Film critics: how useful are they anyway?

December 17, 2007

Every summer or so (dating back many years), and occasionally in the winter, the hallowed circles of film criticism seem to go through a major identity crisis. In the summer: why do so many people still go to see the movies that we’ve not just disliked, but often truly loathed? and why won’t the studios screen those movies for us in advance? In the winter: why has no one else seen our top movie picks for the year? And yet, sadly, despite the copious amounts of erudite writing, nothing seems to change. Go figure.

Here are some excerpts from how this weighty matter played out through 2006-2007:

SUMMER 2006

Avast, Me Critics!” Ye Kill the Fun: Critics and the Masses Disagree About Film Choices (yep, that whole thing really is the title)

A.O. Scott (The New York Times)

But the discrepancy between what critics think and how the public behaves is of perennial interest because it throws into relief some basic questions about taste, economics and the nature of popular entertainment, as well as the more vexing issue of what, exactly, critics are for.

Are we out of touch with the audience? Why do we go sniffing after art where everyone else is looking for fun, and spoiling everybody’s fun when it doesn’t live up to our notion or art? What gives us the right to yell “bomb” outside a crowded theater?

[…] So we’re damned if we don’t. And sometimes, also, if we do. When our breathless praise garlands advertisements for movies the public greets with a shrug, we look like suckers or shills. But these accusations would stick only if the job of the critic were to reflect, predict or influence the public taste.

Screening Call

Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly)

There’s been a bit of media chatter over the last month on the question of whether movie critics ”still matter.” Obviously, I have a vested interest in the subject — I confess! I really want to matter! — but what irks me is that whenever this issue comes up, which is every few years (generally in the midst of the summer season, when some mediocre blockbuster that all the reviewers hated becomes a big hit anyway), it leaves in its trail the same soggy residue of lazy analysis and historical half-truth about what critics do, why it should matter, and, if you look closely, still does.

[…] The vast majority of movie critics I know are not snobs. We enjoy a vast range of films and help, in our non-godlike-power way, to guide readers to (or away from) them. What the ”Do critics matter?” question truly misses is that the heart and soul of our jobs is not merely to recommend. It is to take this popular art we all love and hold it up to the light, to absorb it and reflect it back to you, to enhance the experience of seeing a movie by serving, on the page, as a companionable guide, someone to bounce your own opinion off of, whether or not you happen to agree with that opinion. It’s that process, that exchange, that dialogue that matters — and will, as long as the movies themselves matter too.

Criticism’s status quo getting thumbs down

Anne Thompson (The Hollywood Reporter)

But critics do have a huge impact on independent movies, [Paul Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal] adds. Tentpole movies with gargantuan ad campaigns don’t need critics to brand their titles. But most other movies need reviews, which are crucial to their long-term life, from their theatrical run through television and DVD. That is why filmmakers kill to get a theatrical platform even in just a few key cities. Films like the 2005 mock-docu “My Date With Drew” could easily have gone directly to DVD — but the filmmakers insisted on the legitimization of a theatrical review.

WINTER 2006

Do Movie Critics Matter?

Richard Corliss (Time)

Oh, our readers revere us — while calling us heartless when we don’t like a film they love, and snobbish when we like a film they wouldn’t care to see. Our publishers cherish our expertise, although they’d rather print profiles of stars than reviews of the movies they’re in. The big movie studios are crazy about us — although they keep us out of screenings that every other staffer on the newspaper or magazine is invited to.

SUMMER 2007

Calling Out Film Critics

Mike Nizza (The New York Times blog)

That the movie “300″ was able to weather an unusually fierce barrage of bad reviews on its way to becoming the No. 1 movie in America is prompting a simple question. Should critics just … stop?

One way to answer that would be to judge the success of critics as studios judge the success of their movies: By their box office receipts. People may disregard reviews, but do they continue to seek them out?

In defense of film critics

Peter Rainer (The Christian Science Monitor)

Why do we need film critics? It’s a question that movie executives, publicists, and even readers often ask around this time of year, as we edge into summer, and the studios haul out their extravaganzas – the types of films often panned by reviewers.

