Every once in a while a genre movie reminds us of what intelligent cinema looks like and they make ideas come to life. The turbulence of our current domestic and international waters is to thank for that. Never in our history have we had more ways of communicating with one another, yet the gap in real understanding continues to widen. I’m not going to say Arrival is a poignant reminder of what art can show us about our shortcomings, but it sure makes a great effort.
Arrival is a film about communication and language. It tells the story of alien contact through the interaction of a linguist and a foreign species over the course of an undefined amount of time. The metaphor of aliens is fairly obvious: they represent the “other” that we don’t know. The question of a film like this is, how do we get to understand the “other”? The film posits the importance of language as well as science in establishing a connection.
While there is certainly a scientific aspect to the film there are few scenes of expository science jargon to bog down the script, unlike most sci-fi films. It is interesting to note that the supporting protagonist is a theoretical physicist, as in, he’s more about ideas than concrete physics, much the same as the film, itself. There is a physical military presence throughout the film to clash with the philosophical aspects but, thankfully, the film steers away from the clichéd military vs. science conflict for the most part and keeps the physical tension as mostly a B plot device to raise the stakes for our protagonists.
What the film does best is breeze past much of the science and breakdown the ideas of language as the source of conflict. Aliens have their own form of communication, as do humans. And not even that, amongst humans there is a dearth of communication forms ranging from spoken languages to body language and cultural traditions.
It’s here where the thesis of the film crumbles away a little bit. The school of philosophy centered on knowledge is known as epistemology. This school has formed theories on our association of the “other” and how they are represented. The basics of epistemology are: what do we know and how do we know. When it comes to the “other” our only way of knowing is through the prism of our foundations. Our own culture shapes our views of the world and they are unmistakably part of the foundation of our knowledge. So the question to be asked is, is it possible to understand the “other”?
I can watch 10,000 Japanese movies and break them down frame by frame and inject knowledge of Japanese history, customs and art, yet still the analysis is framed through a window of Western culture. I grew up in America. And as such, I am unable to view a Japanese film as a Japanese person would.
The resolution of Arrival includes an assimilation of culture between the aliens and the protagonist. Amy Adams’ linguist learns to understand their language and is able to think the way they do, in non-linear terms, thus preventing a global war. Using the previous example, this would be the equivalent of an American learning the Japanese language and immediately being capable of thinking the same way a Japanese person thinks. It is true that the structure of language dictates the way we process our thoughts. The subject-predicate structure varies from language to language and invariably affects information processes. For example, think of how Yoda from “Star Wars” speaks. There are many languages that translate in a similar structure showing a different emphasis in sentence arrangement.
Maybe this is just a nitpick but I have visions of philosophers watching this film and scoffing at the simplified presentation of the “other”. It would be arrogant to assume we can comprehend the nature of another culture by simply learning their language, but it’s certainly a great first step in learning to know and accept others through our own prisms of understanding.
I’m not meaning to detract from the point of the film. Each and every one of us needs to exercise empathy and try to understand others and their modes of thinking and communicating. The simplified view expressed in Arrival is an idealistic version of how important it can be to communicate with cultures we are unfamiliar with. For that reason, the film has a worth beyond the performances and technical aspects, which is rare in a genre movie.
As enchanting as La La Land is (and wants to be), it left me a little disenchanted overall.
The film mixes old-time Hollywood style into a modern day setting, complete with musical numbers on a gridlocked L.A. highway and scenic Hollywood Hills’ locales. I’ve read pieces saying it’s a love-letter to Los Angeles, but that’s romanticizing a fairly mundane story into something it’s not. At the heart of the story is sacrifice and all the things you have to give up to achieve your dreams, as much as I hate using that word.
Because, really, this movie is a dreamers fantasy. The main characters, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), have aspirations of success within their respective art-forms: Mia wants to be an actress and Sebastian wants to be a jazz musician/club owner. Damien Chazelle’s love of jazz music is most notably at the forefront of the story, as it was in his previous film, Whiplash. Through musical numbers and chance encounters, the film tells the story of these two dreamers who press each other to….well, achieve their dreams.
That’s one problem with the film. It’s a retread of many other stories about Hollywood dreams, stories that were better told and with more impressive musicality.
The benchmark for stories like this is pure classic Broadway, such as 42nd Street. Where La La Land fails is when it’s a classic narrative posing as a musical, and when it’s a musical posing as a classic narrative. It could have been successful at being either one of these things, it’s just not successful being both. The movie mixes film techniques, such as craning cameras, widescreen lenses and single-take shots with stage production methods, like fixed-point lighting and painted backdrops, but to what avail? What we’re seeing is neither fully Broadway nor fully Hollywood.
