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“Avatar:” On Second Viewing… February 8, 2010

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I’ve been posting and tweeting a lot about Avatar, if only because it’s now the highest grossing film ever — or not, depending on how you calculate it (NYMag‘s Vulture blog has the best solution, which now places Avatar at around #3 or #4) — and only recently has it been unseated from its #1 spot in the weekend grosses (Dear John of all movies!). It also has a whole lot of representational baggage, meaning there are a many ways to interpret it, each one related to some political project or another.

After seeing Avatar the first time I came away a little disappointed. But I decided to view it again in IMAX 3D (my first viewing was on a smaller 3D screen), to see it as many critics saw it. Does it impress on second viewing and on the biggest screen imaginable?

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Why Is ‘Sherlock Holmes’ So Dark? January 2, 2010

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Original at SpliceToday!

No one ever accused Guy Ritchie of choosing smart scripts. Ritchie consistently excels at snappy transitions and vibrant action sequences blending fast and slow motion.  Still, I’ve always liked Ritchie for his appreciation of “talk”: His characters speak fast, often unintelligibly. Unlike, say, Woody Allen, who appreciates “dialogue,” Ritchie’s protagonists talk for the sake of talking. It’s a good formula. It’s interesting.

Unfortunately, in Sherlock Holmes Ritchie zips too quickly past his best and most chipper talk as if to get it over with and back to the action sequences—which are plentiful and very earnestly directed. I expected lots of action in this film, but it was mostly wearisome.

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Daniel Day-Lewis Ruins ‘Nine’ With British Sturm und Drang January 1, 2010

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Original at SpliceToday!

I’d been anticipating Nine for months. And though perhaps my expectations were too high and couldn’t be met, I was underwhelmed.

Nine had a big job to do. It had to be fun and entertaining like the musical, and serious and emotionally deep like its source material, 8 ½, Federico Fellini’s masterpiece. Writing a musical based on one of the greatest films of all time is a pretty stupid idea, especially one as artful and sophisticated as 8 ½. Nine does an okay job, though, and it’s certainly entertaining holiday fare, gorgeous to watch and somewhat pleasing to hear. But as a story, it fails to reach its own expectations, let alone mine.

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Best TV of the Decade! (Top Three, For Me) December 19, 2009

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I normally dislike “best of” lists. I don’t read them and dislike writing them. But I’m writing a chapter for a book on a very solid television series, and I thought: I have to give this some praise.

So instead of doing a “Top 10” I decided to keep it simple. My top three television series of the 00’s. (UPDATE: Here’s a great compilation of “best of” TV lists by Chris Becker…Thanks for linking to mine).

Warning: Not on this list: The Sopranos, The West Wing, Mad Men, Lost, 24, Six Feet Under, Battlestar Galactica, The Office, The Comeback, and probably a dozen other critical darlings. There was too much solid television this decade to be comprehensive. The following shows are not only emotionally meaningful to me — my television habit matured in the aughts — but also revolutionized, in my opinion, what we think of as “television.”

In general, these are three shows, which, I think, proved television is in fact better at storytelling than film.

Here we go!

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Lo-Fi Survives the Age of High-Tech and Big Budgets December 4, 2009

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Original at Splice Today. Comment there!

It’s the visual equivalent of wearing flannel or drinking black coffee. Retro ebbs and flows, classic comes and goes, but Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox pushes me to believe we are in a lo-fi moment.

You cannot write for a living and avoid silly trend stories; it’s inevitable. We naturally look for patterns, and we have blank pages to fill. Still, I think this may be legit.

First, take the reviews for The Fantastic Mr. Fox. (more…)

“Up in the Air” Lovable, Borderline Insightful (Review) December 3, 2009

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Original at Splice Today! Comment there!

Jason Reitman’s newest release, Up in the Air, will no doubt encourage comparisons to Thank You for Smoking, the successful humanization of a heartless tobacco lobbyist in a humorous and efficient 90 minutes. Both films portray men who do despicable jobs—from the latter’s tobacco lobbyist to former’s professional pink-slip giver—and yet are lovable and charming. Both are loners, having failed in relationships while succeeding in their careers.

But the similarities end there. (more…)

“Sons of Anarchy” Proves Cable Deeper, More Provocative Than Broadcast November 23, 2009

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Originally posted at Ronebreak. Please comment there!

The penultimate episode of Sons of Anarchy airs Tuesday at 10PM, with a 90-minute season finale the following week. You can catch up on episodes at Hulu or iTunes, or you can check Sidereel for more options.

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It takes The Sopranos and adds neo-Nazis. It grafts onto Hamlet a throng of motorcycles. Sons of Anarchy, FX’s drama about a California motorcycle gang, is among the best and highest rated shows on cable, so why haven’t you been watching it?

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“Buppies” Review: Drama With A Light Touch November 21, 2009

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Check out other reviews at Thembi Ford, Shadow and Act. Thank you to Racialicious for reposting this!

I’ve written and spoken a lot about Buppies for this blog and elsewhere, but that’s only because I think it’s a significant development within the history of original web shows.

Buppies is upon us; the BET-distributed, CoverGirl-sponsored scripted web series premieres this Tuesday, Nov. 24th (Hopefully. BET has already pushed back the premiere once to expand its marketing).

