Roger Ebert, Film Criticism, and Writing

I had no plans to blog about film criticism or review, about Roger Ebert, or about blogging. But then again, I read that today is Roger Ebert’s 70th birthday, and thought I ought to pay the man homage in the only way I know how: talk about film criticism.

Gary Susman wrote a fascinating article about Ebert on MovieFone, titled “Roger Ebert at 70: Did He Save or Destroy Film Criticism?” (I highly recommend you movie buffs read it.) And instead of regurgitating the article to you here, there are a couple interesting points that Susman brings up that I’d like to discuss. He inserts Ebert only part of the time, primarily talking about how film criticism and review differ, whether film criticism is dead, and essentially, the roots of film criticism, with Ebert’s almighty thumb heading it–and now all his fingers typing away to keep the film criticism wheel turning.

Susman does all of us a favor and differentiates between film review and criticism. Take a look:

“There’s a lot of confusion over the difference between reviewing and criticism, and what each ought to be, or that there even is a difference. It’s a distinction that confuses even many critics and reviewers. One way to look at it is this: reviewing is a consumer service, directed toward people who haven’t seen the film yet, telling them whether or not it’s worth their money. Criticism is an analysis of a movie for people who’ve already seen it, part of the never-ending conversation that exists about each film. Reviewing is based on the (perceived) taste of your audience or readership; criticism is based on your own taste. “

I agree with the unfortunate thought that Susman makes on criticism in general today: it’s based on one’s own taste. It’s a popular thing to have an opinion and to be independently-minded today. Being learned and educated on a topic isn’t nearly as popular. Many readers and consumers today don’t seek enough counsel, review the options, or consider the possibility that words or products are(n’t) accurate today, depending on the source of the words or product.

I know I’m preaching to the choir when I say this, but perhaps the choir could use a little preaching once in a while. My opinion and your opinion don’t lack importance, but rather, are often based too much on the importance in which we place upon our own opinions. Each of us is a little voice in this loud and crazy world called the “Internet,” and I daresay that your voice and my voice do matter and have value. My point, however, is that is all that our voices have become today: opinions. An opinion about this movie, an opinion about the music, the acting, the visuals in this or that film.

And I would believe that to be a neutral thing. It’s neither bad nor good that an opinion is just that: an opinion. But when does a person’s opinion become just another voiceless blog in the Internet crowd, and does it matter whether it attains to be more than that?

An old friend and I used to joke about how many views we would get on our sites. He has an entirely different site than I have–a photography one, and he doesn’t score nearly as many views on average as I do. But how many of my views are from search engines, and how many are from actual people? I brag on my film blog community–it’s the first time I think I’ve ever had a voice on the Internet. He expresses himself via photos, while I use words on a specific topic: film. What I’ve learned is that in the beginning, being heard is far more important than influence. Because in order to influence at all, you first have to be heard.

Roger Ebert would never be such a huge voice of influence, previously on TV and now on the Internet, until he got his start at age 16 as a copywriter, living in an entirely different time and world than what today’s world has become. And not only us lowly film bloggers aspire to write about film the way he does. So do the other critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Ya know, the ones we’ve never heard of, but tend to grab attention when they disagree with the mass and purposefully write some cynical review in order to gain an audience? Susman lays it out.

“Unfortunately, what the inevitable copycats took away were the elements that made for good spectacle on TV: the pithy verdict and the heated rhetoric. Pretty soon, movie reviewing on television — and in print — was something anyone with an opposable thumb could do. Audiences became lazy, demanding no more of their reviewers than thumbs-up or thumbs-down. So newspaper editors and TV news producers filled reviewer jobs with people who lacked Siskel and Ebert’s qualifications or love of movies. (You can’t imagine news bosses hiring political pundits or sports commentators just on the basis of gushing fandom or snark, but that’s often how they hire movie reviewers.) Even in magazines that prided themselves on the literary quality of their prose, reviewing and criticism became acts of performance, meant to show off the writer’s erudition and wit rather than to engage the movie on its own terms.”

