Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Review

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Question for critic: Do you ever write a positive review even though you didn't like the film (or vice versa) because of trying to screen out personal bias?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Wesley Morris Reviews 'Fast 7'

"… And in the seventh part, they refused to die. Still. It’s true that two early scenes in Furious 7 occur at cemeteries. But by the second trip, Roman (Tyrese Gibson) makes everyone in his government-sponsored car club promise that this is it for graveyards, and it is. Two characters go tumbling down a mountain in an armored car, and a couple of scenes later are chatting on a beach. When one speeding car needs to deposit its hotly pursued passenger into another speeding car, the transfer requires each vehicle to swerve into a parallel formation so that the body can slip from one window through the other. (It took longer to type that than it did to watch.) A physicist might say of the deposited, “See you at the morgue.” But physics are to the Fast & Furious movies what term limits are to dictators: something to be flouted. That transfer is but one of the dozen or so incidents in this movie that drop your jaw, steal your breath, and make you want to say “I do.”
Characters, of course, have died in these films. They just don’t stay dead. And there’s a glorious soapiness to some of that. Furious 7 has Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) standing over her own grave, struggling to remember all the driving and snarling she’d previously done. She tells Dom (Vin Diesel) she needs time for self-rediscovery, which would seem to entail relearning that this bald, muscle-bound man with the Anthony Quinn mumbles is her husband."

Wesley Morris is a great critic, one reason being that he puts so much more into a review than the average movie reviewer. Grantland, a now-defunct site where sportswriters and cultural experts could practice a more traditional long form journalism that is getting harder and harder to find, was the perfect place for Morris' drawn-out, multi-layered analysis, and it's a real shame that the website was discontinued. But questionable ESPN decisions aside, Morris' reviews stand out because they're a whole lot more than just a summary and reaction to a certain movie. He picks a distinct angle from which he decides to review a film, as seen by this 'Fast 7' review, in which he chooses to dissect the movie with a sharp focus on the late Paul Walker's character, and the emotionally resonant way in which he was retired from the series. Morris always does his research, and here he goes through the earlier movies in the saga, recalling the film-to-film transformation of Walker's Brian, so that when he tells us how moving Brian's decision to choose family over friends at the end was, the reader already has a fully fleshed out vision of that character to support the statement. Morris goes deeper than most critics, but he also keeps things light and entertaining. I love how he points out the fact that it takes so much longer to describe an action scene in writing than it takes to watch it on screen. And also, the 'Physics are to Fast and Furious movies what term limits are to dictators' line gave me a good chuckle. Ultimately, Morris can take you deep into a movie's backstory, analyze its characters, and also assess a film's relevancy in the modern world, all while making the reader laugh in the process.
English: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at the C...
English: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at the Cannes film festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
TV vs. Film, or Who Cares?

Dueling critics at the Guardian newspaper

Stuart Heritage: Why TV is better

Long-form storytelling - When applied correctly, the elongated storytelling opportunities afforded by television trump cinema's frayed reliance on the drudgery of 90-minute three-act plots.
TV is (currently) less franchise fixated - Hollywood is increasingly reliant on brand recognition, churning out endless sequels and spinoffs and reboots because it's easier than marketing an original idea.
TV still has the power to surprise - At its best, a TV show can be freeform, veering from comedy to thriller to horror and back again. Films, with their desperate need to be marketed properly, tend to simplify to sell.
Word of mouth - Again, look at Breaking Bad. That show started small and, thanks to new distribution methods as well as near-rabid word-of-mouth from evangelists who'd seen it and loved it, it ended up a juggernaut. What's the last film you can say that about?
Actors do their best work on TV - Because television is increasingly becoming a writer's medium, it is attracting the best acting talent. Actors who would have run from television a decade ago are now embracing it precisely because the quality is so high. Now the letdown comes when actors move from TV to film.
The biggest stars of tomorrow are on TV now - Bruce Willis started on TV. Alec Baldwin started on TV. Will Smith started on TV. Robin Williams and George Clooney and Eddie Murphy and Tom Hanks got their big breaks on TV. And this is how it'll always be – television's lower budgets and faster turnaround times make it a brilliant breeding ground for future movie stars.
The bond with characters - Because television is increasingly becoming a writer's medium, it is attracting the best acting talent. Actors who would have run from television a decade ago are now embracing it precisely because the quality is so high. Now the letdown comes when actors move from TV to film.

