Saturday, September 24, 2016

The State of Criticism

How do you know what movies to see? Where do you go to find these opinions? These are two questions that movie buffs are often asked. You could answer by saying "There's this blog such and such or video blogger such and such that writes or creates reviews. I usually go there if I want to find out what to watch." Personally, I browse a number of sites. There's letterboxd, a few movie blogs that I check from time to time, and a select few people who are interested in film who I talk to online.

Yet, there is one thing that is very important when reading a review or considering an opinion: that reviewer's singular voice and whether or not it translates to a genuine, honest opinion. This is something I always admired Pauline Kael and especially Roger Ebert for. Before Rotten Tomatoes, metacritic and imdb, Ebert was always showing how his view on a film could not be swayed by whether or not a movie was gaining critical praise or if it was not. He liked what he liked. He loved Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia but he hated A Clockwork Orange. He would champion smaller films like Chop Shop and along with Gene Siskel, championed films like Hoop Dreams.

Then the internet came along. With the internet, a free reign of blogs, youtube channels, movie news sites like Ain't It Cool and slash film, and so forth. Journalism has increasingly moved further and further away from print and onto digital. Much like film itself is making the transition. But if a person like me wanted to get their opinion out to the masses, shouldn't I be in praise of the online film community? Well, kinda not. The standards have just gotten lower. You see, like digital film, the sudden availability of the resources creates such a mass market for people who don't necessarily have an individual voice. Everyone and their dog could be a movie critic now. Now if I were to be against this very fact, it would be extremely contradictory. Since this IS a movie blog and I have reviewed several movies on it. What I will say is that, like any genre of film or music, when you get a massive influx of product, or in this case, movie reviewers, you tend to see a pattern: aggregates of reviewers that bleed into one another with their reviews on the newest movie that hit theaters. One site that sprouted in the wake of this was Rotten Tomatoes.

Consensus sites like Rotten Tomatoes have become a standard bearer to indicate what movie Joey and his date want to go see. What people sometimes don't realize is that 90% on the Tomato-meter means a lot less than you think. What it states is: 90% of the critics who gave reviews for the movie gave it a favorable review. Let's say half of the critics who gave favorable reviews thought it was above average. It averages out the consensus to give an idea of the quality. But why do people feel good about using these sites to judge the value of a work of art? It prevents any serious critical interaction between the viewer of the film and the film itself.

This is not even taking into account older films like Vertigo, whose initial reception was polarizing among critics and is now considered to be one of the best films of all time by Sight and Sound's 2012 poll. The 1958 reviews and it's now "reassessed reviews sit side by side on Rotten Tomatoes, causing a miscalculation of context. It pains me to see an entire shelf at Barnes and Noble dedicated to "Movie Certified Fresh By Rotten Tomatoes". A site that groups films into a binary of "Fresh" or "Rotten" and asks its audience to choose is doing more to hurt rather than help the craft of criticism. Don't even bother to read the full reviews.

In a video on film criticism, Siskel  and Ebert talk about wanting to be liked and how political correctness is the death knell to criticism. Wanting to go along with the group. This was in the 90's. Ebert went on to say the purpose of journalism is to break that type of thinking. In an era where "Social Justice Warriors" run amok and wanting to have an intelligent discussion has become nearly absent, summoning up the courage to say what you feel has become increasingly hard.

There's many youtube channels out there like Chris Stuckmann and Jeremy Jahns that are enormously popular. But when you watch a review, it doesn't feel like they are genuine. Take Stuckmann's review on The Blair Witch Project. In it he praises its realism but then says that the slew of imitators gave us more thematically and dramatically than Blair Witch did. Directly after that he says that that is it's strength. That it is grounded in reality. So here we have a review that is extremely contradictory and is weighed between not wanting to piss of its admirers and not wanting to piss off its detractors. Gene Siskel mentioned that wanting to be liked and go along with the group can be death to a critic. Following this type of thinking is tantamount to, as Ebert said, ventriloquism.

It's the same thing when you say you have guilty pleasures. You're just lying to yourself and anyone who will listen about that embarrassing phase you once went through in high school.
All art is subjective. So embrace it. Defend it. There's films like Tusk and Point Break that I will defend to no end.

Structuring your review or just throwing formalism out the window altogether and trying something new can be another thing that pulls the viewer in. There are blogs I have read however, who pull in hundreds of subscribers who structure every single review the same way: Plot Synopsis, Cast, Cinematography/Editing (the style of the film), Summation. It's a fucking chore to slog through these. There is no life in these reviews. Just imitating the film blurb key words of "dazzling, phenomenal, and spellbinding" that you find on the back of blu rays. It's on auto pilot.

