Monday, December 26, 2011

Deus Ex Machina, the Genre-izing of Art, and more

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

Loyal readers: I apologize for the two week delay in our posts; this is exclusively my fault.  Spread very thin during finals week at school, and now scattered with all my free time since coming home for break, I’ve had little time/focus to write an article.  But here it is—though as befits my current state of mind, it’s a general stream of scattered thoughts on film that has been going through my mind lately.

Deus ex machina—what is it, what does it mean, and why does it drive critics so nuts?

History lesson: the phrase is in Latin, meaning “God [Deus] out of [ex] the machine [machina]”.  It refers to a convention in Ancient Greek drama, wherein a sort of crane-do-hickey (i.e. a machine) lowered actors portraying Gods onto the stage, often to solve tricky problems via divine intervention.

©, via
Today, when people call something a deus ex machina, they are referring to any sort of miraculous, inexplicable happening that resolves a situation.  For you older folks, a great example of this is at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (a fantastic western that’s worth a watch for all generations), wherein John Wayne—well, you know, kind of saves Jimmy Stewart’s ass, seemingly from out of nowhere.  For you younger folks, Aslan’s resurrection in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will suffice.  If you’re still not getting it, think back to when you were kids, and you invented superheroes to play make-believe with your friends, and that one annoying kid you played with always had a superhero who magically had a counter-power for everything; if you had laser-beams, he had laser-beam defense; if you could breathe fire, he could douse you in water.  This kid was using deus ex machina inventions all the time.

So why do critics hate this so much?  Essentially, it’s because a deus ex machina often is a crude device employed by a lazy author to save characters who need saving for the story to work.  It doesn’t do justice to a complex plot line, the audience immediately realizes its unlikelihood and ridiculousness; thereby, the plot loses credibility and compromises its integrity.  Usually, a logical and realistic resolution functions far more effectively.

Critics are mostly right about this: if a plot is to be credible and authentic, it must resolve itself according to the rules already established therein; it must maintain integrity in its structure.  However, critics can also be incredibly pretentious in their vilification of deus ex machina.

Such a pretentious critique may be found here

Sometimes, a deus ex machina, or rather a seeming deus ex machina, is absolutely necessary to a story; and moreover, a story has no credibility without it.  Life and everything that happens in it is truly unexpected, and the result of countless upon countless accidents.  Think about it: you’re now married with kids because you happened to meet that special someone at a party you almost didn’t go to for a friend who you met because you happened to sit next to each other in some class at a school you attended only because your dad changed jobs in a certain year.  Ever been driving and realized that if you hadn’t been paying attention for that split-second, you probably would’ve been killed in a major accident?  These are the kinds of circumstantial, accidental happenings that rule our lives, and certain invocations of a deus ex machina simply serve to reflect the insane, inexplicable, accidental nature of daily life.

Unless wholly abused, deus ex machinas serve such a genuine, imperative purpose in literature and plot development; thus, shove it! pretentious critics.

I’ve also been thinking about our incessant need to classify and categorize, especially regarding art.

This last semester, I took a creative writing class.  And I certainly learned some interesting things, heard some good advice from my professor (a successful author of several novels), etc.  But one common critique of his that frankly, I think, shows him to be (at least in certain aspects) a narrow-minded—even lazy—reader is his need to put every story into a genre.  He says things like “The first scene seemed funny, but the second scene seemed serious.  I advise you to just make it a full-blown comedy or a full-blown drama, because otherwise I’m confused about how to take it”.

I realize that we have a need to organize everything in our minds in order to better understand it (e.g. Kingdom→Phylum→Class→Order→Family→Genus→Species); but honestly, I hope that we’ve progressed to the point where we can interpret art, and discern subtle nuances that reflect themes far deeper and richer than any particular genre can paint.  Life isn’t all a comedy, or a drama, or a tragicomedy, or a satire, or an underdog story, or an indie drama, etc.  Life is so filled with various facets, that speaking of it as only one of these things is ludicrous and short-sided.  And the task of art, really, is to provide some sort of reflection/improvement of life (note that this doesn’t mean that art must be realistic; rather, if it’s fantasy, it still must reflect, in its core ideals, the realities in which we live/should live).  So why do we then demand that everything be so neat and tidy and inauthentically wrapped in the scheme of some hackneyed ‘genre’?

© 2011

 That’s why I love Woody Allen’s work so much; most of it transcends any BS, artificial label some critic could give to it; it thereby maintains credibility and authenticity to life.

So please, let’s be open to depth and nuance in all art—including film—and let it speak with the full power of its own voice, rather than from within some artificial, trite framework.  Let’s become more active readers, watchers, etc. who don’t need to be told how to think and feel in every artistic encounter; often the most rewarding experience is to come to an understanding of a work after having to strenuously and constantly apply our minds to it.

Upcoming stuff:  Within the next couple weeks, check out another video review of Alex and me on the critically-acclaimed, heavy Oscar favorite The Artist (hint: I think it’s excellent).  Also look for Alex’s next article coming out on the Globe-nominated film Young Adult.
If you’re bored during these waning holidays, watch some of The Twilight Zone on the Sci-Fi channel for its annual New Year’s Day Marathon (I should really get paid for this plug).  It’s a thought-provoking series that holds up beautifully today.  I’ll write an article on it soon.


Monday, December 5, 2011

How Many Years Ago? (Fargo)

By Alex "The Savant" Heisman

©, 2009

It is once again time to dip into the well of history and analyze a film released long ago in the second entry of our blog’s series, "How Many Years Ago?" If you remember from the introduction to the first post reviewing 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Paul and I look at a film under a historical lens and view how that particular picture shaped the future of cinema in one way or another. The film under scrutiny for today’s post, Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 seminal masterpiece, Fargo, actually kills two birds with one stone: depending on what kind of mood I’m in, Fargo is hands-down my favorite movie of all time. The bleak and pure snowy landscape of Minnesota and North Dakota mask the vicious and bloody carnage that unfurls to a small group of characters over the course of a few days. And to top it all off, the movie’s actually really damn funny!

In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the hapless used-car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (a stunning William H. Macy) organizes the kidnapping of his wife with two petty thieves (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) who think they are much smarter then they actually are. Turns out Jerry’s in a little bit of a financial situation after same bad deals at the auto dealership, so he not only needs to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay off his debts, but to also pay off the two criminals. Jerry’s wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell), a shrewd business man in his own right, begins to feel something is strangely amiss when Jerry relies too heavily on him for the ransom money. Meanwhile, in Brainerd, North Dakota, the two thieves, Carl and Gaear, while transporting the kidnapped Mrs. Lundegaard to the remote cabin hideaway, ferociously slaughter a state trooper who is on to their trail. The seven months pregnant police chief of Brainerd, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand in her Academy Award winning role), becomes the lead investigator on the case. Once connections between all the characters are established it’s only a matter of time before someone must pay. Even though this whole mess eventually begins to sound sadistic, and even a bit inhuman at times, one is both pacified from the release of their laughter at the humorous moments in the piece, and repulsed at how alarming laughing might feel during the rampage.