So many scenes are lit to make the film seem like a stage play, especially during dance numbers, which don’t strike me as a snug fit for the story. Whipping and craning camerawork are employed, especially during the meandering but mostly pointless opening number, in an attempt to create some kind of kinetic energy. But the story being told doesn’t merit this device. It is’t a peppy, toe-tapping, Hairspray kind of a musical. I respect the minimal editorial cuts for the sheer skill and degree of difficulty, but I don’t think it aided the type of musical numbers they wrote and choreographed for the film.
After all, what makes film unique compared to a stage production? It can capture a world you can’t present on the stage. Film doesn’t need back-drops and movable sets to create an environment for the audience like a stage play does. It can take real life and make it as magical as they want. So how is it possible that La La Land gets away with using these elements of live theater? The luxury of editorial authorship is king in the cinema, whereas a stage production has to drop the curtain to edit.
Take the above image as an example. From the still (the main publicity still from the film) we get a sense of what the film wants to be: a fun, whimsical tale that sits atop the L.A. skyline. But look at that image closely and scan the individual parts. The actors are being lit by an enormous white light, far too bright to be a simple street light or the moon, especially considering there’s a dusk light creeping up in the back of the frame. Also, the green-screen addition of the L.A. lights is far too obvious. When you see this scene in the movie you can tell that this street is not a real location and the city behind them is a green-screen. Why does this image (and scene) need to look so fake?
Listen, I understand that it’s probably just me, but elements like those are what take me out of the movie.
And for the record, I love musicals, both stage and screen presentations. So there is no bias here.
The film tries to tell a Los Angeles story, a place where art and culture are around every corner, but they staged it like a Broadway play. So where is the love-letter to L.A. vibe coming from? It celebrates a lifestyle, but certainly not the locale.
All that being said, the two leads are great together (especially Emma Stone) and the film tells multiple love stories in a mostly visual way. Chazelle deftly uses his camera to carry us through the emotions of two artists trying to mold their lives into something for themselves and each other. He paints a picture of old Hollywood set in a modern age, complete with eco-friendly cars and movie back-lot coffee shops.
On a thematic level, the idea of sacrifice and leaving behind one dream to forge another is acutely realistic for an artist. Many times a personal passion is all encompassing, forcing us to choose a path. For a city rich in artistry and artists, I’m sure that’s more true than any other place in the world.
La La Land is a good film with a cliched story and some visual panache. It jams several elements of things I truly love (music and movies) into a film that didn’t honor either of them properly. Thankfully, the characters keep you engaged and are performed so well you invest in them. In one way it prevails, in the other it doesn’t. I wish I liked it more.
Just a few weeks ago I was conversing at work with some of my fellow co-workers. During the course of the conversation I dropped a “Buffalo Bill” reference. To provide some context, the recipient of my reference was creepily whispering over our employee radios and trying to be as off-putting as possible. So, I told him he was pulling off a “Buffalo Bill” vibe.
There was silence.
Then the following exchange took place:
Creepy Employee: “Who is ‘Buffalo Bill’?”
Me: “Have you seen The Silence of the Lambs?”
Creepy Employee: “No”
Other Employee: “Do you mean Buffalo Bob from Joe Dirt?”
Yup. That actually happened. I don’t want to specifically pick on millenials, but hey, if the shoe fits.
My unenlightened co-workers are both in their early 20’s, so it occurred to me that there must be tons of movies that I grew up with that permeated the popular culture during my young adulthood that have never been seen by a younger generation. I think each generation has those movies that shaped their lives as they grew up but eventually fade away as a new generation grows up with their own pop culture staples.
Since my childhood consisted of the 80’s and 90’s, I like to count myself fortunate to have enjoyed a plethora of popular cinema that still hangs on today. So great was the movie culture of my childhood that the era has become the coal mine of many new Hollywood reboots, sequels and re-imaginings.
So this is the impetus of this new (hopefully) weekly column. I want to highlight a great film from my youth that a younger generation should see and be able to acknowledge its influence. The hugely popular films, such as Back to the Future, Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, John Hughes flicks, etc, will not be featured on here. Those movies exist in an impenetrable sphere that transcends generational boundaries. If you haven’t seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, that’s your fault. You know it’s there. Act like an adult.
For my first entry I feel compelled to illuminate Jonathan Demme’s, The Silence of the Lambs. It saddens me to have to start with such a great movie, but….kids these day, man.