The show is a “mad-cap romp” through a day in the life of Quinci, played by Fresh Prince‘s Tatyana Ali, a socialite and publicist enduring lots of drama amidst L.A.’s black upper crust. During this very bad day, she and her friends face issues of sexuality, pregnancy, dating, race, and careers and, most importantly, handle them in fabulous clothes! (more…)

Babelgum Aims to Bend Genres, Rule Phones This Halloween October 29, 2009

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My first blog post for the Wall Street Journal looks at a few new series on Babelgum:

Looking to build up its roster of Web series, online video site Babelgum, best known to Speakeasy readers for its online and mobile release of Sally Potter’s “Rage,” have announced three new sci-fi and horror comedies.

The site is angling to be a destination for original and independent online video, ranging from avant-garde fare like “Rage,” the political satire of “The Yes Men” or exclusive offerings from indie music darlings Mew, Editors and Arctic Monkeys.

Just out is Hayden Black’s “The Occulterers,” a show about a inept team of ghost hunters touring various haunted houses in search of vampires and other underworld denizens.  Zany humor dominates the dialogue.

Full post at Speakeasy, the Journal‘s culture blog.

“New York I Love You” in Five Minutes October 24, 2009

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Anton Yelchin in Brett Ratner's sequence

I had high hopes for New York, I Love You. My friends know what kinds of movies I fall for easily, and this is it: pretty people, New York City, romance, set in autumn, bourgeouis pretension. I eat it up: You’ve Got Mail, As Good as it Gets, Auntie Mame, All About Eve, the list goes on and on, some are classic, some are good, some are bad. I love it all.

But I found New York, I Love You a bit disappointing. It does everything right visually, and looks as romantic as it should. But it also panders. Let’s turbo review:

New_York_I_Love_You_Wright_Penn

Good: The movie tries to unite the disparate sequences, having characters from different directors cross paths, making it more than a mere collection of sorts.
Bad
: Those sequences do not lead anywhere. No plot, no point, or at least no point in connecting the films.
Good
: Pretty people.
Bad
: Pretty people who almost all live or go to Upper/Lower Manhattan, only a sprinkle in Queens and Brooklyn. No Harlem. No Bronx.
Bad
: Pretty people most of whose lives aren’t terribly interesting.
Bad
: Pretty people who are mostly white, with a couple Chinese. One was Cuban, in the least interesting segment. No other black or Latino people in New York?!
Good
: Numerous characters who hail from outside the United States.
Good
: Lots of meet-cute stories.
Bad: Lots of meet-cute stories.
Good: Well-directed sequences; Mira Nair, Wen Jiang, Shunji Iwai.
Bad: The overused conceit of two smokers who meet on the sidewalk; sorry, Yvan Attal! Anyway, who smokes in New York anymore?
Good: The artsy, oblique sequence by Shekhar Kapur.
Really Bad: No gays! Are there no gays in New York?!!!!

Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q meet on the street while sharing a smoke.

Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q meet on the street while sharing a smoke.

New York, I Love You is mostly pleasurable and sophisticated, certainly more curated and conscientiously produced than Paris, Je T’Aime. But it lacks the diversity of genre and narrative seen in Paris, and it doesn’t leave you with strong feelings, neither amorous nor unsettling.

Where the Wild Things Are…For Hipsters, Kids, Cinephiles or Everyone? October 16, 2009

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WTWTA went after young hipsters viciously through its Urban Outfitters campaign

WTWTA went after young hipsters viciously through its Urban Outfitters campaign

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UPDATE: The New York Times has a piece about whether the movie is appropriate for children.

After seeing Where the Wild Things Are two nights ago, I suspected I would awaken Friday morning to check Metacritic and see a big ol’ 80+ rating on the film from critics.

Not so! Okay, it’s a 70. Well within the range of acceptability and good enough to keep it in the Oscar race.

What did I think? I have to say, it’s near perfect. Brilliant. And this is after I’ve been sufficiently numbed by months of promotion, including an aggressive effort through Urban Outfitters and on hip “young” shows like Gossip Girl, buzz from critics at festivals and stories of the studio rejecting it because it’s too artsy. I thought it would actually be easy to hate, given it’s angling for indie rock cred through the music in the trailer. All this set me up for a film so self-conscious of its own pretension it’d be as easy to hate as the hipsters it courts.

Not so! Where the Wild Things Are is pure cinematic id. It manages to capture the spirit of youth, even for those who don’t remember the book, more so than any “family” movie I’ve seen in years.

The film is gorgeous, nearly every shot is lush and carefully constructed, not a frame is wasted. The colors are phenomenal. In what appears to be a rogue move, Spike Jonze worked from a limited palette of browns, oranges and yellows (keeping the film as drab if not drabber than the book), with only hints of brighter colors are strategic moments. This had the effect of making the film’s rosier scenes particularly poignant.

What the movie does most successfully, I think, is take the twee, childlike nature of independent rock today to its necessary extremes. You can’t imagine how well presumably rarefied and intellectual rock works with depictions of the adolescent imagination.

Will families like it? I’m not sure. Certainly Park Slope and Silverlake mommies will be taking their kids, but will suburban families be scared away? No film can make money solely on twenty-something Spike Jonze fans. I think kids would like the movie, which in some ways reminded me and the friend I saw it with of a dressed-down Never-Ending Story, but then again I wasn’t a typical kid. Though there are a lot of atypical kids out there.

In the end, I think the film is for everyone, but, as with the more conventional Slumdog Millionaire, the studios have to market it right to get Americans to take the risk. I have no idea how this effort is going — we’ll see on Monday. I’ve got the message through the “young” and “hipster” routes, what about everyone else?

