Saturday, July 21, 2012


What a week.

First, there was the hysteria on Rotten Tomatoes surrounding negative reviews of The Dark Knight Rises. Then, early on Friday in Aurora, Colorado, there was the tragic shooting during a midnight screening of the movie.

In both cases, the question on my mind and the minds of others is why? What makes people do the awful things they do, whether from behind their safe computer screens or in a vulnerable public space like a movie theater?

As a Christian, I'm supposed to have an inkling of an idea. There's the garden. The snake. History's first couple. And, of course, the forbidden fruit. Whether you believe the story really happened or you just believe in the truth of the story, this is how we Christian try to explain tragedy.

But in the face of what's happened this week, I'm speechless. I can't even say why these two events have affected me as strongly as they have. Maybe it's because, as Peter Labuza wrote on Friday, I spend a lot of time at the movies. It's not my church, but yes, there are similarities, and yes, the actions of James Holmes feel like an affront.

So the question on my mind now is this--to review or not to review?

Honestly, I don't see any point. What do movie reviews matter in the face of tragedy? It makes the very idea of blogging no more important than a piece of popcorn on a movie theater floor.

And yet.

"Why do we fall, Master Wayne?" That, of course, is a famous line from Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, and if you've seen any of them, you know the answer.

"So we can pick ourselves back up."

Except that it wouldn't be right for me to stop there. You can call it irrational or illogical all you want, but I just don't believe that getting back up is something we have to do alone. However speechless I may be in the face of that question--why?--I do believe in a God of love and grace who can help us.

I'll close with this. It's a quote from Frederick Buechner that's helped me through difficult times, and maybe it can help someone else. It goes a little something like this:

"A Christian is one who points at Christ and says, 'I can't prove a thing, but there's something about his eyes and his voice. There's something about the way he carries his head, his hands. The way he carries his cross. The way he carries me."

Thursday, July 19, 2012

What Exactly Is a Spoiler-Free Review?

This summer, we've seen an unusually high number of critics promoting "spoiler-free" reviews. We saw it, to greater or lesser degrees, with BraveThe AvengersPrometheus, and now Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, opening at midnight later tonight.

But what exactly is a spoiler-free review? Is it a review that keeps its plot summary confined to the first act, or is the second act fair game too? Or maybe it's one that sticks mainly to the movie's production history and then timidly dances around what it's about to an informative yay or nay conclusion.

The problem is, it's not really clear what a spoiler is, much less a spoiler-free review. For the moviegoer who wants to know as little as possible, any review, spoiler-free or not, is potentially dangerous. All of which makes the question "What is a spoiler-free review?" a slippery one that raises philosophical questions I'm not prepared to answer.

So instead of answering the question, I'll raise another: Do we really need spoiler-free reviews? Now, I don't mean anyone should go around giving away endings like they're giving away candy--that's too far. But I'm not sure if a trend towards spoiler-free reviews is such a good thing either. To really engage with a movie, you have to be free to talk about it, and that means loosening the straps on the critical straightjacket. Otherwise, what what's the difference between a spoiler-free review and a star or letter or thumbs-based rating system?

My view--and no one asked, really--is that writing a spoiler-free review shouldn't be a critic's primary concern. Not that care shouldn't be taken, nor am I firing a shot across the bow of anyone who's written one. All I'm saying is that staying spoiler-free shouldn't be the ultimate goal; honest engagement should. It's the moviegoer's responsibility to stay spoiler-free, even if that means avoiding reviews until later. Perhaps such delayed gratification might even staunch the kind of hysteria we've seen this week, with commentors on Rotten Tomatos leveling death threats at critics who've panned The Dark Knight Rises (because you know studios and PR firms aren't going to accept their share of the responsibility). Outside of that, I'm afraid the closest you'll get to a spoiler-free review is Roger Ebert's thumbs.

Friday, July 6, 2012

June Screening Log

I saw a lot in June I wanted to comment on but didn't have time to write about it all. Rather than just doing nothing, though, I thought it'd be nice to put together a few capsule reviews. These are some of the last movies I watched in June. Disagree with anything? Feel free to leave a comment if the spirit moves you.

Disney-Pixar's Brave is just one of several movies (including Prometheus and The Amazing Spider-Man) that I went into with low expectations, thanks to review headlines, and came out of enjoying. I could even see it ending up on my year-end list. It's familiar one sense, but it's also got a mind and heart of its own. Part of what I admire about it is the simplicity of its story. A complicated movie and a complex movie aren't the same. You don't make something complex by adding to it; you do it by giving simple elements the room and tender care they need to bloom. Brave falls short of being a Pixar masterpiece, but it has a firm understanding of human relationships. It knows that people who love each other can also hurt each other, and that all of that comes from wounded pride or a limited perspective. It also knows how important forgiveness is, and how saying "I'm sorry" can sometimes have magical results.

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Over the past month I've seen Spielberg's classic adventure film on the big screen twice, after years without seeing it. The first time was at the Denton Movie Tavern, which screened it as part of their summer retro series. This was fun, but they screened a DVD copy, so the picture was horrible. The second time was at The Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff, and instead of using a DVD they screened a brand new 35mm print. I don't think I have to tell you how much better this was. But in either case, I had fun. Belloq grew up with his family label, and I grew up with Raiders of the Lost Ark, except I've finally reached a point now where I can fully appreciate all of its nuances and its importance to American cinema. It relies on standard tropes, but it transcends them with a seriousness that's only laughable when it's supposed to be. But more than, I also appreciate it for its formal qualities. The kind of filmmaking you see here has largely disappeared. The action in today's adventure movies has to be jumpy and chaotic, but Raiders is grounded in clarity. Spielberg only cuts when he has to, or when he has something to emphasize, and he doesn't saturate the screen in close-ups, something I've really come to hate. I want directors to ground their images in space, not give me talking heads, and that's one of the great things that Spielberg, still a young director at the time, brings to Raiders.

