April 30, 2009

Quote of the Day: As Good As It Gets

*For Andy*

"You make me want to be a better man." ~ Jack Nicholson as OCD-driven, curmudgeonly, and misanthropic Melvin Udall, who finally reveals his heart with his one chance to compliment Helen Hunt as Carol Connelly

*see it at the 1:22 mark*


April 29, 2009

Song of the Day: Que Sera, Sera

*For Mom, who sang it with me in our booth at Big River Restaurant yesterday*

The Academy Award winner for Best Song in 1956, "Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)," music and lyrics by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, is probably the most memorable thing about Hitchcock's film, "The Man Who Knew Too Much," a remake of his 1934 British film. Watch with me now Doris Day's iconic and eternal performance of the song at the climax of the film. As film scholar Robin Wood once said of the tune: "Middle-aged academics are not supposed to admit that they burst into tears every time Doris Day begins '[Que] Sera, Sera," but in my case it is a fact. What makes the moment so moving is its magical resolution of apparent oppositions. ... I see it as resolving the more practical and prosaic opposition of motherhood vs. career: it represents Jo's triumph simultaneously as mother and performer (and we can admire the power of her voice even if the embassy audience is a trifle taken aback)." Oh, how moving it is.


April 19, 2009

Random Musing: How To Be a "Good" Film Critic

It is common knowledge that the film industry would not be the lucrative market it is without the assistance of film critics. Critics’ “blurbs” can make or break new films in the advertising stage (even more so for independent and limited release films). However, film critics also depend on films as the source of their criticism. Therefore, the marriage between the film industry and its critics is a tenuous one, each depending on the other, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant the results. In addition, a similar marriage is true for a film critic and his or her readers—film critics need readers, and readers need film critics for advice on which films to see. When a critic writes his or her reviews, he or she has to keep certain things in mind in the process in order to accommodate to his or her readers and to ultimately be deemed “good” at what he or she does. He or she must be a critic who is able to transform a single film evaluation into a powerful weapon capable of molding the opinion of any reader through a variety of ways which I will outline...

Consider the audience.
It will do no good for readers if a reviewer full of film jargon is unloading his arsenal on a group of people uneducated in film studies who just want to know which new release will be best for a Friday night date. Therefore, a critic for “Cineaste” magazine is not going to be the right one for the people of Bloomington, Indiana, who read the local “Herald-Times.” A reviewer should recognize who his or her audience is going to be and tailor his or her reviews to said audience. This does not mean, however, that a reviewer must essentially “dumb down” his or her knowledge of film for his or her less academic audience, but it does mean he should be careful to make his thoughts on film approachable for any “Joe Plumber.”

Stars are a film critic’s best friend.
The star system might well be the fastest and most efficient way a film critic can inform his or her audience as to what he or she recommends for screening. (A reviewer must be careful, though, to make sure his or her star ratings match the opinion in his or her review!) Many reviewers use a four-star system to judge films. For example, in my reviews, ★ means that the film is horrendously atrocious, ★★ signifies an “average” film, ★★★ stands for a well-done film, and ★★★★ represents an absolute masterpiece. Be aware, though, that the star system’s meaning differs for film critics. For example, I judge films based on how well they achieve what they set out to do as films (usually on merit alone—as in, I judge how well film systems have been constructed). “Moonstruck” would get four stars, “Dirty Dancing” might be three stars, and “Yentl” is two stars. However, for other critics—Roger Ebert, for example—some use the “genre system” and compare films by genre:

When you ask a friend if “Hellboy” is any good, you’re not asking if it’s any good compared to “Mystic River,” you’re asking if it's any good compared to “The Punisher.” And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if “Superman” is four, then “Hellboy” is three and “The Punisher” is two. In the same way, if “American Beauty” gets four stars, then “(The United States of) Leland” clocks in at about two (Ebert).
When passing judgment on a film, in general, though, it might be helpful to some readers if a critic’s criteria are more or less spelled out somehow. One way is to compare the film at hand to other similar (and well-known) films. Another way is for the critic to inform the reader as to what his or her personal tastes are—if he or she hates war movies, then he or she should explain why he or she had difficulty connecting to “Platoon” or “The Thin Red Line” and not just slash it to pieces without explaining why.

Knowing something about films is always good.
Even if excessive film jargon should be removed from a film review, this does not mean that a reviewer should ignore his or her own knowledge of film. Often, being a cinéphile (like many reviewers, such as Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and all of the Cahiers critics) has its advantages. For example, in a review about “L.A. Confidential,” a critic could compare it to the film noir of classic Hollywood, including such films as “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep,” and “Double Indemnity.” Using such films as a “foil,” it can prove why the film at hand is good or bad at what it does. Moreover, comparisons can simply be more helpful for readers so they can get a better idea about what the film at hand will be like.

There is no “I” in review. Ok, maybe there is, but ignore it for argument’s sake!
One of the worst reviews that can possibly be written involves an introduction concerning a reviewer’s entrance into a movie theater. In what will be dubbed the “Sour Patch Kids review,” the reviewer takes us on a journey of his or her time of arrival at the theater and/or his or her candy selection at the counter. These reviews tend heavily on the side of the reviewer’s experience in the theater instead of his or her experience with a particular film. As film critic Rex Roberts (“Film Journal International”) once told me, “No one cares about you. They want to know about the film.” Therefore, a “good” review should focus exclusively on the film’s merits (or shortcomings) and nearly efface the “I.” At the same time, readers also do not want to hear about a reviewer’s “life story” in comparison to the film unless it serves a crucial point. Contentious statements are accepted, but personal histories are not. After all, readers want to know why they should see a film, not why a reviewer could not believe that “The Master of Disguise” was actually a terrible film, despite what Betty and Veronica said (unless he or she explains why!). As you can see, there is a fine line between the valid use of “I” and the gratuitous use of “I”, so a reviewer should simply be careful which kind he or she employs. When in doubt, the “I” is best when it makes a contentious claim.

Raise your voice. Make contentious claims; be opinionated.
Active verbs and first-person statements can be the key to making a reviewer heard. Remember that a film critic’s first job is to criticize. Even if it is difficult to connect to a film, it is still necessary to mention that difficulty, even if a reviewer feels that he or she should have felt a connection with a widely regarded film, such as “Casablanca.” A reader will have a much more difficult time following a passive review of a “great film” than a review that contains solid, well-argued thoughts about a film, no matter how scandalous they might be (i.e. ““Casablanca” is the worst film of all-time because…”).

Do not be afraid to use a template.
In the reviews I have read by critic Bosley Crowther, they all go something like this, no matter the film: introduction, identification of theme, narration of plot, recognition of every single actor onscreen, acknowledgement of director and perhaps cinematography, etc., and conclusion. Even if this template can get repetitive after forty or so years of reviewing, sometimes it can be a great way to set up a review when a reviewer is struggling with its genesis. When a reviewer becomes more and more comfortable with his or her writing, though, he or she will realize that his or her thoughts will be able to flow together more economically and less rigidly. Until then, though, a template is still an acceptable resource on which to fall back.

Be funny.
This is one of the key points I remember Rex Roberts explicitly telling me. Wit is absolutely necessary in a film review, as in most writing. Different styles of wit match different authors’ voices—for example, Roger Ebert is a bit laconic, but Pauline Kael is sardonic. What is important is the fact that a sense of humor can inject flavor into a review, just like in conversation. Sometimes, even witty remarks can make points about a film.

Avoid the cliché.
You can call a film “Best Picture of the Year!” once, but make sure not to call twenty films in the same year by that signification. Also, avoid insignificant “fluff” that means nothing to readers—after all, calling Stallone’s performance in “Cobra” “dynamite” (You know who you are…) is not going to say anything about how his performance is constructed. Essentially, too much cliché can rob a critic of his or her credibility. Without something thought-provoking to say, readers might hit the road.

“Laundry lists” are unnecessary.
It is not necessary to identify absolutely everything about a film in a review. Bosley Crowther does this excruciatingly in some of his reviews, for example the ones of “Mrs. Miniver” and “The Graduate,” but this approach is unnecessary. A “complete” film review only has to identify the most important main points of a film. Endlessly identifying everything about a film could call into question a reviewer’s credibility and ability to connect with readers.

Some jargon is okay.
Although an “average” reader might lose the concepts of montage, racking focuses, or tilting in translation, it does not mean that a reviewer has to eliminate film jargon completely. “Average” readers still likely have some idea what cuts, shots, and cinematography are, so these terms can still be applied to help readers get a sense of the film. In addition, jargon might even be essential to identifying a film’s strengths.

You can narrate the plot, but never give away a big secret!
When reviewing a film, at some point it is, of course, necessary to give readers an idea of the plot. Sometimes a critic “narrates” the plot, as in he or she retells the whole film sequence by sequence, but generally some kind of analysis that accompanies it saves it from complete monotony. (However, sometimes the critic’s whole review might be a plot summation, which is not “good.”) In any case, the best plot summary is a short, concise one that gives readers a good idea of what to expect, but a longer “narration” is still acceptable (I think Ebert would say so!). When a reviewer comes close to describing the climax, though, it is in good taste to leave the reader with questions about what comes next. Film critics are, after all, notorious for being the guardians of a film’s secrets. For example, in early 1993 at a pre-Academy Awards discussion between film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, Ebert accosted Siskel for giving away one of the biggest secrets of the year—the one in Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game.” Even if some film critics might tell a film’s plot to the length of a short novel, film critics are wise to continue hiding the ending—after all, readers still need some secret to which to hold on until they can see the film!

With all of these points in mind, any film critic can become a “good” film critic ready to put his or her opinions into the public eye to shape its “viewing pleasures.” Not only are film critics essential to the film industry as the “gatekeepers” to a film’s critical and financial success, but perhaps more importantly, they are essential resources in connecting the value of films to audiences by way of their reviews. Jonathan Rosenbaum once called film criticism a “social act,” and as I have outlined above, a film critic’s work is essentially contingent upon the consideration of and sharing with others. Therefore, perhaps the greatest rule of all: You cannot be a “good” film critic without remembering your responsibility in writing for others.

Originally written for my independent study in film reviewing in the spring semester of 2009. In this study, my professor and I studied, compared, and contrasted the works of everyone from Roger Ebert to Pauline Kael and the Cahiers du Cinéma critics in order to find out just what makes a “good” film critic.


April 13, 2009

Written on the Wind

**** out of ****

One of the great paradoxes of humanity is the way that we audibly deplore reality television and especially soap operas for their over-the-top melodrama and absurd storylines, but we also, in secret, cannot get enough of the theatrics. Humans thrive on the attention-grabbing, eye-pleasing cotton candy confectionery of relationships presented in melodrama. This is why “Written on the Wind” makes for such a great film for audiences. Combine the rich entertainment value with sleek, beautiful art direction, impressive direction by Douglas Sirk, stellar performances, and irresistible dialogue, and “Written on the Wind” may be one of the greatest melodramas, if not one of the best films, ever made.

Forget “Dirty, Sexy Money” and everything you know about what is “beautiful, dirty, rich”—the Hadleys of “Written on the Wind” are the precursors of probably every disgustingly decadent, morally handicapped family in film and on television. The film begins with Kyle Hadley’s (Robert Stack) pursuit of New York executive secretary Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall) that leads to a whirlwind courtship and quick marriage. Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) is Hadley’s loyal friend, a strong, sensitive type who always takes care of his silver spoon-fed friend, the son of Texas oil baron, Jasper Hadley (Robert Keith). Jasper Hadley’s other child is daughter Marylee (Dorothy Malone), a devilishly sexy woman who desires Mitch but contents herself with a number of male sexual partners in the meantime. Kyle Hadley’s impulsive marriage begins to fall apart when he is told that he is deficient in his ability to reproduce. He turns heavily to the bottle for consolation and reacts violently when his wife, Lucy, happily tells him that he is indeed not a failure and that she is pregnant. However, the seeds of doubt have been planted in his head by Marylee, who has implied to him an affair between Lucy and Mitch, who is indeed in love with her from a distance but remains loyal to Kyle. Kyle’s reactions spiral out of control, leading to the wildly tenuous conclusion and to perhaps the self-destruction of the Hadley clan.

Most importantly, “Written on the Wind,” with its handsome direction by Douglas Sirk, is a picture that must be considered in “epic proportions”— as “a melodrama to end all melodramas.” With the aid of cinematography and art direction, the film’s rich colors are one of its greatest features, revealing the superficiality and artificiality intrinsic to the lifestyles of the Hadleys (also with the help of mirrors as a motif). In addition, the score is romanticized in the sumptuous style of Wagner (complete with leitmotifs!), which continues to allude to the film’s lushness, which, in turn, reminds viewers of the story’s greater superficiality.

Another enjoyable aspect of “Written on the Wind” is the performances. Bacall and Hudson are formidable in their roles as Lucy and Mitch, but the antagonistic, brazen—almost audacious—performances of Stack and Malone as spoiled rotten Kyle and Marylee far outweigh the more subdued acting of the main stars. Malone is indeed the biggest scene-stealer in the whole film, and her Academy Award is duly noted. Her facial acting is impressive in scenes where Sirk frames her in all shadow, save for her eyes, and other scenes, including the scene where she reflects alone by the pond and the scene of her final redemption, are particularly touching. Demonstrating her dynamic range of acting skills, Malone is also impressive as “sex kitten.” Interestingly enough, although she does thirst for sex, especially with Mitch, I would not call her the nymphomaniac most critics call her (which I would go so far as to identify as a result of double standards in identifying the sexual desires of women). Malone’s sexuality is a great plot device in “Written on the Wind,” and the strength she brings to the role of Marylee certainly fuels the film’s sexuality, which bubbles forcefully just below the surface.

Speaking of the film’s underlying sexuality, there are euphemisms abound in “Written on the Wind,” which often salaciously spice up the dialogue. For example, in the morning after Kyle’s and Lucy’s night in Miami, his use of the word “fun” basically talks coyly around the idea of trying to bed her the previous night. Interestingly enough, possibly constructed in part due to the Hays Code in effect at the time, I think the film’s veiled naughty conversation actually comes off much more delightfully than if it were allowed to be “spelled out.” Innuendo, after all, is more sugary sweet to the ears. This kind of well-written dialogue is also bolstered by being fiendishly catty, scandalous, and full of incredible one-liners (my favorite being Malone’s biting “Because I never had him… but your wife has”). Best of all, though, the plot has ridiculously over-the-top twists (like most good melodrama), which makes the whole film so indelibly delicious.

And it is this deliciousness that will keep us watching Sirk’s picture for another fifty years. The film’s exquisite beauty has not lost its luster over the years, and the film’s audacious plot is still as delightfully tacky today as it must have been in 1956. Sirk’s story of superficiality might, then, be ageless. “Written on the Wind?” Hardly.


April 4, 2009

Autumn Sonata (Höstsonaten)

*** ½ out of ****

Most people would like to blame their parents for the difficulties in their lives, and in the case of the 1978 Swedish film, “Autumn Sonata,” the blame might actually be well-founded. This beautifully photographed picture that finally brought together two of the greatest Swedes in the film industry, director Ingmar Bergman and actress Ingrid Bergman (no relation), is the powerful, haunting story of an estranged mother and daughter rehashing personal wounds from the skeletons of their closets. In “Autumn Sonata,” Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman), a virtuoso concert pianist, finally visiting her daughter, plain, simple Eva (Liv Ullman) after seven years, ultimately does not get the warm welcome she expects. Although the film gets a bit talkative, it is a nearly perfect account of damaged human relationships.

One of the great powers of “Autumn Sonata” lies in its two main actresses. Ingrid Bergman, unfortunately in her last theatrical film role, brings life to selfish, lonely Charlotte. Her skill at the piano is exquisite—she masters music, notably Chopin, in the way she says his “Prelude No. 2” should be played: so perfectly it is almost imperfect. However, Charlotte’s mastery over her own family is poor—the neglect of her husband and two daughters has led Eva to great personal anguish that she has long bottled up. Eva, in the meantime, assumed the role of the “mother” of the family at an early age, sitting with her abandoned father and caring for her sickly sister, Helena (impressively played by Lena Nyman). She notes that, unlike her mother’s Chopin, her own imperfection has long been something that has had to be corrected, not emphasized. Ullman’s interpretation of her character is rather affecting and certainly astonishing as she transforms from simple wife and daughter to a violently angry woman scorned by her mother.

The acting is certainly augmented by Ingmar Bergman’s skillful direction. This film is an explosive study of human relationships, and Ingmar Bergman treats it as such. By way of the many close-ups he posits, he essentially puts his characters under a microscope. Furthermore, the cuts are quite infrequent, as if Bergman is only interested in putting the camera in someone’s face and studying the way he or she feels. Even Viktor (Halvar Björk), Eva’s husband, says twice in the film that sometimes he likes to watch his wife when she is not aware. Within the film frame, viewers study the relationship between Charlotte and Eva, but within the film’s door frames, Viktor sometimes studies Eva. The film, then, is a self-reflexive allegory on the way we all study each other in life and on film.

“Autumn Sonata,” with its study of the estrangement of family members, recalls such later films as “On Golden Pond” and “Postcards from the Edge.” However, the relationships depicted in those two films, though both extremely well-acted, hardly hold a candle to the explosive performances of the deeply wounded Bergman and Ullman as Charlotte and Eva. While the film does get wearingly talkative at times in its ninety-seven minutes onscreen, the lightning the two actresses strike together is certainly poignant. Amidst the magnificent oranges, reds, and yellows of the film’s mise-en-scène, their misery recalls the foliage that begins to fall in the autumn. For them, unhappiness continues to fall with the leaves.