“In cinema it is necessary not to explain, but to act upon the viewer’s feelings, and the emotion which is awoken is what provokes thought.”
Whatever happened to scholarship, whatever happened to standards? Why are there no good, reliable movie critics these days?
Where have you gone, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris? We miss you Manny Farber and James Agee.
What in Christ’s name are they showing in college and university courses in 2019 to inspire emerging film makers, “Citizen Kane” or “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”?
How did we get to the point where “directors” like JJ Abrams, Zack Snyder, James Cameron and Joss Whedon are held aloft as role models and auteurs, artistes worthy of veneration (and, God help us, emulation)?
No one, it seems, is speaking up on behalf of film aesthetics. Most contemporary reviewers, professional or amateur, wouldn’t know mise-en-scene from a bag of marshmallows. A significant number haven’t seen a motion picture made prior to 1970.
I have to ask, where do you go for movie reviews, who do you trust with your hard-earned money?
Please don’t say Rotten Tomatoes.
As far as I can tell, most of the so-called professional reviewers on RT are a pretty undistinguished lot. What quality of criticism are you likely to receive from freelancers who squeeze in the odd article or review to supplement their meager income, individuals whose only source of expertise is that, well, they like movies? Somehow they manage to land a gig at a radio or television station, or are assigned a column in the local free newspaper, and they’re off to the races. Their own personal bully pulpit, allowing them to champion the latest franchise film, assembled via committee, tailor made for mass audiences, just stupid and derivative enough to be comprehensible to them.
And the amateurs posting on RT—ay yi yi. Now we’re talking about dim-witted millennials (“Generation Moron”, as I call them), fan boys and girls with lots of energy and enthusiasm but, alas, completely lacking any exposure to film history or theory, even the basic fundamentals involved with creating moving pictures. Their comments and opinions are, predictably, juvenile; they don’t read anything more wordy than billboards or graffiti, and consider any offering that doesn’t boast a superhero a foreign movie.
“A cinematic masterpiece!”
“A thrill ride you never want to stop!”
“Best movie you’ll see all year!”
You read the blurbs but can you believe them? Do you trust someone from WXYZ Radio or monsterflix.com to deliver a fair, impartial, educated appraisal of the movie in question?
Truthfully, you won’t fare much better if you turn to more legitimate publications and platforms, reviewers who should have some cred to go along with their national profiles. I’ve been absolutely stupefied by the glowing reviews Rolling Stone and the New Yorker frequently lavish on spectacle pictures, idiotic blockbusters, films where the script was clearly an afterthought. Green-screened, computer-generated, audience-tested drivel framed around four or five extended action scenes over-loaded with CGI, accompanied by a thunderous, head-splitting soundtrack.
Here’s a review I wish they’d print:
“Sphincterman vs. the Blue Meanies is so patently awful I wanted to scrub its memory from my eyeballs with fistfuls of steel wool. It is so brazenly unoriginal, imitative and predictable, the denouement is obvious right from the opening credits.
There are no less than five writers responsible for this abomination and each should have his/her fingers burnt off with a blow torch so they never touch a pen or keyboard again.
Director I.Q. Sixty, responsible for such doozies as Sexy Fox VI: Return of the Hotties and the upcoming cinematic reboot of Hogan’s Heroes, apparently apprenticed under Michael Bay or, perhaps, Ed Wood. He has no grasp of dramatic tension and the scenes featuring live actors are awkward, stilted, about as convincing as watching mannequins copulate.
Fred Baldwin as Sphincterman emotes like a turnip but fits the costume and has a terrific head of hair. His voice drops two octaves when he’s being serious and he once took an acting class, though had to give it up when he realized his teachers were cardboard cutouts. I’m not saying the kid comes across as wooden and untalented, I’m saying he’s even worse than that.
As with most of these silly comic book flicks, serious, legitimate actors have been grotesquely overpaid to take on supporting roles, greedy thespians who don’t mind damaging their artistic legacies as long as they’re well-compensated for it. Sir Patrick McKagan is allowed to chew the furniture and piss on the carpet to his heart’s content; as Oskar Angst, fanatical leader of the Blue Meanies, he makes us forget he was once considered the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation. This is a performance he could’ve faxed in.