[…] But criticism – reasoned, informed, independent-minded criticism – is truly the only thing protecting the consumer from the seller in the movie marketplace prior to a film’s release. That’s why studios try to marginalize serious critics – the ones who can’t be counted on to gush over every piece of product that skitters off the assembly line. The marginalization usually takes the form of withholding preview screenings until it’s too late for the film to be reviewed on its opening weekend. Newspaper and magazine feature editors may discover that their access to movie stars has dried up if the house critic is too tough. Movie ads may be pulled.

WINTER 2007

Do Film Critics Know Anything?

Richard Corliss (Time), round two – as a movie writer himself, I think this guy may have some job issues

[…I] realized that we critics may give these awards to the winners, but we give them for ourselves. In fact, we’re essentially passing notes to one another, admiring our connoisseurship at the risk of ignoring the vast audience that sees movies and the smaller one that reads us.

[…] the Golden Globes and the Oscars, if they follow the critics’ lead, will have V.D.D. — viewer deficit disorder. Large numbers of people won’t watch shows paying tribute to movies they haven’t seen.

[…] And it all starts here, with critics fighting over which hardly seen movie they want to call the best of the year.

See Cinematical’s thoughts on the seasonal Corliss crisis here.

For some other views from ’06-’07, click on one of the links below:

Rotten Tomatoes
For a list of movies not screened for critics in ’06; shockingly, critics despised them once they did finally see them – who would have thought?

Public radio
In print and audio; go for the audio, clearly there’s way too much text in this post already anyway. Helpful quote: ” ‘I’ll even go one further and say that when you have a very big movie and you get a bad review from critics, I bet there are some people at the studios who say, “I think we got a winner on our hands.’ ”

Variety
Helpful quote: “The distribution gurus say they prefer “four-quadrant movies,” but I”d suggest that there are only two: One quadrant consists of the hardcore fans who are propelled by “buzz” and the second embraces the rest of the filmgoing public who wait to learn whether the movie”s any good or not.” If you can’t guess, they’re speaking about movies like 300, which I seem to recall doing, you know, okay at the box office.

Forbes
Beware the Forbes Welcome Screen; but once you get past that, another look at critics being “frozen out” of film screenings.

MSNBC
The war between the elitists and the populists: fought to the death, or to the deadline at least, until the end of time. Oh, and Pirates again (ooo, and another list!).

The New York Times
Yet more on movies that don’t get screened for critics, but this time via The Da Vinci Code.

Okay, that’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but what do I think about all this? Well, I think that as long as there is something to critique, we’ll have people there critiquing it and an audience who wants to know what they think. The format may change (a platform in the Forum, a pulpit, print, blogs, virtual transmission of a central system’s information), but the need and message stay the same. We always want to know what others think, particularly those who seem like an authority in some way and can make an “official” judgment, and will seek out what they have to say. Not for everything, sure, but for enough. Whether we follow what they say is a bit irrelevant; we still need to know. And therefore, we still need them.

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Beowulf

December 1, 2007

Well, it’s not your grandfather’s Beowulf, and certainly not your great-great-great-great… (one more) great-grandfather’s, I can say that. I mean, yes, technically it does take place in ye olden times, but I at least can’t remember seeing many mentions of gold stilettos in the Germanic history textbooks. (if you don’t know who wears those stilettos in the film, you’ve been living under a rock – I’ll give you a hint, the actress’s name rhymes with Brangelina).

Of course, just because the film’s plot has almost no relation to the original epic poem doesn’t mean that it’s bad. In fact, it’s quite good. See, imagine you like the characters of the whole Romeo and Juliet tale – Romeo, Juliet, that disease-obsessed Mercutio guy – but don’t quite like how that whole star-crossed lover thing plays out. So you take those three characters, a few major plot points (like, well, location and, um, some fight scenes) and put it all together into a new story. And that’s pretty much what Beowulf is, with a new story that’s not half-bad. It’s got temptation, greed, lust, and the mother of all vicious cycles (literally). It’s mythic, unexpected, haunting, and very Neil Gaiman (who helped write the script).

