 words)
  • Insomnia (174 words)
  • Amelie (159 words)
  • Enigma (143 words)
  • Precepts

    Next, I looked for some common elements in the reviews. Most had at least:

    • a brief plot summary that doesn't spoil the story for future viewers
    • an opinion of the film, often given early on, specifying what was good or bad about the effort ("prosaic," "unintelligible," "intolerably cornball"). I had to read Lane's Billy Elliot review twice to get a sense of whether he recommended it or not, and even then it wasn't a clear or strong opinion, and I have no idea whether he thinks I should see Amelie.

    Some also contained:

    • an assessment of how well the actors, directors, and writers performed (Ebert lists Amelie director Jeunet's "great individual shots" and "dazzling virtuousity"; Lane notes Insomnia director "Nolan's busy, ravenous technique")
    • an observation that educates readers about film ("The rest of the movie shows what happens when a style goes in search of a mystery," from Lane's review of Insomnia, or Ebert's Best in Show observation that "Satires have a way of running out of steam, but the suspense of the judging process keeps the energy high")
    • a comment on society or an observation on life suggested by the movie (as in Lane's review of Amelie or Ebert's review of 13 Conversations)
    • asides that mention anything unusual and interesting, such as Mick Jagger's brief appearance in Enigma

    I also noticed that two of the Lane reviews pinpoint what he thought was the best thing about the picture (the chase scenes in Insomnia, Jamie Bell's performance in Billy Elliot).

    Lane was recommended to me as a master of the sharp and funny turn of phrase, and he doesn't disappoint: "With music by T. Rex, the Jam, and other ethereal favorites of the classical stage." Ebert is more of a storyteller; in fact, in the 13 Conversations piece, he actually says "Let me tell you a story."

    Ebert writes full-length reviews for a daily paper; Lane writes quick takes for a weekly magazine. Comparing them gave me an excellent lesson in the impact of concise writing, with no room for a single extraneous word. Ebert was able to share a lot more information - fuller plot outlines, mentions of the directors' earlier works - and offer an introductory paragraph to the 13 Conversations review, offering a glimpse of the film's atmosphere, but using the equivalent of Lane's entire word count in the process.

    Like many writers, I use too many words. As I practice writing, I'll work on paring back the unnecessary, and I'll make sure my longer pieces provide more information, rather than just more words.


    I've studied some masters. I've established some guidelines for myself.

    Here, then, is my review:

    Enlightenment Guaranteed, directed by Doris Dorrie

    In this lightweight but enjoyable travel/buddy movie, two brothers survive 48 hours without possessions and a week of Zen practice, each grappling with enlightenment in his own way.

    The story opens in Germany, where alternating glimpses of daily life introduce us to Uwe and Gustav. When Uwe's marriage falls apart, he tags along on Gustav's visit to a Zen monastery in Japan, where we watch the brothers record their thoughts on their camcorder, revealing more of their thoughts and feelings.

    The characters' contrasting transformations aren't terribly revelatory, but the two men are fairly engaging, and the machinations of the story - how they become lost, how they find one another, how they manage to make their way to the temple - are entertaining.

    A surprise revelation late in the movie comes out of the blue and seems unrelated to anything else in the film.

    It's not a rollicking good time or a deep meditation on life, but as a series of moments, it's a reasonably pleasant two-hour journey.

    Less is More

    For extra credit, Karen asks, "Is there a film due out this summer that you plan to go see? If so, what is it?"

    I hardly ever go to the movies anymore. I used to see movies pretty often, and I had a couple of week-long moviefests when the San Francisco International Film Festival was on, but between high ticket prices, noisy audiences, and the poor sightlines you get when you're short like me, I've lost interest.

    I will probably see some movies on DVD this summer, though - I've been looking forward to Once, Sweeney Todd, and Music and Lyrics, which I've heard is surprisingly good.