Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Peril of Note-Taking

Oblivion, which is, you know, not bad

Since January, there have been few cases where I’ve just gone to a movie without some kind of ulterior motive--namely, writing about it. Every trip I can think of has seen me with a small notebook and pen to haphazardly jot down notes. I do it for accuracy, but also, depending on how bad the movie, because it gives my mind something to do and keeps it from wandering. There’s absolutely no method to what I do, I just scribble down what comes to me and hope that I can make some sense of it later.

Note-taking really isn't ideal, though, regardless of what you think of the movie. It seems a lot like texting during a date--it puts up a wall between you and the movie you're watching. What you, the note-taker, is really thinking about isn't what you're watching but your own reaction to what you're watching. You, essentially, are the real focus.

I hit on this on a Sunday night several weeks ago when I caught Oblivion with my wife and brother-in-law. Oblivion, of course, is the Tom Cruise vehicle from Tron: Legacy director, Joseph Kosinski. Since I wasn't writing about it for anyone, my pen and notebook were at home, and what a refreshing feeling that was. Leaving aside whatever faults it has, going to see it sans writing objects made it one of my most memorable moviegoing experiences so far this year. It was good, for one moment in the past few months, to not be adsorbed in my own opinion of another man's hard work.

Judgment is, after all, what acting as a critic is about. It doesn't have to be negative, but let's face it, it usually is--this despite the fact that movie critics genuinely love movies. You can chalk that up to a critic's high standards and overactive mind, or to the simple fact that creating really good work in a commercially driven environment is hard. Whatever the case, criticism is about judgement, even if it's in the movie's favor.

For someone acting as just a moviegoer, enjoyment is the primary issue, not judgement. You've paid to see something you honestly think you'll enjoy, so you're less inclined to weigh and analyze. You're there to relax and get caught up, not scrutinize.

What I think this can lead to is a fair amount of dishonesty on the critic's part. I say dishonesty because when you're surrounded by an audience eager to see what you've only been assigned to or have volunteered for, you're clearly not there for the same reason, that being to get swept away. It may happen, but the artist first has to break through the barrier of your skepticism.

The irony is that honesty is what writing about film is all about, and what note-taking can sometimes hamper. Yes, it makes jotting down a quote or a plot point easy, but as I've already said, we also run the risk of putting ourselves before the movie we're watching.

So to bring this whole thing back around to Oblivion, what I found was a fairly good piece of big-budget filmmaking. It has too many undeveloped parts to really soar, but I was moved by, and even haunted by, it's melancholic direction. I also found I was more forgiving of it than I might have been had I had my pen ready. It wasn't amazing, but it transported me, which is what a movie should do when you're open to it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

No Name Is Big Enough

I'm a few days late on this, but I wanted to share two episode recaps for last Saturday's Doctor Who season finale. The first comes from the AV Club and runs negative (they gave it a C+) and the other is a rave from the Houston Press' resident Whovian.

Just as both writers processed the finale differently, they both have different opinions of the season as a whole. Alasdair Wilkins, The AV Club's writer, sees the season in a largely positive light, while Jef With One F is more critical of the overall results.

Personally, I'm with Jef. This was an incredibly uneven season--at least compared to what showrunner Steven Moffat did with season's five and six. The idea of trying to make each episode a standalone blockbuster was the real sticking point with me. My preference is serialized drama, and that's largely how seasons five and six worked. This one had a couple of larger stories running throughout, like Amy and Rory's departure and the mystery of Clara, but they were shoved to the background, dampening their emotional impact. This could've been a huge season, one to absolutely rival what's come before. But alas, it feels mainly like a big missed opportunity.

All that said, the finale was energizing and I'm excited for 50th anniversary in November. I loved the episode's intro, featuring Clara and most of the previous doctors (it excludes eight, nine and ten, I believe), and I'm still buzzing over how they introduced John Hurt. It's quite possibly one of my top five or ten Doctor Who moments--it's that good.

Of course, the Doctor's name wasn't actually revealed, despite the episode being called "The Name of the Doctor." A more appropriate title might have been "The Doctor's Secret" since that's, you know, what actually comes to the surface.

Anyway, here's that great ending. If you've already seen it, relive it again. If you haven't, you'll really want to see it in context first--trust me.

Monday, May 20, 2013

What Movie Do You Have to See on the Big Screen?

The Tree of Life

The question for this week's Criticwire survey (which I participated in) went as follows:
What movie does every film lover need to see at least once on the big screen before they die?
I'm afraid my answer feels fairly lame compared to the others, but I could only pick from movies I've actually seen on the big screen, couldn't I? Yes, 2001, Lawrence of Arabia, North by Northwest, and  Playtime are all better answers, but I haven't personally seen them on anything but my TV set. Maybe in time I'll have a better answer to give.