Whether or not it makes money, Jonze can sleep soundly knowing he made a work of art, and perhaps, time will tell, an important one. (UPDATE: CNN says the budget is between $80 and $100 million, which sounds ridiculous for such a lo-fi film, maybe that includes marketing; either way, not sure if it’s making that back. UPDATE 2: BoxOfficeMojo is pegging the production budget at $100 million, while New York Magazine says its $32 million opening weekend beat expectations. UPDATE 3: Wall Street Journal‘s Speakeasy blog says it was marketed mostly to adult audiences, and is happy with how the film is situated in the market. UPDATE 4: Two weeks in, the film has grossed $56 million, but it’s grosses are dropping at fast rates.).

Who knew a movie so representative of kids’ wonder can feel so emotive and grown-up? Jonze gave Pixar a run for its money.

FILM: Homophobia = Boring July 16, 2009

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Little Ashes (Grade: B-), Brüno (Grade: B-)

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If I’ve learned anything in the last week, it’s that homophobia in film can be so terribly boring. Okay, I knew that already. Honestly, what is state of gay cinema if homophobia is not the cornerstone of every plot line? I don’t know; I think it looks a little like Shortbus. One thing I do know is Little Ashes and Brüno are not the future of queer cinema.

Little Ashes, which has been out a few weeks, is more commonly known as the “gay Robert Pattinson movie.” The Twilight star, who has the rare quality of being gorgeous and talented, plays a young Salvador Dalí, in school in Madrid in the 1920s with an illustrious cohort, including director Luis Buñuel and writer Federico García Lorca. It is such a stellar group of individuals that today all three are known solely by their last names.

Starting with such interesting figures in history, the film, inspired by supposedly real events, should have been interesting. Dalí, on his own, is enough of an eccentric to entertain for ninety minutes. But rather than go the Almodovar route in queer cinema, Little Ashes instead recalls Maurice, a fine but forgettable Merchant Ivory period piece from the 1980s.

That’s exactly where Little Ashes is stuck: the 1980s. It’s all parting glances (not to be confused with the awesome Parting Glances) and no release. The film dwells so long on unrequited love it fails to inspire anything but ennui. Worst is its depiction of homophobia. Little Ashes turns Buñuel into a raging homphobe and gives him a slew of uninteresting lines about the moral depravity of homosexuality. Yes, Spain at the time was supposed to be oppressive and Franco’s power was only growing, but many gay films and books have shown that, even in oppressive conditions, same-sex desire was still exciting — even more so, perhaps, that it was so forbidden. Little Ashes‘ focus on tragedy drains its subjects of all life, and in doing so drains us.

Brüno‘s problem is similar in some ways. Of course, the Sacha Baron Cohen knows how to have fun. At the very least, Cohen gives his audience that.

But for most of the movie all the jokes predicated on America’s homophobia are the weakest. There are a lot of reasons for this. For one, a lot of the presumed homophobia of Cohen’s targets is either incredibly dull — a group of redneck hunters are at worst “dismissive” of Brüno — or kind of sad. In truth, in a few instances, homophobia is explained away by professional codes: a martial arts instructor agrees to show Brüno how to beat up gays in part because, well, it’s his job to do what the customer asks, and the military men are harsh on Brüno mostly because, well, he’s not following the rules, not because he’s gay.

I’m not the only one who found Cohen’s depiction of American homophobia stale. The most homophobic thing about the movie may be Cohen himself, although I’ve known a few gays who, while not as exagerrated as Brüno (who is?) are similarly shallow, dumb and celebrity obsessed. Regardless, the GLAAD has put out a perfunctory hit on the movie. Some are wishing Brüno is the last salvo on decades of ludicrous depictions of gays in movies. Well, not so fast, but maybe we’re close.

The biggest proof homophobia is tired? Bruno’s box office numbers, already falling well short of expectations. It’s hard for lightening to strike twice. Borat may have been a one-hit wonder. Sure, some of the underperformance can be explained in other ways. While millions (of men) are willing to see a racist and sexist Kazakh reporter lampoon America on the left and right, who wants to watch an overly effeminate man prance around for ninety minutes doing the same and not as well? At least three men walked out of the screening I attended.Brüno does land one solid blow though, and it’s no wonder it’s saved for the last scene. I cannot say much except that “Straight Dave” and his transgression redeemed the movie considerably, showing how ridiculous it is to fear male-on-male sexuality. That’s right, I’m talking to you, the three guys who walked out of my screening.

Absent Straight Dave, however, people are looking for something new, another kind of homosexual who is neither Ennis del Mar, Jack McFarland or a figment of our historical imagination. Who is this magical homosexual? I can tell you he’s not in theaters right now.

TV: Rage Against the Doctors July 1, 2009

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Three new medically-themed shows arrive at just the right cultural moment. [Nurse Jackie (Grade: A-), Royal Pains (Grade: B), HawthoRNe (Grade: C+)]

nurse_jackie

Americans hate journalists and bankers. As a journalist whose best friend is a banker, this sometimes gets under my skin. But it makes perfect sense, and far be it for me to begrudge someone their hate.

Medical professionals, on the other hand, get lots of respect. Nurses, according to some polls, are the most beloved of our nation’s workers. They are caring and make us feel better but don’t make the controversial calls or handle the billing. Doctors are highly rated too, but if you’ve been watching cable television this summer, you might not think so.

At least three shows, all breakout hits, explore how doctors and hospitals are terrible for healthcare, while nurses can do no—or very little—wrong. ER and Grey’s Anatomy these are not. No wonder cable is so hot right now.

Nurse Jackie, my favorite of the shows, follows the travails of Jackie (Edie Falco), a nurse who always knows better. Falco’s Jackie is crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, like the best of pastries. She abuses prescription drugs and cheats on her husband, but she is also an attentive mother, and, most importantly, very caring toward her patients, almost maternally so. She knows what to do before the doctors do. Meanwhile, the doctors are either childish pricks (Peter Facinelli’s Dr. Cooper) or overprivileged ice queens (Eve Best’s Dr. Elenor O’Hara). If they’re right, they are cold and uncaring to their patients; and then of course, they are wrong sometimes too. Right or wrong, they are jerks to the nice nurses. It’s a fun show, made better by the casting of super sexy Haaz Sleiman as a gay nurse.

The anti-doctor motif is a solid formula for Nurse Jackie, which Showtime has already renewed, making it another strong addition to the channel’s already solid lineup.

Another breakout is HawthoRNe, Jada Pinkett-Smith’s comeback show about another nurse, Christina Hawthorne, who is similarly amazing at her job. Like Jackie, Christina has a fatal flaw: a mistake she made caused her husband death. HawthoRNe plays with the same themes. Doctors are off playing golf instead of helping patients or make the wrong calls and then blame the nurses. The hospital bureaucracy blames nurses first and doctors later, meaning Christina’s job is harder to do and less prestigious. Less edgy than Nurse Jackie, HawthoRNe is less fun, an awkward compromise between network (think ER) and pay-cable aesthetics.

Yet by far this summer’s most surprising hit is Royal Pains, USA’s Mark Feuerstein starrer about an accomplished emergency room doctor fired for letting a billionaire hospital trustee die while saving a no-name black kid. A doctor we like, you wonder? Yes, we do like Feuerstein’s Hank Lawson, but only because he works outside the hospital system. Despite treating insanely rich Hamptons clients, Hank is noble because he has cut out the bureaucracy and the politics, getting to the heart of the problem without long lines or red tape (though he’s been known to use duct tape). His helpful associate, a super-nurse played by Reshma Shetty, is equally lovable and capable.

Why all the hate for doctors and hospitals? Cable networks simply got lucky and hit the right note at the right time. In our current healthcare battle, doctors are fast becoming the arch enemy. Most Americans are in favor of a government-run healthcare plan, but the American Medical Association, because doctors get less money for government patients, are vigorous opponents and have been for decades. It’s the kind of self-interest that is putting doctors in league with drug companies, who fear the government using its buying power to purchase drugs at lower prices, and insurers, who fear the loss of business if people flock to a public option. Already, stories are surfacing of doctors over-treating not only to protect their backsides but also to make more money. In a recent New Yorker article Atul Gawande wrote that hospitals “know that if their doctors bring in enough business—surgery, imaging, home-nursing referrals—they make money; and if they get the doctors to bring in more, they make more.” It gets worse: “Then there are the physicians who see their practice primarily as a revenue stream…They figure out ways to increase their high-margin work and decrease their low-margin work. This is a business, after all.”

In this context the stunning success of HawthoRNeRoyal Pains and Nurse Jackie make sense. Divorced from the revenue stream, nurses and independent doctors seem altruistic. It’s no surprise most nurses’ associations support either a single-payer or some other public healthcare option.

The lesson? Maybe this summer Congress should be watching more cable TV.

TV: Not Your Tween’s High School Musical May 21, 2009

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If the creators keep things strange, Glee could be a great show. (Grade: B+)

Glee_large

Twitter was all abuzz Tuesday night after Adam Lambert proved Kris Allen is about as interesting as a country biscuit. After Allen put America to sleep, we awoke to Fox’s latest bit of derivative television: Glee.

Glee follows the struggles of a group of teenage losers and their idealistic teacher as they try to revive a middle class high school’s show choir. It’s a good show, with the potential to be a great one if Fox and its creator Ryan Murphy go even farther, instead of doing what most shows do: devolve into mediocrity.

Regardless, you will see Glee this fall. Depending on if you’re an optimist or pessimist, Glee either missed or met expectations on its premiere after Idol on Tuesday. Either way, Fox has dropped many millions betting on this show, so they have to push forward. You should give it a try.

Glee is a return to form for Fox, which made its mark in the 1980s by challenging the original networks ABC, NBC and CBS with edgier and engaging programming. Marketed as High School Musical: The Series, Glee is actually much closer to Fox classics like Married with Children, The Simpsons, Family Guy and Malcolm in the Middle. It’s a distant cousin, but it’s definitely a relative.

If you tuned in expecting High School Musical, you instead received Camp, the 2003 movie about a musical theater camp where everyone is either gay or questioning, the grown-ups are either drunks or incompetent and every kid’s a loser; “we’re all losers,” the football jock concedes in the premiere. It’s not surprise that Glee creator Murphy made his name with Nip/Tuck and the film Running With Scissors. A fucked-up America is his thing.

Glee’s America isn’t so much fucked up as real, however. Geared toward tweens and younger adults, the show portrays a more realistic view of suburban, or exburban, life. But it’s behind on this trend. ABC Family is ahead of them with Greek and Secret Life of the American Teenager, both with plenty of gay subplots and misbehaving youngsters. If you watch those shows, the fact that Glee’s star gal Rachel (Lea Michele) has two gay parents, one black, one white, isn’t too shocking.

Still, Glee has punch. Characters include a molesting music teacher who becomes a drug dealer (marijuana), the obligatory lesbian coach (played by power-lesbian Jane Lynch), and an OCD counselor (Jayma Mays) who’s in love with the glee club’s hot supervisor, our protagonist (Matthew Morrison). The word “penis” is used, as is “Gaylord Weiner.” The football jock is dating the president of the Celibacy Club. The cast is multicultural, though the show boringly casts them as side characters. Some things never change, but at least the show is self-aware: our sassy black female stereotype (Amber Riley) says to football jock, “what are you bringing to the table, Justin Timberlake?”

There’s the rub. I hate Justin Timberlake, but most of America loves him. So our leads are in fact the high school jock (Cory Monteith) and the pretty, if unpopular, girl. There is an air of predictability hovering over Glee even as it tries to break the mold. All the formulas are still in place: sports guys are mean, teachers are weird, handicapped (Kevin McHale) and overweight kids are uncool. The true test of the show will be whether it can poke enough fun at itself, while still delivering earnest and heart-pounding musical numbers—the show ended predictably with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’” If it remains aware of its own ridiculousness, only then will it hold my interest. For now, it at least has my attention, which is more than most shows can say these days.

FILM: Know Your Movie Arithmetic May 13, 2009

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Calculate whether or not you should see a movie

RottenTomatoes and Metacritic quantify film criticism, let's beat them at their own game.

RottenTomatoes and Metacritic quantify film criticism.

Reviews_1242181027470

Let's beat them at their own game.

I am smart enough to know numbers are just as fallible and slippery as opinions, but I’m coming out as a closet numbers-fetishist. I love polls. Statistics, graphs and charts are sexy. I am also know that movies are expensive these days, a serious investment for most people.

Metacritic and Rottentomatoes are saviors for number-lovers and serial moviegoers alike. Some people hate them because they quantify what shouldn’t be quantified: film criticism. But let’s be real: reviewers, myself included, are fickle. We see lots and lots of films. We have bad moods. We have vendettas (you heard me, Saw series!). Since we see so many movies we are inclined to be harsher than an average viewer. Reading one or two reviews can exaggerate biases and outliers. Meanwhile Metacritic and Rottentomatoes are pretty accurate: despite two different methodologies, most of the time they agree. (Both are based on a 0-100 scale, where 60-plus is good; Metacritic uses “points” while Rottentomatoes calculates the percentage of critics who wrote favorable reviews).

The problem with Metacritic and Rottentomatoes is they cannot account for your biases. So I’m going to take the quantification of film criticism to a ridiculous degree and devise a simple formula to tailor review sites to your tastes. Yes, it makes little sense. But it’s fun!

My formula is: Total Score + Director/Screenwriter (5 points)  + Actor (2-5 points)  + Genre (2 points) + Cinematographer (2 points) + Producer (2 points) + (Franchise (5 points) x 2) = Your Projected Score.

First, you take the total score on either Metacritic or Rottentomatoes. Directors and screenwriters are worth five points, plus or minus, depending on whether you like or dislike them. Lead actors you like or dislike are worth five points, while minor ones are worth two. Genres, cinematographers and producers are each worth two, while franchises are worth plus or minus five points multiplied by two.

It’s easy! Take Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys. Critics gave it a 49 on Metacritic. But that’s not what I would’ve given it. I subtract 10 points for Tyler Perry writing and directing—I’m not a huge fan. I add four for the fabulous Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard (not 10 points because they aren’t really lead actors in it). I subtract another 10 for the Madea franchise, just because, and another two because Tyler Perry produced as well. Drumroll: 31! I hated that movie; I was right to not have seen it in theaters.

The rationale is simple. Some aspects of films matter more than others. If you like—or hate—a director or screenwriter that usually means they have done something consistently you either like or hate. They are the film’s backbone, so they are worth the most. Franchises traffic in predictability, so even if everyone hates it, you’ll still see it. If you hate a franchise, any good reviews should be tempered with your hatred of the series and genre. All else is important but fickle. Some producers are consistent, like Judd Apatow, but most are not. A few cinematographers can deeply affect a movie experience despite the script and direction—Christopher Doyle comes to mind—but most cannot. Feel free to add extra points for hyper-specific genres: for instance, I would add 10 points for urban romantic comedies, my guilty pleasure.

It works pretty well. For me, Watchmen gained 17 points over the critical consensus because I liked the novel (Franchise + screenplay). Obsessedstayed at its dreadful 25 score because it is, in fact, a terrible movie, and Star Trek went from 85 to 89 because it’s so well done it is hard to regard it more highly than the critics.

My last test: my formula has me liking the forthcoming Limits of Control 20 points higher than the consensus (currently at 39 points!) That feels right to me—I’m very excited to see it. But can biases overrule a critical drubbing?

FILM: Star Trek and Millennial Aesthetics May 9, 2009

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Star Trek glistens with Millenialism

Star Trek glistens with Millennialism

UPDATE: BoxOfficeMojo and other sources now reporting that Star Trek took in $72.5 million domestically and $35.5 million abroad, less than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but still a good starting point. Next week will be key.

So last week I pop-conjectured that Star Trek might not do as well as Wolverine, since Wolverine, as the tale of blue collar worker screwed over by the government waging a massive revenge trip, fit in much better with the recession mood and would be able to bring in more (unemployed) men. It was a sloppy thesis, admittedly, because it turns out, Star Trek may be on track to outperform Wolverine and that the latter might die fast in the box office while Star Trek lingers longer in theatres. Who knows, right?

Wolverine, much darker than Star Trek, reflects a different aspect of socioeconomic moment.

Wolverine, much darker than Star Trek, reflects a different aspect of our socioeconomic moment.

Star Trek was similarly as timely as Wolverine, perhaps more so. The movie is one of those few major Hollywood films this year perfectly tuned to the aesthetics of Millennials — the throngs of hopeful, ambitious, idealistic yet practice-oriented young people who voted for Barack Obama, and, even if they didn’t, still believe optimism mixed with dedicated work brings the best results. The movie,it has been much-remarked, is glowing. It looks hopeful. The cast, true to the original Star Trek is multi-cultural and multiracial and interracial romance (inter-species!) romance is lauded without comment. The view of a galaxy mostly in harmony, respecting cultural differences — even essentialisms — without condoning violence among them is also very now. But also not new. All these things connect Millennial aesthetics with Boomer aesthetics. 

Yet there are deviations as well. I was surprised but the excessive use of close-ups on the human face, a device as much as result of television aesthetics as Millennial ones — think, your average YouTube vlog, Facebook/MySpace photos: the framing face is very important to my generation. There was the use of handheld camera in these moments, a quiet nod to DIY aesthetics without being as disruptive as in JJ Abrams’ previous Cloverfield. Indeed, Abrams seems desperate to be relevant, and mostly he succeeds in both films. 

The casting of pretty boy Chris Pine — distractingly pretty, I thought — and nerdy-hot Zachary Quinto was also canny. Both are bookish and geeky — see: Pine in Just My Luck — while still knowing how to kick ass and look sexy as hell — see: Quinto in Heroes. It’s the kind of complex yet harmonious identity, challenging as it to stereotype (Barack Obama!), that also feels very much like the kind of men we need now, not Bushy cowboys like Logan or fey hippies, but some kind of happy medium.

There’s more I’m missing — any thoughts? Like any theory, it’s messy. But I do think we’re in one of the moments when art and artistic styles start to shift, or, at least, new forms start to arise, so I’m trying to keep my mind open to the possibilities.

FILM: This Old French House: Summer Hours review May 8, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Summer Hours (dir. Olivier Assayas)

Summer Hours tackles surprisingly rich themes for its superficially stereotypical setting and concerns. (Grade: A-)

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The marketing for Summer Hours traffics in well-worn French clichés: a summer house in the south, plenty of wine, and well-aged French people with useless jobs in the arts, academy and design. There are museums. There are disputes over what to do with expensive artwork.

But writer-director Olivier Assayas digs much deeper, making Summer Hours, now out in limited release, the most surprising movie I’ve seen so far this year. Assayas, equally at home with spectacle (Irma Vep), grit (Clean, Demonlover) and quiet romance (Sentimental Destinies), is one of the more limber directors working today; not an auteur, but assured nonetheless.

I thought I’d see a thoughtless, sunny French drama. Not so. Moving calmly but never slacking, Summer Hours manages to pack a lot in. It is a family drama first. It follows the problems of Frédéric (Assayas favorite Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) as they grapple with the death of their mother, Helene, and the granduncle and world-famous artist Paul Berthier. They have to figure out what to do with their mother’s things, a house full of expensive and culturally significant works of art and furniture collected and created by Berthier. It’s so important the French government gets involved. Frédéric wants to keep their summer house with all its valuables, but Adrienne and Jérémie have other lives, marriages, children and jobs that take them outside of France and around the world. Frédéric teaches economics in France; he’s not going anywhere.

It sounds simple, maybe kind of boring. But it becomes rich. Summer Hours is about generational shifts. Their mother, Helene, lived in old France, where people painted gardens and sat at home. Her kids, however, live in a global world—Adrienne makes minimalist, mass-produced designer housewares, not her mother’s intricate silver teakettles—and they only visit the summer house twice a year. At the end of the film Frédéric’s teenage kids use the summer house one last time to throw a big party: smoking pot and listening to hip-hop, unaware of the history that’s gone by (a scene lyrically filmed with dignity in slow, sparsely-edited shots). History is ravenous, the movie suggests, and they are very few people who care to remember. Frédéric’s daughter, despite appearances, does. She seems to mourn the loss of her grandmother’s home. Those who do remember take it to heart.

So Summer Hours grapples with mortality. The mother has an interesting philosophy on life. When she dies, she says, the kids can sell all the objects in the house because they are filled with her memories, which die with her. She seems at peace with the fact that people won’t know her secrets—including a juicy family scandal—and all the memories that will go with her. She obviously wants her kids to know her history: she tells Frédéric many times about all the objects in the house, where they come from and what they’re worth. But she’s realistic. Death is death. History is unbiased.

Assayas reaches beyond quaint themes of family and death, though. He tackles globalization with Jérémie, who makes sneakers in China. Adrienne’s business is global as well, and her designs need to be minimalist enough to cross boundaries. All of their children look to America for inspiration; they go to English schools. They have no attachments to France. This is what globalization looks like on the ground. Their dead painter-uncle, the hidden center of all the drama, is becoming increasingly popular in the United States, which leads to arguments over whether his works should remain at home in France. France wants the notebooks of Paul Berthier. The Americans (Christie’s), they say, will “rip it up” and auction it off to the highest bidder. The question is raised implicitly: Is this the end of France? The breaking down of the house and the selling of its assets feels like the death of a kind of nostalgia for old France: bucolic, and withered at the walls of globalization. The house and the dead mother become elegantly metaphorical.

There is so much more in the film—the economic collapse, memory, even the sanctity of the art object—that makes Summer Hours feel more alive and bracing than it actually looks like on the surface. It is so elegant and delicate in its direction; Assayas cleverly masks all the drama and pathos driving his characters’ emotions and curious actions. Much more than your typical frothy French bobo flick.

Summer Hours, directed by Olivier Assayas. IFC Films, 103 minutes. Now playing in limited release.

FILM: Recession Film Formula: Mad Men May 6, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Angry Men Helm This Year’s Breakout Hits

By Aymar Jean Christian

Wolverine: Angry Blue Collar Worker Mad at the Government

Wolverine: Angry Blue Collar Worker Mad at the Government

Summer movies are upon us, and with a full five months of blockbusters, we’re beginning to see what a hit is in this economy.

Let’s take note of the breakouts so far: KnowingPaul Blart: Mall CopTaken,Fast and Furious, and now Wolverine. Notice a trend? All have angry or embattled (white) men as protagonists. Another surprise hit, Race to Witch Mountain, is a kid’s movie with former angry man The Rock as its lead. The notable exception to this rule is Observe and Report, which is really too arty and strange for a mass audience anyway.

Who are the angriest people in America, right now? The persistent influence of Rush Limbaugh even as Democrats took over Congress, and the rise in Fox News’ ratings—slaughtering MSNBC and CNN and dominating cable TV in general, second only to USA—provides the obvious answer: working class men. It has gotten so bad MSNBC has decided Keith Olbermann is not mad or working class enough, so they hired politico, and former football player, Ed Schultz. Some are calling it a “he-cession.” Men represent over 80 percent of the current job losses; the unemployment rate of black men is 15 percent.

Male protagonists heading blockbusters is not a trend; it’s the norm, really. But the movies above had pretty low expectations: hence the early, pre-summer releases. Despite being generally bad, they have performed quite well. Recessions and depressions are good for Hollywood, the saying goes, but it’s more complicated than that. First, let’s remember the larger issues Hollywood faces these days: home theater systems, Netflix, iTunes, and the cost of going to the movies (with snacks and drinks, taking the family out to the movies is a pricey affair). Second, let’s also remember that the most notable films from Hollywood’s Depression boom were spectacles likeScarface or Busby Berkley’s films.

This makes Wolverine‘s spectacular, if expected, open of $158 million worldwide all the more notable. Most superhero movies open well these days, at least those with proven box office pull like X-Men franchise.Wolverine’s formula, however, was particularly canny. Bravo to Gavin Hood and its marketers. The movie? Well, I give it a C-, and that’s just because I adore superhero flicks.

It’s not hard to see how the recession factors into Wolverine’s plot and setup. Logan is Mr. Blue Collar. He wears flannel. He’s a lumberjack who wants a simple life: hot babe who’s also a schoolteacher, and a house in the forest. The big militaristic government takes it away from him. Even though you need to see the movie to know this, Logan’s anger (is there any moment in the trailer when he’s not angry?) is the perfect cipher for the tens of thousands of unemployed men bearing the brunt of the recession. Wolverine traffics in anti-government and anti-institutional sentiments. It’s overbearingly Western (think “maverick”) in its feel. Will.I.Am wears a cowboy hat for chrissakes. Paging Joe the Plumber!

Sure, there have been other non-angry-white-men movies out this year: Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes To Jail has been his biggest success yet, and He’s Just Not That Into You did all right (women have to see something).

Matched with special effects, it’s no mystery why movie like Wolverine and Knowing have done well. It will be interesting to see how Star Trek does this weekend, given its men are less angry, more pretty and idealistic. Chris Pine is the fantasy of teenage girls and bi-curious boys, after all, not blue collar men. Will J.J. Abrams’ film, with its gorgeous, glowing (blinding, apparently) optimism fare similarly as well as Wolverine‘s hairy, ugly darkness? Do special effects films need a dash of cynicism, despair and vitriol to pop in this economy? Stay tuned.

FILM: Il Divo: If Scorsese Married Welles… April 30, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Il Divo is the best political mafia movie in years. (Grade: A-)

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It’s a cliché to label directors as sons and daughters of other ones, but it seems appropriate in the case of Paolo Sorrentino, because his films are so concerned with style—lighting, framing, camerawork—and creating a viewing experience that his technique instantly recalls classics. Sorrentino is the celebrated director from Europe you haven’t heard of. After you see Il Divo, out this week in only one theater, and I hope with plans for more, you’ll remember his name.

Most people compare his style to that of Martin Scorsese. It’s an appropriate comparison. Sorrentino loves to swoop into scenes with a dramatic flourish, zooming into characters’ faces clockwise and counterclockwise. His focus on bad men and the mob also begs the comparison to Scorsese and Orson Welles, perhaps also Brian DePalma. All three know how to depict the rage and angst of men whose worlds are filled with chaos, violence and misdeeds. His prior films—including L’uomo in piu (Man on Top), The Family Friend, andConsequences of Love—showcase leading men who have committed a wrong or whose lives are surrounded by despair. Sound dreary? None of them are. One word consistently applied to Sorrentino’s work is “stylish.” You will never be bored watching his films. He has the gift of Scorsese and Wes Anderson: he’s able to create a film technically sophisticated and wildly entertaining. Sadly, many are not available in US-formatted DVD.

Il Divo is the story of Giulio Andreotti, one of Italy’s most notorious politicians who has held numerous top positions in the government, including prime minister, and whose tenacious hold on power and connections to the mob (and high profile deaths and assassinations) make him a figure readymade for the Citizen Kane treatment. Sorrentino has fun with Andreotti, as much fun as can be had with a murderous and power-hungry despot; he films Andreotti’s inner circle, mostly political henchmen, in mob movie fashion, using red subtitles to announce their names and nicknames.

But the movie is ultimately serious. Andreotti (Tony Servillo, who has starred in many of Sorrentino films) is stoic, near emotionless throughout. He is banal, like a German SS guard, and, like those guards, evil. Weighed down by years of wrongdoing, Sorrentino—who writes and directs most of his movies—suggests he’s grappling with guilt: an opening shot zooms into Andreotti with acupuncture needles in his face. Another memorable scene has Andreotti pacing about his house like a madman, driven to insanity by his crimes.

Andreotti is the apotheosis of Sorrentino’s maddening protagonists. In The Family Friend, a loan shark similarly feels enslaved by his crimes—rape and usury chief among them. Not as impenetrable as Andreotti, the loan shark is a monstrous old man—almost literally a hunchback—who we manage to pity for his incredible loneliness and allergy to virtue. In Consequences of Love, Sorrentino brings us a man enslaved by his own trials with the mob who must learn to open his life to other people. We never really “know” these men, but Sorrentino draws us into their stories visually and makes us care, at least, about what happens to them, even if we hope they fail.

Il Divo is infectious; the music is fantastic, diverse and stimulating, the editing sharp. It has a major flaw, but one with a solution: for American audience members new to Andreotti’s story, the film can be irritatingly unclear: Sorrentino assumes his audience is generally familiar with main characters and the general story. I had a terrible time following the jumps in time and certain plot details. I strongly suggest anyone planning to see the movie spend 30 minutes with Google and Wikipedia to become familiar with Italian politics and government, Andreotti, his history and his close associates. It is a must.

That said, Il Divo is the most exciting political drama I’ve seen in years. Inventive and bracing, it is latest installment from one of the best filmmakers working today.

FILM: The Soloist (review) April 24, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Save Journalism and This Homeless Guy

Do your duty and see The Soloist.

(Grade: B-)

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Here in Philadelphia, it feels like The Soloist has been on our minds for months. Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez’s book has been this year’s “one book, one Philadelphia” choice—citywide book club—and so the movie has enjoyed a sustained manufactured buzz campaign.

Imagine my surprise then when I walked into the theater for the advance screening and it wasn’t even full. Foreseeing a Slumdog-like bonanza, I’d arrived extra early, but my friends and I got a seat without so much as a quibble. Part of this was location (they picked a theater farthest from Philadelphia’s African-American community), but part of it is about the movie itself: The Soloist is one of those movies you don’t really want to see. You feel you should see it, so you go and do your duty. Maybe this is why the distributor delayed its release twice, pulling it out of last year’s Oscar race. Times are tough and no one wants to spend two hours watching a homeless guy.

The Soloist turns out to be a fine movie, one that could have earned Jamie Foxx an actor/supporting actor nomination—it may still—but one that, the morning after, fails to inspire much more than quiet reverence. Like State of Play, it is a film as much about the newspaper as its sources, though it is mostly concerns our society’s demands to see individual talent rewarded with an apartment and stable livelihood, rather than on the street playing for hobos and passers-by, who apparently really need classical music.

The writing, adapted from Lopez’s book based on his “reporting” of homeless cellist Nathanial Ayers (Jamie Foxx), is mostly solid. Ayers, who attended Julliard before dropping out in the 1970s, sounds as funny as he is insightful and haunting, despite having some form of schizophrenia. His endless streams of dialogue offer up hard-to-believe quips and wise nuggets of truth like, “I used to sleep on Wall Street but it was too dirty” and “God is on the other side of that wall.” Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) on the other hand writes for a living, so we expect his lines to be good. He narrates the movie through the columns he writes for the Times, which allows the director to class up the film with some semi-pompous language.

Downey’s Lopez is lonely, nearly homeless himself. He’s unshaven. He hasn’t unpacked his fancy L.A. home. There are two incidents of him covered in urine. He’s a rich, lonely hobo, which makes him perfect for Ayers and fits into a nice narrative about how Ayers changed him, not the other way around: “To be there with him [listening to an orchestra for the first time in 30 years] like that…I’ve never loved anything the way he loves music.” Kind of cheesy.

Of course with the LA Times going down in flames he might be a hobo soon. Throughout the film we see reporters leaving the office with boxes and editors delivering exit packages. Unlike State of Play, this isn’t an exaggeration. The Tribune Company really was gutting the Times then. Yet while State of Play has an argument that journalism needs newspapers for expensive, source-heavy reporting, it’s simply untrue that long-form human-interest stories like the “homeless Julliard alum” are in danger. That’s crazy; it’s cheap and entertaining reporting.

Director Joe Wright, whose Atonement was one of the most crisply and assuredly directed Hollywood films of last year, does a fine job too. Yet I agree with some critics that his slick style might have detracted from the film’s emotional rawness—I didn’t see anyone crying. He does a good job bring home core themes: the solitariness of bourgeois life versus the communal—though horrible—nature of the street; how Ayers’ schizophrenia is made worse by his racial difference; the juxtaposition of high culture with Los Angeles. At times Wright lays it on too thick: when Ayers plays a good cello for the first time, his camera follows pigeons from Skid Row as the fly around the city like doves. But he gets points elsewhere, especially in his visual and aural presentation of schizophrenia.

So The Soloist will not blow you away, but it won’t bore you either, which is the real danger in sentimental movies like this. Without a grander story, director Joe Wright’s technique is underserved, making the only draw Jamie Foxx, who assured me once again that he actually can act. After The Kingdom and Miami Vice, a guy can forget.