Monday, April 26, 2010

What do I know about anything?

It has been announced that this season of the Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel created "At the Movies" series will be its last. For me it is a sad bit of news, but it would not surprise me if you were unaware that it was even still on the air, given the multiple time slots and host changes made through out the years.

Originally aired in 1982, the show was the first of its kind and largely responsible for bringing film criticism to the masses. It made Siskel and Ebert household names. At the time, many critics viewed their now famous "thumbs up, thumbs down" rating system as an oversimplification and a mockery of the profession. They said it would be the death of film criticism. Now, with the shows cancellation, the recent firing of Variety critic Todd McCarthy and the rise of the film blog, they are hearing that death rattle once again.

Being a film blogger myself, I suppose I am part of the problem. And while there is a solid arguement for the relevence of the print critic (or print journalism in general, which is what I think people are really talking about), it is hard for me to imagine film criticism itself ever being in any real danger. I suppose the level of concern can be directly related to ones' perspective on film criticism and exactly what purpose it serves.

The bottom line is this: No one with half a brain has ever avoided a film simply because a critic said it was no good. Film criticism is not meant as a means to avoid "bad" films because, after all, what exactly is a "bad" film? One man's trash is another man's treasure, and what if I just wanted to make popcorn and watch a few cars explode? Or watch a zombies devour the flesh of their victims?

No, film criticism is, and always has been merely a means to start a dialogue. There will always be a market for that. A.O. Scott, who co-hosted "At the Movies" in its final season with Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, recently published an article in the New York Times regarding the very same idea:

"How can you do a movie justice in 60 seconds? You can't, of course - or in 800 words, or in a blog post - but you can start a conversation, advance or rebut an arguement, and give people who share your interest something to talk about."
At his or her best, a critic should make you think about a film in a way you may not have on your own.

So what we are talking about here is a venue change. As newspapers and magazines begin to crumble in this weak economy, the internet is gaining ground. Now, if you are seeking a film review you need look no further than your google search engine.

In a recent blog post on Roger Ebert's Journal, Ebert mentions his hopes for an eventual "At the Movies" revival. He believes there is still an audience for it. The nostalgiac side of me wants to believe people will sit down and watch a couple of knowledgable critics discuss the finer (and lesser) points of Hollywood's latest releases, but I am not so sure. Though the sheer dirth of film sites may make finding a critic worth his or her salt a bit harder, it is difficult to argue with the ease and immediacy of the internet.

So how about you critics take off that sandwich board proclaiming film criticisms' inevitible demise. It is not dying, just evolving. And as long as we all remember why we turn to film critics in the first place we should have no trouble embracing this new venue. Then again, what do I know about anything?

Here are a few online film sources I enjoy:
and of course,!


Friday, April 16, 2010


Directed by Martin Scorsese, Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo & Ben Kingsley

"Shutter Island" contains music plumbed from the depths of a 1930's horror film.  It is booming, melodramatic and frequently overwhelms the soundtrack.  It is also pitch perfect.

Here we have a completely immersive film.  It drenches you in its foreboding atmosphere right from the start, as federal marshals Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) are escorted into Shutter Island's prison turned asylum, its walls looming over them.  They have been dispatched to this hellish place in order to investigate the disappearance of one of its patients.  We are told by Dr. Cawley, an effortlessly chilling Ben Kingsley, that it is as if she simply "evaporated through the walls".  As time crawls on, you begin to feel that such a thing is possible here.

Both the staff and inmates view Teddy with a mixture of curiosity and contempt.  Or is that all in Teddy's imagination?  It is not long before he begins to question everything he sees and hears, and so do we. Nothing quite adds up.  Why does this investigation require two outsiders with no working knowledge of the facility itself?  Why does Teddy keep having flashbacks involving his aid in liberating a Nazi Death camp? 

I mentioned the score earlier.  It is fantastic, and so I have mentioned it again.  It is not the only classic horror device Scorsese uses here.  There is also a rain storm, complete with high winds, lightning and thunder, as well as the perpetual darkness within the asylums walls.  Teddy spends a great deal of time stumbling around in darkness, both literally and figuratively.

I have heard and read many complaints regarding the ending.  If you are looking for a mind blowing twist, look elsewhere.  Scorsese does not make gimmicky films, but he is an expert craftsman.  You will probably have some idea where things are headed, but the real achievement here is in making you second guess yourself along the way.  Even when the answers are revealed, you are not one hundred percent convinced.  For most of the film both Teddy and I were in the same boat, certain only of our own uncertainty.


Monday, April 12, 2010

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER - Review

Directed by Marc Webb, Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Zooey Deschanel

The films narrator warns you right off the bat that "this is not a love story". And while this is certainly true in the traditional sense, I believe "(500) Days of Summer" is actually, very literally, about love.

Its protagonist, Tom Hansen (Gordon-Levitt), is hopelessly passionate. He is the kind of guy who probably falls in love with one thing or another every single day. He is in love with love itself, and is eager to share it with another. Enter Summer Finn (Deschanel). Everything about her screams unattainable, yet she seems to be pretty interested in Tom. Boy meets girl. Boy eventually loses girl. That is no spoiler because, after all, you have already been warned.

The story's structure is fragmented because that is how these things are remembered. A touch. A kiss. A fight. The time you made them laugh. The time you made them cry. I cannot recall a film capturing the confusion and frustration that follows a break up quite as well as this one, save for maybe All The Real Girls, which also starred Zooey Deschanel. There is a need to pin point the one big thing that went wrong when it is often many little things.

Zooey Deschanel, who exudes a sort of effortless confidence, is perfectly cast here. We never really get to know Summer, because she simply won’t allow it. Deschanel has become an expert at playing characters like this. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's part is less flashy, but his Tom is earnest, heartfelt and also perfectly played. It is too bad for him that Summer in seeking an equal and not an admirer.

So you can see why this is not a conventional love story. You can also see why this really is a love story. If you have ever been through a major break up, then this is also your story.


Friday, April 9, 2010


Directed by Peter Billingsley, Starring Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell & Jean Reno

Here is a comedy functioning solely on sitcom conventions, complete with a half an hour premise stretched into feature length.  It was written by Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, and though I would not go so far as to call them a dynamic comedy duo, I do expect a few good laughs.  In "Couples Retreat", I only managed to find a few smirks.

Jason (A woefully underused Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell) are having some very non-specific marital troubles.  The film suggests that Jason is a bit tightly wound, but is that really enough to warrant discussion of divorce? Doubtful, but that is all we have to go on.  Strange that writers as smart and funny as Vaughn and Favreau would completely ignore any real plot development, but there it is.  Back to Jason and Cynthia...

The beleaguered couple manages to talk their friends (all going through troubles of their own, to varying degrees of believability) into joining them at a couples retreat so they can enjoy a nice group rate.  There is nothing to suggest things won't work out in the end, and so they do.  In fact, everyone's issues seem to resolve themselves within the last few minutes of the film.  It is as though someone told them to wrap it up.  One of the resolutions is preposterously lazy, improbably plopping a character into the story at the last second.  Deus ex machina, anyone?

All of this would be mildly forgivable if the film were at least funny.  It is not.  There are surprisingly few jokes here, and nothing that will linger beyond its fleeting moment.  It is an unfortunate animal: a below average comedy with an above average cast.