The Quick and the Dead (1995) – Movie Review

On the surface, everything needed for a thrilling Western seems to be there: we have gun-duels, a revenge plot, a cheesy score (replete with whipping sounds,) explosions, bodies getting tossed about, tits, etc. However, despite containing all of these elements the movie is missing one key thing: excitement. Everything in the film that is supposed to be tense or gratifying is completely undermined by how predictable it all seems. The Quick and the Dead (directed by Sam Raimi) is supposed to be a love letter to the genre, but the problem is that anyone who has seen even only a few Westerns will likely be bored by this film. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being a homage, but it’s as if they just took every trope and cobbled them together with little regard for things like narrative, imagery and character development. A movie can’t just be a collection of references and cliches; it has to be able to stand on its own; it has to have something.

The Quick and the Boring begins with Sharon Stone as a gunslinger who strolls into town after stealing a horse from some bloke. The wide-shots of the plains and the shots of the drunkards and prostitutes already indicates to the audience that this movie has no original ideas. Sharon Stone’s character, especially, is a stoic dressed-up as Clint Eastwood; she isn’t even given a name as she’s mostly referred to as “The Lady.” It’s almost as if they were attempting to create a mythic character out of her a la “The Man With No Name,” but it doesn’t work. This is because 1.) Sharon Stone just doesn’t have the same presence as a Clint Eastwood to totally pull this off and 2.) the writing doesn’t do anything with the potential archetype; we’re just expected to accept the nature of her character despite not being offered anything original or interesting to latch onto.

Anyway, the town, called Redemption (do I need to tell you that this is going to be a theme of the film?), is holding an annual dueling competition. We are soon introduced to a flurry of characters including the town’s tyrant Herod (Gene Hackman), a preacher and Herod’s former henchman Cort (Russel Crowe) and The Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio) who we later find out is Herod’s illegitimate son. The aforementioned competition and characters are all introduced within a single, quickly-paced saloon scene. The problem with this is that it’s information overload to the point that, when Herod finally enters and nearly hangs Cort for refusing to enter the contest (Herod is obsessed with showing that Cort is, deep-down, still a killer,) and The Lady intervenes we sort of don’t give a shit. There is hardly any tension, just the empty spectacle of Cort nearly being hanged within the bar. It’s also obvious that The Lady has something against Herod (though what is revealed, gradually, over time,) but instead of the audience wondering about her possible motivations all we’re thinking is “Oh, I guess there’s a past between them suddenly. Okay. Whatever.” This is because it’s all shoved into the scene so swiftly and with nary any subtlety. We’re just supposed to accept and care about these characters.

After all of the major characters sign-up for the competition we basically know how things pan out. As Herod tries to coerce Cort he isn’t go to fully revert back to his old ways; The Kid is going to get cocky and get killed; The Lady is going to have a number of opportunities to kill Herod, but the audience knows that they are destined to duel at the end, making such scenes where she is seemingly going to kill him seem pointless and drawn-out; etc.

There are no interesting narrative twists, no character or image that compels; basically nothing to offer aside from a rather predictable and rote story. There are also some rather inexcusable cliches, like when Herod makes his entrance the saloon doors open and a breeze moves across The Lady’s hair; we then get an intense close-up of her eyes as Herod enters as flames dance in the background (there is a “Day of the Dead” celebration happening outside with firelight.) Another notable example is at the film’s “low point,” which is so over-the-top that it’s nearly painful. The Lady, after killing a local asshole (she has a thing against killing,) abandons town only to find her father’s grave (we learn that she used to be marshal of the town.) She’s crying, it’s raining, she’s standing near tombstones, and an old fuck hands her her father’s badge. Do I need to tell you that this scene just plain sucks? You can’t even say the scene feels manipulative; it’s not clever enough to be even that. The audience just feels embarrassed. In order to present a character’s or narrative’s “low point” you have to do so less ham-fistedly lest the audience starts tuning-out. The Lady returns to the town and goes down on Cort after they have shared a few scenes together. We already knew that they were going to get together because there always has to be some sort of romance (has to be!); and, since we know this, we also know that it’s inevitable that they are going to have to duel each other. But, of course, when The Lady is shot we know that she isn’t dead. As the film progresses we are just waiting for her to return, making the part where she blows up half the town seem less exciting.