And that’s the interesting thing about this film, which was directed by The Polar Express‘s Robert Zemeckis. With all the hyped 3D animation technology (the film’s all in performance capture animation – remember Gollum from LOTR or The Polar Express?), massive fight sequences and “I am Sparta!” – sorry, Beowulf – trailers, you would think the action scenes, cool technology factor and well-toned people would be the film’s main strengths. Story be darned. But with performance capture making all the characters look like they took a major overdose of Botox, and some ho-hum, anti-climactic adventure scenes, the plot is what redeems (somewhat, anyway) the whole thing. Although, okay, all that body candy is nice too. For all gender orientations.

Many of those with me at the theater noted the hindrance of expressionless characters, uneven pacing, and shrug-inducing action sequences – although some may have used the verb “to suck” in various forms instead of that exact language – but everyone came away taken with the story. It almost makes you wonder what the film could have been if its production hadn’t been so focused on working with this style of filmmaking. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, does unlimited access to technology corrupt limitlessly? No between-the-lines reference to another filmmaker intended.

And I almost hate to say it, but yes, Angelina, the centerpiece of the plot and the most intriguing character, was actually the best part of the film.


Enchanted

November 30, 2007

Poor James Marsden. As I mentioned in the Hairspray review, he seems to have become the go-to “the other guy” in many big screen love triangles. But, really, if you’ve gotta be the third wheel, you can’t pick your love triangles better than Marsden (ah, mixed metaphors, gotta luv ’em).

As Cyclops, he blindly (sorry) fought for Jean Gray against Hugh Jackman’s bad boy Wolverine in the X-Men films (and Wolverine also got the spin-off, ouch). He was the guy who tried to keep Rachel McAdams for himself in the epic weepy The Notebook – but was naturally no match for Ryan Gosling in a rain storm. And finally, he even went up again the Man of Steel himself for Lois Lane’s heart – now that’s nerve – in Superman Returns.

The man just has no luck in the romance department – but as they might say, unlucky in love, lucky at the box office. X-Men, The Notebook, Superman Returns, and also Hairspray (in which he simply didn’t have a love interest at all) weren’t exactly box office duds. And his new film, Disney’s Enchanted, raked in $49.1 million over the Thanksgiving weekend, attaining the comfortable height of second-highest Thanksgiving gross behind Toy Story 2, according to Box Office Mojo.

In Enchanted, Marsden actually plays Prince Charming himself and he still can’t get the girl (trust me, I’m not giving anything away here – did you really think McDreamy wasn’t the main love interest?). Nevertheless, he throws himself into the over the top role with abandon, as he always does, rounding out a very aesthetically pleasing cast that is clearly having fun in this enjoyable film.

In the movie, Amy Adams (Junebug, Catch Me If You Can, that handbag girl on The Office) plays Giselle, a literal fairy tale princess in the animated land of Andalasia (not quite as catchy as Never Never Land, but okay). Think the world of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, but not taking itself very seriously, and also kind of slow, and you’ve got the gist of the first ten minutes or so of the film. Seconds before her wedding to Prince Charming (Marsden), Giselle is cast out of Andalasia by – who else? – her soon-to-be stepmother (Susan Sarandon), who just happens to also be a Snow White-esque evil witch with an unhealthy apple obsession.

Popping out of a manhole in the middle of NYC’s Times Square, but with her sparkling white wedding dress fully intact (it’s a grimeless manhole, apparently), a now real life Giselle eventually falls, again literally, into the arms of the anti-Prince Charming, a divorce lawyer and single dad played by Grey’s Anatomy‘s Patrick Dempsey. Meanwhile, Prince Charming, along with one of the queen’s sycophants and Giselle’s squirrel pal, try to find Giselle in the real world. Many culture clashes ensue. West meets… well, further West, if you want to take Tolkien’s view of things. Or the other side of a magical wormhole, if you believe the film’s.

