Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Abandoned Theater: the state of film criticism and small blurbs on the big movies from the first half of 2012.

There is a movie critic[i] who has written a negative review of the impending blockbuster, The Dark Knight Rises. His review is poorly written, but those who dislike his review do not attack just his taste, or his writing, but his very life through the internet.

There are trolls[ii], who love to threaten the lives of critics, just to get a rise out of the world.

There is a blogger[iii] who has had too much to drink, and he decides to start rambling about his thoughts on why critics are disrespected. Rambling bloggers and critics are dangerous, because their logic starts to fray, and their well-earned authority dissipates. You notice the holes in their logic and you recognize the innate flaws in any opinion writer’s philosophy.

You have all of the power over this writer, this glorified “thinker.” You have it all.

My thoughts, as the drunken critic:

What the hell is the point of film criticism? Scratch that—the point is obvious. Film critics use their trained eyes to point viewers towards good movies and warn them about bad movies. Film critics help create an interwoven conversation about where film has come from and where it is going. Film critics jumpstart careers of young, creative filmmakers[iv]  while making sure we shun the works of the filmmakers that have gone stale creatively[v]. Sometimes critics harbor unpopular opinions, even against popular movies, and they get flamed for their minority views. Sometimes fans ignore the critics, and go and see Ice Age 4 or Transformers 2 regardless of what the critics say. People enjoy these popular films, regardless of whether they’re panned or not. But critics continue to exist and get paid their mostly meager salaries[vi].

Why do critics exist? So many of my friends and loved ones hate critics and claim they're snobby and out of touch. But with whom are they out of touch?  ‘Regular’ people? Well, don’t ‘regular’ people ask for quality entertainment? I know they do. The problem is what constitutes as quality to different people. As a subjective aspect of perception in regards to arts and entertainment, quality is oftentimes argued about with no common ground in sight. Two respected film critics can argue over two movies in circles, and never come to a conclusion. Easily, my favorite film of 2011 was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. A lot of critics hated it. A lot of non-critics hated it too. Plenty of people did like it, though[vii], including myself.

Critics have to realize that opinions will vary. If I don’t like Harry Potter and the Half-Blooded Prince like my friend does, and my friend sheds tears at the death of (SPOILER) Dumbledore every time he watched the movie, who am I to say that the movie that brought them to tears is bad. If my friend is really digging the new album by Chromatics, or Tyler the Creator, or Owl City, so much so that they play that CD every day of their lives and still gain some sort of satisfaction from it, who am I to tell them that their CD is bloated and contains unimaginative songs.

 The last movies to make my heart flutter with excitement, nearly to the point of tears, were Moonrise Kingdom (we’re getting there) and City of God. These movies were beautifully shot, and so rich in their worlds’ textures that they spurred a sort of awe in me that I don’t feel often. In City of God, when Benny dies, I felt truly sad for his character’s fate. I know plenty of people who would have laughed at me for feeling strongly for that playboy character. But what am I to say to someone unaffected by City of God’s characterization and narrative structure?

In short, I guess there are no right answers and criticism is pointless, because no one is going to feel exactly how you feel anyway. Give up. Your mom is never going to get the ambiguous genius of Mulholland Drive and your dad will never realize that Dune is shit. Also, go cry yourself to sleep, because the Academy disagrees and The King Speech is better than The Social Network, no matter how strongly you may feel otherwise. It is all stupid and pointless. . .

The reader protests. You protest. You know that this is ludicrous. You know why you look up reviews, whether they are music reviews published by Pitchfork or Roger Ebert’s thoughts on movies. You know why you come here to Your Personal Opinion Is Wrong or you watch Anthony Fantano’s Youtube channel. You want to hear what other people are saying about your media. You want to see what conversations are taking place. If you know that a record is panned hard by some media outlet, you might want to listen to it anyway, just to see what the fuss is about. Or if you see that a lot of people felt that Bill Murray was robbed when he was up for Lost in Translation, you might want to add your .02 cents. Criticism is a community, and while Roger Ebert is a professional with training and many years of film history in mind when he writes his reviews, there are many tiers of critics, including this blogger you’re reading right now, writing your thoughts to paper. . .