Change things up. Think outside the box. Inject life into it. I'm happy you can churn out a review a week but put out something that doesn't continue to put me to sleep.

In this wasteland of appealing to the largest denominator through criticism, there are those that carry the flag as a bastion of hope. One such man is Mark Kermode. This is a man whose top ten films include The Exorcist and The Devils. Someone who doesn't just lambast a movie, he refines the art of doing so. Hatchet jobs, as he calls them. He's not an apologist for the movies he loves. The same way Kael didn't apologize for adoring Altman and DePalma.

Online blogging is not the death of criticism. Digital media hasn't inherently devalued the craft, it just made it harder to find the really good blogs that are writing with passion, honesty, and efficiency. When you love movies for so long, your tastes evolve. They are refined, sharpened. I'm not going to join blog number 156, 472 that only reviews the latest film that comes out or talks about what film they think should win an Oscar. But if a blog pops up about French crime films in the 50's and 60's or why Sterling Hayden is such a stellar character actor or Jodorowsky's films, then I just might join that blog. Because it's shit that I like.

In lieu of this rant, I thought I'd present a handful of sites that are good examples of the criticism I crave and the inventiveness I admire:

And So It Begins
Besides being a blogger Alex Withrow is a filmmaker to boot. He has come up with several ideas for lists that I wish I had thought of. His In Character segments are always a treat to read.

Bennett Media
The first film blog that I truly fell in love with. Stopped producing content in February but the That Moment series and article on 'better sequels' and 'adequate sequels' are worth the read. They are also really good editors to boot.

Every Frame A Painting
Tony Zhou has created several helpful videos for those interested in the mechanics of filmmaking and storytelling.

A Fistful of Films
Want an alternative to The Oscars? This blog has its own awards: The Fistis.

House of Self Indulgence
Erotica, exploitation, and the art of Jess Franco.

Not Coming To A Theater Near You
Your resource for exploring the fringes of cinema. Want essays on Russ Meyer, Andy Sidaris, Lucio Fulci and Samuel Fuller? Look no further.

Observations On Film Art
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's blog. Authors of books, writers of countless essays that are as educational as they are fascinating

Paul Schrader
His film criticism on the works of Ozu and Bresson are something to behold.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Night Of

"I can't be alone tonight."

There's a scene in season one of The Wire where paperwork is being filled in order to secure a wiretap from the court. Showrunner David Simon jokes on the commentary that this is the only show that stresses paperwork. But he touches on something that draws me into these types of crime dramas: the process. The horror of watching an individual get churned through the gears of an indifferent system. The Night Of is another one of those shows that stresses that very process.

The director Steve Zaillian has made a handful of features, some very underrated (Searching For Bobby Fischer, A Civil Action), but nothing really prepared me for this. Right at the start of Pakistani college student Nasir 'Naz' Khan's journey through New York in his father's cab, we are shown through various perspectives of surveillance. All timestamped. The toll booth, the gas station, the police stop later on. You get the sense that you are being prepared for something or Naz is unknowingly being prepared. Things lock into place. Wheels set into motion.

So much so, that after an event like a girl wanting to have him stab her hand has one thinking "how will this ripple outward into this man's life? How will it effect later events?" Zaillian wisely takes that notion and ratchets it up throughout the rest of the hour.

We've had plenty of true crime dramas play out in documentary form: The Thin Blue Line, the Paradise Lost Trilogy, Making A Murderer, The Jinx and most recently O.J. Made In America. What keeps me coming back to The Night Of is Zallian's directorial choices and Richard Price's writing. It's not a perfect opener but it's a hell of a lot better than many other crime shows.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Notes on Notes

"I am a sick man. I am a wicked man."

This is how Fyodor Dostoevsky begins his novella Notes On Underground and what a way to kick things off. The novella is neatly cleaved in two. The first containing most of the novella's philosophical import and the second section reinforces the first through narrative. Now it's important note the footnote toward the beginning of the text.

"Both the author of the notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictional. Nevertheless, such persons a the writer of such notes not only may but must exist in our society, taking into consideration the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed."

The Underground Man is not Dostoevsky himself. He was a devout Christian who fought against feudalism. He couldn't have possibly advocated the narrator's views.

Or is it? Dostoevsky does something clever at the end of the book. He directly contradicts his claim at the beginning of book that the Notes are fictional. Now he presents them as if they are being copied. "The notes of this paradoxalist do not end here. He could not stop himself and went on. But it also seems to us that this may be a good place to stop." It keeps in line with the parodoxical claim to love all things and then destroy everything. It's watching an intellectual ping pong between two polar opposites.