My boyfriend, a big foodie, often says that the best way to judge a restaurant is to see if it “accomplishes well what it sets out to do.” You can’t compare a neighborhood pizza joint to a four-star restaurant (or three-star, if you’re going the Michelin route), because clearly the pizza joint is not aiming for the same goal. The same holds true for Enchanted – it’s obviously not The English Patient, but it never set out to be. It’s not Beauty and the Beast either, but I, for one, did not expect it to be.

It’s light, fun, and it’s got some good chuckles (Dempsey’s daughter tells Giselle that boys only want one thing, but then isn’t sure what that one thing is; the queen’s servant tries to get Giselle to drink a poisoned apple martini). Plus, the music ain’t bad. They even got Disney music guru Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) to compose it.

Like any solid, middle-of-the-road romantic comedy, there are some unfortunate misses and some awkward, doesn’t quite work moments. Sure, having cockroaches and rats help Giselle clean up an apartment is clever – those are the kinds of animals available in NY, get it? no cuddly deer and bunnies there – but watching rats pour into a room is a lot less icky in Pixar animation. Nevertheless, it’s good, guilty pleasure entertainment. If you don’t come expecting Disney to make a sharp satire of itself, or definitely not a new Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for that matter, you won’t be disappointed. If you come looking for a fun, harmless, gentle (and feminist-ically modern! …or so it hopes to be anyway) romantic comedy, you’ll leave happy.

For you Wicked fans, look for Idina Menzel (the play’s original Wicked Witch), who looks a bit unsure of herself in her role as Dempsey’s “strong professional” girlfriend. And for any Bones fans out there, watch out for a seriously underutilized Michaela Conlin in a brief, probably no more than five second appearance at the end of the film. One can only hope her scenes were cut for time.


No Country for Old Men

November 28, 2007

The first thing you notice is the quiet. You forget how crucial, how instrumental (pun, I admit it, intended) a movie’s score is, until you barely hear one. Would Jaws have been nearly as scary without those thumping beats? Is Darth Vader as imposing and intimidating without John Williams’s triumphant, lordly intro?

Thrillers and horror in particular make use of music’s impact – telling you when to feel worried (that crescendo of anticipatory sound), and when to realize it’s over through the film’s score. In fact, the only silence you usually get in these film genres is that heartbeat before something attacks, the crescendo and then the hush before the blow.

Yes, the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men does have a score – it says so in the credits (and it’s apparently composed by Carter Burwell, a Coen staple) – but I can’t for the life of me think where it was. Fortunately for my sanity, I’m not the only one; The New Yorker calls the score “little more than a fitful murmur.”

The lack of sound does something both freeing and frightfully disturbing: it makes you feel for yourself. The score doesn’t tell you when the implacable, psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh (a darkly humorous and impassive, walking undead Javier Bardem, with that now infamous head of hair) is going to attack – there is no build up, no musical signals to warn you about what is going to happen. Just like Chigurh’s odes to Two-Face (he too sometimes flips a coin to decide a victim’s fate), just like life, the musical score, or lack thereof, lets you feel the full impact of randomness, helplessness, and the petrifying nature of an unknown future, whether that future is one second or one lifetime away.

The score also has an accomplice in No Country‘s dialogue and cinematography. There is no real shouting, no screaming for blood or mercy. Lots of grunting though, accompanied by some knowing smiles and measured talk. There are also barely any camera shots that anticipate what’s going to happen, no panning out to show you that there is probably something or someone lurking just out of sight, in that dark corner of the garage. It shows you what’s happening, the faces of the people involved and the lifeless, stretching scenery around them, and that’s about it. What comes, comes.

And that’s the soul of this disquieting (sorry, just couldn’t stop myself) adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s critically acclaimed novel of the same name. It’s quiet, deliberate, direct, unflinching; an unguided tour of flat, dispassionate reality. Well, almost unguided, anyway. The closest thing you get to a guide is the sheriff, played with deep sadness and one eyebrow raised by Tommy Lee Jones. But even as he narrates portions of the tale, the sheriff, on the trail of Chigurh and that killer’s own target Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), doesn’t know what’s coming any more than you do. As he himself says, he’s “outmatched.”