David Cox: Why film is better

Tell me a story - At the heart of cinema's failure was said to have been the straitjacket of the story arc: the movies' fraught timespan supposedly forced them into pat formulae requiring over-neat plot resolution but allowing no space for character development. Only the big-ticket TV series, it was argued, had space to develop intricate stories and convincing personalities. However, done right, resolution becomes a bonus, not a liability.
The power of the word – (My paraphrase) When movies don’t scrimp on script and add great writing to the visual opportunities offered by film, film wins
Unsqueezing the squeezed middle - Nowadays, Hollywood studios are supposedly interested only in vast projects guaranteed to bring vast returns: these have to be action-packed, effects-heavy sequels and prequels of familiar material easily grasped by global audiences. This, we were warned, would mean that though the microbudget sector might survive, mid-range stuff would disappear. Wrong.
Stealing TV’s clothes - Television's unique selling point used to be the intimacy of the living room. Now film is finding that small can look even better on the big screen, and it's daring to jettison its trappings to focus in on human relationships.
Cooking TV’s goose - At the same time, other films are veering off in the opposite direction, boldly going where TV cannot possibly follow. The pursuit of mindless spectacle may have yielded disappointment; intelligent spectacle, it turns out, is another matter. Eschewing CGI, Captain Phillips mobilises a 500-ft container ship, several destroyers, two amphibious assault ships and an aircraft carrier to deliver one of the most thrilling films yet made. Gravity makes you feel what it's really like to be lost in space. As television tries to scale up with bigger-budget ventures like Boardwalk Empire, cinema is showing it where it gets off.
Milking the assets - Film is also making the most of its secondary advantages. Intricate production design remains a big-screen speciality. Music from your sound bar can't quite match theatrical surround sound. Movie stars were supposed to have lost their allure, but George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Matt Damon, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Cate Blanchett seem to be burning brightly enough, while TV scions such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Julia Louis-Dreyfus continue to rush to join their ranks.
Making it mean something - If films used to be vacuous pap, they aren't any more. 12 Years a Slave forces audiences to confront afresh man's inhumanity to both men and women. Captain Phillips may be a classic thriller, but it addresses the political context in which it's set.

Some obvious points, some original, some borrowed:

The screen looms, framed by darkness and silence. All else is peripheral.
That enormous screen is a huge canvas that gives aesthetic advantages.
Film is the older platform and has more classics.
TV viewing has been “rendered monotonous.” Movies are still events.
Old TV looks terrible, which robs us of history.
Sexism and racism still a problem but TV has more niches and thus more diversity. “What’s happened, in the years of “Empire” and “Jane the Virgin” and “black-ish” and “The Mindy Project,” is a change of both business and culture. TV audiences for everything are smaller now, which means networks aren’t programming each show for an imagined audience of tens of millions of white people. On top of that, there are younger viewers for whom diversity — racial, religious, sexual — is their world. That audience wants authenticity; advertisers want that audience.” (James Poniewozik)
Topicality – “3.5 million viewers watched the "Mad Men" premiere two weeks ago; in many parts of the country, a fraction of that could see a limited-release movie on its opening weekend. In terms of what's more likely to be talked about at the office on Monday, the show is king. Regardless of content, in terms of consumption television's coming out ahead, because it presents more of an opportunity for large groups of people to watch at the same time and share a viewing experience, even if that experience is spread out in thousands of living rooms or laptop or iPad screens. It's providing a compelling alternative to the uniting feeling of sitting together, alone, in the dark in a theater to watch something. Is it better? I don't know that I'd say that. But it's definitely winning.” (Alison Willmore)
Cultural habit – “Movies still occupy an Olympian position in the pop-culture landscape. They are bigger than television, grander than video games, more important than viral Internet videos — even if those things can often be more interesting, more profitable or more fun.” (A.O Scott)
It Doesn’t Matter. It’s just business – “The traditional relationship between film and television has reversed, as American movies have become conservative and cautious, while scripted series, on both broadcast networks and cable, are often more daring, topical and willing to risk giving offense.
“This may represent not an aesthetic fault line, but rather a corporate division of labor, since the television networks and the movie studios belong to the same conglomerates, and there is frequent crossover among executive and producers as as well as directors, actors and writers. And looked at from another angle – from your couch to the living room wall, say, or from your armchair to the laptop or other mobile electronic device in your hand – the distinction between movies and television grows more tenuous every day. The most interesting, provocative and surprising movies of the coming season may well reach you through video on demand or Internet streaming, playing in only a handful of theaters so that critics can have a chance to spread the word about them.” (A.O. Scott)