As far as philosophical novels go, it precedes Albert Camus' The Stranger and Sartre's Nausea as what is looked upon as the first existential novel. Friedrich Nietzsche would go onto rate reading Dostoevsky as "among the beautiful strikes of fortune in his life," Interesting in that the Underground Man's thought process works off of something akin to a Master Vs, Slave morality. Something Nietzsche would take further in his worldview.

Fyodor was someone whose works were banned in Russia after the Communist Revolution. They were taken to be highly subversive to Stalin's worldview. Being that Dostoevsky was a conservative.
When he was young, he was a socialist and stood in front of a firing squad when at the last minute, a note from the Czar commuted his sentence to labor. So he was sent to a labor camp for four years where he would form most of his thoughts and views.

In his novella, we see that he deals with the concept of freedom and our need to seek happiness out in rational ways. Dostoyevsky's underground man objects to this need. His belief is that for freedom to be genuine, the entire spectrum of possibilities must play out. It shouldn't just be those that give us gratification and happiness. If only happiness and gratification were the case, the automatic choice to choose the pleasant experience would result in us being more mechanical than genuinely human.

Dostoevsky's character celebrates the choice to choose to do something destructive.  To sabotage yourself. Choosing to do something harmful or negative out of pure caprice. Human beings, he puts it, are not reducible to a mathematical algorithm. 2 + 2=4 but can also make 5.

The human capacity to want is another theme explored. Our narrator posits that if one day they find the formula according to precisely how these wants are spread and "what they strive for in such-and-such a case and so forth" that man will immediately stop wanting. Man without desires or wanting is nothing but a sprig in an oil barrel. Is it impossible, then, while preserving reason, to want senselessness? Certainly not according to the underground man. It's a battle against reason.

Notes From, Underground demands your full attention. It dares to show us alternatives to our lives that we never knew existed. Like the best literature, it forces us to confront our darker selves.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Movies I Love: The Godfather

It's a staple of American popular culture. It's been quoted, parodied and spun off a video game. It usually ranks 2nd on the IMDB Top 250 and currently number 2 on the AFI Top 100. Every Thankgiving, AMC marathons the first two films back top back. It's a classic. Sure it is. But I want to dig deeper. Coming up to people and asking them why they love The Godfather and their only response being "It's a classic! It's The Godfather!" Which makes me wonder, do they really like it are do they feel obligated to because of all the aforementioned accolades that has been bestowed upon it?

The first time I ever heard of The Godfather, to my knowledge, was at my grandparent's house. I was in the back bedroom and looking for things to do. I came upon the Mario Puzo novel. I would scan through the novel and come to read major portions of the text. A viewing of the film cemented the idea of what a perfect movie can be. Or to be more succinct, a complete movie. It didn't tell any more story that it needed to. We would get all the backstory in II.

As a teenager, I became infatuated with the movie. I would watch it as many times as I could. Dissect it. Print out a timeline of the Corleone family and a Corleone family tree. Geneology was something I took interest back then which correlates to my love of history. The family sitting around the table. The traditions that was a part of their Sicilian heritage. It felt like opening a door and spying on a family of a completely different ethnicity from me. It was and still is captivating. The first words uttered are "I believe in America." Even though the family hails from Sicily, this story can be applied to America and power systems within. No surprise when it pops up as a favorite among politicians.

More than just that, this was a saga that allowed the viewer to go back even further. Right up to the point where news breaks of Paolo being gunned down during Antonio's funeral.

The Godfather was the first movie that I saw that really captured that feel of generational struggle. Steinbeck's East of Eden would give me this same love of generational struggle but in an entirely different way. Being that it was a saga about a family entrenched in the mafia underworld, it took on the notion of domestic family vs. the Corleone family circle.

I don't know how many movies I can say this about, but it a piece of art that seduces the viewer into paying attention to every detail. Carmine Coppola's score that adds a spell of grand tragedy to the saga we are witnessing. The Prince of Darkness Gordon Willis' photography and the warm yellow and brown hues. Clemenza explaining to Michael how to "cook for twenty guys one day", Sonny writing the time out on the cabinet, the horrific sound of Carlo's foot smashing through the car window as he is being garroted.

The quick zoom in Coppola does while this man is singing. No one talks about it and it has stuck with me from my first viewing.

"Sit down. Finish my dinner."

Michael putting his hands over his head right before he goes to kill Sollozzo, 

The horror of watching this scene play out 

This scene and its mastery of inevitable doom. It's been referenced dozens of times but never quite duplicated. As soon as the toll booth attendant drops that quarter, you know Sonny's fate is sealed.