Speaking for myself and the friends I have made on the blogosphere, I believe I speak in truth when I say that we write because we love the movies. We love the analytical process of peeling apart each element of a film and putting it back together again, the creative process of understanding how each part of a film makes it a whole, and the enjoyably lazy process of escaping into a film and not thinking a single intelligent thought for a full two hours.

We notice the little details and appreciate the inspiration books have had on film. We make fun of the Kristen Stewarts and Katherine Heigls and we never forget the scenes in the movies that make us hold back a few tears so our friends don’t think we’re weird for crying. We love movies because they’re complicated and full of complexity, and at their foundation, are just simple entertainment that are fun to watch.

I’ve watched Ebert on his TV show since I can remember, and when he lost his ability to talk, I arduously followed his regular column on the Chicago Sun-Times. I still do, probably like many of you. Ebert believes that we live in “the golden age of movie critics.” Everything has moved on to blogging. When I first read that, I thought, Oh no, that must be a bad thing. Ebert doesn’t think so. Perhaps because he’s found some film blogs out there worth his time. In his article about this golden age, he praises many of the young critics he has found. In fact, he even offers great advice, first given by a friend of his named David Thompson, about whether or not a person with a love and interest in film, ought to pursue a career in it. Both Thompson and Ebert reached the same conclusion, summed up in one line:

“Don’t train for a career–train for a life.”

I’ve also often read and heard the popular cliche that you must write what you know. WordPress offers lots of cute little ditties after you publish a post, often some general and witty quotes about writing. I don’t remember the exact quote, but I do remember the gist of one of the sayings went along the lines of, “the greatest ideas for writing come to you not when you’re sitting down at your desk, but when you’re out living.”

I couldn’t agree more. I started blogging way back when because I loved writing. I didn’t know what I wanted to write about then, so my posts were much more limited. Even on days when I’m facing a little bit of writer’s block, I’m assured that tomorrow or next week, I’ll have something to write about, because the film world keeps turning. It doesn’t stop. And I love that aspect about writing and blogging as well. There will always be something to write about. There will always be something to blog about. And when I need inspiration, I turn to my friends’ blogs, and I read Roger Ebert’s blog, and wonder if someday I’ll be able to write to the level he does. I guess it’s not so important to be able to write like one of the world’s top film critics. As a writer, as long as you write about what you love, what else matters?

Taking Chances

More times than not, I find out that when I go see a movie that I’m semi-sorta interested in viewing, I end up being pleasantly surprised. Of course, this isn’t the case every time; theoretically, it can’t be. There just aren’t enough good movies coming out in current time that one can be pleasantly surprised about. That’s probably not theoretical, but it sounded right at the time. Perhaps it’s technical.

Regardless.

Originally, my highest hopes for 2011 summer films went to Captain America, Crazy Stupid Love, and the final Harry Potter. You can read my Harry Potter review here. While each film had good things going for it, such as Crazy Stupid Love‘s cast (Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling – come on?!), or the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 being the final film of the series, each of those films ultimately disappointed me in some way or another.

X-Men: First Class

Three other movies, however, unsuspectingly sneaked up on me this summer and surprised me in that pleasant kind of way. Originally, I had not intended to see the biggest surprise for me, which was X-Men: First Class. I had never seen any of the X-Men films. They didn’t appear attractive in any sense to me, from story line, to cast, to special effects. I mean, come on, it’s Halle Berry with blonde hair. Do you really expect me to approach that movie with any seriousness?