* Yes it does matter. It’s all about “cinematic language.” “How many times have you or I seen a big screen adaptation of a novel and thought, this would work better as a miniseries? But happily, there are superb exceptions to the rule. A&E’s six-hour “Pride and Prejudice” may still be the definitive adaptation for Jane Austen completists and Colin Firth devotees, but there’s no denying that Joe Wright’s 2005 film version is superior filmmaking — the mise-en-scene is richer, the cinematography earthier and more tactile, with long, luxuriant tracking shots (a Wright signature) that masterfully articulate the characters’ unspoken desires and motivations. The BBC’s seven-part adaptation of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” remains one of television’s crowning achievements, but whatever Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 film lacked in narrative intricacy, it more than made up for in moldering production design and enveloping atmosphere. You walked out of the theater after that movie and felt like you’d visited another time and place.” (Justin Chang)

The Witch - LA Times

"It's the rare horror film that sows suspicion into nearly every frame, so intent on a darkening mood that the stillness of trees at the edge of a wood, or a child's face in demonic thrall, even an ambling goat, carries the same capacity to unnerve. Such is the detail that Robert Eggers brings to his impressive debut feature "The Witch," a grim wade into the disintegration of a besieged God-fearing New England family in the early 17th century. If ever a chiller deserved that overused foodie tag "artisanal," this painstakingly crafted bid for naturalistic creeps does. (Are we surprised that Eggers, who won last year's directing award at Sundance for "The Witch," is based in that epicenter of the culturally authentic, Brooklyn?)
 Set decades before Salem stamped the ravages of devil hysteria into the history books, "The Witch" opens with English farmer William (Ralph Ineson), his stern-faced wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their brood of five, banished from their Puritan community over a religious disagreement. They decamp to an open stretch of land next to a menacing forest that might as well have an "Abandon hope all ye who enter here" sign out front to go with the shrieky-strings music score. After the family's newborn goes missing during an outing with restless teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), an already charged atmosphere of financial hardship, rigorous piety and social exile turns rancorous when a barely coping, grieving Katherine suspects Thomasin of witchcraft. Beleaguered William initially defends his daughter, but even his faith is tested when the next-oldest, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), ventures into the woods to hunt and disappears too."

I love watching scary movies, but I was unsure if The Witch would actually be frightening. After reading this review, however, I think I will give it a chance. The writer was very descriptive and convincing. I liked how he kept asserting that this scary movie is different from others, making me very curious about the film. 

Post-a-Review: "Review: 'The Danish Girl,' About a Transgender Pioneer" by A.O. Scott

"Written for the screen by Lucinda Coxon and based on David Ebershoff’s novel of the same title, “The Danish Girl” is a fictionalized biography of Lili Elbe (as Einar Wegener came to be known), one of the first people to attempt sex reassignment surgery. Lili’s encounters with prevailing medical wisdom, culminating in her meeting with a sympathetic doctor (Sebastian Koch), form a harrowing subplot. And her bravery makes this film a welcome tribute to a heroic forerunner of the current movement for transgender rights. It’s impossible not to be moved by Lili’s self-recognition and by her demand to be recognized by those who care most about her.
But it’s also hard not to wish that “The Danish Girl” were a better movie, a more daring and emotionally open exploration of Lili’s emergence. As it is, the film, like its heroine for most of her life, is trapped by conventional expectations and ways of being. If, that is, Lili is really the heroine at all. The film’s title phrase is uttered on screen once, by Einar’s childhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), a Paris art dealer, in reference to Gerda. And it is Gerda’s ordeal that provides the narrative with its emotional center of gravity.
When “The Danish Girl” was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, Kyle Buchanan, writing for Vulture, complained that it was part of a trend of “queer and trans films that are actually about straight people.” Not that the emphasis on Gerda’s experience is illegitimate. She is called upon to support the man she loves as he erases himself from her life, and Ms. Vikander registers the anguish and ambivalence, as well as the passionate loyalty, that Gerda feels as Einar gives way to Lili (Scott, 2015)."

When I first watched 'The Danish Girl', I was moved, hopeful, and ultimately touched by Lili Elbe's story and that there is actually a movie about the trans-community. After reading this review, I started to look at the movie in a different way. Scott writes, "As it is, the film, like its heroine for most of her life, is trapped by conventional expectations and ways of being. If, that is, Lili is really the heroine at all." So 'The Danish Girl' was Gerda all along? This is a "'queer and trans film[s] that [is] actually about straight people'"??? Come to think of it... The movie did show the Lili's struggle through transition, but its showed more of Gerda's struggle to accept that her husband wants to transition. Scott's review made me think twice about the film, discover multiple layers, and critique its intent. Nonetheless, I still feel as though it's a great film in support of the trans community.