- A quick note: If you have seen these movies, don’t give me crap like “Are you kidding me? Of course I’ve seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High! You’re an idiot!” To the people who would say these things I will respond with this: believe me, there are people who haven’t seen it. And in a perfect world, everyone has seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High, ok?
#1 The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Why It Needs to Be Seen: For starters, it won all the major Academy Awards in 1992 (Actor, Actress, Director, Picture, and Screenplay). Everyone involved with this film will forever be defined by it. Anthony Hopkins will be remembered forever as “Hannibal Lecter”, Jodie Foster as “Clarice Starling” and Ted Levine as “Buffalo Bill”. It also stands as Jonathan Demme’s lone great directorial effort.
The movie was so powerfully crafted that images, songs, and phrases will forever be ensconced in the pop culture vernacular. Skin lotion, fava beans, and “Goodbye Horses” immediately spring to mind.
Why It’s Great: It is plain and simply an incredibly crafted film that tells an amazing story with complex characters and performances.
On a film nerd note, it also employs a unique framing technique that we rarely see these days, even if it’s not noticeable to a casual film viewer. Pay attention to dialogue scenes and how they make you feel. The back-and-forths, particularly between Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, are so engaging and incredibly acted. The majority of these scenes are framed directly in front of the actor so, essentially, they are speaking to the camera and they are staring out of the screen. Like this scene:
This effect is used to both engross and unsettle the viewer at different points of the film. It definitely adds up to a more unique lens to watch the happenings of the story. I’m glad we don’t see much of this in other movies, as the effect of this technique adds a sense of menace that few films are capable of delivering on. This one does.
Also worth noting is the focus on sexism within law enforcement. Demme peppers it in throughout the film, often putting Jodie Foster in awkward and disadvantageous positions due to her gender and her role within the FBI. It just adds another layer to Foster’s performance and to the story, itself.
Pop Culture Identity: As was previously mentioned, “Buffalo Bill” was spoofed in Joe Dirt, Clerks 2, “How I Met Your Mother”, and many more. “Hannibal Lecter” has been the subject of numerous bits in culture and has spawned Halloween costumes that are still worn these days. This is all before mentioning the character appearing in other Hollywood films (Hannibal, Red Dragon) and his own cult-fave TV series, “Hannibal”. Trust me, if this film isn’t as great and as popular as it was it would never have had this much far-reaching influence. How about this scene:
I’m not putting the “Goodbye Horses”scene in there. If you haven’t seen the movie, get to it.
That’s all from me. I’ll continue this next week sometime with another flick people need to see.
….that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art
– Walter Benjamin
This question came to me recently as I pondered the relevance of a “news” story I read about the production of the remake of Stephen King’s horror novel, It. The article purported to reveal the new look of the infamous villain, Pennywise. Being slightly interested, I clicked on the article. What followed was a report on a series of Instagram posts by the film’s director, Andy Muschietti, teasing images synonymous with Tommy Lee Wallace’s original television adaptation, as well as the film’s logo on a director’s chair, and then the money shot: a crude pen sketch of a demonic head on the front of a marble notebook.
The article goes on to say that this drawing may have no correlation to the film or the character whatsoever, but, man is it scary looking!
This got me thinking, did I need to know this information? Don’t get me wrong, I know the article was meant to generate clicks and nothing more (kudos, you got mine!) but I still have to question its mere existence. Film speculation, fan theories, and teasers are firmly entrenched in the digital space of film coverage. These tactics are used by websites to generate traffic, and also by studios to manufacture interest in their properties. In this instance, the website gets the clicks of curious genre fans and the studio gets positive attention cast upon its troubled production (the original director attached, True Detective helmer Cary Fukunaga, left the production after disagreeing with the studio’s vision for the film).
The same could be said of the recent reveal that a Star Trek character, Sulu, will be openly gay in the newest film. Did I need to know this before seeing the film? It generates interest, but at what cost? Think of how much power the revealing moment just lost by informing the audience before they see it.
No matter the intention of the coverage, this type of article affects the aura of the film, which in turn influences expectations.
This begs me to ask another question: what would my expectations be if this information was never written? I’m aware the all-consuming masses don’t regularly visit film sites that report this news on a daily basis, but with the far-reaching arms of social media wrapping around the whole of the population, most people are bound to find out sooner or later.