But, ultimately, like a lot of films, the reason this movie fails is because of the characters. They are all one-note, following a single, predictable trajectory. Not much else defines them. Just because a character has a backstory, or has an established arc, doesn’t mean the character is good; it just means the character is basic. We don’t really get “into” the characters. There lacks seemingly little moments that help define the figures on screen as human rather than stereotypes or props serving the narrative. Possibly the best major character is Cort, but even then we don’t get much out of him other than that he’s trying to redeem himself by becoming a preacher, a cliche that could work if something was done with it. We don’t get to explore Cort’s guilt, nor his animosity towards killing. The only real, “small” moment, that works decently is when he wins his first duel he looks down at his gun with surprise, as if the thing that killed his opponent wasn’t himself, but rather some other second nature that he’s been attempting to bury. Instead of capitalizing on such a moment and what it represents we instead get an awful scene in which Herod takes Cort to the gun shop ran by The Kid. As the Kid pulls out fancier, and fancier pistols we get close-ups of Cort’s eyes, filled with temptation. “Hey audience. This is how we want you to think of Cort. Get it?” Again, The Slow and the Dread really lacks subtlety. 

The Lady could have been a good character. After the saloon scene she wakes up in The Kid’s bed, hungover. This is a twist on the audience’s expectations because before we’ve seen The Lady as this complete stoic; now we see how much of this is a facade. But, again, the movie doesn’t really capitalize on this potential character development. What we really needed is an exchange between The Lady and Cort where they implicitly challenge the other’s motivations and character. The Lady could imply that Cort’s becoming a preacher is just a superficial “fix”: an easy and obvious way to deny one’s past sins; at the same time, Cort could question what The Lady will do once she got her revenge. Their reactions to such queries will open the characters up, and, as well, make their relationship more human, allowing the audience to care more deeply. The Lady could also describe how, in her attempts to save her father, ended-up killing him and she could explain that as the reasoning for saving Cort. It might be far-fetched for her character to doll such information out explicitly, but she could at least attempt to, but then slink back into herself. This would show us her vulnerability and her inability to connect with others. It’s stuff like that that allows us to give a shit about these characters as human.

The Kid, on the other hand, needs something more as well. Perhaps, as the film pushes forth, we see that he is just like his father or, perhaps, even worse. This could be shown in how he treats the other characters, or how he acts in private. Instead of him merely being one thing throughout, our expectations would become subverted. When a character seemingly changes direction halfway, but in a way that seems organic to the narrative, the audience is more inclined to want to see what happens next for how the events of the film will unfold becomes an even greater question.

So, in conclusion, I would not recommend The Quick and the Dead. Unlike some people I know, I don’t think it’s amazing. I mean, it’s not terrible, but it’s still a pretty empty experience, like drinking alone or going to your grandmother’s birthday. A film, in order to be good, needs to do more than just go from A to B to C whilst hitting every beat; that shit might impress a Screenwriting 101 course, but a film needs to go beyond fulfilling technique in order to be truly successful. There needs to be inspiration. Something to grasp onto. You may like the film for whatever reason, but otherwise, it is just a barren plane.

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A Review of a Review of Citizen Kane–God Help Me

You have to marvel at those poor souls who look at a portrait by Rembrandt as they would floral wallpaper, or read a poem by Yeats and register it in the same way they would an article on fly-fishing; people who simply don’t get it and most likely never will regardless of education or experience. I’m not suggesting that everyone has to have a passion for the arts, but there are those who, while mostly indifferent when it comes to art, know that there is just something to a Rembrandt or a Goya that a typical painting simply does not possess, even if they are unable to express what that particular thing might be. Then there are folks like Harrison Crawford whose review of Citizen Kane begins, after describing, briefly, Welles’ infamous tenure as a wine salesman, as thus:

It wasn’t until college that I had a chance to see Kane on a big screen in an actual movie theater. And at the time I parroted the enthusiasm it had generated in many of the intellectual pillars of the arts crowd, the same analysts who adored the movies of Jean Renoir, Francois Truffaut and Ingmar Bergman. “Wow! Magnificent! An unbelievable cinematic achievement! Orson Welles, the original auteur! All hail, Caesar!”