Disagreement is good, though. It creates debate. If my brother loves The Book of Eli and if I think it was one of the worst movies I had seen in a while, we can spark healthy debate. If my sister really digs Mumford and Song but I think they’re hacks, we can hash it out. That is the way movies are remembered, by how you talked about them with others. Communication is the key to everything, as you know, and is why bloggers exist in the first place. Bloggers exist to talk about what they know, and what they are interested in, so readers can read and learn and start conversations. Critics exist to talk about art, so you can go out and formulate your own opinions. We both know that ‘regular’ people can formulate opinions using logic and reason, right? 

Here are some short reviews of the 2012 movies I have seen. They are mostly blockbusters, but most of the art films and great dramas will be coming out late in the year. So please, feel free to debate these movies, and talk about pros and cons. Because, isn’t that why we’re both here, at this moment, communicating?


John Carter -  3 / 5

This movie came out many moons ago, and all of the talk about its quality was overshadowed by how poorly it performed at the box office. It did perform poorly at the box office, and Disney’s advertising team deserves a lot of grief for the terrible job they did. But the film itself is not as bad as the trailers said it would be. I’d say that John Carter, based off Edgar Rice Burroughs’s science fiction novel Princess of Mars, does a passable job of retaining the original novel’s energy, but fails to transfer the excitement of the pages into a well-paced action-adventure movie. John Carter doesn’t attempt to be the next art-house hit, but it doesn’t quite hit all the right marks at being an awesome sci-fi adventure, either.

Firstly, the pacing is terrible. All of the action scenes are nearly forgettable and even the best set piece, where John Carter fights the White Apes, is short to the point of easy to miss during a pee break. The tension is not there for the characters, and you don’t really care for anyone the viewer should when an action star is in peril on screen. Other movies were more successful this year at making the viewer care about the characters as more than just stock heroes.

The special effects are well done, though maybe too over the top, and the film contains a degree of heart, where you can tell director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E) and screen writer Michael Chabon (The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) care about the source material. You can see this heart in some of the interplay between characters, and whenever they deliver their more flat lines, you will hope for more of the “fun” moments. My guess is that, in the end, Disney decided to take creative control over the film and suck the life out of where Stanton and co. wanted to take it. It had a very corporate feel to it, even if the heart was barely visible beneath the surface.  This film is worth renting or catching on TV, for sure, though, if you want an easy and at times fun adventure.


The Hunger Games -  3.5 / 5

I have never read the books, and I found this movie entertaining. Its cast is great, especially its star Jennifer Lawrence. The movie clips at a fast pace, even given its 2+ hour runtime. I have heard a lot of complaints that the movie is not as good as the book, but being an outsider to the phenomenon that is The Hunger Games, none of the plot differences bothered me. The only faults in this film would be its lackluster special effects and its pacing in some spots. Its ambitions are clear from the beginning of the movie, and while it doesn’t reach every height it promises it will, but it is merely the first movie in a trilogy.

The Hunger Games is not perfect, and it isn’t even the best blockbuster of the year, but the movie far surpasses many of its other teen-book-turned-movie brethren, especially when compared to the Twilight films. The movie knows it is based off a young adult novel, and it is aimed towards teenagers, but it never forgets that writers and filmmakers owe debts to their characters. The Harry Potter films rarely forgot this and the films in that series worked because of that fact. The exciting Hunger Games series will likely head in the same direction, if they remember what they did well in this installment.


The Cabin in the Woods -  4.5 / 5

The Cabin in the Woods is a fun romp through the modern history of horror movies, satirizing torture porn and even what the creators of this film love about the genre of horror. When Drew Goddard (Cloverfield) and Joss Whedon (Serenity and Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) are involved in the writing, you have to expect meta-references and self-referential humor. This is Whedon’s writing at its best, showing that the man has not gone rusty while working on his other projects.