Actually the biggest shock, and those that know me well can support this, is how long it took me to actually write a piece on a Coen Bros. movie. I will defend to the death that Joel and Ethan Coen are simply the finest filmmakers in the profession. Having seen all fifteen of their films, I can attest that each is densely layered with rich dramatic moments of tension while still maintaining a sophisticated level of humor throughout. Perhaps, if the mood strikes me, I may even do an overview of the fifteen films they have created just to emphasize the fullness of their works. The Coen’s have literally almost tackled every genre, from western in True Grit to full-blown comedy in Burn After Reading. Thrillers have never looked better than their debut piece, Blood Simple., when compared against the film-noir classic Miller’s Crossing, and the musical based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? In 2007, Joel and Ethan even won Best Picture at the Academy Awards with their searing and visceral No Country for Old Men.

This film is INCREDIBLY important to the evolution of cinema even though it was released just 15 short years ago. Now, disclaimer, I’m not arguing that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences that annually present the Academy Award statuette are completely infallible in their own right and truly represent the best of the year (I’m looking at you Sandra Bullock….like, honestly, the total blundering of that whole situation just became one of the next posts I’m writing). Yet, as in this instance, I will defend the Academy when they show signs of forward moving, progressive thinking. However, if you read the following argument and still find the Academy to not be your cup of tea and that they, in no way, are the ultimate bellwether for change, bully for you and I will hold no grudges.

The state of small and independent films had been evolving as far as they could grow without actually breaking into the mainstream during the early and mid 90’s. Just two years prior, in 1994, arguably the most important and famous independent film, Pulp Fiction, made a massive splash with audiences, critics, and the Academy alike--even though it lost Picture, Director, and Actor to the less challenging Forrest Gump. In 1996, independent films had risen to such a status in the motion picture community that FOUR out of the FIVE available nomination slots in the Best Picture category were filled with films that had a considerably smaller budget than most studio outings, and thus considered independent: the eventual winner The English Patient, Fargo, Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, and Scott Hicks’ Shine. (The fifth and final slot was reserved for the questionable Tom Cruise vehicle Jerry Maguire). That smaller films had catapulted to such a position emphasized not only that the reserved Academy members had begun to take notice, but that they actually decided to do something towards this response. The Academy, usually known for their big and epic choices (like the colossal piece Titanic the very next year), were willing to set aside their allegiances to studio heads and marquee actors for one season to honor films that had a tough time even coming up with a budget to begin shooting with.

On a side note--Frances McDormand’s Oscar winning performance as Police Chief Marge Gunderson is one of the five greatest female performances in the history of the medium. Of course, all taste is subjective and my opinion might seem bogus to another critic and fan, yet, there is an underlying thread of humor and sensibility that allows the viewer to empathize with her heavily pregnant character as she begins to battle forces that are just slightly more overwhelming and bigger than she is. McDormand, the real-life wife of co-director Joel Coen, asserts her position as one of the most versatile actresses of present with her character’s northern accent alone that will most certainly have one rolling in the aisles clutching at their sides.

Please go rent, buy, stream, illegally download Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 masterpiece Fargo. Along with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Little Miss Sunshine, it is my most favorite movie of all time, and one that I would be proud to bestow with the elusive, and almost unheard of, five star rating.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Descendants Descends into the Incredible World of Blah

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg
The Good-Looking One's Rating: 3/5 Stars

©, 2011

Although I hardly keep up with all the Oscar-palooza that goes on throughout the year, my good buddy The Savant—obsessed with all things Academy, as I’m sure you know by now—has informed me that Alexander Payne’s recent release The Descendants is currently a heavy hitter in the race for “Best Picture”.  After seeing the film last week, I can only wonder why.

The film is based around how Matt King (George Clooney) and his two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), deal with the boating accident and ensuing permanent vegetative coma of Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie)—his wife and their mother.  The tragedy is further brought to the forefront by the fact that Elizabeth’s will stipulates that she must be taken off of all life-support machines within a few weeks.

Right at the outset, we learn that the King family lives in Hawaii, and that nevertheless, their life is no paradise (this is revealed via banal self-conscious inner-monologue from Clooney; indeed, this trope was simply cloying). It seems that even before Elizabeth’s injury and subsequent coma, the family was disconnected from each other: Matt’s relationship with her seems to have significantly fizzled, his version of fatherhood could be described as distracted and clumsy, his oldest daughter Alexandra is in full-on ‘rebel without a cause’ mode, we eventually learn that Elizabeth was having an affair with a married man before her accident.

Alongside this primary plot is what we could call ‘The Hawaiian Heritage Plot’.  Matt’s descended (hence the title) from a serendipitous marriage between a Hawaiian princess and a European land acquirer (I know there’s a technical term for this), and thus through various dealings, he’s now the sole trustee of a hundreds-million dollars’ worth of Kauaian land.  And since some of his cousins are deeply in debt, Matt is searching for a developer to buy the land and make them all rich.  This causes somewhat of a stir in the Hawaiian community, as most hope that Matt doesn’t sell, in order to stave off the glitzy tourism such would bring.

Of course, Matt makes up with his daughters and decides to preserve his Hawaiian heritage in the end; it all works out (don’t worry about the spoiler, the plot isn’t really what matters in this movie; it’s more a character and relationship piece).

So, knowing all this now, what’s all the praise about, and why is it misguided?  Well, there is indeed much good in the film: Clooney is Clooney per usual, only Dad-style—but it kind of works.  Woodley imbues her character with complexity, and manages to create a unique identity rather than falling into the clichéd trap of being the ‘rebellious teen’—indeed, her reaction at first hearing that her mother will die is powerful, and well-directed by Payne.  The relationship between the family comes off as authentic and dynamic; it’s fun watching them (especially Woodley and Clooney) interact with each other.  One of the opening scenes—in which a mother at Scottie’s school calls to tell Matt that Scottie’s been bullying her daughter, and that they must come over and apologize—is fantastic in the way it interweaves all the themes of the story (this mother is a native Hawaiian who makes sure to give Matt her two cents about selling the land) and illustrates the psyches of and relationship between Matt and Scottie (by the way, is there anything more BS than someone else’s parent demanding that you force your child to apologize?).  The bouncy ukulele-filled soundtrack lightens the mood of a film that deals with something so, so dark.