Last week, I saw the movie again. This time the youthful enthusiasm I originally had for it was mostly absent. In my maturity I tend to agree with the mature judgment of Orson Welles himself, who near the end of his life told a friend he thought a “cold wind” ran through Citizen Kane.

For those unfamiliar with the movie (and that would probably be almost every reader under the age of 40), let me summarize it: A reporter fails to find the meaning of a lonely tycoon’s dying word.

Yes, you read it correctly. Does this sound like a riveting story? Would a millennial nerd, hearing that tagline, be energized to cast away his iPod and his Twitter surfing, put on his jeans and run to the nearest art house to see a revival of it? Ahem, I DON’T THINK SO!

It is true: there are numerous film students and critics who claim to appreciate great works, including Citizen Kane, without actually understanding why those works are great and end-up “parroting” what others I have said. Crawford claims to have grown out of this, developing a perspective independent of others, but while he didn’t truly understand why Kane was great when he was a student he still manages to be clueless despite his “maturity.”

First off, look at his synopsis of the film: “A reporter fails to find the meaning of a lonely tycoon’s dying word.” This is more like a succinct description of the film’s ending, but whatever. The main issue is that Crawford simply doesn’t get that whether a story is “riveting” or not comes from how the story is constructed. This means that a movie merely about a man going for a walk on a Tuesday could potentially be great, or riveting. “Would a millennial nerd…” This is just silly. It’s as if Crawford is still the student in college for he’s evoking some rather sophomoric ideas in regards to art. So what if a nerd living in 2015 or 2265 or 2982 wouldn’t be excited by (Crawford’s) tagline? What does that have to do with the movie’s quality, which isn’t dependent on one’s emotional relationship towards it? Citizen Kane was great when it came out and it is still great now whether or not a film nerd today may or may not like watching it. Crawford almost has the right idea, that great art should have a timelessness, but he’s just one of those people who doesn’t quite get it.

He moves beyond his own synopsis and summarizes the film in some length. Here’s how he describes the ending:

Though revealing much about Kane’s character—namely, that he was an arrogant, self-centered, manipulative jerk who consistently betrayed his friends and threw money at his problems— the various interviewees leave Thompson’s original inquiry unanswered. At Xanadu, Kane’s massive Florida pleasure palace (modeled after William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon, as is much of Kane’s life and career modeled after Hearst), Thompson observes some of Kane’s bric-a-brac being thrown into an incinerator. One of the items is the snow sled from his Colorado childhood. Unbeknownst to Thompson or anyone else, the burning flames reveal “Rosebud” on the sled as the movie closes. A yearning for the lost innocence of childhood, perhaps? We can’t tell.

Note his disingenuous use of “the royal we” and how he claims to not understand the symbolism of Rosebud despite claiming that it represents “the lost innocence of childhood.” Yes, he puts what the symbol means in the form of a question, but that’s just a ruse: he knows that’s what the sleigh represents, but putting it in question-form is Crawford’s special way of implying that the movie has somehow failed in expressing this, and that he is, somehow, above the film itself. Of course, Crawford isn’t going to touch on the ending beyond its basic meaning (no mention of the fact that the symbolic sleigh is now not only lost to Kane, but to everyone else as well, especially to those who were searching for a way to understand Kane as a person.) He knows what he is supposed to get, but he perhaps isn’t impressed and, instead of trying to think about what the film does at a level deeper than what Sparknotes suggests, he blames the film itself.

Moving on:

But, alas, there’s more to drama than mere technical excellence and brilliant acting, just as there’s more to dentistry than successfully pulling teeth. The dentist who pulls out a tooth painlessly and thoroughly—but who pulls out the wrong tooth—would have done better to leave the patient alone. And, in making a movie about a man who shows no redeeming virtues of any sort, Welles has pulled the wrong tooth out of his audience.