Think about the effect Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho had on the audience when they first saw it. The shower scene was a shocking experience that truly scared audiences. And I have to think part of this is because people had no idea what to expect, aside from another suspenseful film from the master of suspense. The scene had a different kind of teaser, which was revolutionary at the time. The trailer for the film was a 6-minute Bates Motel walk-through with Hitchcock, himself. He took a tour through the motel and the Bates’ house and ratcheted up tension by pointing out the locations of the murders, important places within the two buildings, and areas where revealing clues might be found. The end of the trailer teases the shower scene perfectly without the revealing anything but a moment from the scene.
Here’s the trailer:
Consider that. How many directors could tell the audience exactly what was going to happen in a horror film, but still manage to scare the bajeesus out of everyone who saw it? Filmmakers forget it isn’t the horrifying act, necessarily, that makes things scary, it’s the action plus the way it’s shot, written, scored, lit, and acted.
So, I ask, what would our movie experience be like if we didn’t have the internet to spoil things for us? Modern trailers (most of which appear online before television) show most, if not all, of the story and beats of the film. Genre films tend to show the audience exactly what they are about to see: we know who the villain is and what they look like, the major action set-pieces, the climactic battle, etc.
The worst example of this is the conventions such as the San Diego Comic-Con, and Disney’s D-23 Expo. All of the major studios book presentation Halls to literally give away parts of their most coveted films, most of which gets published on the internet shortly thereafter for all to
Imagine if audiences went into Captain America: Civil War not knowing Spider-Man was going to show up, or not knowing which heroes were going to choose to be on Team Cap or Team Iron Man. Every trailer showed some footage from the big fight on the airport runway, as well as the Bucky-Cap vs. Iron Man fight at the end. If they just teased us with the concept that Cap and Tony were going to be on opposite sides of a fight and the rest of the heroes were going to have to choose a side, wouldn’t that be enough? Hell, my girlfriend and I saw that movie wearing matching shirts with the hero line-ups of both Teams. Spoilers are marketable now.
Those action scenes are still gloriously fun to watch, and they get away with it because the action is so well shot, but they lack an element of authenticity and true awe from the audience. There’s a restlessness in the audience who expects to see these familiar moments, as opposed to an excitement from an audience that doesn’t know what to expect. Psycho audiences had the luxury of being in the latter camp.
I understand completely that trailers are a major marketing tool and they’re used to generate excitement, which has been monetized in our digital age. Writers, websites, and studios make a living off of this type of marketing. The earlier they can get the excitement going, the more money can be made. But, this monetizing has stripped film of a different kind of aura: we know what to expect, how to expect it, and when to expect it.
Think about sitting down in a movie theater on September 18th, 2017. The title card pops up: Stephen King’s IT. In our age of mass media consumption, you will have seen countless trailers, read dozens of articles, set reports, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and possibly even seen whole scenes well before the film opens. In Hitchcock’s day, you’d be dying to know the answers to questions like: how terrifying is Pennywise going to look? What crazy shit will he do? How is he going to terrorize these kids? What will he sound like? Who is going to get killed? How will they stop him?
How does this process go in modern times? After you’ve seen all the promotional material the internet has to offer, you’ll sit down knowing the answer to most, if not all, of those questions and you’ll only have one question left: Any chance this lives up to my expectations?
Where’s the fun in that?
When I wrote about Inside Out last Summer I mentioned that I didn’t like writing about kids movies very much, mostly because they rarely have a higher purpose other than entertainment and I don’t enjoy picking apart childish fun. For my dime, that isn’t so interesting to write about. Though, Pixar films have been known to possess a higher purpose.
Being that Finding Dory is a sequel to a beloved and, admittedly, very good kids film, there are certainly some interesting parallels and thematic elements to discuss. So, let’s dive in. (Get it? I’ll be here all week!)
The plot of Finding Dory is another adventure, like Finding Nemo, wherein the titular character is crossing the ocean to search for her parents whom she has suddenly started to remember again. The original film was also a familial adventure and had a personal theme of accepting personal and physical faults. The sequel dials down the ocean voyage obstacles and instead places the characters in a Sea World-like environment where many of the obstacles are man-made. This works well because they avoided treading the same water (Yeah, I got puns) as the original story.
Plot points aside, the film has several emotional moments that draw their power from our love of these characters from the first film. In the same way you knew Marlin was sacrificing his very nature in order to find his son, you know Dory’s journey is more important than just finding her home. She’s finding herself.
Heavy for a kids flick, right? Yes and no. The best kinds of these movies essentially offer a McGuffin, which is a narrative plot point that forces the characters to have an arc. Nemo was both a character and a goal for Marlin to achieve. Like I said, it’s just as important for Dory to find about herself as it is for her to find her parents. But in order for her to achieve her goal, she has to overcome her deficiencies and prove to herself she is capable of overcoming them. So the plot of her trying to find her parents is secondary to her own self discovery. And if you’re paying attention, this is the structure of nearly every story ever told.