For all these reasons, the film is deserving of praise.  But ultimately, it’s undone for one reason: it manages to take a plotline filled with such gravity, and turn you out of the theatre feeling---well, blah about it all.

I suppose this is accomplished (or failed at) for several reasons: The story makes Elizabeth out to be so unsympathetic (the affair with a married man, poor relationship with her daughters, risky behavior, jackass of a father, shallow best friend) that quite frankly, it’s difficult to care too much about her or what’s happened to her.  While we care somewhat about what Matt and co. are going through, the actual tragedy of her death is muted by her unlikability as a character.

Nonetheless, however, it’s impossible for us to get the warm fuzzies at the end of the film—when Matt and his daughters become a connected family and realize the importance of their bonds—because the situation that’s happened to them is still too weighty and muddled to just shrug off.  Thus, as an audience, we’re left not especially caring that Elizabeth will die, and not especially caring that Matt and his daughters have found true connections.  Overall, then, it seems to me that the topic itself and the Payne’s treatment of it alienate the audience from any sort of lasting connection to the film.

The film’s secondary ‘Hawaiian Heritage Plot’ also fails to resonate with us in its resolution.  In fact, this plot’s development is so disjointed that the resolution seems confusing and frivolous; the film only sparingly mentions Matt’s Hawaiian ancestry, and until the end, it seems that Matt could care less about it.  Rightfully, he’s so distracted by his wife’s accident that the land’s sale becomes unimportant to him; he seems willing to leave it all in the hands of his numerous cousins.  When Matt finds out, however, that the favored buyer will integrally involve the man with whom his wife had an affair, he suddenly starts to care again, flirting with the idea of selling to someone else.  Abruptly, however, Matt decides not to sell at all.  The filmmakers try to pawn off the reason to us as ‘Matt has a sudden epiphany that he truly does love Hawaii, and cares about its natural preservation’.

I’m sorry: this just doesn’t fly.  I can’t even remember once in this movie when Matt expressed anything more than passing appreciation for his native land; and certainly, it seems more plausible that Matt didn’t sell because he didn’t want the man with whom his wife had an affair to benefit at all from his sale.  Thus, the resolution of this secondary plot comes off as forced and inauthentic, and moreover confused in its motivations; as an audience, we don’t exactly buy Matt’s sudden love for the land.  And therefore, we find it difficult to feel much of a connection to the film in its resolution of this secondary plot.

There are other issues with the film—mostly dealing with disjointed and lazy character development (most of this is on the screenplay, I believe).  But what really stands out about this film is how despite its weighty plot and sympathetic characters, it manages to not really say anything powerful, and to leave us with—well, nothing.  So tell me, Academy, why shalt thou give this film your most precious award?


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wait...Did We Watch the Same Movie? (Taxi Driver)

By Alex "The Savant" Heisman

© 2011

No matter what I may be doing, be it something as simple as a trip to the supermarket or going for a drive, my mind is often transported back to a great scene from the humorous 2006 movie The TV Set. Mike Klein (David Duchovny), a struggling writer who can’t seem to sell his script for a new pilot to any network, finally lets all his troubles overwhelm him and berates his assistant, Alice (Judy Greer), when he finds out she has never seen his favorite movie, Taxi Driver. As the two bicker, the comedic tension in the scene is brought to such a point that when Alice, still remaining completely ignorant of the entire situation, misunderstands the name of the movie and screams “I WILL RENT THE TAXI DRIVER OKAY?!”, it allows me to greatly relate to her character.

The secret I’m about to divulge may make me appear to be a terrible film buff, but I think it’s time to let the world know: until this past weekend, I had never seen Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. I do deserve brownie points, however, as I have started to watch it three, yes, THREE, times in the past. Despite progressively getting about ten minutes farther in each time, my finger found its way to the stop button as I never seemed to able to get into the groove of the movie. The reason I kept revisiting the movie was that, like Mike from The TV Set, literally everyone champions this particular film as being one of the single greatest accomplishments in the history of cinema. No less than Roger Ebert himself labeled this movie as “one of the greatest he has ever seen”. It must finally be stated that there was no specific reason or aspect of production that previously kept me from seeing Taxi Driver…there were just other movies I had never seen that I wished to watch first.

With my girlfriend at William and Mary for the weekend (I’m not bitter!), I used the ample free time I now had at my disposal to now watch the film in its entirety. I mean this in all due sincerity: I. was. bored. FREAKIN. stiff. the…entire…time. I knew the entire point of the film was to present an intense character study of a lonely, disillusioned “warrior”, but there is a distinct line between a film that accomplishes just that goal, and one that takes its message to the point of monotony. Special dishonorable mention must be immediately paid to Bernard Hermann’s famous (for what reason?) saxophone score. As Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) drives his cab all over New York City throughout the night, the wailing jazz solo that accompanies him creates a somber tone. Eventually this original score becomes excruciating and completely out of place when it changes key about halfway through.

Secondly, while VERY controversial for its time, this film has not held up well. Robert De Niro’s inward reflections seem almost childish as he attempts to produce a macho presence in his scenes with the girl he likes, Cybill Shepherd (remember her!), and a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster) he hopes to provide a new life for. Oh! Yes! What a gimmicky performance by Ms. Foster. I had hoped, being such an interesting character to undertake, that the normally outstanding Jodie Foster would provide a bright spot in this laborious production. Her scenes amount to a total run time of just over ten minutes and her character never hits such scandalous notes as probably befalls a child hooker (I say probably as I would have no way of knowing.)

All this is not to dispel the notion that I did not enjoy the film completely. The bloody ending absolutely captivated me as I certainly did not see it coming, and it truly is a gritty, realistic ode to New York for which Martin Scorsese ultimately became known. I was just expecting a whole lot more for all the championing done by scholars, family members, friends, and yes, Mike Klein. It was not the worst film I’ve ever seen (Hey! I’ve sat through Cabaret and lived to tell the tale!), but it thankfully lost all four of its Oscar nominations: Best Picture (we are going to pretend Rocky did not even come close to the Academy Awards and the masterpiece Network took this award that year), Best Actor (De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Foster), and Best Original Score (Hermann).

If you’ve enjoyed this review, please let us know! Paul and I have been toying with creating a new series out of this. We would choose, or you could suggest, a film (usually classic), that for one reason or another we should have seen but have not yet. Paul and I will record what we already know heading in/what we expect, and compare that to how we actually feel when we’ve seen it.


Monday, November 14, 2011

J. Edgar? No. More Like J. Foolish (Video Review)

By Alex "The Savant" Heisman and Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

The Savant's Rating: 1.5-2/5 Stars
The Good-Looking One's Rating: 2/5 Stars

Hey Guys!