If Scary Movie wasn’t so terrible and unclever it might have been this good. If Scream took the next step into meta-horror-comedy, it might have been this good, and the first Scream is a good movie, on its own right, but it doesn’t touch The Cabin in the Woods in terms of ambition and fun. This movie succeeds because it catches the viewer so off guard, taking it self so (jokingly) seriously in the get go as your stereotypical horror movie, and then jumping off the rails as it quickly takes a left turn, leading its viewers down an insane adventure that no one would not expect without someone spoiling it for before they first see it.

And before I give anything else away, just trust me and go see this movie. It is smart, funny, horrific, and infinitely surprising.


The Avengers - 4.5 / 5

Oh, Joss Whedon. You not only had one awesome movie this year, but a second. The Avengers outshines every Marvel movie that came before it, and with nearly any other director, it would have been a complete disaster. The culmination of many movies via marketing scheme by Marvel, The Avengers should have failed! The movies that came before were a mixed bag. Iron Man was awesome and fun with a strong lead in Robert Downey, Jr. Captain America: The First Avenger was surprising in its references to old pulp comics and I left thoroughly pleased with spending my money. The rest were average action movies that didn’t leave an impression on me either way: Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man 2. They each had some nice moments, but the sloppy writing and only “OK” acting at best, left the movies stale in the wake of the first Iron Man. And now, Whedon’s The Avengers manages to surpass Iron Man in nearly every way.

Whedon succeeds because he understands how to combine these different science fiction, comic superhero, and Norse god myths into a coherent plot, and he recognizes that it is all a bit ridiculous.  He inserts his own self-referential jokes throughout his screen play, making it a fun adventure. Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, and co. do a great job with their lines, creating a cast of memorable and 3D characters that we care about. When some are hurt, or worse, we grow sad. And we want the good guys to win. When they do, you leave the theater with a sense of accomplishment.

That is what good genre movie-making is about.


Prometheus - 4 / 5

And now for something completely different. Ridley Scott’s beautifully shot Alien prequel is an ambitious science fiction movie that earns its genre-tag. It is a true science fiction movie that questions technology and man’s scientific aspirations. It constantly questions, a true trope of the genre, even though it never finds one single answer. Prometheus is the anti-John Carter, with an advertising team that actually oversold the movie. In the end, though, the movie does more right than it does wrong, but its flaws keep it from being the masterpiece it could have been under a more coherent direction and writing.  

Damon Lindelof, one of the creators of Lost, is one of the screenwriters for this film and his work on Lost is actually a good starting point for Prometheus’s direction, because Prometheus is a lot more Lost than it is Alien. That is both good and bad. Lost is a fine, but flawed, television show that succeeds as often as it failed. Prometheus is much the same. But sometimes, intensely flawed movies and shows are memorable for the debate they create. Also, they are memorable because in many ways, they are truly good.

Prometheus struggles with pacing in its 3rd act, and many of its characters are pointless-to-the-point-of-being-called-stock. The motives of nearly everyone in the cast is shrouded in mystery, none of which ever become clear, even after hours of scrutiny and pondering. The strengths of the movie lie in its acting from Michael Fassbender, Noomi Rapace, and the underrated Idris Elba. Fassbender may even earn an Oscar nomination playing the android that constantly drives the plot forward.

In the end, this movie will garner haters, but it will remain one of the memorable films of 2012 regardless of their legitimate concerns. 


Brave - 4/ 5

Is Brave the best Pixar movie? Absolutely not. It actually ranks quite low in their filmography. But it is still a great family film that is beautiful, fun, and heartfelt. Also, it contains some interesting psychological ideas about daughters and their mothers. Acting as their only film about mother-daughter relationships, Brave is unique when compared to the rest of the Pixar movies. 