'Room' Review--The Guardian

"Despite parallels with appalling real-life news storiesRoom is neither a horror movie nor a film about crime and/or captivity. (If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll already know more than I shall reveal here; Abrahamson is clear that “we’re not marketing it as a thriller”, and stresses that potential viewers should be “pretty clear where it ends up”.) Instead, it focuses on how the human spirit may transcend physical boundaries, and the disparity between external and internal freedom. In the early stages of the film, Stephen Rennicks’s superbly empathetic score emphasises the gentle domesticity, rather than the shrieking claustrophobia, of Jack and Ma’s circumstances, later giving way to sustained ambient chimes that lend an unearthly edge to our own alien world. (This Will Destroy You’s The Mighty Rio Grande is also employed to devastating effect.)

"That domesticity is a source of both reassurance and disturbance, and is indeed one of the film’s most brilliantly balanced elements. Behind the modern gothic trappings, this tale of an imprisoned woman resourcefully protecting her child from a violent male presence has a universal edge. Just as fantastical fairytales so often unpick the conflicts of family life, so Room owes less to the lurid legacy of the Josef Fritzl case (or to films such as Markus Schleinzer’s Michael) than to the more everyday experiences of women and children who rise above domestic abuse. When Ma’s captor, “Old Nick”, bleats that she has no idea how hard the world is for him, he sounds less like a kidnapper than a self-justifying wife-beater. And just as Jack’s mother protects him, so Abrahamson and Donoghue shield us too – not with the dewy eyes of cod sentimentality, but with the steely resolve of those determined to look the world in the face without succumbing to exploitation."

Though this particular review (and all the others I've seen of this movie) haven't been as specific as I'd like them to be, I think that these two paragraphs from The Guardian's review do a fantastic job of summing up why this story is different from what one might expect a kidnapping story to be. It's also different than thriller-style stories, or thriller-style/whimsical ones around the subject (looking at you, The Lovely Bones). 

What this review and others miss, however, is the opportunity to focus in on a theme. Yes, anyone with empathy can see the arch and idea of the film from the trailer. Watching it, you get more. I want a review to focus on Ma's inability to let go of bitterness after their escape, to discuss her slight disdain for Jack as she looks for independence back in the world. It begs the question: Why do we expect perfection out of our mothers, even ones who themselves were scared children when they became one? 

I want a review to focus on Ma's father, and how he couldn't even look at Jack because he saw him only as a product of the violence Ma lived through.

I want a review to focus more, as I hear the novel it's self does, on Jack's perspective as a (rightfully) selfish child who thinks of Room as a safe place, his world, even after he's left. How he makes Ma return their to say goodbye. 

These are places where I think the film truly succeeds in showing the complex nature of the characters, and not just focus on the "beauty" that is found in such a terrible situation. There is ugly there, too, and it's just as powerful.

Monday, February 22, 2016

'Joy' Review

"And if “Joy” seems to move toward a foreordained conclusion, it zigzags and covers its tracks along the way, sending its heroine on a roller-coaster ride of raised hopes and brutal disappointments and playing tricks with the audience’s expectations. What kind of spark will ignite between Joy and Neil Walker, a big shot in the world of home-shopping cable television? Since he’s played by Bradley Cooper, the answer could be anything.

But the movie, in all its mess and glory, belongs almost entirely to Ms. Lawrence. She is the kind of movie star who turns everyone else into a character actor. This is not a complaint but an acknowledgment of both her charisma and her generosity. The rest of the cast members have the freedom to be weird, awful and lovable in spite of themselves, to orbit eccentrically around her celestial presence. Mr. De Niro and Ms. Rossellini in particular seem to be having the time of their lives playing parental grotesques who might have wandered out of a Roald Dahl novel.

And Mr. Russell gives this meat-and-potatoes parable of upward mobility, set in the early 1990s, a children’s-book quality. I don’t mean that the story is simplified, but rather that its magical, improbable and cruel elements are heavily underlined, so that Joy feels more like a princess laboring under a terrible spell than like a struggling working-class mother. The trolls, witches and ogres she must beguile and vanquish are, for the most part, her own kin. She is, like a fairy-tale hero or heroine, on a long and complicated quest, relying on spells and charms as well as her innate goodness to deliver her."