And the first film is no different. Marlin’s journey is to find his inner courage as much as it is to find his son. But he needed the tragedy of losing his son to make it possible. His over-protectiveness and neuroticism were endearing and also served as a catalyst for the events of Finding Nemo. He had undergone tragedy in the loss of his wife, which affected his psychological state, and his voyage to find his son was in stark contrast to that. It took one tragic experience to get over the other.
Interestingly, one of the most fun parts in Finding Nemo is the Woody Allen/Diane Keaton-like relationship (though, not in a romantic way) Marlin and Dory have. She is free-wheeling and careless, and he’s a nervous wreck who envisions certain death at all times. Finding Dory rarely explores this dynamic and instead separates the two very early. What this does is it provides a set-up for the characters to depend on themselves and their resources. Dory finds a new set of new and old friends which she bonds with in various ways. Sadly, Nemo has been reduced to a sidekick and more of a resource for Marlin in this film, but it’s still a fun relationship to watch.
Also of note, the voice cast is excellent. Ellen Degeneres is obviously the stand-out, as she was in Finding Nemo. It’s funny because it rarely works when a supporting character from one film is given their own film, but you could argue Finding Dory stands toe-to-toe with the first one. And a lot of that has to do with Ellen’s portrayal of Dory. She is the heart of the film in a big way.
I feel like I could babble on about the themes of family and finding your inner strength, but again, it’s a kids film and it’s all in plain sight. There isn’t anything I said in this review that you won’t see for yourself. In short, the film has an enormous heart, a big emotional impact, lovable characters (Ed O’Neil’s Octopus ((Septopus)) is a stand-out new character), and a captivating adventure plot. Highly recommended.
Finger-pointing goes as far back as the middle-school playground when you could count your age on one hand and tattle-tell with the other. These instances usually included two or more guilty parties, yet the blame was cast in the direction of one suspect.
“He did it!”
“Nuh uh, she did it!”
Parents, you feel me, right?
If you think the blame game stops when a person reaches a certain point of maturity, then you clearly have never seen an artist and a critic turn their noses up at one another in a truly eye-rolling series of pokes and jabs.
The artist is the paradigm of the creator: they invent or adapt a story, a character, a look, or a performance from their years of experience and training in their field. The critic is meant to acknowledge and legitimize the creation. Their writing and analytical skills are intended for the betterment of the medium and to inform the masses. The tension between these critic and artist has been palpable for centuries and has been the subject of many plays and films.
What made me think of this childish conundrum was some recent articles from Cannes about Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s reaction to, well, the reaction to his most recent film, It’s Only the End of the World. The critical consensus was in the negative (and the generally salty Cannes crowd tends to squeeze some lemon juice in the wound as well) and Dolan took it personally. In response to one critic who equated self-pitying at the heart of the film directly to Dolan’s personal life, he had this to say:
This is not journalism. It’s gossip. It’s pretending to be a sophisticated analysis, but really it’s cheap psychology.
“You’re a whiny baby!”
“Yeah, well, you’re a stupid face!”
Dolan is not used to negativity since most of his films have received high critical marks, so his salty retorts could possibly be chalked up to his lack of experience in dealing with professional rejection. That being said, his quote in The Guardian is most apt for my argument. The publication gave one of the few positive reviews of his film, so perhaps he let down his guard a bit during the interview, but his words shine a light on the elephant in the critical world.
He starts off by nailing the first issue of current criticism, in reference to knee-jerk Twitter analysis, saying it breeds…
a sort of instantaneous harm and culture of hatred, which the festival seems to be sinking into.
This is an obvious truth that is the effect of the internet age of blogs and online critics. The only way to stand out is to do 1 of 3 things: be the first to have an opinion, be a troll and have a dissenting opinion, or have a click-bait column with a click-bait title. The former is fed by Twitter. Many critics, especially at film festivals where the films that screen won’t be seen by the majority of the public for months or even years, have a tweet ready to send before the credits roll. Nowhere on this list is the quality of the content. It pays to be first, not to be good.
But what kind of analysis is that? Your first impression after seeing a film is rarely the most accurate description of your opinion. The way you feel after seeing a movie is important, but I would say the movie doesn’t really take shape until after you’ve dissected it in your mind, through conversation, and/or by writing it out. Maybe you know you didn’t like the movie before the lights turned on, but do you know exactly why you didn’t like it? I know, for me, there has been several times where I had no idea what my critical opinion of a movie was before I started writing about it. You sit down to figure it out, thinking you have nothing to write and, suddenly, your brain starts to analyze and thoughtfully characterize your opinions. Twitter is the opposite of that.