And let us not spare the other A-Lister who was coerced into renting her considerable talents to this insult to the senses. Marlene Merrill, as Sheela, Queen of the Night People, seems to be channeling either the Statue of Liberty or perhaps a coat rack whenever she makes an infrequent appearance, reading her lines off conveniently placed cue cards, eyes shining with tears of shame. I shall pillory her no more.
There is absolutely nothing new here. As Yogi Berra would say, it’s déjà vu all over again: ordinary man granted extraordinary powers, tries to do good, gets beat up by bad guys, regains his faith in himself and wipes out the baddies in a tedious, violent finale lasting longer than a solar day on Pluto.
Buildings are toppled, elevated street cars plunge to the ground, half the city leveled but, goddamnit, our hero triumphs in the end, the stink of decaying bodies troubling no one as he strides forward to accept the thanks of the mayor and a smattering of traumatized, shell-shocked survivors.
It takes a whopping 143 minutes to get to that point and more climaxes than Hugh Hefner achieved during his long tenure at the Playboy mansion.
I felt genuinely abused by this picture, my brain treated like a public urinal in a New York City bus station. This is what you, as movie-goers, are looking for? Mental kitty litter?
In order to enjoy these puerile comic book adaptations it is essential that you possess the attention span of a trepanned lab rat and the reasoning skills of the Canadian Shield. It’s hard to believe the same species that produced a Michelangelo or Einstein could also be responsible for something as godawful as Sphincterman vs. the Blue Meanies.
In the name of ‘entertainment’ we disconnect our higher order thinking, lop off a quarter million years of evolution.
For the sake of ‘diversion’ we embrace dull banality and comforting familiarity.
We tell ourselves we retain the mindset of children, open to the enticements of wonder and magic…but even youngsters sense when someone’s trying to fool them and resent, above all else, the slightest hint of condescension.
They’d much rather be treated like grown-ups.
I wish the same could be said for the rest of us.”
This essay is excerpted from Mouth: Routines & Rants (Black Dog Press), available as an e-book/Kindle; May, 2019
Ah, but in my defense, the proportion of good movies to bad ones was better than average.
I finally got around to compiling a “Best of…” list featuring, as usual, films from just about every genre and era, with a marked preference for original, daring movies that push the envelope and challenge audiences, rather than catering to the lowest common denominator.
No comic book movies, rom-coms or steroid cases in tights. Great cinema is at a premium these days as Hollywood continues to dummy down its “product”; one has to seek further and further afield to discover innovative, artistic visionaries who reject formulas and stereotypes and instead present us with an entirely different perspective, worlds we never imagined before:
“Sorry to Bother You” (2018) Directed by Boots Riley
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017) Directed by Martin McDonagh
“You Were Never Really Here” (2017) Directed by Lynne Ramsey
“Killing of a Sacred Deer” (2017) Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
“Cash Only” (2015) Directed by Malik Bader
“Kaleidoscope” (2017) Directed by Rupert Jones
“Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972) Directed by Luis Bunuel
“Viridiana” (1961) Directed by Luis Bunuel
“Exterminating Angel” (1962) Directed by Luis Bunuel
“Good Time” (2017) Directed by Josh & Benny Safdie
“The Wife” (2018) Directed by Bjorn Runge
“Land of Mine” (2015) Directed by Martin Zandvliet
“Mute” (2018) Directed by Duncan Jones
“In The Loop” (2009) Directed by Armando Iannucci
“Death of Stalin” (2018) Directed by Armando Iannucci
“Belle de Jour” (1967) Directed by Luis Bunuel
“The Milky Way” (1969) Directed by Luis Bunuel
“Dunkirk” (2017) Directed by Christopher Nolan
“Get Out” (2017) Directed by Jordan Peele
“Night and the City” (1950) Directed by Jules Dassin
“Icarus” (2017) Directed by Bryan Fogel
“They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” (2017) Directed by Morgan Neville
“Going Clear” (2015) Directed by Alex Gibney
“United States of Amnesia” (2013) Directed by Nicholas Wrathall
“Film Worker” (2017) Directed by Tony Zierra
Speaking of censorship…I responded to Eli Glasner’s choices as the “best” pictures of the year on CBC’s website and my comment was “disabled” because, apparently, the administrators thought I was too mean for pointing out that Eli’s pick for the second best film of 2018 was an ANIMATED SUPERHERO MOVIE.
