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I recently viewed Gerald Peary's "For the Love of Movies: The Story of
American Film Criticism," at the Lake Placid Film Forum. It drew a
small crowd. It wasn't aided by the seasonable weather, or its matinée
schedule. But the audience knew there was something genuine about it.
For the first time, to my knowledge, a critic has taken their
discussion to the screen in order to prove the influence of film
critique on cinema culture. The result was a fascinating look back to
the beginning of the medium up to the modern age of internet based
The film gives us a brief history of film review, from the early writings of Robert Sherwood, to the debating Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael. It further goes into the age of recognized television personalities like Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel leading up to the current realm where printed media is on the way out and people look to the web for reviews.
The film asks its audience the question of why do we need film critics? Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe argues that they "expand and inform the reader about what is more than just a movie." Stuart Kalwans of The Nation further explains that "criticism is about your relationship to the work, the world and the shifting ways of that world."
Each of these opinions is correct. However, a mentor of mine who recently passed away left these words"I believe in writing and the power of art to transform consciousness." His name was Donald Kearns, a local resident of Plattsburgh NY who loved film and literature. It is my belief that this is the true nature of film critique, as is any critical opinion: to allow the reader to see another perspective. The film clearly illustrates that many of the original recognized film critics, like Sarris, were devout film lovers. The art of cinema set them free and provided for intellectual stimulation that encouraged their discussions.
One of the reasons that I enjoyed this film so much was because of my own interest in film review. Several years ago I wrote for a local news-magazine near my hometown. I wrote a review for every movie that I saw theatrically, although only a handful were ever published. But it allowed me, a lonely film buff, the opportunity to reach out to others and create a discussion. In so doing, I met the most extraordinary people: film lovers, writers, exhibitors, musicians, professors and people from all walks of life. And every one of them had something to comment on, whether they liked the movies or not.
Moreover, "For the Love of Movies" expanded my own knowledge not only of the review process, but of influential theories by Sarris and Kael. Their collected works influenced filmmakers of their generation and the next. But as we head father into the future, and critique jobs become eliminated by online clip-quotes, movie marketing campaigns only emphasize what is big, loud and aggressive. As such, we lose something so valuablethe genuine voice of those who love film.
There is debate between filmmakers and critics as some movies reviewed are poorly received. Filmmakers may ask the question to critics, do you think you can make a better movie? Maybe they can. Maybe they cannot. The truth is that it does not matter. Critics are connoisseurs of film. They do not have to go and produce something better because that's not their job. My advice to filmmakers is to take it all in stride. The process of making a movie is like crafting an art form. Not everyone will appreciate your perspective. After all, a person can be a wine lover and have never made their own bottle. And how many people do you know who love cars but have no idea what is going on beneath the hood.
Alarmingly enough, over 28 major film critics for printed journals have lost their jobs in recent years. The situation is not helped by the current economic times, as well as the push to websites. Some formerly employed critics are now heading to the web. However, the internet has given rise to its own breedJames Berardinelli is a perfect example. He is a web based film critic who can actually write a fine review whether you agree with him or not. But there are so many others who only comment on what is flashy or the current fads in the market. Therefore, how can their opinions be justified if they cannot provide a backdrop to compare a film against?
My advice to the average reader seeking movie recommendations is trust your best judgment. It's easy to see the hacks and the ones who actually care about film. Even with the shift from print media to online sources, critics will go on. There's always going to be a different perspective out there that deserves its recognition. But who will be the next film critic, online or in print, to truly change the way films are perceived? We'll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, see "For the Love of Movies" and get the other perspective that is being shut out from our society.
Usually when a production manages to assemble an ensemble cast of some
of the best in commercial cinema, you would expect the end result to be
something special. The only thing special about the remake of "All the
King's Men," is how bad it is. The movie is flat out boring reflecting
a script from director/screenwriter Steven Zaillian ("A Civil Action")
that fails to recapture the flare of a great American novel and the wit
of an earlier great American movie.
"All The King's Men" is essentially the same story as the original film followed from Robert Penn Warren's novel. Politician Willie Stark (Sean Penn), who starts out as a honest man seeking a seat as county treasurer is quickly encouraged to run for governor after a school house catastrophe he warned the public about. However, Stark soon realizes that he is the fall-guy for another candidate and his campaign for governor swings into all out sensation. His speeches are loud, boisterous and truthful reminding the simple country folk that greedy city politicians will ruin them by "stealing every nickel out of your pocket saying thank you, please!" With the help of local reporter, Jack Burden (Jude Law), Stark soon becomes corrupt by using the power given to him by the people. He funds colleges, roads, bridges and hospitalsbut he takes plenty for himself along the way. When his exploits come to the attention of family friend to Burden and public figure Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), Stark seeks to quiet the judge through methods of intimidation. A spiraling affect takes place on all figures involved as Stark comes under investigation by the state courts. Burden sees his past ties to loved ones and friends diminished by the greed of power he now helps Stark keep, all ending in the finality of innocent lives.
By all rights, this remake should have worked well. The plot holds up by today's standards and could even have been updated somewhat to reflect the current political climate. What is more, the production had the capacity to do so with a great castespecially by Penn. Penn's performance as Stark is not an emulation of the fantastic role played by Broderick Crawford in 1949, but one of his own. Penn's image of Stark is a hybrid of a minister and potential nutcase. When Penn starts swinging his arms yelling at voters, "You give me the hammer and I'll nail them up," I could feel the blood begin to flow to my brain again after the first dull 15 minutes.
The screenplay is the real problem; it simply does not allow the characters to come to life because it is underdeveloped. The dialogue is simple and the actors do the best with what they have to work with. But it is crucial to note that the original film brought more elements to its plot in a shorter running time than this film and managed to pull it off successfully. Even though I could not help but approach this remake with a sense of bias, it does not change the fact that the original is a much better film.
There is also the subplot of Burden's pasthis love for a woman who becomes Stark's mistress, Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet). The movie flashes back to a point where Stanton and Burden are about to make love for the first time. While Stanton lies on the bed waiting for Burden to make his move, he simply looks at her with want, where he proceeds to tell her it is not the right time. As Burden narrates the scene, he explains that an innocence was about to be lost that he could not accept yet? Well that makes sense considering that is what the loss of virginity is: the acceptance of adulthood and moving forward to another element of life. I could almost see the parallel between innocence and corruption that the film was trying to make, but then I came to my senses and realized that I was just trying to rationalize a subplot that does not work. Instead we are left with a scene where a central character gives up on what could have been an amazing love. But I did not feel sympathy or pity for BurdenI felt he was pathetic. In the original film, we never see Burden and Stanton in any sexual situations, but it is implied that it has probably happened. Moreover, we can identify with the Burden character in the original movie, but not here. The scene is miserably misused and does not coincide with the rest of the film nor does it justify the point it wants to make about innocence.
"All the King's Men" is one of the most disappointing movies I have seen this year. Even if I had seen this film without high hopes, it would not change the fact that the very foundations of the screenplay were severely flawed and would ultimately make for a weak movie.
"The Black Dahlia" is a hybrid among noir films. It is as if the film
exists in a plain of the perverse world of "Sin City" combined with a
realistic image of Los Angeles in the late 1940s, as in "L.A.
Confidential." Although the red hearings that inhabit this world are
depraved in one form or another, as are most of the villains in the
Noir Genre, there is a point where "The Black Dahlia," based on James
Elroy's novel and on a true event, becomes absurdour suspension of
disbelief has to carry us to accept the conclusion. However, in this
highly-stylized world that director Brian De Palma has created, there
is a devilish fascination where I found intrigue in its decadence.
The story involves that of two cops, Officer Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert, played by Josh Hartnett and Sergeant Leland "Lee" Blanchard, portrayed by Aaron Eckhart, boxing buddies who work a beat tracking down local L.A. hoods. On one of their potential sting operations, they happen upon the mutilated body of an actress, Elizabeth Short (mutilated is an understatementshe has been cut in half and several of her organs have been removed). As the case unfolds, Blanchard becomes obsessed and it manages to take over his life. What's more, the clues to solve this bizarre puzzle lead Bleichert down the path to the young and sultry Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), a bisexual woman who once slept with Short because they the two looked alike. As the world of the normal begins to combine with that of the eccentric, the details of the Ms. Short's murder enter a realm that neither detective could have explained.
When a person hears the words Film-Noir, naturally the greats come to mind like "The Maltese Falcon," and "Chinatown." One of the most recent and best examples of Film-Noir was "L.A. Confidential," which although considered as part of Film-Noir, is actually an almost realistic take on the genre. The events depicted actually had characters who had been real people, like the crime-boss Mickey Cohen and his henchman, Johnny Stompanato. "The Black Dahlia" wants to be like "L.A. Confidential," and it is not simply because both stories were written by James Elroy and share a key character. Rather, "The Black Dahlia's" story exists in a realistic setting, where much sensationalized movie-techniques happen. The style of director De Palma is fantastic as he uses sweeping continuous shots that crane over buildings and follow parallel events without the use of cross-cutting. The use of deep-focus to portray events directly in the foreground and background of a scene keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Also, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond often places the camera right in front of the actors so when they deliver their dialogue, it is as if they are speaking directly to the audience and to another character in the scene. This technique gives the audience a claustrophobic feel; a technique used by Hitchcock in several films.
Yet, for all these grand technical wonders, the film lacks subtlety. The great sweeping shots, the use of deep focus, even melodramatic performances all mask an almost failure of the director to properly put the film together. It cannot be denied that this movie could have been extremely realistic and shockingly menacing; perhaps on par with "The Silence of the Lambs." After all, the story of the Elizabeth Short murder is not only sensational it is unsolved to this day. De Palma had the chance to create an original film that borrowed on a noir setting. Instead, he went for broke and settled for noir setting alone.
I have been trying to rationalize in my mind that the film's error was in the script and not the direction (I often find that directors take all the heat for the failures of other aspects of a filmlet's face it, more often than not they have to work with what they are given). I wanted to blame the adaptation by Josh Friedman. However, after pondering it for some time, I suppose a more restrained approach to the ending in terms of its final produced setup could have made it seem more realistic. Regardless of the films missteps, I ultimately like the picture. I am a sucker for Film-Noir and was in the right mood when I saw this film to be easy-going on it. "The Black Dahlia" comes off like the younger brother to a better film, "L.A. Confidential." But this is one of those situations where those who compare both films might say "Gee, why can't you be more like your older brother!"
Paul Haggis, the writer of the Academy Award Winning "Million Dollar Baby," makes his directorial debut in the year's most compelling drama, "Crash." Unintentionally, Haggis has created a film about race relations in Los Angeles, however, the situations could relate to almost any American city. What is unique about the many characters is that through their discrimination, be it serious or in jest, all present fallacies on the parts of others. Yet, they all speak from a perspective where the viewer, of any ethnic background, can find reasoning in their racial profiling. It is as if the film acknowledges racism, finds understanding and sympathy for it, and then manages to show how absolutely detrimental it is not only for society, but the individual person as a whole. By writing the film in such a way where the characters can be understood by the viewer, Haggis allows the audience to be intimate with those characters. We know that their assumptions are dead wrong, but we never find ourselves truly hating any of them. Take Matt Dillon, for example, who plays a racist, sexist cop. On a routine pull-over, he makes a black couple get out of their car. He frisks them both, but actually gropes the wife. In a later scene, we see this same woman, played by Thandie Newton who has gotten into a terrible accident. She is trapped in her burning car. Who should show up and save her life, but the same cop who accosted her. This is actually one of the films lighter moments of genuine intensity through emotion. But what it represents is the hypocrisy of all the characters. This was a racist cop who pulled this husband and wife over because they were black, and he groped the woman. Yet, he is here saving her life and wants nothing more than to protect her from a horrible death. Watching "Crash," I felt so affected by its brutal honesty and ability to unite its many characters into one giant understanding of the story as a whole. It is the most powerful film to tackle race relations since Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing."
One of 2005s most important and intricate films, "Syriana" paints a harsh picture of the dealings of oil companies with Middle East politics. An all star cast leads the show with George Clooney playing a disenfranchised spy, Matt Damon as a financial adviser and Jeffrey Wright as a lawyer whose job is to look for problems with a merger between two of the nations largest oil conglomerates. The film starts as fractured short stories that eventually intertwine into the whole film. The complexities of the plot are too detailed to delve into in such a short description; however, the messages are clear. Corporate responsibilities in a third world country where poverty and political unrest reside are very crucial. Also, the film is not shy to show the failure of governments to recognize the needs of their own people. Corruption is the name of the game. As Wright's character soon finds during his investigation of the merger, corruption plays a key role in the winners and losers of any major economic or political battle. As a political insider says to him, "Corruption ain't nothing more than government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation." While watching "Syriana," I felt glued to the story. The messages of the film, along with its elaborate plot will stay with you long after seeing the film.
No one can portray emptiness like Bill Murray. That stoic countenance shows more loneliness and confusion about a life devoid of meaning than almost any other character in a movie this year. The movie tells the story of Don (Murray) who is a real Don Juan. However, when an anonymous letter arrives one day stating that he is the father of a son he does not know about, Don's life turns upside down. At first, he does not care. But his sleuth-life neighbor, Winston, insists that Don go on a road trip to visit his ex-girlfriends to discover who the mysterious mother of his son could be. Don hits the road and begins his search. But what he discovers after a series of unusual reunions is just how much he has missed out on in his life. There is a scene around the films beginning where Don is sitting in his living room. He sits on the edge of his couch, his arms on his knees and he looks at a bottle of wine in front of him. He reaches for it, and then pulls back. He taps his fingers together. We simply watch as this character becomes indecisive due to his uncertainty of anything pertinent in his life. He has become truly lost and cannot make up his mind as to whether or not he simply would like a glass of wine. Murray pulls the meaninglessness of this character's life off fantastically. Moreover, the script and direction from Jim Jarmusch ("Coffee and Cigarettes") show an artistic flare for film-making long devoid in most mainstream films.
Gorge Clooney takes the director's chair for his second time and has crafted a well detailed and hauntingly documented look at how Edward R. Murrow took on Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. Murrow is played by David Staithairn ("L.A. Confidential") in what has become his most recognized performance. Filmed entirely in black and white to give the film a feel of authenticity, the movie exhibits how scare tactics and the like were used on American society in such frivolous ways that even reporters ran in fear of McCarthy and his committee hearings. But not Murrowthe man set a standard in integrity that has become bedrock in the journalism industry today to report the truth, which was and is always in the public's best interests. His famous lines, "We will not walk in fear, one of another," and "We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home," show that he was a reporter out simply to do what was right. It was not about ratings. It was not about vanity. It was not black and white; it was about right and wrong. That standard of integrity is hard to find these days, even in the news business where sensationalism has crafted the news into 'info-tainment.'
It is surprising to say, but Peter Jackson's "King Kong" is even better than the original 1933 classic. What both the classic and this remake have in common are visual effects and suspense so profound for their times that they leave the audience blown away. Jackson's "Kong" had the finest creature visual effects seen since "Jurassic Park." Moreover, its ability to leave one on the edge of their seat was amazingthere were so many moments in this three hour saga where my hands clenched the theater chairs. But what separates this remake from the classic is its human connection. The relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow, played marvelously by Naomi Watts, is deeply moving. Kong is entranced by Darrow's beauty and feels a need to protect and possess her. After the movies' amazing fight between Kong and three tyrannosauruses, Kong takes Ann to a secluded cliff and they watch the sunset together. Ann looks at Kong and says 'beautiful' while she pats her heart. Later, while on top of the Empire State Building, Kong looks at the sunrise and back at Ann. He stares at her with those lost, lonely eyes and he pats lightly on his chest to signify her being 'beautiful' to him. This was a deeply moving film in a way that the original was not. The character development is top-notch. The screenplay is not a direct rehash of the original film. You get the impression that Jackson and his crew truly care about the story. In the end, they made the best of the big-budge visual effects films of the yearprobably one of the best visual effects movies in the past ten years.
Ingmar Bergman's last film, and his first in twenty years, proves that this avant-garde filmmaker was one of the best directors in the history of cinema. In this case, we have a story of a woman named Marianne (Liv Ullmann) who one day decides to visit her ex-husband, Johan (Erland Josephson) only to find that Johan's life is in shambleshis relationship with his son Henrik is a disaster due to Johan's abandonment of Henrik as a younger man. Moreover, Henrik has become a widower and his relationship with his own daughter Karin is based upon replacing his dead wife that Henrik cannot forget. It is a painful film to witness and yet, that is part of its beauty. Bergman's movies focused upon subconscious desires. Bergman faces this film, like his others, with truths we do not want to face. In this case, Johan is an old man in his mid eighties and he comes to the realization that every relationship he has ever had with a woman has been disappointing. Perhaps this is due to an unfair standard or his unwillingness to accept the differences and faults of others. Only Marianne can appreciate this lost soul and deal with the pains of her own life with an open mind. This is an extraordinary film for its truth in story telling and profound direction from a filmmaker who set a standard upon what would become art-house, or independent film-making.
Jane Austen's classic novel about a young poor woman who falls in love with a rich man is masterfully crafted as one of the best love stories to hit cinema in a very long time. The story crosses the boundaries of Victorian England to be ever pertinent in today's society as it portrays relationships among different classes. Keira Knightly gives the finest performance of her career portraying the strong willed Elizabeth Bennet. Outstanding performances resonate throughout this film, most notably by Matthew Macfadyen, Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn. But it is more than a beautiful and honest love storyit is film-making at its most breathtaking. The cinematography by Roman Oshin is lavish throughout with its continuous shots that had to be meticulously choreographed. The dialogue of the screenplay is taken almost directly from Austen's book and is a fine representation of the era. Even the musical score by Dario Marianelli adds to the greatness of this moving and comical love story that was so finely directed by Joe Wright. It is the year's most delightful film.
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