Now, to get to the second part of the quote I’d like to highlight.
If the guy who gives Creed five stars and Fast and the Furious four stars and-a-half is saying that Marion Cotillard is a bore in my movie, then it really is the end of the world…….And you wonder what the fuck he’s doing here.
The end of the world!!
I love this. It’s melodramatic and illuminating all at once. Dolan truly is an artist.
However, the comment brings the ever dubious critical scale to the forefront. The obvious retort is, using the star rating system is ridiculous and anyone who creates art should brush it off. But, especially for smaller films, it sadly matters in an economic way. The more stars, the more likely people are to seek out a movie. This isn’t always true, as is the case with critic-proof blockbusters and horror movies, but a small movie with bad reviews doesn’t stand a chance. It’s such an insanely binary and limited scale with which to pass judgement and I don’t use it. It really isn’t that dissimilar from Twitter reactions in that, the critic is attempting to make their opinion known in the shortest, most visible way possible. People open up an article and at the top they see 4 1/2 stars, then when the movie comes up in conversation they can say, “I read that movie was good” without having actually read the critic’s analysis.
In what way is it good? 4 1/2 stars for a unique film such as Tangerine is vastly different from the 4 1/2 stars for a franchise movie like Fast and Furious. So what good derives from assigning stars when there is no weighted value for each star? The answer is in the text, not the stars. Personally, I hate and rarely have ever used stars to rate films. If anything, films should be rated on a 1-10 scale, or a grading scale (A+ through F). There’s more leeway for variations in films and opinions.
P.S. I’d like to point you to my Critical Manifesto, which I think every critic should write and have handy. I think something like this helps place a value on a particular critic’s reviews.
Now, we get to the good stuff!
In response to Xavier Dolan’s comments in The Guardian, The New Yorker film critic Richard Brody shared this tweet (oh, the irony):
Zing! The “last paragraph” part is a reference to Dolan’s latter quote about the star rating and such. Apparently, Mr. Brody does not like Xavier Dolan very much.
I engaged Brody on Twitter when he sent this out and asked him if he thought it was snobbery or disgust with Twitter film criticism, to which he replied that Creed is a fine film. This I don’t disagree with, but it certainly didn’t answer the question. This is no different than a sports fan tweeting something demeaning about their team or the opposing team in the heat of battle. In this case, Dolan attacked critics (Brody’s team) and Brody retaliated with a derisive remark that holds no weight, but I’m sure it felt good to write. I’ve been there, buddy. My Twitter feed has had its share of scathing, in-the-heat-of-the-moment posts.
But here we are, back to the crux of the issue. Dolan thinks critics are presumptuous and illogical, and Brody finds Dolan to be a snob. Who’s right?
One cannot exist without the other. The critic seems more expendable than the artist because they don’t create the art, and it is the art that the masses consume. But criticism, when done right, should be considered an art-form. It is rare to find a critic nowadays who can reveal the truth of a film, illuminate the highs and lows, and relate it to the world. The world lost its preeminent film voice, Roger Ebert, as well as Pauline Kael, and criticism the way James Agee wrote is obsolete. If you read Brody’s reviews you’ll find average criticism inflated with 10 cent words and all things New Yorker-ish. (Here is his review for Central Intelligence, you’ll see what I mean).
At this time I’d like to refer you to the definition of the word “snob”:
(noun) a person who believes that their tastes in a particular area are superior to those of other people.
I believe this definition applies to both of these gentlemen in some way.
Recently The Playlist posted a list of the Top 50 Best Foreign Language Movies of The 21st Century So Far. It’s a solid list with lots of obvious inclusions if you follow foreign cinema at all (In The Mood For love, Cache, A Separation, Volver, City of God, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Pan’s Labyrinth, Y Tu Mama, Tambien). Also featured on this list was Xavier Dolan’s Cannes favorite, Mommy. If you have a cursory knowledge of contemporary foreign cinema you’ll be pretty happy with the list.
However, if you wish to prove that your knowledge of foreign cinema is vastly superior to that of the staff writers at The Playlist, like Richard Brody, you concoct your own list, aptly titled, A Response to the Top 50 Best Foreign Language Movies of The 21st Century. Note that this is a counter to someone else’s opinions; it is not simply his own list, nor is it an extension of the previous list where he offers alternatives to an already established list. Brody directly relates his assessment of the initial article: “I found myself in instant disagreement with most of the titles included”.
