Category Archives: The Roundup

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The Roundup: June 4, 2014

Cinema

Young Minds in Critical Condition by Michael S. Roth at the New York Times

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I actually came to this article via a rebuttal of it by Noah Berlatsky in the Atlantic. Technically it’s more about literature/philosophy than film, but Berlatsky takes it in a film critical way, and it’s certainly applicable. While reading Berlatsky’s article, which argues for always reading/watching with a critical eye, I was already thinking “you know, I have a feeling I’ll agree with the other guy instead.” So I went and read this article, and yep. While I do think pretty much nothing is above criticism in the final analysis, Roth’s point is not that we shouldn’t think about what we read (or watch, by extension). In fact, it’s that we SHOULD – that we should truly engage with it and wrestle with it rather than dismiss it or come to it LOOKING for things to be critical of, which is what Roth sees students doing (and what I see a lot of people online doing, too). In fact, you can’t be a good critical thinker if you don’t engage with the work first – it doesn’t mean, as Berlatsky seems to assume, that you have to agree with “the great writers” (his paragraph asking how you determine, and who determines, which writers are above criticism misses the point with great flair) but you do have to understand what they’re saying and where they’re coming from before you can mount a useful critique, and part of that is allowing that perhaps they have something of value after all.

Liberal learning depends on absorption in compelling work. It is a way to open ourselves to the various forms of life in which we might actively participate. When we learn to read or look or listen intensively, we are, at least temporarily, overcoming our own blindness by trying to understand an experience from another’s point of view. We are not just developing techniques of problem solving; we are learning to activate potential, and often to instigate new possibilities. Yes, hard-nosed critical thinking is a useful tool, but it also may become a defense against the risky insight that absorption can offer. As students and as teachers we sometimes crave that protection; without it we risk changing who we are. We risk seeing a different way of living not as something alien, but as a possibility we might be able to explore, and even embrace.

According to Frank Capra Life is More Complicated Than Wonderful by Nathan Rabin at The Dissolve

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“Capracorn” remains a lasting evaluation of Capra’s filmmaking, probably in no small part because it’s a fun word, but it’s so reductive in the light of what Capra actually does – not just in the big social problem-type films that Nathan studies astutely here, but throughout all his other films. How do you reconcile Capracorn with The Bitter Tea of General Yen, for example? But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that even in the films that ARE often labeled Capracorn, Capra has a much darker worldview than is usually assumed. Nathan uses It’s a Wonderful Life in passing, but it’s probably the darkest of them all – just about the only happy joyful part is the last ten minutes, which is of course what most people remember (okay, jumping in the pool at the school party is pretty fun). Most of the rest is full of disappointment, despair, and frustration. The Movie of the Week this column is tied to is actually Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – see the Keynote essay here and the Roundtable discussion here.

Capra has a reputation for sentimentality and corniness because his films celebrate the innocence of his populist heroes. But while Jefferson Smith, Longfellow Deeds, and “Long” John Willoughby of Meet John Doe might all be guileless, the films they anchor are darker than their reputations suggest. Capra’s filmography includes a pair of films about good men pushed to the brink of suicide by powerful forces out to destroy them (Meet John Doe and It’s A Wonderful Life), a movie about a man whose fundamental decency is widely perceived as insanity (Mr. Deeds Goes To Town), and an American classic about a common man who is nearly destroyed by the forces of political corruption conspiring against him (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington). In Capra’s films, the public needs heroes to look up to, to inspire them, to serve, in Meet John Doe’s indelible words, as “lighthouses in a foggy world.” Yet Frank Capra’s world often goes beyond foggy to become despairing.

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The Roundup: May 21, 2014

Cinema

Things Crashing Into Other Things, Or My Superhero Movie Problem by Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com

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I actually included this article as a “related” one last week, but there have been a number of intriguing responses to it this week, so I’m running them all together. To recap, Seitz argues that while current superhero movies have a number of interesting things going on in the characterization, dialogue and interpersonal interaction, they lose all interest as soon as the big action setpieces start, because they all look the same and are essentially just things crashing into other things. I don’t disagree with him, but as I stated last week, I’m inclined to enjoy the good parts and look past some of the bombast. Here are some other interesting responses. Tom Wainwright in The Atlantic tracks the superhero genre against other genres that Seitz applauds for having a wide range of originality, like the Western and the zombie film and points out that superhero films are basically in their infancy and it took some 30 years for Westerns and zombie films to get to the thoughtful poetics that Seitz seems to want. I think taking this kind of long historical viewpoint is really valuable, but Wainwright kind of does a hash job of it, failing to take into account the differences in the business from the studio era to now, and also displaying a fairly surface-level understanding of great genre films of the past. Derek Thompson has some similar problems with his co-Atlantic writer’s piece, highlighting especially the differences in production and exhibition that I mentioned above, and arguing that studios made more varied films when a) they weren’t so afraid of taking risks and b) they didn’t have such self-affirming data about what audiences wanted. With ballooning budgets and plummeting audience share, everything pulls toward the average. Christopher ZF at The Stake takes the next logical step and outlines a bunch of changes that studios could undertake to make superhero films better. This kind of thing is easy to say but much more difficult to do, even if the studios had an interest in making them better when they seem to be making money hand over fist with the current formula.

The good stuff is CGI-lite, or CGI free. Think of Cap just-friends-flirting with Black Widow or visiting a meeting for traumatized veterans in the second “Captain America,” or Andrew Garfield, one of the great screen criers, tearing up as Peter Parker contemplates his late parents or remembers a line from his sweetheart’s valedictory address or tells his Aunt May “I’m your boy, you’re my everything.” As a friend observed, the gap in artistic quality between the intimate human interactions and the large-scale action sequences in recent superhero flicks is so immense that they seem to have been made at different studios by different directors obeying different marching orders. The “ground rules” scene between Peter and Gwen in the new “Spider-Man” feels so sweetly alive—so much like a conversation that actual young lovers might have—that when you get to the end of this overstuffed and overlong blockbuster and have to suffer through yet another tediously unoriginal confrontation between Spidey and two, count ‘em two, supervillains, then a climax that extorts cathartic tears instead of earning them, the effect is disorienting in the worst way.

Destroy All Monsters: I Don’t Need Movies to Be Good by Matt Brown at Twitchfilm

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Back in January, Matt Brown wrote a a post on his blog about the film Time After Time, and despite saying it was awful, he followed up saying “good is such a trivial element of whether or not I’m interested in a film. Time After Time is still something I am relentlessly happy to have in my life.” This really caught my eye, as I’m quickly coming to some similar conclusions, and I asked if he had expanded upon this concept of the near-irrelevance of “good” to his movie taste. Now he has! My thoughts on the matter have evolved a little differently than his (he focuses more on the subjectivity of the filmwatching experience, and I’m moving more toward non-evaluation in any form), but I’m very glad to have read his, and this last statement of the piece quoted below is pretty solid.

These are human works. Even the most mechanical among them is mechanical because humans made it that way; even the most painstakingly heartfelt, home-grown indie is a singing machine of working parts telling stories. They are so fascinating to watch, experience, think about. All the rules about how to do that are meaningless. How can anything as unique and frail and weird and human as a movie be “good” or “bad,” anyway? When was the last time you reviewed your best friend? How often do you roll over, kiss the love of your life good morning, and then publish a star rating out of five?

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The Roundup: May 13, 2014

Cinema

In Praise of Unoriginality by Landon Palmer at Film School Rejects

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I know a few people who never seem to like movies unless they do something they’ve NEVER EVER SEEN ON SCREEN BEFORE. I think that’s a great way to never enjoy anything at all. Landon Palmer is exactly right here (as usual) – the joys of a lot of films, studio films in particular (and this goes way back into the studio era) is in the variations on things we’ve seen before. In a variation on this theme, Matt Zoller Seitz examines Things Crashing Into Other Things, Or My Superhero Movie Problem, in which he points out all the good things the current round of superhero movies do, especially in terms of character beats and dialogue, and how it’s all ruined for him by the sameness of the action sequences. I actually agree with Seitz, too – the action scenes of the latest crop of blockbusters are actually far less interesting or creative than the writing and acting – but where I fall with Palmer is that I’m still willing to overlook the samey action and focus on the details in theme, acting, and writing that rise above the norm.

This is not to throw my hands up in the air and exasperatedly declare that Nothing Is Original, but to ask what aspects about the production of art, media, and entertainment we obscure when we so often fetishize originality as an ideal in filmmaking. Perhaps it’s worth seriously considering the idea that derivation is a major, if not the major, source of human creativity – that it is within the realm of existing works of creation that the creative mind most often plays. The problems plaguing filmmaking across all tiers have never been originality, but inspiration: what is ultimately done with existing tools.

The Most Reliable Movie Critic in America? by J.R. Jones at the Chicago Reader

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J.R. Jones’ response to being named the “most reliable” critic by a number-crunching exercise at Vocativ (mentioned in my last roundup) is alternately joking (talking about how he’ll get to have final voice in any critical arguments in the future) and rather sad and even exasperated at the way film criticism is increasingly reduced to numbers. Taking the same jumping off point, Criticwire’s survey this week is about the use of rating scales for reviews – almost to a person, critics seem to hate ratings, but almost all of them use them, either because they begrudgingly see some value in it or because their editors make them. I’ve used star ratings for as long as I’ve been watching films regularly, but sometime in the past year or two, I’ve almost unconsciously stopped using them most of the time. It’s not even that I egotistically want readers to have to read my words instead of getting a quick read on my thoughts – it’s that star ratings are inherently evaluative, and “how good is it” is a less interesting question than “what is it doing”, and you can’t answer “what is it doing” with a star rating.

Over the years, as contributors to the Reader’s movie section have come and gone, I’ve always tried to impress on them that, as long as they write well, I couldn’t care less whether they like a movie or not. Manny Farber, one of the greats, was known for the ambiguity of his reviews; from his work comes the ideal, imparted to me by my predecessor, Jonathan Rosenbaum, that precise, colorful description of a movie can be more helpful to the reader and more revealing of the writer than opinion, because opinions are like—well, you know what they’re like. Rosenbaum always fought like hell the suggestion that every capsule review carry some sort of rating, though eventually the paper instituted the little backward R as a “recommended” icon throughout all the arts sections. Thumbs up, thumbs down; four stars, two stars, no stars; 59 out of a hundred—there’s no respect for words in this racket.

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The Roundup: May 6, 2014

Cinema

Advice to Young Critics by Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com

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I’ve been a fan of Matt Zoller Seitz at least since his days at the New York Times, and these are certainly great pieces of advice for being a good critic (note, it is NOT advice on how to get a job as a critic). Here’s a few more tidbits from Sam Adams. And sort of related, here’s another article about the fallout of EW’s turning to amateur writers instead of paid professionals at Movie Mezzanine.

4. If you have a good idea or observation, write it down immediately. Keep a notebook handy when you watch anything, and if you notice a line or a shot that seems significant for whatever reason, or if you have a thought that seems even remotely promising, write it down so you don’t forget it. You might as well just go ahead carry the notebook everywhere, because you never know when a decent idea will hit you, and if you get to the end of the day and can’t remember it, you’ll be annoyed with yourself.

Has Life in the Age of Casual Magic Made Moviegoers Numb to the Amazing by Drew McWeeny at HitFix

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I shared a piece last week about what movies owe to CGI, and I was pretty ambivalent about it. Just in time, here’s an article that takes a much more thoughtful look at special effects in movie. McWeeny is perfectly happy to be awed by CGI, but he also recognizes that just having CGI, even good CGI, isn’t everything. He wants filmmakers to push the limits of effects harder, to innovate with how they’re used, to tell great stories with them. Along the same lines, Scott Beggs talks about The Mental Gap That Makes Blockbuster Movies Boring, and Matt Singer offers an Op Ed in response to McWeeny’s piece.

I want to start from the position of loving movies, not from a soured stance of demanding that each and every film dazzle me all over again. What gets me to turn on a movie is when I see someone who is given every resource they would ever need and then some, and they make something that doesn’t even try. That is infuriating. When I see studios play it safe, that is infuriating. When I see filmmakers who seem to have just given up and taken the path of least resistance, that is infuriating. Because if we do live in an age of casual magic, then we should recognize this as a gift, not a curse. Instead of lamenting about how much has been done and retreating into endless imitation and repetition, how about we take this as a challenge to expand what we can imagine?

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The Roundup: April 30

Cinema

Keynote: The Boxes and Lines of Sherlock Jr. by Noel Murray at The Dissolve

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It’s never a bad time to look at Buster Keaton’s brilliant Sherlock Jr., and I love that in his keynote post, Noel Murray doesn’t even focus for very long on the justly famous entering-the-movie sequence – there are so many other incredible scenes in this film, and Murray takes an interesting analytic approach, looking at the way Keaton frames movement on screen along geometric patterns. I haven’t seen this particular approach before, but it makes a lot of sense. See also the roundtable post, which hits on various themes and stylistic touches in the film. As the film hits 90 this year, others have been thinking about it, too, and Christopher Campbell at Film School Rejects takes an intriguing tack, noting that the film was actually considered a box office failure at the time of release, and musing on why audiences in general often seem to avoid films that call too much attention to the artificiality of the screen (thus busting the illusion the screen and the bubble of escapism). I’d say that the meta aspects of Sherlock Jr. are EXACTLY why it’s so well-loved among film buffs today – I guess we don’t care about having that illusion shattered? Here’s another look at the film that backs me up: Kyle Turner at The Black Maria titles his piece “Why We Love Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., and it’s precisely those meta reasons that Campbell posits audiences avoid. Interesting things to think about.

In one of the most memorable sequences in Keaton’s 1924 masterpiece Sherlock, Jr., Keaton’s unnamed hero—nicknamed “Sherlock, Jr.” because that’s the fictional character he emulates—follows the man who framed him for the theft of the watch belonging to his girlfriend’s father. The amateur detective shadows his mark closely, with both of them moving from right to left on the screen, in pretty close to a straight line. Then the hero scrambles atop a moving train, and starts running left to right, making no progress. Finally he escapes the railroad treadmill and runs away—but it’s where he runs that’s unusual. After a few minutes of gags based on Keaton moving on the same plane as the other characters, his character suddenly takes off into the horizon, shrinking to a dot as he disappears into the distance. It’s as though he’s discovered some kind of magical power, to go somewhere other than left, right, up, or down.

Why U.S. Audiences are More Comfortable with Subtitles Than Ever by Scott Foundas at Variety

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I think this is a much more complicated issue than Foundas’ article lets on, but it’s an interesting starting point for more research. In talking with a few acquaintances who mentioned they don’t like subtitles because having to read them disconnects them from the movie, they allowed that Inglourious Basterds didn’t bother them at all. What I suspect is that U.S. audiences are comfortable with subtitles in American films that are at least partially in English and the subtitles allow speaking in foreign languages that occur naturally in the setting. I’m not sure that U.S. audiences are more comfortable with actual foreign language films, unless they’re very genre-based (The Raid, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) or extraordinarily accessible (Amelie). I do agree with what seems to be one of Foundas’ main points, which is that American audiences are starting to prefer subtitles for naturally-occurring foreign languages over people speaking English when they wouldn’t in real life – like if two German soldiers talk to each other in a WWII film, why would they speak English? – which is a switch from most movies up until recently.

When Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” premiered at Cannes in 2009, some journalists hemmed and hawed that the film’s commercial fortunes would be limited by the fact that three-quarters of the dialogue was in French and German; in reality, the movie went on to become the biggest hit (domestic and international) of Tarantino’s career up to that point. And from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” to “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Last Samurai,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Avatar” and “District 9,” subtitles have become increasingly common at the mainstream multiplex in the past two decades, with no audience revolt in sight.

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