I had read this review before going to see the movie, Joy, and since I am a fan of David O. Russell movies, I had already known I wanted to. But this review from the NY Times, by A.O. Scott, made me even more excited. While at times the review seemed to focus more on Russell and his career by comparing Joy to his more recent films, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle,  it was extremely well-written and captured everything that I felt while watching the film. Mainly, I found it easy to relate to what Scott had to say about sometimes being confused throughout the film...wondering what the point of the film/a character was,  only to have everything make sense in some weird way. This smart, smooth review gave a nice, in-depth look into the film without giving too much away. 

A Pulitzer Prize Winning Movie Critic

Mindless Eating
Mindless Eating (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here's her winning package.

One of her entries describes how TV helped her son after spinal surgery which ended his career as a high school football player.

We watch television for many reasons, in many different ways, not all of them healthy. Certainly it can be a sedentary activity, especially when combined with mindless eating. In a society where most bodies are already at rest more than they are in motion, it's easy to target television, especially given the American belief that too much of a good thing is never quite enough.
But television, especially nowadays, is an art form, and there are times we need to lose ourselves in art. To open ourselves wide to the thoughts and emotions of others, to see different sides of the human story unfurl slowly before us.
The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are among the most important things we create, and sometimes it takes a while for them to sink in.

Rolling Stone Review - Whiplash

Of course, I was very easily persuaded in to watching Whiplash because Miles Teller is the star, but there was no turning back when this movie started moving. This review takes me because it is short and sharp. It uses just enough words to get you amped about the movie, and does no more.  It quickly sums up the two main characters, and why their dynamic is something that absolutely needs to be seen. "Beat the drums for Simmons Oscar, and add a cymbal crash for Whiplash. Itʻs electrifying."

Film Review I Like!

I love this review of E.T. The Extraterrestrial, written by Roger Ebert when he added the film to his Great Films collection in 1997. He writes the review as it if he's writing a letter to his grandchildren, and he describes the first time all of them sat down and watched the film, explaining to them what makes the film so great (and why the kids found it so great).

This technique is what elevates the review; because E.T. is, all acclaim aside, a children's film, reviewing the movie with children introduces their perspective. This makes the reader understand how talented Steven Spielberg is, to make a brilliant film that even a child could understand (Ebert praises the film's POV and the story's reliability). Ebert's writing is child-like and simple (so his grandkids could understand), which emphasizes this idea.

Lastly, I think that the emotionally charged writing (a grandfather addressing his grandchildren) works especially well for E.T. Most people who love the film love it for simple reasons: it's a heartwarming story about a lost alien who makes friends with some earth-born children. It's a fun, lovable film. Writing with the almost academic candor of some of his other pieces would have been a bit inappropriate for such an innocent film.

Let's Be Single

"Maybe you could accuse the film of being scattershot or episodic, but its piecemeal structure is key to its virtues. Instead of pummelling a single issue to death with sketch-like variations on a theme, the film manages to take on a wide range of themes and subjects, including the difficulty of self-sufficiency, realising when you want children, accepting the emotional baggage of others, sex as a cure for loneliness, and the fact that even our closest friends may remain entirely unknowable to us. The film doesn’t reinvent any wheels, and it doesn’t try to. But it hits a lot of small, important notes dead on, which helps How to Be Single rise above the rabble.

What gives it a real edge, however, is that it’s one of those rare films that endorses the status of being single. It says, maybe there is satisfaction to be gleaned from locations that aren’t inside a guy’s cargo pants. It would be rude to give the film’s ending away, but it’s a quietly radical gesture that celebrates independence without implying that we should all become cave-dwelling hermits who live off foraged roots and rainwater. It’s not a happy ending. It’s not a sad ending. But it’s a great ending, one that hinges on the mystery of looking deep into Dakota Johnson’s eyes and attempting to read her thoughts and predict her future."

When contemplating if I want to watch a movie or not, I look up reviews. In these critiques, I look for a general plot, notable highlights, the reviewer’s true depiction of the movie (whether it was good or not) and why. David Jenkins’ review on How to be Single fulfills all of these. After several paragraphs, Jenkins gives us a glimpse into the lives of the main characters and how their lives entangle, thus creating the plot. What makes this review stand out are the last two paragraphs. He speaks the truth of what this film is really about — an anti love story that incorporates the instability of adulthood. And before you are quick to categorize it into those cheesy comedies that deal with the exact same themes Jenkins mentioned, he delves into why this movie is different without giving the way the ending. The fact that "it's one of those rare films that endorses the status of being single" is enough to make me wonder what exactly goes on in this film. Best believe I texted my best friend asking her to watch the movie with me this upcoming weekend. 