Instant disagreement! Sounds like a job for Twitter, no?
So, right off the bat, he is rewriting the list. Nowhere in the article does he deride the The Playlist‘s writers, except to refer to their article as “the list in question” and simply stating the film sitting atop his rankings is “the best of the century so far”.
Again, I’d like to turn your attention towards the definition of the word “snob”:
(noun) a person who believes that their tastes in a particular area are superior to those of other people.
The titles you recognize from the first list are totally absent from Brody’s list (save for Leos Carax’s Holy Motors), but most tellingly is the non-inclusion of a single Xavier Dolan film, despite the critical love of Mommy, Laurence Anyways, I Killed My Mother and Tom At the Farm. It would appear Mr. Brody has a personal grudge against the Canadian filmmaker.
So, what have we figured out? Both critics and artists are babies. It seems like the artists that try to make something unique and different, like Dolan, take it more personally when critics don’t like or, as I’m sure they feel, don’t “get” their work. Filmmakers like Dolan make films for festivals, which are critical beehives (if not a hornets nest), so the legitimization of their work rests on the shoulders of critics. The critic is aware of this, which is why they feel an over-inflated sense of importance at these festivals. I imagine it’s not much unlike a court room, where the filmmaker is the defendant and the critic is the judge and jury (with delusions of being the executioner). But the goal of criticism has been reduced to getting your opinion out the fastest or playing the role of contrarian. It has to be out quick, under 140 characters, or be different. Being a good writer is passe. The worst example is the degradation of criticism at film festivals, where you’re allowed to have one of two reactions: loud boos or a standing ovation. And a snappy tweet. Which is followed by:
“You’re just a snob!”
“No, you’re a snob!”
Ahhhhhh. Children, children.
Cutting to the chase, the MCU’s latest superhero extravaganza is rich in action, circus-act set-pieces, and rife with conflict, both political and emotional. It’s the combination of these elements that make the film a stand-out in the realm of superhero cinema. The film isn’t without flaws but the Russo Brothers deftly manage a smorgasbord of plot, character, and action in a way that few could, and that alone is an achievement.
Warning: there may be spoilers below. Proceed with caution.
I’ll start with the flaws. The main complaint with the previous MCU films has been its inability to tell a complete story. The stories here are culled from decades of comic books, which as a medium is defined by its serial nature. This week’s issue is a continuation of last week’s while also being the precursor of next week’s. Film has never really been that way, unless there were planned installments (i.e. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek). The arc created in previous installments is rarely concluded within a single narrative context. In other words, comic book superhero narratives are longer than your typical narrative. They are resolved over the course of several issues, or films, while only black-and-white struggles get resolved. The actuality is, these films prove it is much easier to vanquish a physical enemy than it is to get rid of a metaphysical one (i.e. Steve and Tony’s internal struggles linger long after their enemy has been killed or imprisoned at the end of the movie). So the problem we run into in films such as Captain America: Civil War is one of a structural nature.
What I’m working towards is the reason for the inclusion of characters and moments that don’t necessarily complete the narrative we’re watching, but they add to an existing narrative outside the confines of the current story, or they are planting the seeds for another story to begin.
The most obvious example is the massive shoehorn the Russos employed to wedge the MCU’s returning hero, “Spider-Man”, into Cap’s adventure. When Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark goes to Queens to recruit the high schooler with the superhero abilities, it brings the Civil War storyline to a grinding halt. I am aware that “Spider-Man” was present in the comic book version of the Civil War storyline, but he existed within that world long before the big battle takes place. In this film, he is brought in for three reasons: to give Tony Stark a moment of levity in an otherwise emotionally vulnerable story for “Iron Man”, to provide some humor and fun to the heavy-handed proceedings, and to introduce “Spider-Man” into the MCU. Narratively speaking, he serves no purpose. He doesn’t choose a political side or fight for a reason. He fights because his idol asked him to, which is most dubious considering how well and how long the film sets up the emotional and political reasons for all the characters to fight for their side (except maybe Paul Rudd’s “Ant-Man”, who seems to fight for almost the same reason “Spider-Man” does, albeit on Team Cap).
There are conflicting ideologies at work that truly elevate the story in a way that no Batman v Superman ever could. Both films deal with the collateral damage inflicted upon civilization and the consequences thereof. Where Civil War succeeds is in creating grey areas for the characters to exist within. Steve Rogers understands the ramifications of civilian casualties in the process of stopping the bad guys, but he also understands the agendas of those that would force him to or keep him from taking some necessary risks. Have we learned nothing from the scheming Hydra agents from Winter Soldier? Imagine if they had final say in where, when, and under what circumstances the Avengers were sent into action?