Here's our review of Eastwood's J. Edgar, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  Please pardon the delay in my side of the video; that's what you get when you buy a Dell and try to upgrade your software.

-The Good-Looking One

Here's the link to the Funny or Die Parody.


Monday, November 7, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau Has No Idea What It's Talking About

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

We're what you call 'Angels', folks. (image ©, 2011)

Writer-Director George Nolfi’s 2011 film The Adjustment Bureau promised big things in its advertisements.  Statements like “If you believe in free will…” pounded on screen while images of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt running from some seeming MIB agents flashed by.

Although I admit that I was turned off by what seemed a superficial pander to an omnipresent human desire (free will), I was nonetheless interested in seeing the film, and what it would make of the whole ‘free will’ dilemma.

Well, the bottom line: I was entertained, but unimpressed.

A quick overview of the plot runs thus: David Norris (Matt Damon) is a young, successful, ‘voice of the people’ type politician.  Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) is a talented, aspiring dancer who has yet to make it big.  Both are single.

The two have a chance encounter in a bathroom (it’s not as creepy as it sounds, I promise), and they really hit it off—although Elise is forced to flee before either can exchange contacts.  However, David and Elise are able to see each other again, and all seems destined for a feel-good rom-com.

But “The Adjustment Bureau” (a secret, supernatural-ish organization made up of angels who look like corporate bigwigs, headed by “The Chairman”—i.e. God—designs people’s fates, and ensures that each fate happens according to plan) doesn’t want David and Elise to wind up happily ever after; it seems that the two of them aren’t destined for one another, in a very real sense, and that their falling in love actually is a violation of their respective destinies.

Eventually—through chance circumstance—David is becomes aware of “The Adjustment Bureau”, and the fact that “The Chairman” doesn’t want him and Elise to be together.  Thus, a certain quandary develops: should David follow the destiny that’s been properly set out for him, or should he seek his own? 

Of course, he seeks his own.  And those wonderful chase sequences ensue.

Now: The Adjustment Bureau is generally entertaining.  Its concept is fresh and mildly stimulating, some of its imagery is cool, Emily Blunt is fantastic (she manages to be sensitive, willful, and dignified all at once.  There’s a quiet beauty about her).  So, overall, the movie’s worth a watch.

And yet, there are many, many things wrong with it.  The way it visualizes and animates abstract, supernatural forces is ridiculous, many characters are overdrawn, a lot of the dialogue is cheesy, Matt Damon is annoying as hell (but really, when is he not?), the plot becomes overly intricate and contradictory, etc.

However, I’m going to focus on one fundamental aspect in which the film fails: its confusion about—well, the whole free will thing.

The Adjustment Bureau overtly deals with this conflict between free will and fate.  It reminds me of the innate contradiction many of us carry around: we want to have freedom, and to have the right to make our own choices; and yet, simultaneously, we want to feel taken care of—that ‘God’ or whatever you want to call it has a plan for us, and in the end, we’ll all wind up on the right track.  We desire freedom, and yet we desire fate (at least the good, this-person-is-destined-to-be-my-lover, kind).  And this film tries to draw a middle path, with its resolution being something along the lines of: God (“The Chairman”) has a plan for you, but if you come up with a better one yourself, then maybe God will be ok with it.

Now, before I dig too deeply into the movie’s conceptions of free will and fate, I’m gonna give you all a brief primer on the meaning of free will and fate (more academically deemed determinism).

Free will, essentially, is the belief that an individual has power over his/her present actions.  It’s the belief that you are free to pursue your own will, and that this will, moreover, is self-created and self-motivated, and not placed upon you by any higher power, or anything out of your control.

For instance, imagine that you are in an Olive Garden (God forbid) trying to decide between spaghetti and lasagna.  Now, if you truly have the ability to choose either the spaghetti or the lasagna—meaning that there’s no destiny, nor genetic determinance, nor socialization inescapably boxing you into one of the two—then in making your choice, you are exerting free will.

Fate, or determinism, is just the opposite.  It’s the view that, because of destiny, or because your genetics or socialization inescapably foster who you are, in the end, you have no freedom in the choices you make, and thus no control over yourself in any real sense.

So, re-imagining our Olive Garden situation above, a determinist would say that, although you might choose either the spaghetti or the lasagna, your choice of either one or the other is entirely out of your hands, and in a sense, is made before you even show up to the restaurant.

Ok.  So there’s the brief overview: free will is an individual’s power to choose otherwise, while determinism necessitates an individual’s choice being inextricably tied-down and out of his/her control.

So how does The Adjustment Bureau treat what it calls free will, and what it calls fate?

Well, obviously, the “Bureau” itself is supposed to be a symbol of fate.  But this isn’t so.  Why?  Because the movie never really stops to consider what true fate means: true fate, as I discussed, means that an individual has no power to choose otherwise.  It’s akin—in the sense of destiny—to God playing both ends of a chess board, and moving all the pieces (humans) around howsoever He wills.

But David does have the ability to choose otherwise.  Thus, he must have free will.  Thus, the “destiny” that the agents mean to protect isn’t really a destiny at all; since David has the power to simply disregard it, then it doesn’t ‘define’ him at all; he isn’t ‘destined’ to do anything.

What The Adjustment Bureau insists on calling “destiny” is really just coercion.  It’s more like “Hey buddy, if you don’t listen to what the Big Fella (God) says, then he’s gonna break yours and all your cousins’ legs (annihilate you)”.  Real destiny would mean David never even had the opportunity to make a choice different from the plan; in fact, it would be logically impossible for him to break from his destiny at all, since he would just be a mindless chess piece moved entirely at God’s will.

Therefore, although The Adjustment Bureau makes interesting, literary, quasi-stimulating attempts at discussing and breaking through the free will vs. fate argument, it’s mostly just lazy and illogical in how it treats the dilemma; thus, its fundamental premise is flawed.  And as such, the movie itself is fundamentally, inescapably flawed.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How Many Years Ago?--Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By Alex "The Savant" Heisman

© A.M.P.A.S., via

Welcome to the inaugural installment of a new series under which Paul and I hope to log many more entries in as the months roll forward. "How Many Years Ago?", as the name suggests, ties our blog to the Golden Age of cinema many decades in the past. Each entry will look not only at the technical aspects of a particular film, but, most importantly, at the historical context under which the film was released and how that has shaped our understanding of the piece. Consider this series your film education for the day.

If you have been following our blog lately, you may recall how Paul and I hold that elusive fifth star when assigning ratings to films as the pedestal on which we place only the most tightly composed works. Very few films are ever awarded this highest honor, so, naturally, for the premiere entry in this series, I have selected one of my favorite movies of all time that most certainly deserves the prestigious five-star rating.

Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, adapted from the controversial stage play by Edward Albee, premiered in 1966 to rapturous critical and public applause. The uberfamous and scandalous celebrity couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton star as Martha and George, a couple which draws many parallels from their own personal lives. George, an aging history professor at an unnamed New England university, often spars with his wife Martha, the daughter of the president of the school, over cocktails. Near the point of complete inebriation late one night, Martha upsets George once again by inviting a new teacher to the school, Nick (George Segal), and his mousy wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis), over to their house for even more drinks. As beverages are consumed and the night wears on, verbal and physical abuse between George and Martha rises to the surface, with Nick and Honey helplessly caught in the maelstrom of torment.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is notable for being the film that reshaped the industry and ultimately undid the archaic Production Code that had been in effect for 30+ years in Hollywood. Under the Code, movies were severely restricted as to what they could portray in terms of vulgarity, language, and sexuality. For roughly fifteen years before this particular film was released, other films such as Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and Suddenly, Last Summer, Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, and Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, began to push the boundaries of the Code and its main tenants to such an extent that its impact could not be ignored any longer. When Virginia Woolf? was finally released in 1966, with such shockingly coarse language and sexual elements for the time, the then head of the Code, former presidential aide Jack Valenti, took notice of the evolving tastes of society. Valenti did away with the Code and instituted the lettered rating system we are familiar with today (G, PG, etc.). This change allowed for films to be reviewed on individual bases rather than lumping films with common negative traits together, regardless of the variation in severity of those traits.

The marital strife between the characters of George and Martha also greatly mirrored the very public lives of stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. For many years, Taylor and Burton constantly made headlines around the world as stories of their extravagance and lavish lifestyle made them the most famous celebrity couple of the day. Scandal erupted when the two stars, at the time both married to other people, began an affair that eventually turned into a fully blossomed romance. The relationship quickly turned sour, however, as both dealt with severe insecurities and became dependent on alcohol as a result. The fights became tempestuous and legendary; yet, the two could not stay apart from each other for long. In 1966, when Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? rolled around, both of their respective careers had been dampened by alcoholism and stories of reckless behavior on set. The characters of Martha and George provided a realistic outlet for Taylor and Burton to explore the deepest reaches of their own abusiveness towards each other. This exploration allowed for very humanistic and, at times, vulnerable portrayals from two actors who had never before turned in such searing performances.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? completely revitalized the careers of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, with Taylor even snagging one of the most well deserved Academy Award wins for Best Actress of all time. The film was so well received, in fact, that it managed a nomination for every single category in which it was eligible that year (13 overall with 5 wins), a feat never before or since matched. PLEASE do yourself a favor, and in any capacity: be it reading/seeing an adaptation of the original play, or watching the cathartic journey of the movie, acquaint yourself with Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, as you will not be disappointed. Pay attention, however, to the fact that this work is a highly draining whirlpool of emotion and is not to be invested in lightly. This is not to say that all is lost, however, without giving the ending away, as the faint rays of sunshine that slowly start to creep through the windows at the end of the story represent the beginning of the catharsis the viewer endures. Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Edward Albee’s stunning play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the basis by which all other movies hoping to earn a five-star rating are judged.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

20+ Years Later--Did Mookie Do the Right Thing?

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg


What do you think of Do the Right Thing?  It’s pretty much polarized critics and just normal, everyday viewers (which critics are really just glorified versions of) ever since its release in 1989.

But since it’s likely been a while since this film has left our national consciousness, let me give you a refresher:

·     Do the Right Thing is directed by Spike Lee, an African-American filmmaker nearly universally lauded for his artistry and directorial craft.  However, Mr. Lee is also a magnet for controversy.  Numerous quotes (for a selection of such quotes, as well as brilliant analysis, read Stanley Crouch's review entitled "Do the Race Thing" in his 1990 book Notes of a Hanging Judge) as well as themes and implications of his films paint Lee in some people's eyes (such as mine) as racist, segregationalist, victimhood-peddling, and guilt-mongering.

·     Spike Lee also stars as Mookie, who for the majority of the movie is level-headed and likeable, although apathetic and irresponsible

·     The film takes place in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn (working-class), where the entire population is black other than Sal (Danny Aiello), whose pizzeria has been a local landmark for over 25 years, and a newly emigrated Asian couple. 

·     Though Sal seems to be in touch with the neighborhood, Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito), the neighborhood’s detestable rabble-rouser, decides that he doesn’t like that Sal only has pictures of famous white Italians, and none of any famous blacks, on the walls of his restaurant.  Buggin Out enlists Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) to help stage a sit-in protest of Sal’s restaurant.  Radio Raheem (known as such for the boombox he constantly carries with him, always playing Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”) and Buggin Out enter Sal’s shop, refuse to leave, Sal gets crazy pissed, calls them the N-word, and busts Radio Raheem’s radio.  Raheem then grabs Sal and starts a brawl, which the entire neighborhood eventually becomes involved in.  But here’s the turning point of the film: the police eventually come in, take Raheem off of Sal (who’s lying, beaten, on the ground), and in their anger wind up killing him.  At this point, the whole neighborhood turns against Sal, blaming him for Raheem’s slaying, and Mookie— a previously friendly employee of Sal’s, and the neighborhood conciliator—throws a trashcan through Sal’s window, causing the neighborhood to riot and eventually burn his pizzeria to the ground.  At the end of the film, Mookie comes up to Sal, demanding his last two weeks’ pay.  Sal angrily shells it out.

·     The credits of the film tie up one of the film’s running motifs: Malcolm (X) vs. Martin (Luther King, Jr.).  Essentially, Lee asks us to choose between Malcolm’s view of violence as intelligence (to which Lee subscribes, and in all likelihood intends for his movie to exemplify), and Martin’s view of violence as never—in any circumstance—moral or allowable.

·     One last interesting thing to note:  although the end of the film is full of gravity and deep, deep tragic dilemmas, the majority of it is actually comedic and light.

Alright, so there’s the basic rundown/refresher on which I’ll now build.  So of course, the question is: was Mookie’s decision to throw the trashcan through Sal’s window, starting a riot amongst an angry mob, the right thing for him to do?