The story of a man, Moss, who stumbles across a drug deal gone bad (it’s so bad even the dog is dead) and thinks he can get away with its left-behind spoils of 2 million bucks, No Country coolly states that this is the way things are, or can be, take it or leave it. As Moss runs from Chigurh’s relentless hired killer, you sometimes think he’s in (way) over his head, but sometimes not. You are sometimes sure Chigurh is going to attack with that cattle gun, and sometimes not. You sometimes think Moss and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) will maybe, just maybe get to enjoy the money in the end, but often not. It’s bleak, but it’s not apologetic. It just is.

Which is why the appearance of Woody Harrelson’s cocky hired gun (Carson Wells) in a sleek, big city office, sitting before Stephen Root’s sleek, big city desk (he probably has 50 red staplers in there) seems so out of place. Wait, is this a movie again? Nothing against Woody, or certainly cult fave Root as a drug businessman, but their polished Hollywood demeanor, with Woody’s cool drawl, feels like a whole different movie. From the silent tumbleweeds of reality to the glossy halls of a Hollywood drug man is a bit of an unsettling leap for this darkly murmuring film.


Michael Clayton

October 16, 2007

The phrase “a George Clooney thriller about lawyers from the guy who wrote all three Bourne films” (Tony Gilroy, who also directed the film) probably evokes a certain type of film. Perhaps a high-octane courtroom drama, a more action-packed A Few Good Men and/or any film adaptation of a John Grisham novel. All told, of course, with that trademark Clooney twinkle in the eye (you know what I’m talking about).

Well, let me just say this – Michael Clayton is NOT that film.

If that’s what you were expecting, you will most likely come out of the movie theater disappointed – as some people clearly seemed to be in my theater. (I’m looking at you, not-so-subtly grumbling guys in front of me!)

To keep on this film-to-film comparison track, picture Michael Clayton more like this: if you considered Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck to be a Red Scare thriller of hand-clenching suspense, then you will think Michael Clayton is quite the thrill ride.

Otherwise, think of it as the structural plot of a thriller like The Pelican Brief (environmental theme and all) set in the quagmire of law firm morality from A Devil’s Advocate, minus the horror, and well, presence of the Devil – yet shot with the quiet, reflective silences and elegant, almost calm, pacing of Good Night, and Good Luck.

Gilroy, who actually helped pen Devil’s Advocate, noted in Entertainment Weekly that:

The idea [for Michael Clayton] came during [1997’s] The Devil’s Advocate. We were tailing all these law firms in New York, and I was really kind of shocked and fascinated by all this stuff that was going on behind the scenes — that there was this whole back of the house, the kitchen area of the restaurant. And I thought, God, that’s really untouched. Nobody’s done a movie about that. And I started talking to people, and soon I said to myself that this is a whole ecosystem that hasn’t been tapped in the movies.

And the film is mostly an exploration of the human effects of the legal profession – a quote-unquote serious film’s “portrait of a lawyer as a middle-aged man” trapped in the skeleton (or at least marketing machine) of a star-driven thriller. The movie certainly has the plot of a thriller, with the necessary conspiracies, cover-ups and imminent danger – but even its most climactic scenes, full of confrontation and menace, are at a low boil, treated slowly, carefully, contemplatively, and often silently, leading to an ending that leaves you feeling a bit, well, empty, that you were waiting for something that never came. The typical thriller’s catharsis is never fulfilled. Where is the rush of adrenaline, the feeling of triumph or at least the satisfaction of completion, the tying up of loose ends? Not here – but then, this is not that kind of film.

The star himself, as Clayton, convincingly portrays a weary, weary (and I mean those italics) man. No twinkle in his eye this time, Clooney embodies a man treading a life he’s no longer sure he wants, or even understands. The movie spends time with his son, his extended family and his (doomed) attempts at a life outside of law – creating a complex portrait of a man over the course of a few short, but momentous, days in his life.