For all people, even all villains, have some redeeming virtue. Evil monsters, from Goliath to Captain Ahab, have always had something about them, some talent or capacity for achievement, some quirky bit of charisma to remind us that, if they ever learned to switch sides and fight for good, we might actually learn to like them. But Charles Foster Kane has no shred of any of this. We are told repeatedly, ad nauseum, by the likes of Susan Alexander Kane and Jed Leland, that Kane lived only for Kane. We do not see that he has really earned anything that he has been given in his life. In consequence, we get bored after a while. The uniformly selfish spectacle of his personality gets tiresome.

A selfish, rich and manipulative male—what is compelling or unusual about this? History, drama and literature are awash with the stereotype. Welles, and perhaps even more guiltily, Herman Mankiewicz, the co-credited screenwriter who was older than Welles and should have known better, went over the top. Didn’t they realize the monotony of egotism needed at least a little moderation?

Crawford is correct, despite the clunky comparison to dentistry, that technical excellence does not automatically equate to artistic greatness. And he’s also correct that villains in real-life aren’t merely villains, but contain, with varying degrees, nuance (though I would have used a different word instead of the over-the-top “virtue,”) but look at how he describes a villain that is redeemable: someone who is charismatic, talented and, if things were different, might have been on the “right side”; now, doesn’t this fit Charles Foster Kane to a fucking tee? Isn’t one of the reasons why Kane is considered a tragedy because it depicts a great man (charismatic, passionate, ambitious, and ingenious enough to expand his empire) who, despite his greatness, dies alone? Did Crawford even watch the film? Or, better yet, did he watch the film with blinders willingly, or unwillingly?

“The uniformly selfish spectacle of his personality gets tiresome.” This criticism would apply to a movie like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that is nothing but drug-addicts doing silly, drug-addict things; however, in Citizen Kane we get not only Kane’s selfishness, but the impact and various consequences of his selfishness. And it’s not like Kane just does a bunch of self-serving shit (Kane ends up doing things for others as well, but whatever) and then end-credits. Did Crawford miss the irony at the end that, despite Kane’s commitment to filling his inner-lacks, is alone and utterly lost to himself? What about the ways Kane’s life is depicted? Going back to technical excellence, Kane is a great film that uses lighting and editing and a (somewhat) nonlinear structure to make the watching experience more interesting. Instead of a continuous stream of selfishness, we swerve between moments, via other characters’ perspectives, to try to cohere a portrait of someone. In various scenes, we see Kane looming larger than all else within the frame; we see Kane in focus while objects in the foreground are in a haze; we see Kane trapped within an infinite reflection of himself through the mirrors at the end. Such things are the result of excellent technique in the service of narrative; Citizen Kane becomes not just some story of a selfish oaf, but an interesting and well-crafted tale of a man who happens to be selfish amongst many other things.

“A selfish, rich and manipulative male—what is compelling or unusual about this? History, drama and literature are awash with the stereotype.” Do I even have to address such stolidity? Fine. This goes back to a point I made earlier, that you can make a movie about nearly anything and it could potentially be supernal if in capable hands. Kane is excellent because it is not only a great portrait of a singular entity, but it’s also applicable to the thousands or millions of “great men” that have traversed human history. This is because, while it’s great in its depiction of a single person, it’s outwardly great for it touches on things universal, going beyond shallow and transitory explanations. Timelessness is one of the requisites for a great work of art, and Citizen Kane proves itself.

So, that shows how–oh wait, there’s more? Great.

Younger generations today, in trying to find a parallel to Hearst/Kane in their own experience, might consider Rupert Murdoch, the distant and mysterious majordomo of the Fox News empire. But Murdoch as a young man was not well-known. Perhaps a more easily decipherable young gun, a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg, might resonate with them more and suggest some type of modern day incarnation of Kane. But Jobs and Zuckerberg both illustrate the complexity of fascination: though arrogant, wealthy, domineering and opportunistic, these men had a palpable genius, a sense of innovation which lent itself to humanitarianism. Welles and Mankiewicz, despite their flair for drama, deprived their Charles Foster Kane of this.

