Sunday, August 16, 2009

On How A Four Star Review Changed My Mind

I suppose it's either the death rattle death of newspapers or a weary reaction to the dog days of summer, but professional film critics are going for the jugular lately. First, there was Jeffrey Wells and his angry post about the slow decline of Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" when it comes to selling tickets to the younger film-going demographic. Glenn Kenny and Drew McWeeney then jumped into the fray. Then most recently, Roger Ebert jumped into the ring against film critic Armond White when he trashed (and apparently pissed on) the new fan-boy favorite, "District 9".

On the first point, I saw "The Hurt Locker" over a month ago and didn't utter a peep about it because I seem to be the only one on the planet (besides White of course) who feels it isn't a masterpiece. Solid, yes. Three stars, yes. But it meanders in the end a bit much and does revel in some awfully pedestrian cliches at times. Still, after so many quality films die a quiet death at the box office or find life on home video or in repertory screenings, why is "The Hurt Locker" now the branding iron for such a strong push of the under appreciated? Secondly, on the Ebert/White fracas, let me first say I'm no fan of White. Ever since film criticism from outside my limited scope was made available on the web in the mid 90's, I gravitated towards the New York and Chicago critics- Sarris, Hoberman, Taubin, Rosenbaum and Wilmington. There was something electric about their writings- and certainly the fact that they were pontificating on so many films I wouldn't see for years played into my appreciation. I soon stumbled upon the alternative New York paper, the New York press. While Matt Zoller Seitz quickly became a favorite (and still thrives today), I also discovered Armond White and found him shitting on so many films I liked. A train wreck relationship formed. I despised his reviews, but couldn't stop reading them. A humorous side note: a fellow online buddy who I used to communicate with regularly in New York e-mailed me one day with the lines "I just shared an elevator with your favorite critic." My reply- "Did you kick him in the shins?" The Ebert/White duel has been entertaining, to say the least. And, it will probably get me to the theater to see just what all the fuss is about. I'm sure the production company is grateful for the critical misunderstanding.

All of this to say that, yes, even though "print" is dying, the blogs and twitter and technology (the invisible print, I suppose) still reign supreme and are continuing to evolve and expand a film's reputation through the now omniscient viral means. Sometimes, this is good. I do take a critic's words into consideration- a perfect example being that I'm still very tempted by the slow murmur of positive buzz for David Twohy's "A Perfect Getaway". And, it certainly happened earlier this year when Ebert wrote a virtually singular praise for Alex Proyas' "Knowing", and then followed it up a few days later with an even deeper analysis of the film's conceits on his blog. I read both of them with a "wtf" kind of feeling. I know Ebert loves his sci-fi tales (look no further than his unabashed love for "Dark City"), but this was "Knowing" starring (gasp) Nicholas Cage and released in late February with very little traction. All of this came back as I held the movie in my hand and decided to give it a shot. Admittedly, it's not quite a four star movie, but pretty damn close.... a film full of scary ideas done with just the right touch of humanity to make the characters somebody you root for and with one helluva nice (uncompromising) ending that certainly made the test audiences squirm in their seats.

Apocalypse movies rarely feature this many strong ideas. The room for large scale disaster is firmly intact (especially in one outstanding set-piece that follows Cage through a fresh plane crash with one long unbroken steadicam shot), but its the collision of philosophical gestures and human sacrifice that really make "Knowing" a cut above the rest. Proyas' predilection for dark, shadowy figures do turn up here with an increasingly creepy frequency. Add a dash of mysticism and some 'un-blockbusterly' third act surprises, and one gets a very satisfying movie that I might have overlooked if it weren't for the fearless critique by Roger Ebert. I suppose Armond White has the same effect for someone else when they decide to rent "Death Race". I'll still read all the above mentioned critics... I'll just pay much closer attention to some.


Fletch said...

Ebert aside, you're not the first trusted source I've seen that said that Knowing was good, if not better.

My Cage hatred aside, I'll have to give it a shot in the future.

Oh, and I peg Locker at about a 3/4, too. Very well made, but my big question was, if you take away the hand-held camera, how is it different from your standard-fare action movie? Is it?

Paul Arrand Rodgers said...

I peg Locker at 3.5/4 after my second viewing of the thing. I think its subject matter sets it apart from other action flicks.

Also, if I paid money to see Death Race after reading Armond White's review, I'd be angrier than I was having just stumbled into the damn thing.

Encore Entertainment said...

I need to go see this.

Joseph B. said...


There are still a few cringe-worthy moments from Cage (such as him hitting a bat against a tree and yelling "come on!!"), but the film more than makes up for his few mis-steps.

Paul, that's the thing- I doubt I'll ever see "The Hurt Locker" again. It kept me enthralled during its viewing time, but nothing that would bring me back for future viewings.

Fletch said...

Haha - I've actually heard about the baseball bat/tree episode. While he's looking for aliens, right? I really look forward to watching that scene...