Sydney Pollack also appears as the man dragging Clayton into the quicksand with a smile, and Tilda Swinton – as a corporate lawyer stuck in a hole she just keeps digging herself into – is almost terrifying as the literal personification of a nervous breakdown, her widening eyes seeming to virtually darken to black as she buries herself further into her nightmare. And Tom Wilkinson as a star lawyer who may have lost his marbles and just doesn’t want to find them again, somehow manages to find the humor in both this film and dangerous insanity.

In other words, this is a great film – but if you’re looking for the fun thrills of a fast-paced conspiracy, this is not the film for you.


The Competitive World of Donkey Kong

August 20, 2007

After movies covering the hypercompetitive subcultures of spelling bees and crossword puzzles, here comes a documentary about competitive, um, Donkey Konging. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I did not think the world of Donkey Kong competitions would the next gaming subculture covered in the movies, but here it is – a movie about those who spend their free time, or much of their time overall, playing arcade video games, particularly Donkey Kong.

One of the great rivalries of all time. – “King of Kong”

“King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” follows the increasing rivalry between reigning champion Billy Mitchell, who held the world record in Donkey Kong scores, and everyman Steve Webie, who learns to play the game out of his garage, while dealing with some of the more unfortunate duties of being a father. The film explores the insular world of classic arcade game players, and how they interact with outsiders like Webie, coming in to rival their established hero, often to amusing and sadly poignant effect.

The documentary is perhaps not the deepest or the most originally produced of documentaries, but there is no denying that for me at least, watching it was a very fun afternoon activity. My boyfriend and I were trading lines from it the rest of the afternoon. However, it is a documentary – and for those who find that format somewhat slow-paced, this is probably not the film for you. But if you were a fan of Spellbound or Wordplay, or similar movies, take some time out to see this one as well.

To see the fun trailer on YouTube, go here. For an equally fun clip, go here.

(For Wii-less Nintendo fans: The official movie people are throwing a contest where you can win a free Nintendo Wii. To learn more, go to the official website. The sweepstakes ends September 4th.)


Children of Men

August 18, 2007

Yes, I know this is a bit old – I believe the movie came out last winter – but I have to admit that I did not see it until just now. Not that I hadn’t heard great things about it and thought that I certainly should see it, but let’s face it – it’s sometimes hard to come home at the end of the day and think: “you know, what I’m really in the mood for right now is a brutally dark, apocalyptic movie about the world falling to pieces.”

I guess there was a bit of reluctance there somehow…

In any case, my boyfriend finally made me actually put it in the DVD player and press play. And now that I’ve seen it, I can say it was… a brutally dark, apocalyptic movie about the world falling to pieces.

Critics, and English professors, often talk about a story starting in medias res – right in the middle of the story, where there’s no formal beginning, no “once upon a time…” More of a “She saw the frog and decided it might not be a bad idea to kiss it” and the story kicks off from there.

Well, this movie is the very definition of in medias res, it starts right in the thick of things. The world is already in full-blown self-destruct mode and Clive Owen’s character Theo already has a whole long history behind him, particularly a history with Julianne Moore’s government rebel and Michael Caine’s good-hearted hippie, which is never fully revealed. There are no real flashbacks, almost no exposition sections; the characters are just there, and you can make out people’s motivations and how they got to the point where they are now however you want.

The story itself captures a brief moment in time – only about a day in Theo’s life, where he undertakes the most important task of his life – and it’s gone before you know it. It takes place in a war zone in the future, the world fighting for some idea of hope with the ability to produce children no longer an option, and some people die brutally and suddenly and others do horrible, horrible things.

But then it’s over, and, for me at least, an almost empty sensation remains. You saw something, and it was powerful and intense, but it was almost a grazing blow, the impact of an explosion without feeling its heat. With barely any background information or additional connections to the characters, you’re almost left wondering who or what you just saw and how you should feel.

But perhaps that’s the point. In a world where there is no future, no possible future for the human race, and there is only a superficial order maintained by a military state, would you be left with any feeling? Would you feel heat at all?