Review of 'Room' By Joe Morgenstern for the Wall Street Journal

"Room" is an extraordinary movie.  The film stars Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay and explores the small world this mother and son duo experience in a shed they are locked inside.   The traumatic adventure follows their struggle of survival, their escape and their assimilation into 'normal' life.  In Joe Morgenstern's review written for the Wall Street Journal, he summarizes this drama as, "poetic and profound in its exploration of the senses".  The sheer power that lies within the human mind is exploited in such circumstances, and Morgenstern captured this process with his review.  By describing the transformation of, "ghastly reality into an exquisitely intimate study of a mother's devotion and a child's efforts to understand", he perfectly captures the essence of "Room".
Furthermore, the performances of the two actors are incredible.  Their craft evolved completly throughout and challenged the permanence of suffering.  I truly enjoyed watching, and Morgenstern comprehended this well.  When he refers to Larson's character as "a creature of Room", he concludes his review so strongly that it completely resonated with my take of the film.  I just wish I could have written that myself.

TV Develops Emotional Intelligence?

Eyes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
From PsycNet

  1. Previous research has shown that reading award-winning literary fiction leads to increases in performance on tests of theory of mind (Kidd & Castano, 2013). Here, we extend this research to another medium, exploring the effect of viewing award-winning TV dramas on subsequent performance on a test of theory of mind ability, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Hill, Raste, & Plumb, 2001).
  2.  In 2 separate studies, participants were randomly assigned to watch either an award-winning TV drama (Mad Men or West Wing for Study 1; The Good Wife or Lost for Study 2) or a TV documentary (Shark Week or How the Universe Works for Study 1; NOVA Colosseum or Through the Wormhole for Study 2). In both studies, participants who viewed a TV drama performed significantly higher on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test than did those who viewed a documentary.
  3.  These results suggest that film narratives, as well as written narratives, may facilitate the understanding of others’ minds. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2015 APA, all rights reserved)

Good Ol' Mick Vindicated My Movie Taste

   Note: My initial commentary here may be reiterated and expanded upon in another post of some sort.