Crawford must have watched the movie in the same way a dullard looks at Monet and only sees the colors and shapes. He just sees some bloke being selfish on the screen whilst missing pretty much everything else. However, you, the reader, might have managed to see something yourself: a running theme in Crawford’s “review”–the suggestion that Kane doesn’t “hold-up” in the new century. Here he implies that Kane is somehow now irrelevant to millennials for they have such archetypical figures as Jobs and Zuckerberg. But anyone can see how Jobs and Zuckerberg are often compared, rightly or not, to Kane and it’s not because the character just happens to be wealthy. Hell, Crawford even admits to this: younger generations filter certain real-life figures through Kane because they represent much of what Kane does. If Kane didn’t have a “palpable genius, a sense of innovation which lent itself to humanitarianism,” then why would people use him as a point of reference? Crawford is trying to make a point, but, unfortunately, reality keeps undermining him. Boo.

Here’s how Crawford concludes his review:

Largely as a result, it is unlikely anyone in today’s world who is not a cinema aficionado, a cognoscente of craft, will find Citizen Kane appealing. Unlike George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life or Rick Blaine in Casablanca, torn and tortured heroes of two other classics of the 1940’s, Charles Foster Kane doesn’t seem to know the difference between good or evil, or to care. In retrospect, he resembles the aging, obese caricature Welles himself became: rich but totally irrelevant.

Bullshit. Plenty of people appreciate Citizen Kane because they actually watched the movie, unlike you. And even if a small fraction of the populace doesn’t care about the film currently, or films in general as an art-form, that doesn’t make Kane less relevant. If we’re going to use time as a measurement of greatness then it would behoove us not to measure how many people approach a work in a single decade or generation, but rather if that particular work survives after numerous decades. If not many people watch Kane now, that doesn’t mean people are going to stop watching it in 2095. In contrast, a million people might watch Terminator: Genysis this year, but is anyone even going to know its name twenty years from now? And another thing: is knowing the difference between good and evil really your metric for measuring the quality of a character? Get the fuck out of here. I would say Kane knows the difference, but, screw it, it’s redundant at this point to argue at this point.

Is Citizen Kane the greatest movie ever? Perhaps not. Hell, I would argue that it’s not even Welles’s best film, but it’s still a damned fine film, one that is not just innovative but whose numerous innovations help serve the story and deepen it. Crawford, in writing his review, probably felt the need to form a corrective to the popular perception that Kane is the “greatest movie in the history of forever ever,” but, while he’s not calling it the worst, he seems to be trying way too hard to adopt the other extreme. You see such behavior from teenagers and hipsters whose response to a superlative is to take on the polar opposite position: “Dark Side of the Moon isn’t the best album ever–in fact, it sucks fucking doggy dick!” But neither side realizes that the truth usually, though not always, lies in between the opposites of the spectrum. Crawford falls for a very peculiar trap: he really, desperately, wants to be the guy that sees “the light” whilst everyone else remains fixed to the shadows on the cavern wall. But, at least when it comes to assessing art, he is blind. Despite what he might think of himself, he really isn’t that different from the guy he was in college–he just happens to represent a different camp.

I imagine Crawford at an art museum, shuffling past the various exhibits, shaking his head and muttering to himself as he looks at Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais and then Duchamp’s terrible conceptual art, viewing both with the same, uncomprehending gaze. Some people, bless them, can’t tell the difference between greatness and crap and only have silly justifications to provide for their lack of sight. The answer gets lost in the clutter and, like the reporter who’s given-up on his search for meaning behind a man’s final utterance, Crawford leaves the building unknowing of what will survive the generations and what will vanish in the fire.

Okay, enough of these pseudo-critics. I now want to get back to posting movie reviews and crappy poems. I just need to…wait…

What is that?

oh.

oh dear…

What’s Star Wars?

I found out about a very silly essay defending the Star Wars prequels. The writer is basically arguing that the underlying structure of Star Wars is akin to that of a ring where each movie repeats and is interconnected, or some other pseudo-intellectual crap. He pretty much ignores the fundamental problems with the films and instead focuses on some dumb theory that’s completely irrelevant to the ways humans create and retain narrative (who cares about similarities between the films when the stories and characters themselves suck?) I’m not a Star Wars fan (I prefer Star Trek) and I’ve always felt that even the originals weren’t very good, but at least were somewhat competent, aside from some of the acting, in comparison to the prequels. Maybe I’ll read the whole thing, but then again it’s ten whole pages long. Still not as bad as some academic essays I’ve read however.

