Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Film Critics

I have mixed feelings about pieces like this recent anti-snobbery one from Richard Corliss:

On the one hand, I sympathize with the idea that a lot of this year-end, best movie stuff is choreographed posturing. On the other hand, Corliss comes off more as blaming his peers rather than engaging in honest self-reflection.

On the one hand, I'd like to see more personal, interesting Best of the Year choices. On the other hand, my own tastes aren't all that different from those of most critics. Who am I to say that those guys aren't voting with their hearts/guts/souls/etc.?

On the one hand, I, too, am suspicious of the way this shapes the conversation about movies, so that critical discussions get co-opted by the movie industry marketing machine. On the other hand, I like a lot of these big, meaty, year-in-review style discussions of a bunch of movies that we can expect most film buffs have seen. It can get lonely talking about movies like The Tripper all the time.

On the one hand, I agree that giving these awards to movies that haven't even been released yet is kind of a drag. I mean, the whole game of releasing prestige pictures at the end of the year seems a bit bogus. I know that I'm more likely to cool on a movie over time, so showing all of these movies to critics during the weeks before they cast their votes seems to me like a cynical move. On the other hand, I'm not sure I buy this kind of populism from Corliss, whose Best Horror Movie list seemed to be willfully perverse in the way it turned up its nose on the favorite horror movies of horror fans and general moviegoers alike.

Movie Chat: The Tripper

The Tripper

My wife was away last weekend, so I took the opportunity to have a movie watching marathon. I went out to the theater to see Beowulf and Michael Clayton and watched The Invisible, Exiled, Hostel, Hostel Part II, L'Iceberg, Mr. Brooks, and The Tripper on DVD. Out of all of them, the movie I'm most interested in talking about is The Tripper.

So, The Tripper is David Arquette's homage to Z-grade exploitation movies: part sub-Friday the 13th slasher flick, part psychedelic freak-out a la Psych Out or The Trip (duh). It's a designer cult movie, like Planet Terror or The Devil's Rejects: it's transgressions of good taste and the rules of good filmmaking are all calculated.

Arquette really nails the feel of these movies, but I couldn't help wondering exactly what kind of achievement that is. How impressive is it to purposefully make a really bad movie? More importantly, how enjoyable is it to watch a movie that's trying to replicate that really bad movie experience?

My answer to both questions is: sort of.

(1) What Arquette pulls is sort of impressive. For one thing, he manages to achieve a consistent style and tone. For another, he gets lots of little details right: the awkward editing during the action sequences is awkward in exactly the right z-movie manner, as if each shot is always a few frames short of what it should be. Or the way the location seems like it was chosen because it's on land that one of the filmmaker's relatives owned and not because it really makes all that much sense in terms of the story.

And though the whole thing is, of course, tongue-in-cheek, the wink-wink, nudge-nudge stuff is, as these things go, subtle. The sense that what you're watching isn't a real bad movie mostly come from some of the actors giving believable, low key performances (Lukas Haas). Luckily, a lot of the actors give appropriately lousy performances to make up for that (Paul Ruebens).

Still: is this an example of a filmmaker realizing some kind of "artistic" vision or more an example of a filmmaker making a virtue of necessity? That is: if you don't have any hope of making a good movie, try your hardest to make a bad one instead.

(2) I thought that the movie was only sort of enjoyable to watch.

I started comparing this to Grindhouse:

Death Proof took a z-movie idea and filtered it through what I would consider an almost European art film sensibility (i.e, the overly talky scenes, the repetition, etc.). That is: it doesn't function like a z-movie at all, really. It helps to have some knowledge of z-movies to pick up on its references and to appreciate the way it plays its variation on the crazy macho killer theme, but, to me, watching it felt more like watching an art house movie* - more late-David Cronenberg than early-David Cronenberg.

The Tripper, though, functions and feels just like a z-movie. On its surface, it really does look like the kind of movie you might find on MST3K.

Planet Terror was a mash-up of every crazy z-movie trope, but it was kind of a mess: it was all high points and it also went out of its way to let you know how funny it thought its jokes were.

In some ways, The Tripper is a better film: lower keyed, better paced, with more consistency of style and tone. It's a better recreation of genuine z-movies. But as bad as I thought Planet Terror was, it served its function of getting the audience revved up. The problem with The Tripper is that it ends up being uninteresting in the same way that a lot of actual z-movies are uninteresting. What can be fun about watching z-movies is that every once in a while something completely, accidentally cool/gonzo/ridiculous/beautiful/amazing/hilarious happens. But it's not as much fun (for me at least) when these things are done on purpose, especially since The Tripper doesn't really give me anything else (i.e. interesting characters, elaborate set pieces, etc.). So, while Planet Terror is, I think, not as thoughtfully made, The Tripper calls into question the whole idea of "thoughtfulness" when it comes to making a z-movie pastiche.