I think that people who say “yes” to this question are either illogical, unthinking, or racist.  Lee himself believes that because of the cops’ slaying of Radio Raheem, of course Mookie’s action is justified.  But how?  Let me point you to Lee’s logic in this belief:
  1. The white cops murdered Radio Raheem (black)
  2. Sal is white
  3. Therefore, Sal is also guilty of Radio Raheem’s death
  4. Therefore, Mookie is justified in rioting Sal’s restaurant and having it burned to the ground
Does this make any sense to you, reasonable reader?  That just because Sal’s skin color is the same as the murderers, he is also a murderer, and must pay for their sins?  This is morally confused for two reasons: (1) Because Lee is viewing people not as individuals, but as groups, when in reality, the individual is always to be considered first, and (2) Although no one ever thinks of this, in fact SAL is the minority in the neighborhood.  SAL is the person surrounded by people suspicious of him on the basis of his skin color alone, SAL is the person feeling enclosed and overwhelmed.  So in fact, Lee has unwittingly reversed the roles he intended: The formerly oppressed minority (black people) become the oppressive majority, while the formerly oppressive majority (white people) become the oppressed minority.  Thus Mookie is 100% in the wrong by starting a riot with the goal of intimidating and destroying Sal’s livelihood.

Moreover, the final scene of the movie, in which Mookie demands Sal pay him for his final two weeks, is supposed to, I believe, come off as a final resolution between the two, a recognition that both have harmed and been harmed, and all sins paid.  Of course, as in the rest of the movie, this final scene is terribly morally confused; it implies that Sal and Mookie are morally equivalent—or worse yet, that Mookie (the man who started a dangerous, destructive, violent riot) is morally superior to Sal (the one harmed by all these actions).

Now, if Lee were making a film about police brutality, and cops’ exceptionality to the Rule of Law, then he would have the moral high ground.  When police break the law, all faith in the goodness of government and authority is lost, as is any citizen’s sense of safety.  It’s one of the worst things that can happen in a civil society.

But of course, Lee’s film is about racial tensions.  And on that point, he loses mightily.

For you see, although he sees Mookie’s throwing of the trashcan as right because it is not violence, but in Malcolm X’s term, “intelligence”, any logically and morally thinking person should see that it’s nothing but baldfaced, destructive violence.  A violence that spews separatism and segregation rather than togetherness, and breeds hate and rash action rather than compassion and thoughtfulness.

Perhaps if the film were made by someone other than Lee, with different motivations, it could be viewed more positively.  As a description of the state of race relations in the country—indeed, it often seems that we too often view other races as groups rather than a collection of individuals—it would be quite poignant.  But as a prescription of how race relations should run, it’s simply dangerous venom masquerading as depth and insight.

Critics’ reactions at the film’s release were mixed, but most who didn’t like the film were too scared to speak out strongly against it.  Instead, the loudest voices were those of racist buffoons who feared that the film would cause blacks around the country to riot and those of pandering “intellectuals” who praised Lee for the film’s moral “complexity”.

Of course, before ending, I should mention some noteworthy ingenuity in the technical aspects of the film: the raw camerawork imbues it with a sense of unvarnished urban-ness, the one-face-at-a-time, head-on camera angles during confrontations highlight the real me vs. you, head against head nature of  any sort of confrontation—to me, this was the notable brilliance on the film, that Lee allowed you to feel the anger and the blood-rising of each character during scenes of tension.  The jazz soundtrack gives it an easy, authentic, feel.  Although Lee’s dialogue is inauthentic and most of his characters are one-dimensional, he does a good job of creating a story arch that pulls you and jerks you with its every turn, and effectively highlights the key tragic moments by surrounding them with contrasting, light comedy.

But while Lee shows technical directorial talent in the making of Do the Right Thing, it’s overwhelmingly overshadowed by his outed racism, irrationality, and moral shallowness.

Did Mookie do the right thing?

No.  How can you say he did?

Please, if you have a comment to make, do.  I’d love read and respond.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Ides of March--Video Review

Alex The Savant's Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Paul The Good-Looking One's Rating: 3/5 Stars

The video's half the length of the last one; so we hope that it's short enough to fit into a study/work break.

Ignore the beautiful still shot that youtube chose for us, and go ahead and click play to hear our hilarious insights and watch our comely countenances.  Anyways, we hope you guys enjoy!

By Alex Heisman and Paul Goldberg

Friday, September 30, 2011

Talking Oscar

By Alex "The Savant" Heisman

© Paul Goldberg Productions
Caveat 1- Even as we head into October, it is still incredibly early to be talking about finalizing nominations and eventual winners as most of the big contenders haven’t even been seen yet, let alone analyzed.

Caveat 2- Being an online blogger, I am just one step above the bottom of the Oscar food chain, casual viewer, and one step below on-set caterer. Therefore, I have not seen most of these films and won’t until they are released wide in theaters around Christmas. My following overview reflects on my understanding of the race with regard to all the years I have been doing this

 As the month of September winds to a close, it is time to start taking a swing (sorry…that’ll be my only Moneyball pun) at predicting the movies and performances with a good chance of being nominated at the Academy Awards next February. Again, some of the bigger contenders are still sight-unseen at this point but, based on previous experience with the Academy’s preferences, they can be somewhat effectively factored in. Please just consider this (personal moment- Tess Higgins, this is for you!) my own individual prediction chart as of now. I know you’re all as excited as I am about this so I’m ending this introduction here. Without further ado, let’s get cracking:

(In alphabetical order)

The Artist

Dir: Michel Hazanavicius
This black-and-white silent film (Yes! Someone dared make a silent film at this juncture in modern cinema) has been making the festival rounds more successfully than anyone could have predicted. Not only that, but it’s a foreign production. All these factors usually send up major red flags in terms of Oscar prospects but this very-little-movie-that-could, with no major stars aside from small cameos by John Goodman and James Cromwell, is looking poised to sweep nominations across the board. With sentimentality on its side, look for this movie to possibly be your favorite this season.

The Descendants
Dir: Alexander Payne
George Clooney stars as a land baron in Hawaii whose wife has slipped into a coma after a boating accident. After it comes to light that she has been having an affair, Clooney must rearrange his life and determine his future path in dealing with his two children. This particular film, said to be the most mature and emotional work so far from both Academy friendly Clooney and beloved Payne, is, as of now, the one to beat for Best Picture. Frankly, and again, in not having seen it I can only speculate, after a disappointing trailer the stellar reviews are just too big to ignore. Look for Clooney to possibly finally back his Supporting Actor Oscar with one from the Lead category.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Dir: Stephen Daldry
Let’s do some math: Stephen Daldry (who has only directed three movies before this…excuse my private geek out moment…INCLUDING THE MARVELOUS THE HOURS…and has been nominated for Best Director for EVERY single film he has done), plus America’s favorite Tom Hanks, some same plus (I say an definitive minus) for woman of the hour Sandra Bullock, in a movie based on the beloved book about a boy’s journey of self-discovery after his father dies in the 9/11 attacks equals how could it possibly lose? Well, after being one of the biggest unseen prospects this season, the trailer finally dropped last night and it just looks…glossy. Glossy can be good but in this particular instance it appears too saccharine. Early word has been good with most of the attention going to the only once-nominated Max von Sydow, but no one knows yet what kind of impact it will make in the race.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Dir: David Fincher
This could literally go either way. Provided you have not been living under a rock for the past couple of years, you will know that this project is based off the international bestselling trilogy by Stieg Larsson, where an economist teams with an edgy private investigator to determine what actually happened in a disappearance case that is over 40 years old. Some pros: David Fincher is one of the most respected auteurs working right now and the Swedish source material has caught on like wildfire. Rooney Mara, in her performance of investigator Lisbeth Salander, is said to be a revelation. Cons, and how hard will they be to overcome?: this film arrives just two short years after native Sweden made a highly successful film trilogy based off the books. I’ve always assumed at least Fincher was above Americanizing foreign projects immediately after their native release. Plus, Fincher’s style is very cold and dark. That’s ultimately one of the main reasons his The Social Network lost Best Picture last year to the friendlier The King’s Speech.