Alex Sheremet’s “Woody Allen: Reel to Real” – Book Review

Alex Sheremet’s Woody Allen: Reel to Real, a critique on the filmography of Woody Allen, is both good and, possibly, important as well. I say important for a number of reasons: first, there’s the fact that it’s an ebook published by Take2Publishing as a “DigiDialogue”; Sheremet encourages readers and critics to comment on the book’s content and the comments (at his discretion) shall become a part of later editions of the book. I’m not sure if this is particularly innovative, but it both utilizes the ebook format in order to, potentially, create a dialogue between the author and reader, and the reader gets more bang for his buck as the book automatically updates without the reader having to fork out any more cash (if you paid for the book you can receive a free subscription for future updates by registering on the book’s official website, you can also post your own comments on Sheremet’s website (http://alexsheremet.com/) which may be included in later updates.) Even better, these updates will also most likely include critiques of future Woody Allen films which is nice considering Woody Allen releases a new film every other week. Reel to Real serves as a possible model for future authors considering the possibilities of the ebook format.

Aside from the technical aspects, the book also proves its import by the way it approaches its subject: Sheremet chooses to focus on not Woody Allen the person, but rather Woody Allen as defined through his work. Much discussion regarding his films are often obscured by things unrelated to what’s actually on screen, specifically Allen’s relationship with women and the various scandals that he’s associated with. Sheremet, as a critic, realizes the importance of separating the creator from his work when assessing said work (and besides, in the long run, all that matters will be Woody Allen’s films, not the events of his life, thus Sheremet’s book is going to have greater longevity than other books that focus more on the gossip and scandals.) However, more importantly, Sheremet’s book is also a demonstration of a number of posits unspecific to Woody Allen and applicable to film and criticism in general. The major ones are thus:

  • Art can be looked at objectively, meaning that, while art is subjective in the sense one often has an emotional relationship to a film/poem/sculpture/etc., a piece of art is an object that also exists on its own outside of the viewer’s emotional purview. This establishes a distinction between liking/disliking a film and realizing that it is, on its own, good/bad, objectively.
  • As mentioned before, it’s important for one who wishes to give something a fair assessment of an object to not be influenced by what he thinks/believes of its creator.
  • An object, when one is critiquing it, has to judge it on its own terms. For example, it’ unfair to damn a slapstick comedy for not having a political thrust.
  • There is a difference between plot and narrative. A film may not have much in terms of plot, but what matters most is whether the narrative is good or not.

These are some of the basic posits that drive Sheremet’s critique on Woody Allen’s films and this is where the book establishes most of its import. Most people say that art is merely subjective (though, I would argue, that no one truly believes this regardless of what they say/think) meaning people often forget that it’s possible to like a film while recognizing its immanent crapiness. The Doors is one of the greatest bands ever, but I can’t stand them, and there is nothing wrong with this; it would be unfair, however, for me to say they suck just because I don’t like organ solos. People often forget that art is like rhetoric in that its ultimate goal is to express an idea/ideas. One may not like Christopher Hitchens’s positions or might disagree with them, but that doesn’t mean that they way he argues his positions is in anyway inadequate. And this is comparable to art for, like rhetoric, there are effective ways and ineffective ways to communicate certain ideas. The second posit is, perhaps, more pertinent to the subject of the book as people often judge Woody Allen’s works based on their personal opinions on Woody Allen, the man. This is also unfair for it doesn’t give the films themselves a chance.

Now, these posits may seem obvious, but they are often neglected, or dismissed. This is problematic because, if everyone truly thinks art is subjective, then everything becomes lowered. If one believes art is subjective than they must accept the implications, meaning, then, that every piece of art is qualitatively equal. This means that a painting by Monet is equal, in an objective sense, to fecal matter smeared across a canvas and it’s the viewer’s opinion, only, that renders their worth in contrast to the other. Sheremet’s book is important for it helps one realize that, yes, there are films that are better than others and that they should be recognized as such, regardless of what whether we like those particular films or not. Do we really want to exist in a world where Monet’s Waterlilies is objectively equal to Brown on White? However, not only is art subjective and objective, but one can, as Sheremet shows, able to see a film objectively and make a case for whether is succeeds or not in expressing its ideas.

