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Movies

Something Rotten in the State of Criticism

“Tis hard to say if greater want of skill,

Appear in writing or judging ill,

But of the two, less dangerous is the offense,

To tire our patience than mislead our sense.”

– Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism, 1711

I’ve spent countless hours reading lazy, shallow, repetitive criticism of film and television online. For the last week, I purposefully avoided all critics in anticipation of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” I deleted social media apps from my phone, blocked popular culture websites, avoided aggregators like burning sulfur.

I saw Episode IX. I quite enjoyed Episode IX. Then, having no need to avoid the critical “conversation,” I ended my embargo and found a “conversation” that I had no interest in joining. It was the same conversation that praised David Simon’s dumpster fire “The Deuce” and awarded the three worst seasons of Game of Thrones with the Emmy for best drama series. The same conversation that told fans that hated Star Wars: The Last Jedi that their opinions were wrong, and the critics knew best. It’s the same conversation that recognizes movies as “films of the decade” that weren’t well reviewed or widely seen at the time.

The state of film and television criticism has descended into a culture of mindless aggregators, shallow hot takes, and a devaluation of successful storytelling tropes in favor of what’s new and shiny. However, I outlined three very different points of contention above, so I’m going to give each one its space.

1. Against Aggregators

Aggregators offer quick, ultimately meaningless data points for whether or not a movie is “good” or whether the intended audience will actually enjoy the film.

For example, the Rotten Tomatoes score for the classic, original Anchorman (66%) is lower than its pointless sequel Anchorman 2 (75%). Star Trek: Into Darkness (84%) and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (87%) have similar scores, even though the former is a far inferior remake of the latter. The viewer scores for Star Wars Episodes 8 (43%) and 9 (86%) are the opposite of the critical scores (91% and 57% respectively), demonstrating an extreme disconnect between reviewers and audiences. Did I cherry-pick these examples? Of course. Are they the only examples? Hardly.

An aggregation of reviews diminishes the value each individual review, while providing an ultimately useless number that may or may not reflect the actual quality of the film. Aggregators give the appearance of advice, while, in fact, providing very little useful information.

2. Against Recapping

I admit, I used to love episode by episode recaps. About ten years ago, this format greatly contributed to the conception of a “golden age” of television. I’m not disputing that. What I take issue with is not what recapping was, but what recapping has become.

In a rush to be the quickest to publish, episode recaps have become sloppily written, and at worst, lazy descriptions of what went on in the episode that add nothing of value.

Recaps can also mislead about the quality of a show. Take for example HBO’s “The Deuce.” The Deuce was an unfocused endeavor that spent too much time on too many boring characters. David Simon and George Pelacanos intricately recreated a setting no one wanted to revisit, to tell a story no one asked for. However, if you didn’t actually watch the show and just read the episode by episode recaps, you’d think it was phenomenal. In a rush to publish, it was faster and easier to simply praise a show created by previously successful producers than to question the show’s quality.

3. Against Challenging Successful Tropes Just for the Sake of Challenging Successful Tropes

On the one hand, I get it. We can’t forever keep calling back to the same properties that were popular in the 1980’s, can we? There certainly have been lazy, unnecessary remakes. I argue, however, that there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to give fans of a property something they’d enjoy or calling back to an earlier film that worked well.

I enjoy Star Wars, The Last Jedi, and so did critics. The latter mainly did so because the film challenged established Star Wars tropes and answered the questions posed by Episode 7 in unique ways. I’m always captivated by the film’s images while I’m watching it, but I admit that its story is a house of cards.

Many, many people did not enjoy The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson challenged established Star Wars tropes, but never asked whether those tropes needed challenging.

Successful tropes are successful for a reason, and this is nothing unique to Star Wars. After all, one of the main sources of Star Wars is Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” which is entirely about the common themes that exist between popular myths throughout human history. Sometimes challenging those tropes in popular media is simply unnecessary.

As for nostalgia – the greatest advantage of film as an art-form is its ability to create an emotional response in the audience. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. There is nothing inherently wrong with using it to tell a story.

Conclusion

I’m done with aggregators and re-caps. I’m also done with this idea that using nostalgia and fan service are automatically negative things. More on Star Wars, Episode 9 later.

(C) D.G. McCabe

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Movies

Birdman

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, US, 2014

“What do you mean, Phib?” asked Miss Squeers, looking in her own little glass, where, like most of us, she saw – not herself, but the reflection of some pleasant image in her own brain.”