   Before Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, the highest grossing movie of 2015 was Jurassic World. Jurassic World, by the way, really sucked. The CGI was terrible, there were no relatable characters, the story didn't make much sense (the result of the movie likely being rewritten by ten screenwriters) and as much as I loved him in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Chris Pratt is really starting to annoy me. 
    The review I'm about to share though is not about Jurassic World. It's actually about Vacation (2015) which came out in the same summer. When you think about it, the two movies have a lot in common. Firstly, both movies are sequels in film franchises that came out decades ago. Jurassic World draws heavily on its initial  predecessor, Jurassic Park (1993) and the last movie in its franchise came out in 2001. Vacation, meanwhile, serves as a followup to National Lampoon's Vacation (1983). 
     Also, both movies have two young boys as main characters. In Jurassic World though, we just get two annoying, whiny brats written by someone who has never seen a kid before. Vacation though had an interesting take on its two boys: the older brother is a very kind and thoughtful individual who gets relentlessly tormented and beat up by his smaller, vindictive younger brother (part of my motive for seeing this movie was because such dynamic reminded me of my own growing up).
      Here's one of the biggest travesty of the movie review world: despite all its deep flaws, Jurassic World got 71% percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Vacation got 27%. To this day, I don't know why this is so. Vacation had a clear (albeit simple and pretty derivative off of the original Vacation movie) plot, a lot of funny jokes and great acting. The film had some dumb moments and it was in no way Oscar worthy but it didn't deserve as low of a rating as it got.
        Thankfully, my favorite movie critic, Mick LaSalle (who I may get to meet this week) mostly agrees with me. Here, he describes in his mostly positive review of the film, why the movie works on a comedic level and what there is to enjoy from mostly funny/intelligence-numbing title: 
          “Vacation” isn’t exactly a remake of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983), because it exists in a world in which the events depicted in the earlier movie already happened. But it doesn’t function like a sequel, either, because all the actors are different, with the exception of Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, who appear briefly. Think of the new movie as the retailoring of an old formula for a new generation, taking the best of the old and combining it with the best of the new. The cute family setup is there, but in place of the gentler ’80s sensibility, we get something harsh, nasty and very funny. “Vacation” is consistently funny from beginning to end, a piling on of dumb but inventive jokes and excruciating, awkward situations. In place of Chevy Chase in the driver’s seat, we get Ed Helms as Rusty, who still remembers the wonderful vacation he went on with his family back in the 1980s. Like Dad, Rusty is an oblivious sort of guy, who means well and wants his family to be happy. But where Chase’s quality was satiric, Helms’ is more neurotic, so that the marriage in “Vacation” really does seem in trouble. It’s hard to see what his wife (Christina Applegate) could possibly see in Rusty, who is needy and relentlessly chipper, and does everything wrong. We know we’re in good comic hands from the first minutes, when we see Rusty in his job as a pilot for a budget carrier. In that breezy, all-American style that airline captains invariably master, he thanks the passengers for flying “Econo-Air — we’re working hard to regain your trust.” This is followed by a sequence in which the elderly co-pilot, who has dementia, takes the plane up to 60,000 feet. You were warned. John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein, who shared writing and directing duties, are merciless in pursuit of a laugh. Wanting to re-create a golden moment from his childhood, and thinking it will bring closer a family that he senses is fragmenting, Rusty rents an Albanian car (the car is a source for laughs in itself) and insists on taking a family road trip to Wally World, an amusement park on the other side of the country. The rest of the film is just a succession of scenes in which the family stops somewhere and something ghastly happens.
 “Vacation” is not one of those comedies in which all the best jokes were in the coming attractions trailer. Viewers who saw the trailer, for example, might know that the Rusty and the family bathe in raw sewage, thinking they’re at a hot springs. But the joke immediately before that is just as funny, and the sequence right after that — in which Rusty visits his sister (Leslie Mann) and her husband (Chris Hemsworth) — is at least as good. Helms is particularly interesting here, in that he’s funny and yet really does make Rusty seem like a fellow with serious emotional problems. Applegate serves essentially as Helms’ straight man, and her timing is first-rate. A running gag, in which the tiny younger brother (Steele Stebbins) beats up on and terrorizes the sweet-natured older brother (Skyler Gisondo), brings the kids out from the periphery in a good way. As for Chase and D’Angelo, they don’t do much, but it’s nice to see them. Near the finish, there’s an attempt to inject some sentiment, perhaps as a nod to “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” but it’s an empty gesture, and in a movie like this, the emptier the better. We know it; the filmmakers know it, and they know that we know, and we know that they know: When a family is in trouble, a vacation from hell never helps.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Review of Anomalisa -- "Talk about uncomfortable. This stop-motion animated film — a sad-sack's long night's journey into momentary light — is unquestionably weird, but in the best, most surprising left-field way. It's Charlie Kaufman's depressive, mordant, groping view of humanity, shot through with surprise on every level: the voice acting, the curious turns of plot, the sadness, the explicit raunch. As a distinctive modernist's venture into stop-motion, it deserves a place alongside Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox." -- Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter

What I Think about When I Think about Film vs. TV. Though It Probably Isn't Really about the Medium at All

Reminder to self: See see see. Don't just listen.

Friday, February 19, 2016

A Two-Paragraph Film Review with Comments

Cover to the Harvey Award-nominated Deadpool #...
Cover to the Harvey Award-nominated Deadpool #11. Art by Pete Woods, in homage to cover of Amazing Fantasy #15 featuring Spider-Man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
from Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, my favorite film critic

The new Marvel picture, “Deadpool,” stars Ryan Reynolds as Wade Wilson, a Special Forces veteran who, to the (first hint of his attitude toward the film? word choice seems to trivialize her attitude??) dismay of his fiancée, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), develops terminal cancer. He is approached by someone who promises not merely to cure him but to arm him with extravagant powers. Both promises are kept, but at a cost, for Wade is disfigured by the treatment. Ashamed, he stays away from Vanessa, stitches a suit of red leather and a matching mask, and assumes the name Deadpool. He also embarks on a plan to destroy the man who altered his looks. (Hahahahaha. Stupid superficial Hollywood people) If that were common practice, Beverly Hills would have the highest murder rate in the land.
Comments: Crisp tight summary that - until the last sentence of the graf - seems nonjudgmental or very close to it. But then comes the  joke, the tone of which suggests the reviewer does not like the movie. Also, the joke made me laugh out loud.

