Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Criticism Concepts: Part 1: Emotion and Reaction

(This is the first part in a planned series on the constriction of a critique, and the criticism enterprise in general)

Critics get a bad rap, which is a little odd when you consider how we all place ourselves in the critic’s booth at one time or another. Amazon, Youtube, and just about every video game site is loaded with reviews of all kinds and of varying quality - from short, one-sentence diatribes, to extended essays damning or eulogizing a particular work in question.  What, if anything, does this constant stream of amateur expression have in common with the supposedly refined and impartial writings of a professional critic?  What ties reviews of all sorts under the single heading of “critique”?  Or does such a unity in fact even exist?

Let’s try to put these questions to a process, shall we?  Imagine this: you are sitting at home after a long day of work, trying to unwind while clicking through a seemingly endless series of cable channels. Suddenly, your eyes light up as you land on a movie some friend of a friend of a coworker mentioned a while back.  Curious and with nothing else pressing, you decide to have a looksie.  An hour and a half flies by, and the movie closes, leaving you feeling...

Now here is the critical point.  How, exactly, do you feel by the end of it?   Elated for the good fortune to have stumbled across such a masterpiece?  Angry for the 90 minutes now lost that can never be recovered?  Or, perhaps, simply bored, neither hot nor cold, and ready to embark on yet another quest for a moment’s distraction?  The specific emotion matters less than the act of feeling itself, for this is the initial spark, the impetus that could propel you towards crafting a developed critique, should you prove willing.

Unfortunately, this is where the process usually ends for many would-be critics. One has only to scan a few web comments to notice that most “reviews” amount to little more than a base emotional reaction thrown around with little forethought or reflection.  This can sometimes be harder to spot than you’d think, since so much of it is cloaked in flowery or rigorous-sounding words. In fact, for the more cynical among us, this may be all that criticism amounts to - high-falutin words meant to conceal a single and simple binary: “This rocks!” or “This sucks!”

So how do we move beyond that?  Or are the cynics right in declaring that there is no point beyond where our personal feelings of like or dislike take us?

I find this line of thinking completely unacceptable.  

I'll admit that there is a certain appeal in saying “Everything is relative, so think what you want!”  But most of us don’t buy that line when it comes to a deeply held conviction, like religion or politics.  Even a commitment to the belief that “you shouldn't judge the beliefs of others” requires...well, a commitment, and if you won’t commit to something you think is The Truth, than what’s the point?  And I have encountered very few good arguments that in any way spell out how the Arts differ from any other topic of note.  Aesthetics - the branch of philosophy dealing with the the nature of beauty and artistic taste - has many thousands of years of dedicated pursuit of an objective criterion of “art” under its belt, and the insight from its many champions are well worth a gander if you have the interest.  That said, most people - critics or not - have neither the time nor the patience to digest dense tomes tackling (or attempting to, anyway) the definition of art, the gendered hierarchy of criticism, or the applicability of “sublime” to any piece worthy of critiquing.  Furthermore, the pronouncements of these great minds, profound as they are, feel as though they are missing something very basic - namely, feeling itself.  Emotion was always something of a blind spot at the heart of philosophy, even aesthetics, and to many looking in from the outside, philosophers lose sight of the basic joy of experience in the process of formulating their arcane theories.  I’ll have a lot more to say on the great range and enormous depth of aesthetics later, but suffice it to say that the public perception that most philosophy is “all head and no heart” isn't far off the mark.

So it seems that we have come full circle.  While I don’t believe that emotional reactions are the be-all and end-all of a good critique, they shouldn't be completely cut from the process either.  So where does that leave us?  If emotion is the “spark” of the critiquing process, where lies the tinder?  While your gut feelings and immediate emotional reactions should not - indeed, cannot - be stifled, one should still hold them at a comfortable distance, letting them settle to the bottom while you sift through the sediments with a relatively clear mind.  Once the initially tight wad of charged emotions unwinds into something beyond “It sucked” and “It rocked,” an intelligible reader response forms: “outrage” becomes “disappointed at the unresolved plot threads in the ending”; “joy” becomes “good chemistry between the two lead that end on a high note”; and so on.  It isn't quite a critique, not yet, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.  With a little clarity towards why you responded the way you did, you can move beyond crude rocks/sucks binaries and embrace a more complex - and dare I say, more accurate - picture of your 90-minute distraction.

If anyone has anything else to share, feel free to post below.

See you at the movies!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Movie Review: Focus

Movie: Focus
Directed By: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santora

While Smith is hardly breaking new ground with this latest performance, the easy likability of the main cast and cheeky self-awareness shines through in a film otherwise bogged down by a bizarre romantic plot, an unfortunate love affair with too many so-called “twists,” and a complete lack of “focus” on what it wants to be.

I must admit that  I was looking forward to seeing Focus when I first heard about it - not only because I had already made up my mind to make it my inaugural viewing at the wonderful Starlight Drive In, but because I was giddy with anticipation on seeing Will Smith depart from the generic "nice guy with silly quirk” hole that has more or less defined his movie career since Men In Black.  The story seemed promising: Smith plays con artist extraordinaire Nicky Spurgeon, whose latest “job” gets complicated when Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie), a former pupil-turned-lover, steps back into the picture after he left her cold three years earlier.  On paper, this sounded intriguing; while con/caper movies are a dime a dozen, and I still cringe at the mention of Now You See Me even after two years, it struck me as so contrary to what I’d expect from the Will Smith Toolbox that I was more than willing to give it a go.  