It's a film that holds me in its grip each time I watch it, finally choosing to close the door on me, an outsider of its world.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

2015: A Look Back


10. Beasts of No Nation (Fukanaga)

9. Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller)

8. Spotlight (McCarthy)

7. The Look of Silence (Oppenheimer)

6. Inside Out (Docter, Carmen)

5. The Lobster (Lanthimos)

4. Sicario (Villeneuve)

3. The Hateful Eight (Tarantino)

2. The Revenant (Innaritu)

1. Anomalisa (Kaufman)

Honorable Mention: Blackhat, Bone Tomahawk, Bridge of Spies, Carol, Ex Machina, Going  Clear, Phoenix, Room

The Green Inferno
Sinister 2

Favorite Male Performances:
Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass (The Revenant)
Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald (The Revenant)
Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro (Sicario)
Walton Goggins as Chris Mannix (The Hateful Eight)
Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron (Spotlight)
Idris Elba as Commandant (Beasts of No Nation)

Favorite Female Performances:
Brie Larson as Ma (Room)
Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird (Carol)
Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet (Carol)
Elisabeth Moss as Catherine (Queen of Earth)
Eric Rivas as Romina (Wild Tales)
Alicia Vikander as Eva (Ex Machina)

Favorite score: Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight

1. Fargo Season 2
2. The Leftovers Season 2
3. Making A Murderer and The Jinx (tie)
4. Narcos Season 1
5. Ray Donovan Season 3
6. The Knick Season 2
7. Better Call Saul Season 1
8. True Detective Season 2
9. Orange Is the New Black Season 3
10. Mad Men Season 7 Pt. 2

Favorite TV Moments of the year:
1. The Sioux Falls Massacre in Fargo
2. Frank's walk in True Detective
3. The ending of The Jinx
4. Ray's Confession in Ray Donovan
5. Peggy and Don dance to Sinatra's 'My Way' in Mad Men


1. Kendrick Lamar- To Pimp A Butterfly
2. Steven Wilson- Hand Cannot Erase
3. Death Grips- The Powers That B
4. Chelsea Wolfe- Abyss
5. Lamb of God- VII: Sturm Und Drang
6. Between the Buried and Me- Coma Ecliptic
7. Native Construct- Quiet World
8. Leviathan- Scar Sighted
9. John Carpenter- Lost Themes
10. Ghost- Meliora
Honorable Mention: Faith No More- Sol Invictus, Iron Maiden- Book of Souls

Directors I've Discovered:
Roy Andersson
Robert Bresson
Don Hertzfeldt
Kim Ki-Duk
Masaki Kobayashi
Hirokazu Koreeda
Chris Marker
Kenji Mizoguchi
Gillo Pontecervo
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Paolo Sorrentino
Hiroshi Teshihagara
Edward Yang

Bands I've Discovered:
Aphex Twin
Foo Fighters
The Knife
Kendrick Lamar
Janelle Monae
Native Construct
The Police
Queens of the Stone Age
Chelsea Wolfe

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Seen/Read/Heard in January

1/1- The Twilight Zone
1/2- The Life of Oharu (r)
1/5- Concussion, The Hateful Eight (70MM) (r)
1/6- The Big Short, Inside Job (r)
1/8- The Revenant
1/9- The Enigma of Kasper Hauer
1/10- Carol
1/13- David Bowie- Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
1/14- David Bowie- Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane
         Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
1/15- Wild Tales
         David Bowie- Low, Scary Monsters and Super Creeps
1/16- Death Grips- The Money Store
         The Look of Silence
1/19- Cleo From 5 to 7
1/22- Dogtooth (r)
1/23- The Lobster, Anomalisa
1/29- The Simpsons
          World of Tomorrow (r)
 1/30- Songs of A Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti
          Death Grips- The Powers That B
1/31- The Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges

Friday, January 29, 2016

Favorite moments in film: Three men trade war stories

What is the scariest part of Jaws?
There is the beginning, Alex Kitner's death, the two guys on the dock. These are effective scenes. No denying their power. For my money though, one scene outshines them all: Quint's Indianapolis story.

The set up for it is classic: trading stories about battle scars and singing while on a boat in the middle of the ocean. And then, the old man speaks. Quint delivers the story in the kind of way that an old sage would to two students. Their hanging onto every word and Hooper's reaction tells us everything. "Didn't see the first shark for about an half an hour." All the while Quint tells us what happened to the USS Indianapolis, we hear the waves lapping up against the boat. It amounts to a fear and an experience that none of us would want to have. To be stranded in the middle of an ocean and see a shark fin coming toward us. It's as poignant and vicious a segment in Spielberg's canon or just about any other director's canon.