But all Pixar movies bring adult themes to the table: moving on to the next part of life (Toy Story 3), growing old (The Incredibles), homosexuality (Monsters Inc). Ok, I was kidding about that last one, but each Pixar movie contains ideas past GOOD GUY MUST BEAT BAD GUY or GUY LOVES GIRL. Brave continues this thread, and it does it well, making it a worthwhile movie for both adults and kids.

It won’t be a crowd pleaser with the kids as much as Cars 1 or 2, but it will resonate more equally among the age brackets than those movies, for certain. With its humor, its adventure, and its great animation, Brave will be a contender for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars.


The Amazing Spider-Man – 3.5/ 5

First, why does this movie exist?  Well, for one, Andrew Garfield is a better Spider-Man than Tobey Maguire. And Emma Stone is a better love interest than Kirsten Dunst. The acting from the two leads (and Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben) is far superior to the Sam Raimi trilogy of Spider-Man films.

But do we need another Spider-Man reboot?

The answer in the end is “Sure, why not.” This is a solid movie which doesn’t reach the heights of Spider-Man 2, but beats the original and the 3rd installment handily. Taking out a lot of the schlocky humor for witty humor and improving the special effects (and using more stunt work), Marc Webb has done a good job directing a good movie here in The Amazing Spider-Man. Where the film falls flat is where John Carter did in terms of the production team meddling too much and cutting out much of the film (almost anything involving Peter Parker’s parents). Why do this, to spread out the story to as many sequels as possible and make more money.

That isn’t to fault the fun of this movie and the work Andrew Garfield and Marc Webb did to make it enjoyable


Moonrise Kingdom - 5 / 5

And now the granddaddy of 2012’s first half: Moonrise Kingdom. Wes Anderson has directed many quirky indie movies, creating a name for himself in the film festival bracket, with his legions of adoring fans, and with critics. In his great films, he pushes his own aesthetic to new bounds from where he has taken it before. Because he focuses and pushes Moonrise Kingdom so far, he has made his best movie yet, and the best movie I’ve seen of 2012[viii].

The open credit sequence is the part of the movie that almost brought a tear to my eye, instilling me with such awe and wonder and intense emotion at its craft, putting me into the mindset for the rest of the film that I was witnessing a spectacle. The camera is shifting between the different rooms of this house, and the children play and write letters, never mundanely, creating a world out of a moving camera and a well-built set. Anderson has worked with this effect before, but as with everything else in the movie, this is Anderson doing Anderson, but better.

Wes Anderson has rarely put this much emotion into me as he did with that opening sequence, since most of his characters are detached from reality. But here, the characters, still speaking in their start-stop borderline emotionless, find a way to live and breathe in their world more completely than ever. Anderson’s characters, played by talented kids and veteran actors like Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, ect, are fictional people who talk almost like normal people, but feel emotion as beautifully as normal people. Jason Schwartzman steals the show with his cameo, and creates one of the funniest scenes in Anderson’s career, a wedding between two kids with Schwartzman playing the pastor.

This movie will hopefully be Anderson’s Midnight in Paris, garnering him the respect from the Academy next winter when the Oscars come around. He has the respect of the critics, and Hollywood, and his fans, but he deserves to have some immortality given his work throughout the past decade. Anderson has been building up to this movie, and I cannot recommend this movie enough. To anyone. To everyone.

[ii]  Or here.

[iii] Me, of course.  

[iv] Joel and Ethan Coen, Blood Simple; Paul Thomas Anderson, Hard Eight; Fernando Meirelles, City of God.

[v] M. Night Shyamalan and Michael Bay are quite notorious.

[vi]  Sometimes critics, or bloggers more like, are paid no salaries. A lot of people do this on their free time, like *cough* yours truly. We just love writing I guess. Rarely, critics are quite wealthy, but that only happens if you’re Roger Ebert and you’ve published best-selling books.

[vii] Read my review here.

[viii] We’ll see if The Dark Knight Rises or Beasts of the Southern Wild knock this off its pedestal by week’s end.

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