I’ve only seen a few TV spots, and none of the trailers, though I figured that it wouldn’t affect my perception of what I was going to see.  Boy was I wrong, for no sooner had the first 20 minutes passed that the movie pulled its biggest (and best) plot twist: it was actually a romantic comedy disguised as a heist thriller.  Granted, those first 20 minutes gave me a good ride, brief as they were.  Say what you want about Smith’s lack of movie diversity, but he certainly plays “disarming charm” with the best of them, and Robbie approaches her role with a sincere and refreshing geekiness quite unlike the now-standard Too-Hip Chick personas in most modern caper flicks. Of course, this was also the first sign that I was watching something very unlike what I was initially expecting.  The pair’s first sustained dialogue scene, in which the experienced con gives his would-be apprentice a crash course on misdirection, was cute - so cute, in fact, that you knew almost immediately where their relationship was heading, even if you came into it with very little prior knowledge like me.  And, like me, this realization in all likelihood induced a gag reflex on first blush, considering the 22-year difference in age between the two actors.  Still, their chemistry as student and pupil, and then boss and employee after she officially joins his den of thieves, was convincing and genuine, and would have kept me happy had it remained at that level throughout the entire production.

It was when the relationship turned romantic that everything went downhill.  The bitter aftertaste of this hookup was not, as in other romantic comedies, solely a function of the compatibility (or lack there of) of the leading pair; in fact, the continued chemistry and playful back-and-forth between Smith and Robbie was the only consistently enjoyable thread throughout the first half of the film.  Rather, the problem lies in just how out-of-place it seems in a movie still trying to masquerade as a caper flick, even after its true colors are revealed.  Despite the massive set up for their relationship, Focus had trouble keeping, well, focus, on Smith and Robbie, and frequently digressed into the long and honestly inconsequential flashback sequences/voice over expositions so commonplace in most modern heist movies.  One especially glaring example happened not long after Nicky and Jess’ initial hook up; I’ll spare the details since that would ruin the “surprise” factor, but it occupied a good ten minutes of screen time and ultimately served no purpose for either the development of their romance or the advancement of the plot.  It didn’t even have the courtesy to show up later ala Chekhov's Gun to explain on overlooked piece of the story cleverly concealed until that very moment.  I can’t pin down why Ficarra and Requa bothered to add it in the first place, since while it was fun to watch - and was the only point in the movie Smith deviated ever-so-slightly away from the “Nice Guy” mold - it was so unnecessary that I couldn't help but feel a little cheated at the end of it.

Despite that, most of the standard heist tropes and devices following this scene were more tolerable, since they highlighted the film’s playful self-awareness.  It was as if the directors knew that the jig was up, so throughout the movie’s second half  - set three years later in Argentina - the con caper aspects were played with as the romantic comedy core unfurled.  Whereas before the exposition scenes were played horribly straight, now there is a slight sense of mocking, putting a stamp on how ridiculous the whole thing was is.  There was one point when Nicky, after dropping what seemed like  the mother of all flashbacks, is left reeling when Jess reveals that nearly everything she told me about herself and why she was in Argentina was comically off the mark.  This was a refreshing contrast to Now You See Me, which had a similar obsession with verbose exposition but possessed neither Focus’ delightful cast, not its ability to treat its accumulated film baggage with a sense of humor.  Adding to the near parody was the timely inclusion of Gerald McRaney to the roster as Owens, the uptight head of security for Rafael Garriga, billionaire motor team owner and Nicky’s latest contract.  McRaney brings a colorful interpretation to a tired old stock, as likely to lecture Nicky on his work ethic and the quality of his acting as he is to threaten him into keeping up his end of the bargain with Garriga.  He’s a walking reminder that we’re not supposed to take the caper elements of the movie too seriously, and it’s all the better for it.

Unfortunately, not even McRaney could save the movie’s tired romantic plot, which by the end was a vestigial appendage bloated near the point of bursting.  Despite being what the movie is supposedly “about,” the romantic subplot had long lost what little potency and charm it had, even though, paradoxically, Smith and Robbie in and of themselves did not.  I blame the stockpile of contrivances and “turns” accumulated by the end, for despite the welcomed switch to gentle parody, they still muddled the movie’s genre, and hence, its focus.  As I mentioned in my review of The Interview, it is crucial that a movie commits to one particular representation of its own making; while the ability to wear multiple genre hats is admirable if pulled off successfully, you're much more likely to stumble over yourself and fall short in delivery in any direction, and that’s exactly what happened in Focus.  By the end, the natural chemistry between Smith and Robbie that somehow persisted despite the disturbing age difference came to nothing memorable, and even the amusement provided by the playful plot twists and flashback scenes had run dry.  When the end launched one last “shocking” salvo at the audience, I was past the point of caring, ready to drive off from what I knew would prove to be yet another cute, but completely forgettable film.

Grade C

Monday, March 2, 2015

March 2015 Releases and Premieres

March Releases 

Well, it's that time again, and March is underway with some impressive debuts.  Here's what's going on this month:





See you all at the movies!