*This may be why this movie wasn't really a hit with audiences.

My Yearly Crisis of Faith (A Self-Reflection)

Note: If you have a low tolerance for navel-gazing masquerading as soul searching, skip this and check out my angst-free post on David Arquette's The Tripper.


I think I might have turned into too much of a wimp to be a good film critic. I mean: even when I see a movie that I really don't like - Spider-Man 3, say - I'm perfectly willing to lay out what I didn't like about it, but I'm just not interested in arguing with someone who did like it. And while I definitely enjoy writing about movies and I enjoy reading other people's writing about movies, I'm just as definitely not writing to convince anyone of anything or reading anyone to be convinced of anything.

A couple of things from The House Next Door triggered this. (1) This negative review of Juno and some of the responses in the comments. Is letting people know that I like/don't like Little Miss Sunshine so important I have to be nasty about it? (2) This line from Steven Boone inhis piece on Armond White: "A.I. is just one of those tests I use to separate the blind from the sighted." Man - I like A.I., but that's such a pompous, infuriating thing to write. I mean, I think the idea of holding up any movie as a litmus test is pretty obnoxious, but if you have to, choose Grand Illusion or The General, but certainly not a movie like A.I. that divides even Spielberg's biggest fans.


I'm looking at all of the "Year's Best" lists that are flooding the internet right now. I'm torn: God knows I love making these kinds of lists myself (and am working on my own for this year's crop), but seeing them all together (like, for example, this pdf) is a little bit depressing. The same movies pop up again and again, or, if not the same movies, the same "gambits", i.e. "I'll include a dumb teen comedy to prove my credentials as a populist."

My standard take on these lists is that they're best seen as a way to start a conversation, but reading them one after another gives the impression that these critics are engaged in a ritual that, while public, is essentially solitary. It seems to be less about engaging with all these movies and with all these other movie buffs and more about staking out your claim. It's territorial, even.


I've been keeping up with new movies as best as I can. Mainly, I bother because the annual list party I go to has consistently been the most fun/interesting/engaging/enlightening time I have all year. I like blogging about new movies, here, too, and I certainly enjoy the internet discussions I get into, but without a face-to-face social event to spur me on, I'd probably be writing more posts like this and this and fewer posts like this. Without the social element, watching all these new movies would be too much of a mechanical exercise: keeping up with new releases can make me feel too much like a cog in the machine.

Still - unless you're a professional critic (and thus have access to special screenings/screeners), it's nigh impossible to come up with a Top Ten List anytime before March or April of the following year. I bet at least 50% of my work-in-progress list will change by March of 2008:

1. No Country for Old Men
2. 28 Weeks Later
3. The Hoax
4. The Simpsons Movie
5. Superbad
6. Grindhouse: Death Proof
7. Offside
8. Curse of the Golden Flower
9. The Host
10. Zodiac


What kind of conversation do I want to start with that list?

Well, for one thing, I'm becoming more and more accepting of my own fairly mainstream tastes. I used to be really concerned about posturing and/or making a statement with these lists. All part of the normal process of getting older?

And, no, this really isn't meant as posturing now. No Country for Old Men and 28 Weeks Later really are my top movie experiences of the year. Do I think they were the "best" movies I saw all year? Eh - I don't know. They're certainly the two movies I'd be most likely to recommend to people who don't mind violent movies. (The Hoax and The Simpsons Movie would be the two movies I'd be most likely to recommend to just about anybody).

Another thing: looking at this list and thinking about my favorite directors of the last 15 years of so (that is, of most of my career as a movie buff) - the Coen Bros., Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, i.e. the usual suspects, no surprises that a white 30-ish American college educated quasi-artsy comic book-reading guy would be into them - I wonder how much of my "taste"/"sensibility"/etc. is just a by-product of my time and place. That's partly why whenever I have one of these "crises of faith" what I want to do is go watch a bunch of old foreign movies.

Also - I think it's funny that my blog post dealing with my "#1 movie" consists of me complaining about it.


But I do like lists. I can't help it! Part of it, though, is that I think (or should that be I hope) they can help to get across the idea that I like different things about different movies. I mean: there's no single movie that magically sums up everything I like about the movies and if I had to give one - twist my arm and I'll say The Night of the Shooting Stars - I'd feel like I betrayed all those movies I like for completely different reasons - like Caddyshack, for instance.


