For years, Michael Onesi has sat in movie theatres watching film after film, always asking himself the same question: "How can I sum this up in four words?"
Doing it well is not as easy as you might think, says Mr. Onesi, co-author of the new book Four Word Film Reviews, a collection of the best reviews published by the website The Four Word Film Review. "It is a challenge," he says.
He should know. Onesi, a 39-year-old communications officer and former newspaper reporter and editor who lives in Kingston, has written more than 4,000 reviews for the site since it was founded in London, England, by Benj Clews in 1999.
There are more than 300,000 reviews of close to 40,000 films written by people from around the world now on the site. With the popularity of pithily condensed phrases found on Twitter or in the best-selling book Six-Word Memoirs, Onesi and Clews decided to turn the site's best four-word reviews into a book.
While people sometimes scratch their heads at the premise - can you really sum up a movie in four words? - scanning a few reviews usually turns doubters into converts, Onesi says. "As soon as you start reading them, you realize, 'Wow, you can do this. And you can actually be clever and you can actually be funny in four words or less,'" he says.
The best reviews usually involve puns and wordplay, or references to other films and pop culture, Onesi says. Take, for instance, this review of Edward Scissorhands: "Sheeeeears Johnny!" Or this cheeky review of Ghost: "Horny Potter."
Onesi is partial to this review of Superbad: "Not super, not bad." Perhaps his all-time favourite, however, is this review for the Vin Diesel action movie XXX: "ZZZ." "I just thought that's so brilliant," Onesi says. "With three letters, you can make a joke and give your opinion on what you think the movie is like."
In selecting which reviews would make it into the book, Onesi says he and Clews were guided by two principles. "We wanted everyone to know what the movie is about, because that way they can relate to the review better," he says. "But there were some movies on the website that people had never heard of but that we still wanted because we thought the reviews were so good."
In the latter category, Onesi cites Monsturd, a terrible horror movie about killer feces that lends itself to review puns such as: "Public enemy number two."
The creative challenge of coming up with a review that is both informative and humorous is what has drawn contributors from around the world, Onesi says. "The satisfaction of being able to sum up a two- or three-hour movie in four words is really what you're striving for, and do it well and do it funny," he says.
Most reviewers are in England, the U.S., Australia and Canada, in that order, Onesi says. The best reviewers are in London, with those from Toronto coming in a close second, he adds. "I don't know what it is, if it's just because Toronto is such a film town, but Toronto just produces really good mini reviews," he says.
Flip through the book (or scroll through the site) and eventually you will find yourself wondering how to cram a review of the next movie you see into just four words, Onesi says. It's addictive.
"Once you get hooked on it," he says, "you start thinking about it all the time."