– Charles Dickens, from “Nicholas Nickleby”

When an actor looks into the mirror, what pleasant image does he see staring back?  Is the image larger than life? Capable of success in all artforms? Or do they not see the pleasant reflection?  What if they only see that which they hate the most?

We spend most of Birdman inside the crowded backstage of a small theater, but we spend the most time inside the mind of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed up superhero actor.  Keaton is fantastic in the role, and contrary to the most logical hypothesis, this is not because Keaton=Thomson. The only thing he and Thomson have in common is that their best known role is playing an iconic superhero (Thomson played the titular, fictitious Birdman).  Keaton, after all, has a filmography so long that it places him in the top percentile of working actors since Batman Returns (1992) and Thomson has nothing beyond his superhero role.

The film is isolating – mostly shot in small spaces and using a generous helping of tracking shots to limit perspective.  Iñárritu shows us that fame is isolating, but also addictive (a lesser director would merely tell us).  Thomson hates Birdman, but Thomson needs Birdman too.

When the film leaves Thomson’s perspective, it casts an examining eye on theater and its dysfunctional relationship with film.  Theater people hate movie people, but then they become movie people.  Then they try to become theater people again.  Then the theater people hate them even more, until they don’t.

Neither artform comes off well in Birdman.  Theater is shown as pompous and arrogant, film is shown as obsessed with violence and mayhem.  Yet somehow by criticizing the art, we reach an understanding of the people who make the art.

You might like Birdman if: You want to explore the mind of the artist and the conflict between “art” and “popular culture.”

You might not like Birdman if: Trippy movies disagree with you.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

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Movies

Man of Steel (2013)

Man of Steel

Directed by Zack Snyder, 2013, US

By D.G. McCabe

My kingdom for a decent Superman movie.

When I last checked Rotten Tomatoes, Man of Steel was sitting at 56%.  I don’t know what movie those 56% percent of critics were watching, because it certainly wasn’t the same one I saw this evening.  It’s bad.  How bad you say?

It starts off promisingly enough.  With Christopher Nolan working on the screenplay and production, you get a little bit of Batman Begins…oh wait, Superman isn’t Batman.  Superman doesn’t walk the Earth like Caine in Kung Fu.  There is enough complexity in the character already without having to turn him into Bruce f’ing Banner already, and a lot of that complexity is hereto unexplored in film.

Still, I could get behind a reluctant, nomadic Superman if the director, Zack Snyder, would have followed through on that concept.  It’s too bad he doesn’t.  And after two hours that feel like five, you realize that Snyder should stick with ridiculously stylized movies about shirtless, ancient Greek meatheads.

The second half of the movie consists of nothing but smash smash, boom boom.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve defended smash smash, boom boom at times, but usually I expect that crap from Michael Bay films not a Superman movie.  There’s a difference between “all I want to see is giant robots fighting each other” and “I’m looking at my watch to see how long this never ending action sequence is.”

And the dialogue.  Maybe this crap was fine on TV’s Lois and Clark, oh wait, that show is bloody Shakespeare compared to this crap.  Now, Nolan’s scripts sometimes hit you over the head with exposition a bit too much (“That’s why the military invented dream sharing” from Inception for example), but I expected more of him.  After plenty of mustache-twirling villain exposition and lots of “release this against Superman” or “unleash that against Superman” I started laughing like I was watching friggin’ Anchorman.

Apparently, Nolan and Snyder decided to farm out the second half of their screenplay to an eleven year old who got into the coffee again.  So Superman fights the bad guys and smashed up the town, then they move to the city and then he’s gotta fly to the other side of the world and fight this other thing and then he’s gotta go back to the city and fight Zod in the big climax and boom!  Boooooooooom!

After sitting through this BS, it made me want to do to this movie what a completely out of character Superman does at the end of it.  Apparently there are two sequels on the way from these clowns, let’s hope they learn from their mistakes instead of doubling down on crappy dialogue, complete lack of romantic chemistry, and stupid jokes like Star Wars Episode II did.

You might like Man of Steel if: You have no interest in the Superman character, or wish that he was Batman, or you have completely merged video games and movies in your mind.

You might not like Man of Steel if: You have any knowledge at all about the character of Superman or you just don’t have the endurance to sit through a ninety minute action sequence that doesn’t even look all that great and never f’ing ends.

(c) 2013 D. G. McCabe