Rumor has insisted, for years, on the game-changing audacity of “Deadpool.”  (Lane knows his movieland gossip.) Here was the film that would drag the superhero genre into risky realms (Alliteration, a tone trick that characterizes informal unpretentious writing), shearing (strong verb) away the moral  fretfulness (noun that connotes triviality) that has turned Spider-Man, for instance, into a flying (informal, even juvenile - Lane likes to mix tones) wuss. The ambition is laudable, but Tim Miller’s movie, far from seeming reckless and loose-limbed, comes across as (judgmental word - this is never a good thing to be) pathologically calculated, measuring out its nastiness to the last drop. That is equally true of the visual excess—(supporting detail - you can't back up every generalization with specifics but you need to do it some of the time) three heads bursting bloodily open, in slow motion, one after the next, as a bullet travels through them—and of the dialogue, (whoa! a forced anthropomorphizing consistent with the semi-comic, informal tone) which rubs its hands with glee and tries so very, very hard to sound barbaric. Deadpool’s appearance, according to a friend of his, looks as if (a single line of dialogue but an illustrative one) “Freddy Krueger face-fucked a topographical map of Utah.” (Amusing emphatic simile - these filmmakers are loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed children) Watching the film is like sitting at dinner with a teen-ager who believes that, if he swears long and loudly enough, he will shock the grownups into accepting him as one of their own.  To be fair, however, the opening credits are a blast: “Produced by Asshats,” “Directed by an Overpaid Tool.” (A final detail turned against the joker) You said it, guys, not me.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

My Sitcom Bullet Points

Laughter (film)
Laughter (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
* I watch sitcoms as escapism. If I want to be a critic of the show or the genre, I need to start thinking.

* Okay, occasionally I'll watch a sitcom to see "what the young people are thinking." Does Master of None tell me what you're thinking?

* I think the Superiority Theory is useful in thinking about sitcoms. I am better than you, sitcom character! But is this an individual superiority or a categorical superiority? Am I rejecting a category of behavior - let's say vanity. Or am I being encouraged to use laughter to exclude and demean - a gender, an ethnicity, a sexual preference? Laughter restores order. In emphasizes norms. It is a social corrective. Thus, sometimes laughter inevitably shades into bigotry, which happens most often when sitcoms lack diversity of all kinds, where there is structural exclusion. Here's a block quote from English professor James Kincaid:

     We must deal with "the degree to which laughter expresses (if it does at all) hostility, aggression, the vestiges of the jungle whoop of triumph after murder, and other unpleasant impulses. The corollary to this issue is the debate over whether laughter is incompatible with sympathy, geniality, or indeed with any emotion.... Nearly all the important writers on the subject have, for hundreds of years, noted "a component of malice, of debasement of the other fellow, and of aggressive-defensive self-assertion . . . in laughter -- a tendency diametrically opposed to sympathy, helpfulness, and identification of the self with others" I find this argument ... conclusive.

* An alternative theory to humor as contempt exists! That's the "genial laughter theory," that laughter sometimes is simply a matter of acknowledging the general foolishness and absurdity of human life, that laughter does not cause us to exclude but to accept others, to see us in them. It is certainly true that many sitcoms have what I call "soft landings." The character we are invited to laugh at does something "unfoolish." Or another character accepts and forgives the foolish character, modeling how we should behave. In other words, not all sitcoms are funny all the time, and we have to be attentive to how the serious moments soften the comic ones. If we are invited to feel contempt, we may be discouraged from feeling it all the time.

* Of course, some of the most interesting sitcoms are those where it seems we are never ask to sympathize with a character or characters. Some sitcoms are indeed darker than others. Here's a list of "wonderfully dark sitcoms." 

* Incongruity as the source of humor. That works no matter what your umbrella theory of the uses and effects of humor are. Absurdity, exaggeration, hyperbole, abrupt change. Often humor really does seem to be a simple matter of reversed expectations.

* The power of the unconscious. Laughter seems automatic. I've decided to **think** while watching, probably taking advantage of the ability to rewind and rewatch, not just episodes but single moments. Such self scrutiny can be uncomfortable. Freud says - I oversimplify here - that in the service of civilization we mash down certain cruel and/or sexual and/or antisocial feelings into our unconscious. Laughter can be a way of releasing some of the tension such repression creates. Think about how taboo - sexual references, certain obscenities vigorously said - can produce laughter. It is as if humor suddenly gives us permission, particularly as a member of a crowd.

* One final point from Kincaid because I like his examples. Comedy can leave us vulnerable. Have you ever stumbled across some obscure move on Netflix - possibly foreign with subtitles! - that you watch with unease because context does not make clear what the genre is. Kincaid:

     Having released the energies ordinarily used to guard our hostilities, inhibitions, or fears, we are      especially unprotected if the promised safety which allowed us to laugh proves to be illusory.             Imagine the fat old man who slipped on the banana peel being suddenly identified as our brother,       now seriously hurt; the custard pie containing sulphuric acid; the train really hitting the funny car     and killing the Keystone Cops.


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