But the previews were looking good for this prequel, and already being a fan of James McAvoy (anyone see Wanted? YES!), I figured paying matinee price at a lower-end theater two towns away on a plan-free Friday evening would be harmless. I was immediately drawn in, like most people would admit to a first viewing of the film. I was also really impressed with Michael Fassbender. The colors were bright, the characters were interesting, and the effects were great. Possibly one of the best moments was Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine cameo. I didn’t have to be a fan of X-Men to know Hugh Jackman was Wolverine and that was one of the best cameos . . . ever. Kevin Bacon proved once again to be a slimy, rather humorous villain, and Henry Jackman’s score won me over before the film ended. Despite the mediocre reviews, I would place X-Men: First Class at the top of my summer 2011 movies list.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The second surprise for me was Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Although I have never watched a previous Planet of the Apes film in its entirety, I did attempt to make it through a few short scenes in the Mark Wahlberg version. It was just too much. With that in mind, I was assured this movie would be deemed OK, if anything positive. I am a major James Franco and John Lithgow fan, but I didn’t expect great things from the zillioneth remake of watching humans in ape costumes bat eyes and imprison non-speaking humans in cages. Alas, this movie was nothing like it’s predecessors, as confirmed by Apes fans and viewers of the older films. This film served more as a back story for what was to come–what all of us know as the Planet of the Apes movies. Lithgow was a believable Alheizmer’s victim, and it was nice to see Slumdog Millionaire‘s Frieda Pinto on screen again. Possibly the best performance goes to Andy Serkis, who played the main ape, Caesar. Overall, it was a fun and even occasionally, touching movie. Tom Felton’s Dodge Landon served his purpose, battering the apes into forming an alliance among one another. It was an enjoyable film that outdid many of its fellow summer flicks in my opinion.

The Help

The Help was probably the one to shock me the least, primarily because my expectations were fairly high for the movie. After a look at Rotten Tomatoes average rating for it, however, my expectations lowered. I didn’t expect to be moved the way I was. The story was powerful and it was impossible to not be moved during it. I, personally, was a huge fan of the costumes. The story took place in the ’60s in southern Mississippi. Bryce Dallas Howard has apparently moved up in the world of character actors–her performance was flawless. Emma Stone proved me right once again that she has yet to give a poor performance. Jessica Chastain made a nice film debut playing the sweet and hilarious Celia Foote. The stand-out role easily goes to Viola Davis. This is a gorgeous story that demands to not be taken lightly. I’m inspired to read the book now.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2

With a lot to live up to, (think Return of the King, Dark Knight, etc.), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2, does not, in fact, live up to its far superior predecessors. It does, however, bring a grand ending to the series while incorporating some humorous and heart-breaking moments. We see the best acting squeezed out of the main characters as well as some surprising nuggets of humor and strength from unsuspecting characters, such as Mrs. Malfoy (Helen McCroy), Mrs. Weasley (Julie Walters), Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), and Professor McGonagal (Maggie Smith).

This movie was pretty good. It had some great moments, but overall, it was just pretty good. Big moments that could have been built up better were rushed through. The huge battle scene at the end lost part of its excitement when Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) jump off the cliff and start flying around with their hands around each other’s faces. What was the point of this? The book certainly didn’t write the end happening this way.

Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson), the two lead supporting actors in the film, played just that in this film: supporting roles. So supporting, in fact, that their kiss was the only significant and enjoyable moment that either actor had on screen. Professor McGonagal and Neville stole scenes with witty dialogue and heroic actions, while Harry’s two best friends seemed to just fade into the background. In Ebert’s review, he mentioned how the adult actors also owned the scenes. Voldemort was the ultimate bad guy, played with such an enjoyable evilness, that you almost wanted to laugh a couple times.

As the protagonist of the series, Daniel Radcliffe might have given his best performance. After he puts his face into the pensieve and sees Snape’s (Alan Rickman) memories, he learns for the first time that he was born to die. This comes as a hideous shock to both him and the audience. In the book, he doesn’t see Ron and Hermione for a last time, because he realizes he might not be able to go through with dying (by Voldemort) if he sees one of them. Instead, he ends up running into Neville and makes Neville promise him to kill the snake, the last horcrux, which would inevitably kill Voldemort. Instead, in the movie, Harry shares a last moment with Hermione and Ron that is rushed through, and then walks to his death while they stand still with jaws dropped. I can’t help but think that this scene could have been much more powerful had the screenwriter/adapter stuck to the true story.