PS: As a side note, my favorite answer by far is Calum Marsh's.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Newsweek Tells You Why You Can't Stop Watching

For your Sunday, a Newsweek article by Andrew Romano that delves into the science behind binge-watching. Why do we do it? In short, because it feels good.
Before DVDs, Internet streaming, and video-on-demand, fans of television had two (rather unsavory) choices: (1) watch whatever program happened to be on, however idiotic it was, or (2) experience immediate endorphin withdrawal. Now we have a third: watch the shows we like for as long as we like. Serialized, streaming TV is tailor-made to keep the endorphins flowing.
Which makes now a perfect time to also share this:

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Master of Neorealism Puts Morals Before Aesthetics

Rome, Open City

This piece by Ken Morefield on Roberto Rossellini is one of the best things I've read all week. Ken looks at Rossellini's 1945 film, Rome, Open City, arguing that it was moral storytelling, plus a long view of history, that Rossellini was primarily concerned with--not aesthetic innovation. He writes:
Rossellini always frames his characters' struggles within a long historical perspective. The film's final shot juxtaposes children and the Roman skyline with St. Peter's dome featured prominently. This reminds us that as topical as the film was and as fresh as the psychic wounds from the war were (it was released less than a year after VE day), they were not unique in the world's history. Rome was an open city centuries before. Each generation must wrestle to live a good life regardless of the proximity of death.
He goes on to contrast the esteemed film and filmmaker with the likes of Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and Ben Affleck (Argo):
In the world depicted by [Zero Dark Thirty], history extends only as far back as 9/11. The traumatic years of war in Rome, Open City are place in a broader, cosmic historical span that helps guard against our tendency to see our own moment in history as exceptional.
Give it a read.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Michael Nordine on Terrence Malick's Twenty Year Absence

Days of Heaven, Malick's last film before his twenty-year "absence" began

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Review published a piece on Terrence Malick that's informative and timely, though it doesn't really cover new ground. A lot of what Michael Nordine reports has been written about elsewhere, but it's good to have a refresher. He also makes some good comments concerning our perception of Malick as a recluse, one of those being:
Now more than ever, it seems we still can’t conceive of a famous person who doesn't want to be famous, and even caricatures are more satisfying than a note reading “not pictured” in the celebrity yearbook.
Also of note is something he says near the piece's conclusion:
Considering [Malick's] characteristically slow pace, ornithological/celestial preoccupations, and the fact that he combines an auteur’s sensibility with the resources of major studios (the three films preceding To the Wonder cost between $30–$50 million each), the real marvel here may not be that it took him so long to “return” to filmmaking — it’s that he’s made as many movies as he has.
Anyway, for Malick fans of all sorts, it's worth a read.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Indiewire’s Big Predictions about Cannes, and What about Oscar 2014?

This year's Cannes poster

Yesterday at Indiewire, Eric Kohn explained why this year's Cannes festival could be one of the most important in recent memory. They're all compelling, but the one that really grabbed my attention was the first one, about this year's jury. Leading it this year is none other than Steven Spielberg, with heavyweights like Ang Lee and Christoph Waltz also participating.

Kohn writes:
Whichever movie receives the main award will carry the force of a major endorsement, one with possibly more value than even an Oscar can provide.
So that begs the question: Could this year's big winner at Cannes also go on to become an Oscar winner? Since the festival hasn't even started yet, there's no way to tell (unless any of you have a time machine you're not telling me about), but it's fun to imagine. Typically, I think of Cannes and the Academy as existing in two totally different spheres, but with major Oscar-winners serving on the jury, could we see some overlap this year?

According to this Andrew O'Hehir piece from 2011, it's only happened two other times: first with The Lost Weekend (1945) and then with Marty (1955). Still, he lists plenty of other Cannes-winners that went on to become Oscar nominees and make a significant mark on film and pop culture history (ahem, Pulp Fiction anyone?).

So anyway, it's too soon to be asking a question like this, but interesting to consider nonetheless. I know I'll be paying attention.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Arrest Development Trailer Is Kinda Funny but Only If You've Seen the Show

A trailer for Arrested Development's long-awaited fourth season dropped Sunday, and it's...okay. If it works for me, that's because I've seen the series a few times and can catch all the in-jokes. What I can't imagine, though, is someone unfamiliar with the series looking at it and thinking, "Yeah, that's definitely something I should try." This is strictly a fans-only moment.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Ann Friedman Tells You How

Ann Friedman, from her website. Photo by Stephanie Gonot

Ann Friedman is a writer/editor with a lot of helpful advice for journalist who are either just getting started or who want to establish a full-time freelancing career. Some of the best advice? Write each story three different ways (not three drafts, but three different angles) and don't turn to freelancing full-time until you can name five editors you know you can turn to. Check out her columns below for more words of wisdom.

The rules of the freelance game (Columbia Journalism Review)

Also, pay a visit to Ann Friedman's site to see what she's up to.

May Activity

Iron Man 3

This post features my last piece for the Dallas Observer as an intern, plus my first piece for Christianity Today. The latter half of this month is going to be extremely busy, but if anything new comes along, I'll add it to the list.

Best Movies to See in Dallas, 5/1 - 5/5 (Dallas Observer)
Double review of Pain & Gain and Iron Man 3 (Christianity Today)

April Activity

My cover story on Share Carruth

I haven't updated the blog in quite awhile, but I'm back, and with everything I did for the month of April. This was my last full month with the Observer as an intern, and it was a busy one. The major article in this bunch is the cover story I did on Shane Carruth, the filmmaker behind Primer and this year's Upstream Color.

Derek Cianfrance article (Dallas Observer)
Spring Breakers in 35mm (Dallas Observer)
Upstream Color review (In Review Online)
Best Movies to See in Dallas, 4/4 - 4/7 (Dallas Observer)
Best Movies to See in Dallas, 4/17 - 4/21 (Dallas Observer)
Shane Carruth cover story (Dallas Observer)
Shane Carruth Q&A (Dallas Observer)
Why Should I See To the Wonder When I Can Watch it on iTunes Now? (Dallas Observer)
Best Movies to See in Dallas, 4/25 - 4/28 (Dallas Observer)
Greg Barker interview (Dallas Observer)