The Searchers
This is another one I saw recently on the big screen, but at a nearby Cinemark, not the skeezy Movie Tavern two minutes away, and with a DCP, not a DVD or Blu-Ray. There's a lot of hand-wringing going on among movie buffs today about the rise of DCPs and the rapid disappearance of 35mm. I share their concern, but I'm also in favor of whatever gets classic movies like this one into more venues. I mean honestly, if you had to choose between seeing a DCP of The Searchers or only seeing it on your TV, is there really any choice? If the quality's there, absolutely not, which was the case here. The colors were rich and the images sharp. I can't imagine it looking better, but then again, I wasn't around when it first came out. Still, a great looking picture won't iron out a movie's thorny issues, and The Searchers has a few, but I enjoyed John Wayne's performance more than ever. This is another one I grew up watching, but I'm only now seeing the dark undercurrents that feed its narrative. In general, old westerns turn me off because there's just a little too much starch in those jeans and not enough mud. The Searchers is that way a little, but there's also a dangerous adult world up there, and the more you can see it, the more you can appreciate what a movie Ford's masterpiece is.

Take Shelter
I think I'll file Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter under the "don't get me started" category. Last year, many critics hailed it as one of 2011's best, and maybe if I'd seen it then, instead of about a week ago on DVD, I'd feel differently, but I don't. Instead, it joins a very small list of movies that make me angry. The primary reason is that it spends over two hours teasing us with a mystery that, once solved, isn't carried any further. I suppose that looks artsy, but it's not terribly brave. Anyone can end a movie just when it's getting good; it takes guts to explore the consequences of it all. For example, consider M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, which also spends a lot of time raising tension and dancing around a few mysteries. But it doesn't stop there, with the invasion of earth, or Mel Gibson and his family staring into the eyes an alien. Instead, it deftly draws together all its threads into a moment of urgency and consequence. Take Shelter avoids this route. Instead of showing us why his story matters, Nichols drops the ball and runs away. Of course, it could be that the marriage between Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain is what's really important, but even there I can't go along with it. If Nichols wanted to explore the tenuous bond between his two leads, why didn't he do more to put Chastain front and center. After all, she's the one who has to make a decision. Shannon's character is largely passive, and passive characters are rarely interesting. Still, I can't deny the power of Shannon's performance. It was enough to keep me riveted until about halfway though, when it became obvious that Nichols' movie was just running on fumes.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

A critic should never judge a movie in advance, but with The Amazing Spider-Man it was tempting. For one thing, I've just never been a Spider-Man guy. For another, advance word seemed to be skewing negative. Combined with all of this is the fact that Sam Raimi's take on the popular Marvel character is only ten years old. That's old in movie terms, but the franchise itself is still relatively new, with Spider-Man 3 breaking fanboy hearts as recently as 2007, a mere five years ago. But, let's not forget that one of this year's most anticipated movies, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, is itself the second sequel of a reboot. So reboots themselves aren't bad, it's all in the execution. Anything new can be newer again with the right team.

And so here I am defending Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man, though I do so cautiously and with a question in mind: just how much can you trust your immediate response to a movie? Spider-Man excited me the way a good summer movie should. But how much should this excitement be trusted? Obviously, it worked in the moment, but if I were to see it again would I feel differently? And what about those negative reviews? What am I not seeing? It's enough to make one throw up his hands and forget the whole thing.

The truth is it probably doesn't matter. We go to summer movies because we crave excitement. If we get that, the movie's a success. If we get more than that, huzzah! Most aren't worth a second look, but even if they aren't, does that diminish the initial experience?

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that The Amazing Spider-Man is objectively a mixed bag. If I see it again and come to that conclusion, the world will keep spinning, but I'd like to preserve the memory of me and wife leaving the theater with a blockbuster buzz, not taint it. And so I'm willing to call The Amazing Spider-Man a success, because despite some rocky transitions and some genuinely unbelievable choices on the part of the characters, I was thrilled by it. I can't say anything more profound than that--it just worked for me. The action was compelling and clearly framed, the jokes worked, and most important of all, I cared about the characters. This summer's major box office hit, The Avengers, also worked but felt more uneven by comparison, and I certainly didn't care for the characters in the same way--they're just too invincible. To make a character worth caring about, you have to make them vulnerable. Webb and his screenwriters did this better than Whedon, even if the second act of The Avengers is one of the best things I've seen all year. 

So those are my two cents and I'm stickin' to 'em. I wish I could offer a more detailed analysis, formal or otherwise, but whose opinion am I going to change? Audiences will like it or they won't, and there's nothing a smalltime critic like myself can do about that. All I can tell you is don't listen to the naysayers. Check it out for yourself, you just might have fun. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Criticwire Surveys, 6/4 - 7/2

I haven't been updating the blog as much as I'd like to, but that doesn't mean I'm not out there doing things. Recently, I've started participating in the weekly critics surveys from Criticwire, one of Indiewire's many blogs. Below you'll find links to the first of these, which run from June 4th through today, July 2nd. You can typically find my answer near the bottom of each one. And while you're at it, make sure you check out the great answers from everyone else too!

June 4 - What movie prequel would you most like to see?

June 11 - What one art-house movie would you recommend to a young cinephile?

June 18 - What is Pixar's best movie?

June 21 - Remembering Andrew Sarris

July 2 - Which underrated auteur would you put in your "pantheon" list?