I took a screen shot of my disallowed, censored comment and you can judge for yourself if I was out of line.
Er, I spot a typo, that line should read “positively Mamet-ian brilliance”.
I’ve spent the last couple of days listening to podcasts of their comprehensive, 6-part documentary on the life and career of an under-appreciated cinematic genius, Val Lewton.
After a lengthy apprenticeship to David O. Selznick, in 1942 Val Lewton was lured away by RKO Pictures to head up a new department specializing in horror movies. RKO had nearly gone broke backing Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons” and their board yearned to emulate the success Universal Pictures was having with their stable of movie monsters.
Lewton had little interest in producing such lowbrow fare as “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman”, etc. but all of his life had retained a taste for the macabre. Working with a team of collaborators that included, at various points, Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, Nicholas Musuraca, DeWitt Bodean, Ardel Wray and Robert Wise, Lewton reinvented horror cinema, employing shadows and “dark patches” with skill and inventiveness. During his tenure at RKO, he produced modestly budgeted gems like “Cat People”, “I Walked With A Zombie”, “The Seventh Victim” and “Ghost Ship”.
“Shadows: The Val Lewton Story” is diligently researched, vividly presented. Mark Gatiss does a magnificent job as narrator, but the entire production is a credit to all involved.
This podcast gets my highest possible recommendation.
You can find the first episode here.
This series of one of the finest podcasts I’ve yet encountered, a testament to the power of that medium.
Here is a roster of my favorite cinematic experiences of the past year:
“I, Daniel Blake” (Directed by Ken Loach)
“Dogtooth” (Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)
“45 Years” (Directed by Andrew Haigh)
“The Saragossa Manuscript” (Directed by Wojciech Has)
“The Hourglass Sanitarium” (Directed by Wojciech Has)
“Blue Ruin” (Directed by Jeremy Saulnier)
“Kill List” (Directed by Ben Wheatley)
“Stalker” (Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky)
“Le Corbeau” (Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot)
“Faust” (Directed by F.W. Murnau)
“The Four Hundred Blows” (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
“The Rover” (Directed by David Michod)
“Disorder” (Directed by Alice Winocour)
“Hell and High Water” (Directed by David McKenzie)
“The Lure” (Directed by Agnieszka Smoczyńska)
“Merchants of Doubt” (Directed by Robert Kenner)
“Muscle Shoals” (Directed by Greg Camalier)
“The Wrecking Crew” (Directed by Denny Tedesco)
“Kedi” (Directed by Ceyda Torun)
“Red Army” (Directed by Gabe Polsky)
“Twenty Feet From Stardom” (Directed by Morgan Neville)
“Lo and Behold” (Directed by Werner Herzog)
“Bergman’s Island” (Directed by Marie Nyrerod)
“The White Diamond” (Directed by Werner Herzog)
“The Corporation” (Directed by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott)
* I had the great fortune to see both “Stalker” and “Faust” on the big screen, which only enhanced the genius present in those masterpieces.
A thoroughly remarkable tome. At once an invaluable, nay, exhaustive resource and a fun, nostalgic read, replete with reproductions of movie posters and plenty of stills from the literally hundreds of (mostly terrible) science fiction films released during the 1950s.
They’re all here, from the semi-classic–“Forbidden Planet” and “The Thing”–to the outright dreadful–“Mesa Of Lost Women”, “Voodoo Island”, “Robot Monster”, “Invasion of the Animal People”, (etc. etc.). Each film, regardless of its merit (or lack thereof), receives a full summary, including production notes and credits. There are many delicious details, amusing anecdotes from some of the people involved. Bill Warren knows his stuff and I doff my hat to him for compiling an authoritative, entertaining and dense (nearly 1,000 pages, including the Index) book that aficionados of science fiction and cult movies will absolutely treasure.
The retail price is a tad steep but Keep Watching the Skies would be a welcome addition to any cineaste’s collection, the kind of volume that makes geeks swoon in ecstasy when they find it under the tree Christmas morning.