But we are also shown the toll that the events of the previous movies has taken on Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic in this film). The amount of damage resulting from the existence of the Avengers is tremendous and Tony doesn’t want the burden anymore. I’ve seen people writing pieces about the reversed allegiances and the backwards ideologies of the two main characters. This is where that notion of incomplete storylines and serial narratives comes back to bite the MCU. What do we know about Cap? He’s a soldier who fights for truth, justice, and the American way. And we know Iron Man is an arrogant, stubborn loner who revels in the attention of being a superhero and billionaire playboy. So how is it we got to the point where Cap becomes a government outcast and renegade fighter while Iron Man fights for the rights of the government to control the actions of superheroes? You have to read (see) last week’s issue!
The best parts of this film are character moments: interactions between Anthony Mackie’s “Falcon” and Sebastian Stan’s sympathetic, dangerous and conflicted “Winter Soldier”; “Spider-Man” interacting with everyone he meets from the Avengers; Chadwick Boseman’s intense performance as the grieving, vengeful king of Wakanda, T’Challa (A.K.A. the “Black Panther”); Paul Rudd’s what-am-I-doing-here comedic shtick (as well as an amazingly fun action sequence centered around his “Ant-Man” abilities); and one of my favorites, the insecure and frightened performance of Elizabeth Olsen’s “Scarlet Witch”, who carries the burden of causing the catastrophe that sets the story in motion as well as the being the “outcast” of the group because of the intensity of her powers.
The joyous, huge action sequence between the two superhero teams is a much-deserved payoff after we are given ample reasons for each team to fight for their cause. This is why it pays to set-up, set-up, and set-up some more. By the time we have reached the fight, the backstory of political ideologies and emotions have been firmly established. Of the two main fights in the movie, this is the political struggle narratively created into an actual fist-fight, complete with humor and over-the-top action beats. The climactic battle between Cap, Iron Man, and the Winter Soldier is equally rewarding, if not moreso, because this fight embodies the emotional baggage of each character and succeeds in embodying the sheer intensity of an emotional fight. The explosion of emotion that ignites this battle is lit literally from the very first seconds of the film. The fact that we have to wait until the very end to get the payoff makes it even more satisfying.
When we are served a superhero film that combines this many characters with this level of thought and planning, we are all lucky customers. The inherent structure of superhero films begs for the creation of a thousand think-pieces about the nature of story and cinematic narratives, but I’ll leave that to much smarter people and enjoy the ride the Russo’s have given us.
Podcast Episode #11: 10/6/15 – Telling a Story About a Lost Day of My Life, Football, Briefly discuss READY PLAYER ONE, Horror Flicks, and Rant About a Really Stupid INDIEWIRE Article
Episode #11 here, kids. I was kind of tired for this one but still managed to churn out 35 minutes of premium content. Premium.
Most of the show is taken up by my rant about Melissa Silverstein’s article over at IndieWire about the hiring of male directors for large studio properties. Her article is here. The rest is about my lost day due to a prescription sedative before my hip procedure last week, football, discussion of Ready Player One, and some horror flicks my girlfriend and I have watched in the last week. Enjoy!
Podcast Episode #10: 9/29/15 – Talking Getting Old, My Disgust with the Internet, Reviewing PARANORMAN as well the the Trailer for THE REVENANT, Slasher Flicks, Football, and other nonsense
I’m back on my Tuesday schedule this week as I hit a milestone….EPISODE 10! I couldn’t have done it without you all. You keep me going. Yes, you.
As usual I ramble about nonsense, including the Pope’s visit, internet stupidity, douchebags with water jugs, football, and slasher movies. I also managed to squeeze in some real movie talk as I reviewed Paranorman (written review here) and discussed the trailer for The Revenant (which can be viewed here).
I’m not usually one to post trailers unless I’m really pumped about the movie or I have no material to post. This is definitely the former.
From Birdman director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu we now have a trailer for The Revenant and holy shit does it look amazing. Just from a visual perspective it looks tremendous, and I have a feeling this and The Hateful Eight are going to square off for best winter-y look on film this year. I’m already going to predict at least a Best Cinematography nomination for this one. Mark it down. We’ll probably get a Best Actor nom for Leo and maybe a supporting nom for Tom Hardy as well. I can’t wait for this one, especially since Birdman was my favorite flick from last year.
Without further adieu, here’s the awesomeness: