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78/52

Testament to the power and mastery of a movie that, nearly 60 years on, still feels as modern, complex and cutting-edge as any film released…

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Professor Marston & the Wonder Women

A timely affirmation of feminine power—of the ways in which female wisdom and strength can charge hearts and minds, influence culture and inspire others to…

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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The musician: John Darnielle on criticism

Hughes & Darnielle

Saw The Mountain Goats (John Darnielle and Peter Hughes) this weekend and I can't get the show out of my head. (Not only that, I don't want to.) Darnielle writes and performs songs that earn the adjective "cinematic," composed of images, characters and stories that play around in your head over and over. (Besides, I really think movies are more like music than any other medium or art form. Someday I want to write about Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" from that standpoint. Forget narrative...) I was a latecomer to The Mountain Goats, but a friend played me "Tallahassee" (2002) and I was hooked. It's a movie about a hell-bent-on-destruction couple with marital problems and alcohol problems who move to Florida to die and rot (not necessarily in that order). Really, a movie. Watch this (from "Tallahassee"): Window facing an ill-kept front yard Plums on the tree heavy with nectar Prayers to summon the destroying angel Moon stuttering in the sky like film stuck in a projector And you...

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The critic: Manohla Dargis on film criticism

I came across this interview, several years old, with New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis at senses of cinema. This was back when she was still writing for the LA Times, and I think she has some incisive things to say about the state of film criticism: I wish there were more women –- as well as more black, Asian and other non-white male critics writing about film in this country –- not because of some "politically correct" imperative but because it makes the discussion more interesting. It's unbelievably tedious how similar in voice and thought many American film writers are, no matter what clique, school of thought or dead film critic to which they adhere.

Frankly, I am pretty bored with most of the film criticism I read, to the point that I am beginning to think we need to start re-examining what it is and what it's good for, if anything. Of course, most of what's out there isn't really criticism but a degraded form of reviewing – just thumbs up, thumbs down, with a heavy dose of plot synopsis. Even reviewers who are somewhat more ambitious than the average hack tend to write about movies as if they're reviewing books. They pay very little if any attention to the specifics of the medium, to how a film makes meaning with images -– with framing, editing, mise en scène, with the way an actor moves his body in front of the camera. To read most film critics in the United States you wouldn't know that film is a visual medium.

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The filmmaker: Wayne Kramer on critics & criticism

Paul Walker is scared. And he's running.

Wayne Kramer, the director of "The Cooler" and "Running Scared," took the negative reviews of his last picture pretty hard. They weren't all negative, though. Roger Ebert gave "Running Scared" three stars and wrote a dizzying description: Speaking of movies that go over the top, "Running Scared" goes so far over the top, it circumnavigates the top and doubles back on itself; it's the Mobius Strip of over-the-topness. I am in awe. It throws in everything but the kitchen sink. Then it throws in the kitchen sink, too, and the combo washer-dryer in the laundry room, while the hero and his wife are having sex on top of it.That kind of "pushing the envelope," as he's phrased it in interviews, appears to be pretty much what Kramer was going for.

But Kramer evidently felt there was some kind of critical curse on his film, which came out on DVD last week. In an interview with Scott Collura at Now Playing Magazine, Kramer says: I feel it’s just one of those movies that people are gonna - That the marketing did not create an appealing image of what the film was, whether it be the trailers or posters, or whatever it was. People felt like this wasn’t something they needed to go see. Now, hopefully when they do see it, they’ll go, “Wow! We really misjudged this film,��? Or, “It’s a lot better than I was led to believe.��? We had some good reviews. I don’t mean to say every critic hated the film. We had like Roger Ebert, and Quentin Tarantino’s a big fan of the film and really comes out strongly for it; and Andrew Sarris and guys like Mick LaSalle. But if you check out a site like Rotten Tomatoes -- I kind of have mixed feelings about that site because every Internet jerk with a website gets to play film critic. And usually it attracts the more elitist, snobbish sites that I just despise like Slant.com [actually, it's slantmagazine.com]. Have you ever seen those guys? I mean they hate movies.

NP: Yeah.

WK: And you can print that, too. Please.

NP: I will!

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All trails lead to 'The Searchers'

Ethan Edwards, John Wayne and the ghost of Harry Carey.

I had a favorite lit professor in college, Larry Frank, who said that all of literature could be seen through the looking glass of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." He made a persuasive case, from Shakespeare to Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. In a beautiful piece about John Ford's "The Searchers" in the Sunday New York Times, A.O. Scott makes similar connections to Ford's masterpiece, and particularly the opening and closing shots through the doorway looking out into Monument Valley (where John Wayne's Ethan Edwards is definitely one of the monuments, solid as a weather-chiseled rock formation but destined to wander forever between the winds -- perhaps because he's too large, too wild, and too peripatetic to be contained within the walls of civilization and family): Ernest Hemingway once said that all of American literature could be traced back to one book, Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," and something similar might be said of American cinema and "The Searchers." It has become one of those movies that you see, in part, through the movies that came after it and that show traces of its influence. "Apocalypse Now," "Punch-Drunk Love," "Kill Bill," "Brokeback Mountain": those were the titles that flickered in my consciousness in the final seconds of a recent screening in Cannes of Ford's masterwork, all because, at crucial moments, they seem to pay homage to that single, signature shot.Scott is a "word guy" -- that is, he came to reviewing films from reviewing books. But he gets movies, unlike the abominable Clive James (proponent of the "movies are just the story" theory in last week's NYT Review of Books).

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Snakes on a ... zzzzzzz

It's about snakes. On a plane, bitch!

For many months we've been hearing about the "brilliant" high-concept of "Snakes on a Plane." Hey, the whole premise is right there in the title! I guess after "Die Hard on a Plane" ("Die Hard 2") and "Die Hard on a Boat" ("Under Seige") and "Die Hard on Another Plane" ("Passenger 57") and "Die Hard on a Bus" ("Speed") and "Die Hard on Another Boat" ("Speed 2") and "Die Hard on an Island" (that would be Manhattan, in "Die Hard with a Vengeance"), they decided "Die Hard on a Plane with Snakes" was just too complicated. So they shortened the title.

Next, we saw the stories about how they went back and shot some additional stuff to get the film an R rating, and to give Samuel L. Jackson the requisite old-school Schwarzenegger-ish punch lines, like: "I want these m-----f--king snakes off this m-----f--king plane!" (Isn't this the same old joke as Dave Chappelle's ad for Samuel Jackson beer?)

OK, we recognize the package, and we know exactly what's in it. Jackson himself told Collider.com: "That's the only reason I took the job: I read the title. You either want to see that, or you don't." Well, maybe. It's not so much that I don't want to see it. It's that the movie doesn't open for two more months and I feel like I already have. I'm with my friend Leonard Maltin on this: I would never steer anyone away from a movie who’s interested in seeing it; I don’t think that’s the function of a critic or reviewer. I hope people go and make up their own minds.

But I, for one, am already tired of the summer movie blockbuster season, when every film is built up as An Event. Can’t a movie just be a piece of entertainment? "Mission: Impossible III" was well-made and fun to watch, but it’s the cinematic equivalent of fast food: easily digested and just as easily forgotten. "Poseidon" had everything money can buy except characters worth caring about. "The Da Vinci Code" will be much talked-about for a few more days, I expect, and then gradually recede into memory, while really great thrillers like the Hitchcock classics will live on forever. (To tell the truth, I haven't much wanted to see "Miiii" or "Poseidon" or "The Da Vinci Code" or "X-Men: The Last Stand" or "The Omen" or "Cars" or "Pirates of the Caribbean: Whatever," either -- in part for the same reason: All are blatantly derivitave products, from other movies or best-selling books or comicbooks, and I felt like I'd already sat through them before they even opened. Don't tell me these movies are Special Events. They are neither. They're routine summer product.) Meanwhile, for people who love movies: It's three more (long) months until the Toronto Film Festival....

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Product placement: The lives of 'The Sopranos'

An extended family moment: Blanca, Hector, AJ.

Never send a business reporter to do a critic's job.

I'm sometimes amused by the naïveté of my critical and academic colleagues when it comes to the business realities of how movies are made, and why they turn out the way they do. They tend to view movies as a purely creative medium, and dismiss the influences of marketing and commerce on the "end product." But, on the other hand, whenever I read reports about "the biz," I'm equally amazed at how they approach movies as if they were factory-tooled widgets, nothing more than the products of corporate and marketing deals and decisions. The truth is, of course, that most movies are creative compromises, the results of a vast and complex set of inter-related artistic, commercial and economic judgments.

You'd never know that from Jon Fine's series of posts at his Business Week Fine On Media blog about so-called "product placement" in this season's episodes of "The Sopranos." Fine thinks the proliferating brand-name mentions are "suck-uppy" and rates them on a "one-to-ten scale of egregiousness" -- although, he reports, "'The Sopranos,' a show I like very much, does not do product placement in the fee-for-sense. Nor does HBO, although at times they've played footsie with the idea."

Fine doesn't acknowledge that there may be a number of creative reasons why real products and brand names are used on the show -- aside from the usual deals that allow nearly all movies and TV shows to keep their budgets down by gaining access to free consumer goods, from cars to soft drinks, that are used on screen. "The Sopranos" happens to be about people for whom bling means just about everything, despite all their talk about maintaining old-fashioned "family values" (you know, like omerta). It's a show about people in a strictly hierarchical social structure (organized crime, the mob, La Cosa Nostra)who pursue crass, vulgar, conspicuous consumption as a signal to others that they're advancing their station in life. Their lives are all about "product placement."

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Critics: Irrelevant, or just... right?

X-Men: Flameout.

Dave Kehr asks: Now that “The Da Vinci Code��? has fallen another 40 percent (according to today’s New York Times), can we expect all of those trade papers that ran “Film Critics Proved Irrelevant��? stories to come back with “Film Critics Proved, As Usual, To Be Highly Prescient?��?...

I’ve yet to meet a movie critic who thinks that she or he has any real influence on the box office, and if I did, I’d think that he or she was nuts. How can a 500 word movie review, appearing inside a newspaper with a circulation of a few hundred thousand at best, possibly compete with a network television advertising campaign? The ego satisfaction is very low in this line of work, the financial satisfaction even less so. And anyone who enters this field for any reason other than a passion for movies has been profoundly misled. A critic's job, obviously, is not to predict box-office success, and as Kehr points out, you can hardly expect reviews to compete with advertising and pre-existing anticipation for movies based on mega-hit books (like "The Da Vinci Code") or franchise pictures (like "X-Men: The Last Stand," which plummeted a precipitous 67 percent in its second weekend, "the steepest post-Memorial Day opening drop on record," according to Box Office Mojo). But critics' reactions often reflect the word-of-mouth response of people who go to see the film on opening weekend... resulting in a quick die-off the next weekend if the first wave of ticket-buyers didn't much like what they saw.

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The March of 'The Sopranos'

Best. Line. Ever. Christopher Maltisante (Michael Imperioli), discouraging his newly pregnant wife from counting their chicken: Remember the penguin movie, how you cried? You sit on an egg for months, one little thing goes wrong, you're left with nothin'.

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How Not to Write About Film

The Real World: Atlanta.

The New York Times Book Review wastes nearly four pages on the dumbest, most banal crap about (ostensibly) movies and movie criticism that I have ever come across. It's called "How to Write About Film" and it's an attempted review by Clive James of the Philip Lopate compilation of film criticism that was published a few months ago, called "American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now."

What's really puzzling about this drivel is that James not only doesn't know what the auteur theory is, he doesn't know what movie criticism is -- and he hasn't a clue what movies are, either. I find it difficult to believe he's ever seen one. Or, at least, a whole one. And no matter what projected images may have passed before his eyes, it's mighty obvious he hasn't seen anything at all.

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'The Break-Up' & 'Superman Returns': Not what you think

Lovelorn Supe: Looking for Lois in all the wrong places.

Despite the marketing campaign, the makers of "The Break-Up" say their movie is not supposed to be a romantic comedy -- which is precisely what many critics criticized it for not being. It's not "Wedding Crashers II" and it's not a "chick flick." And "Superman Returns" is not a comicbook superhero movie, or even a gay comicbook superhero movie. According to director Bryan Singer, it's a "chick flick."

OK, fine.

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