The Help
Dir: Tate Taylor
Well…………… about that. Like the rest of America, I actually have seen this movie, and personally found it to be passable but just a little manipulative. After surprising by making over $150 million at the box office, this summer release has to be considered a contender by that fact alone. Based on the popular novel, The Help tells the story of the African-American community of maids in the 1960’s south who tell the “real” story of working for the White folks to the one White socialite who dares to let their story be heard. In that description alone I’ve highlighted the factors which make this film too big to ignore: oppressed Black community being saved by the Whites, period piece, southern accents, and such. Aside from a phenomenal performance by the great Viola Davis, let’s be honest, this film, if eventually nominated, will occupy “The Blind Side Spot”. The Help follows the same formula as that popular Sandra Bullock starrer…even with the racial differences between Blacks and Whites. “The Blind Side Spot” refers to a movie that is not up to par in many respects but is the feel-good choice of the year so it sneaks its way into the final lineup.

The Ides of March
Dir: George Clooney
Hello again, Mr. Clooney! The Academy seems to love him even more when he steps behind the camera and in this instance he has delivered a taut thriller based on the play Farragut North. The story follows Clooney as a presidential candidate embroiled in scandal and a member of his campaign (Ryan Gosling) who must choose sides when push comes to shove. While early reviews, it must be noted overseas, have been mixed towards this movie about American politics, the cast is too big to ignore. Alongside Clooney and Gosling, you have Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Max Minghella, and Evan Rachel Wood as one of the best cast ensembles I have ever seen. Unless this film makes amazing numbers at the box office though, don’t expect it to go too far in the long run.

J. Edgar

Dir: Clint Eastwood
Once upon a time, a Clint Eastwood film automatically meant box office gold and Oscars across the board. In recent years, however, his last four or five movies have been chalked up as disappointments and have not made any splash in either department. He returns with a biopic of the controversial head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio). Rounding out the cast are his secretary (Naomi Watts), mother (Judi Dench), Charles Lindbergh (Josh Lucas), and Hoover’s “friend” and confidant (Armie Hammer). No one has actually seen this movie yet, but based off the trailer, it runs the risk of walking the line into schmaltz. The makeup job on DiCaprio is horrendous and distracts attention from everything else in the scene. Also of note, DiCaprio’s accent fades in and out from scene to scene. Those are my only two points as the trailer is all we have to go from. I would love to give this project the benefit of the doubt, however, as three-hour biopics are films at which Clint Eastwood excels.

Midnight in Paris
Dir: Woody Allen
Talk about the little movie that could! Released way back in May, this has become the highest grosser of Woody Allen’s career. Apparently after all these months it has remained fresh and beloved in viewers’ minds as it continues to reserve its place in the discussion for Best Picture. Owen Wilson stars as another incarnation of the neurotic Woody Allen, playing a failing Hollywood screenwriter who travels to Paris for a break. Eventually, he finds a transport back to 1920’s Paris, and with the help of some literary friends like Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, begins to see the flaws in not only his work, but his life. This certainly won’t actually win the big ones or anything like that, but it is an excellent film that hopefully does not fly under the radar.

Dir: Bennett Miller
If this movie fails blame it on the marketing. Before its release last week, Moneyball was presented as a movie simply about baseball and money and nothing much deeper than that. Of course, having Brad Pitt doesn’t hurt in the long run, but it wasn’t expected to go much farther than the sports fanbase. After word quickly got out that it was actually something revelatory, many flocked to theaters and found it to be surprisingly pleasant. Brad Pitt stands a decent chance at a nomination for what is said to be the best performance of his career by far, yet, in my opinion after Oscar watching for nine years now, this movie does not appear to have the legs to stand on when it comes to the big leagues (alright, that was my second Moneyball pun of the article. So sue me.) It just appears too light, and combined with the fact that there was such low expectations from poor marketing from the outset, many will forget this in time. If I am wrong, however, I will admit defeat and eat my words!

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Dir: Tomas Alfredson
Based on the popular novel by John Le Carre, the never nominated Gary Oldman leads an ensemble cast (including last year’s winner Colin Firth in his first movie post-win) as a high-ranking official in MI6 trying to determine who among their ranks is a mole. Early word has been beyond excellent with many commenting on the outstanding period elements of 1960’s Britain and the normally frantic Oldman in a subdued performance. Look for this to be not only the cerebral thinking man’s choice, but to gain votes from across the pond as the Brits’ only strong shot at a nomination this year.

The Tree of Life
Dir: Terrence Malick
Expectations were high for this project when it premiered at Cannes back in May as the incredibly elusive and publicity shy Terrence Malick delivered his latest piece. Malick works so infrequently, taking 20 years off between pictures at one point for instance, that The Tree of Life was bound to raise excitement among the film community, and that it certainly did. This very long film combines sometimes forty-minute pieces of nature shots on the beginning of the world with the story of a young boy (played as an adult by Sean Penn) under the strict domination of his father (Brad Pitt) in 1950’s Texas. This is a perfect example of a love-it or hate-it piece. Those who enjoyed it to the max admired the massive ethereal spectacle Malick undertook, while conversely, the detractors claimed it to be overwrought and egotistical. Walkouts have been reported and most theater chains refused to refund money to those dissatisfied with the film. Strangely, I personally found the nature sequences to be some of the most amazingly and stunningly shot scenes I have ever seen in film. For that, it will surely win the Cinematography Oscar this year. However, I found the family dynamic to be simply unbearable and narcissistic of Malick. This movie, while guaranteed nominations in the technical categories, may strike out elsewhere due to the fractured, divisive response from the public.