To get back to how I started this post: I do like reading other people's take on movies. But I'm finding that the people who's takes I most enjoy reading are not necessarily the people who I actually agree with all that much. For instance: Michael Sicinski is currently my favorite movie critic-type guy, but I rarely actually agree with him. Or, rather, while I think he almost always makes interesting points, his overall judgments don't really line up with mine. They kind of do: my favorite movies he tends to rate 6/10 and his favorite movies tend to be the ones that I admire but ultimately don't care for very much. I can't imagine, though, reading his negative review of Hostel and telling that not liking Hostel proves that he's blind or even that he's wrong not to like the movie. I understand what he's saying about that movie and why he's saying it, even if, for me, the movie doesn't work that way. I can talk about how it works for me and maybe why it works for me, but, right now, that's as far as I really want to go. It would have been a different story back when I was an undergrad.

Sunday, December 9, 2007


I spent the morning catching up with comments on my posts on these movies:

The Mist

Thanks to all the commenters for joining the conversation.

Little Miss Sunshine, Take 2

I saw this again (on cable) and I have to say I was both right and wrong in my first post.

Right: going into the movie with expectations that its some kind of masterpiece is a recipe to be disappointed.

Wrong: I think within its modest scope, it's pretty damn beautiful. Maybe it was having read this line from David Edelstein:

The key to Little Miss Sunshine is that every single one of these people is going to come up against a major obstacle and, in the great American tradition . . . lose. Lose crushingly. Lose enough to make a person want to pack it in. But when life hands them a lemon, they don’t just make lemonade. They learn to spike it with whiskey and dance their friggin’ heads off.

Or as Smokey Robinson told us: You gotta dance to keep from crying.

My favorite bit this time around: the desperation-inspired, Clark Griswold-like insanity that overcomes Greg Kinnear as he makes the decision to steal his father's body from the hospital.

Saturday, December 8, 2007


Sean Collins writes:

"Craft is the enemy" is a weird motto for film critics of all people to embrace.

Agreed, but this is a sentiment that keeps popping up throughout the history of talking about the movies. See certain defenses of neo-realism, Cassavetes, the Dogme films, etc.

Partly this is because in the movies "craft" gets conflated with "money" or "studio" (Big Media). So "craft is the enemy" becomes a political statement.

I also have the suspicion that many people who watch a lot of movies eventually get burned out on "mere craft". This happened to me (temporarily) during the time when I was in a cinema studies grad program, working in a video store, and watching two or more movies a day. Fortunately, I'm not suffering from this affliction anymore.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Movie Chat: Superbad


Sweeter than Knocked Up and, more importantly, shorter: it's also better made and at least as funny. But though the general M.O. is the same here as it is throughout the Apatow-Rogen-et al. ouevre - celebrating the contemporary male adolescent lifestyle while at the same time pointing out its limits - the specifics aren't quite as relevant as those in Knocked Up. That is: Knocked Up, despite being made just well enough to get over and despite running at least a half an hour too long, gets a lot of points for trying to deal with an interesting cultural question - what the hell does adulthood look like nowadays? - while Superbad is only a movie about high school kids trying to get laid.

That "only" isn't meant to be damning: minute-for-minute, scene-for-scene, this is probably the funniest movie I've seen all year and, apart from watching Grindhouse late at night in a packed theater, the most fun I've had watching a movie all year.

Still, its focus on (nerdy) guys being guys make it a little more narrow than, say, Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Freaks and Geeks. And its setting - American Suburbia Circa Now - makes it feel more generic and less realized than, say, Hollywood Knights or Dazed & Confused (or even John Hughes's Chicago or Kevin Smith's New Jersey), where the strong sense of time and place gives the movie an added emotional/thematic heft.

Go ahead and accuse me of being a bit of a stiff, but, at this point, I can't help but feel that the Apatow Crew could do better. Moreover, that they should do better, and not because I'm some kind of killjoy who thinks that dumb comedies should strive to be high art or anything, but because they actually have done better - see Freaks and Geeks. They set the standard that they're not living up to. They've gotten funnier and they've built up an impressive "stock company" of (male) comic performers, but the scope of what they're interested in has narrowed. (Maybe because making a TV show requires you to reach out for a broader audience? Maybe it was just Paul Feig?)

So, as good as I think Superbad is for what it is, I hope that their next effort isn't just more of the same.