Another scene that lost its power due to the adapted story is when Harry opens the snitch and the Resurrection Stone appears. There, he meets the deathly shadows of his father (Adrian Rawlins), mother (Geraldine Sommerville), Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), and Professor Lupin (David Thewlis). This is a powerful scene, but it’s so rushed through, that it’s immediately forgotten when Harry walks further into the Forbidden Forest. The book has these dead relatives walking with him through the Forbidden Forest, right up to Voldemort and his army, right before Harry dies. J. K. Rowling’s writing dismissed here is another huge disappointment.

But possibly the biggest disappointment of this film is the flurry in which Snape’s character is killed and forgotten. Although Snape does die, his moment is quickly lost to move onto the next. Alan Rickman gives his best performance, as short as it may be, his last words being to Harry: “You have your mother’s eyes.” When Harry views Snape’s memories through the pensieve, we see the past that closes many holes that the series has created since we started watching the films. Why has Snape bullied Harry for so long? Why does Snape seem to hate Harry? Why did Snape kill Dumbledore? These questions are answered, and more is revealed. Unfortunately, Snape’s memories last only a short while. We, as viewers, lose perspective despite the huge demons that have been pulled out of the closet. We have mixed feelings on Snape now, but no time to focus on them. Snape’s death was so rushed through, that we, the audience, missed out on a grieving opportunity. In the past, Cedric, Sirius Black, Dumbledore, and Dobby have passed away. Huge moments were given to these characters; after all, each of their deaths served as a climax to the films in which they died. Fred (James Phelps), one of the twins and Professor Lupin pass, yet we hardly realize how sad this is because we must keep pushing forward with the film’s agenda.

The end bears the most touching scene, the adulthood of the three main characters. Nineteen years later, we see an adult Harry and Ginny (Bonnie Wright) ushering their kids to platform 9 3/4. Harry shares a moment with his son, Albus Severus Potter. He reminds him that he is named after one of the best wizards he knows – Severus. This special tidbit is included in a perfectly subtle, yet honorable way. There’s just a slight moment where we catch an adult Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), where we conclude that the relationship between he and Harry is now friendly. Last, we see married couple Ron and Hermione with their kids. The ending scene pictures Ron, Hermione, and Harry standing there, grown up and happy. It’s a moment where you can do nothing else but smile. It serves as a grand, but not over-the-top end to the amazing franchise.

The Man. The Movies. The Memento.

There’s been a lot of hype recently (especially today) about how Christopher Nolan has been snubbed once again – this time, by that warped Academy that makes all the decisions concerning the Oscars. This time around, it’s the 83rd Oscars, and Nolan has been rejected his much-deserved honor of being a Best Director nominee.

So instead of harping on the constant snubbing from said Hollywood Foreign Press Association and American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, let’s remember why we love CNolan.  After all, being snubbed means you must be pretty darn good at what you’re doing in the first place.

Far more than a triple threat. Yes, we all know he’s a fantastic director. But he’s also a screenwriter. And a producer. And a cinematographer and an editor (Following, Doodlebug).

Has a handful of quality A-listing actors to fill his movies with (Michael Caine, Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, and Cillian Murphy to name a few).

Created the most popular, and by many, considered the best Batman series thus far.

Established connections with professionals within multiple film fields: Hans Zimmer, composer; Emma Thomas (his wife), producer; Lee Smith, film editor; Jonathan Nolan (his brother), screenwriter.

Takes complex ideas and adapts them for the average film-goer. (MementoThe Prestige, and Inception).

Nolan’s IMDB file and Wikipedia (for what it’s worth) contain a lot of this information, but more and more of it is becoming knowledge among even amateur movie-goers. It was Christopher Nolan’s name, not Leonardo DiCaprio’s that brought people into the theater to see Inception, his latest flick, this past summer.

Check out the textual part of a common Inception poster: 

The words “From the Director of The Dark Knight” stick out. And while Leo’s name is in bright lights as well, it was the obscure, ambiguous trailer and the idea that the director of The Dark Knight could create another film as high quality as The Dark Knight, that made the film compelling enough to go see. Judging by most critics’ and audience’s reviews, it was.

Nolan may not have the nod of the Academy, but he has fans. And their respect.