War Horse
Dir: Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg returns to the director’s chair for the first time in three years to bring this epic book to the big screen. Interestingly, the Broadway production of War Horse won the Tony for Best Play just this year. War Horse is the story, told from the POV of the horse, of a young man who gets separated from his adored horse in WWI England and goes to any lengths to recover the animal. This is perhaps the biggest sight-unseen contender of the season. Marketing has been productive yet no one has actually seen the film. Therein lies the biggest question Oscar strategists face: the film appears unbelievably schmaltzy. Not that Spielberg has anything to prove or even made this film to win Oscars, but we all know his style. With the glossy cinematography, simple narrative, and somewhat overdone score, will this succeed or disappoint? The magic on the stage lay with the spectacle of massive puppets creating horses, so will casting an actual horse diminish the visual display for the movie?

Hopefully this overview provides you with some interesting choices to keep a look out for at the cinema. Of course, even if these movies do not succeed with Oscar, they still may be excellent movies on their own and deserving of attention. In the upcoming months, I will continue to create more Oscar wrap-up pieces reflecting on the ever-evolving state of the race at the time.

Some further notable contenders whose film may not be in the discussion for Best Picture yet are worth mentioning: A Dangerous Method’s Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightley, Albert Nobbs’ Glenn Close and Janet McTeer, Beginners’ Christopher Plummer, Vanessa Redgrave in Coriolanus and Albert Brooks in Drive stand a decent chance at winning the Supporting Acting categories, the fabulous, stellar, marvelous, wonderful, excellent Meryl Streep as controversial figure Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, Martha Marcy May Marlene’s Elizabeth Olsen (I still can’t believe the younger sister of the Olsen twins has a good shot at an Oscar nomination!), Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh in My Week with Marilyn, Michael Fassbender in Shame, Charlize Theron in Young Adult, and the brilliant Tilda Swinton in the emotionally searing We Need to Talk About Kevin.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

What Makes a Good Movie "Good"?

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

Think about your favorite movies.  Just the top few, maybe.  Now, why do you like these movies so much? 

So first of all, I think it’s important to set aside movies you like for purely accidental of coincidental reasons; like “it’s OUR movie”, or “it’s the movie my grandma used to show me before she died”.  Those kinds of movies aren’t good on their own merits.  But so think about the purely great movies you’ve seen.

Here are a few commonly given reasons:

1)      It’s entertaining.  The movie is purely fun/thrilling/enjoyable to watch.
2)      It’s relatable.  There is something about the movie that was very easy to identify with.
3)      It’s profound.  It makes you think about something in a new way, or it just says something so true and tough-to-articulate about life.
4)      It’s amazing to look at.  The movie was visually stunning.

 Of course, there are more, and these categories could be broken out into a million subcategories (which it’s a critic’s job to do), but I think these are the main ones which we can now unpack.

Here’s my take:
If a movie is entertaining, but that’s about it, then it’s something that I may enjoy watching once, but likely never again.  A movie’s really gotta have something enduring about it, or it won’t stick with me and give me a reason to go back to it.  For instance, I was watching “Source Code” (directed by Duncan Jones, starring Jake Gyllennhaal) tonight, which was genuinely fun and compelling to watch, but that was it.  There was very little depth or ingenuity, the characters weren’t very empathetic or complex, and there were what seemed like a million things that broke the rules of logic or science, or just flat-out left stuff unexplained.  So while it gave me an hour and a half of amusement, I’d never watch it again.

On the other hand, though, there are some movies that seem like fricking social treatises, and are boring as hell to watch.  So being profound or intelligent isn’t enough.  “The Seventh Seal” (directed by Ingmar Bergman, starring Max von Sydow) is about the most brilliant film I’ve seen in my life, and although it’s still mostly interesting to watch, there are times when it can be just too dry.

At the other end of the spectrum are tired, cliché movies.  If any film is too-filled with hackneyed, trite moments that seem false and calculated, like a politician’s worst slogan (most romantic comedies[1] or slasher-horrors fall into this category), then I know I’ll roll my eyes in disgust.  A movie’s got to have the integrity and ingenuity to venture out on its own ideas if it wants any sort of substantial respect.

 Of course the worst cliché movies are the ones that think they’re so absolutely brilliant and earth-shatteringly profound, when in reality, they’re just one more load of already-been-said BS.  “Revolutionary Road” (directed by Sam Mendes, starring Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) comes to mind, as does pretty much anything written by Charlie Kaufman.

Being relatable means more than “I could identify with the main character”.  It actually is more along the lines of, “Could I suspend my disbelief?”  Any movie can be as fantastical as it wants, can break any Earth-bound laws of nature that it wants, as long as it’s true to the rules it sets up for itself.  Think “Harry Potter”, for instance.  Sure, none of us can relate to really being in a wizarding world with magic spells and cloaks and wands and such.  It’s not real, and as far as we know, it’s not possible.  But the reason “Harry Potter” still works for us is that it follows its own rules.  The way that things work in the world of “Harry Potter” is logical and consistent; every character casts spells the same way, and flies the same way, etc.  If a movie consistently breaks its own rules (e.g. If Harry could fly like Superman and cast spells out of his hands in one scene, when in the scene before he flew on his broomstick and pointed his wand) then our spell of “suspended disbelief” will be broken.   We’ll see the falseness behind the contrived, fantastical world. 

Another thing having to do a movie’s relatability is whether it has the courage to follow through with the course it’s been taking; does a movie that seems really sad and tragic bail itself out with a Disney-esque happy ending?  For instance, think about how in “The Adjustment Bureau” (directed by George Nolfi, starring Matt Damon), even though the point of the whole movie is that this secret organization that runs the universe won’t let Matt Damon and Emily Blunt get together, in the very end, just when the two of them should get caught and separated forever, the evil organization magically says ‘Oh, well, we can see you guys really love each other, so it’s ok.  You can be together now.’  See, crap like that just doesn’t fly.  Even though we all like happy endings, if a director appears to contrive a happy ending just because he wants one, or wants to appease his audience, I’ll resent it.  I can’t relate to it, because in life, magical happy endings just don’t happen.  Yes, Billy Costigan really did get shot at the end of “The Departed”.

Personally, whether or not a movie is visually stunning really doesn’t matter much to me.  If a movie is pretty, but its story sucks and so does everything else about it, then I’ll still think it’s awful.  Take “Avatar” (directed by James Cameron, starring Sam Worthington); the effects, and some of the shots are just breathtaking.  But the unbelievably clichéd storyline, the wooden dialogue, the 1-dimensional characters still overwhelmingly, in my opinion, make it a mediocre and forgettable movie, despite the visuals.  Still, when attached to an already decent film, spectacular visuals can make a movie that much more enduring.

 So I suppose, what makes a movie good is having one, or maybe two of the traits listed above in moderate degree.  But what makes a movie really great is when it has multiple of these traits, to a high degree.

[1] Or “Rom-Coms”, according to my pal Heisman.