While I’ve made the case for the book’s potential significance, both in regard to Woody Allen and art criticism in general, it’s not enough for a book to just be important; one also has to be able to do his ideas justice as well by effectively expressing them to the reader; fortunately, Sheremet manages to do such. The bulk of the book concerns the films of Woody Allen of which are critiqued individually (pretty much every film of his since the 60’s gets an essay); there are five sections, the first four focus on Allen the director with the fifth touching on films he’s merely acted or appeared in, not directed. The first section looks at Allen’s “early, funny ones” from 1965 to 1976, the second is Allen’s “Golden Age” which begins with Annie Hall, ending with Husbands and Wives; the third on his films from 1992 to 2004, and finally the fourth looks at his more recent work. While I’m no film expert, and certainly not one on Woody Allen, I have read plenty of movie criticism online and I can say that Sheremet’s essays easily rank above the majority of critiques out there. For example, here’s from his critique on Sleeper:

There are a number of memorable scenes, such as Luna (Diane Keaton) longing to be a poet, yet only being able to write trite , silly words (apparently, there is virtually no written history left of prior periods.) It’s an interesting little detail, for while it is all too often assumed that art moves in a direction all its own, with no logical way to ‘get’ at it, for ‘it’s all opinion, anyway,’ the fact is, art is always climbing in complexity, and is utterly dependent upon former models and antecedents. Thus, with culture gone, and life’s deeper concerns more or less eliminated, Luna has no choice but to be banal–down to her inability, at least at first, to make complex ethical choices. The film’s futuristic socialites are similarly banal, behaving with the same inanity one finds in Woody’s more mature ‘upper crust’ films, a comment, perhaps, that people are more or less wired for such a behavior…

This is just a few sentences from the critique, but these sentences cover much ground. For one thing, Sheremet makes an interesting comment on a detail (Luna’s terrible poetry) that is often overlooked by most critics then digs deeper, commentating not just on the film, but on the nature of art and how it’s reliant on the past in order to push upward, however he’s still within the film’s realm; note how he’s neither imbuing things that which are not there nor does he stray too far from the subject at hand. It’s a great observation, but one that the film itself is making, Sheremet is just pulling it into the reader’s attention, but this is what all good critics should do: make relevant and insightful observations on the film being critiqued. Sheremet also shows that a few of Allen’s “lighter” films, even if they aren’t particularly deep, sometimes contain a depth that even most “serious” and “high-minded” films lack.

There are a number of excellent (and convincing) critiques contain within, perhaps one of the most notable being his analysis of Manhattan which Sheremet argues that, while being rightfully praised, has still been misinterpreted by many critics. He states that “[o]ften, it’s been called a “love letter” to New York, or what’s worse, a “love poem,” but it’s really an excoriation of Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) and the projection of his ideals, which are incongruently set against all that’s beautiful and lush.” This is not trite contrarianism for Sheremet actually provides evidence from the film and builds his case. Another one of the book’s highlights is his appraisal of Stardust Memories; despite the majority of critics panning the film, Sheremet sees it for what it is: one of the greatest films of all time. Sheremet addresses most of the common negative criticisms targeted at the film and, almost methodically, counters each of them whilst making the case for its greatness. For instance, he refutes the claim that the movie’s opening is a rip-off of the opening scene from Fellini’s 8 1/2. While the influence of Fellini is manifest, Sheremet, however, points out that Allen “not only changes the scene’s terms, but absolutely betters them,” citing how Allen’s opening is suffused with more and even greater symbolism. Here is how he describes the opening to Stardust Memories:

The opening shot of filmmaker Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) shows him stuck in a train full of unhappy people—or, perhaps, more accurately, ‘losers’—with another train full of upbeat, successful types blowing kisses at him. Realizing this, Sandy shows his ticket to the attendant, but while he speaks, as if explaining why he belongs on the other train, the whistle obscures even his voice, thus ‘blotting’ him out, not merely trapping him. As he tries to escape, there is a suitcase full of sand that slowly drips its contents on the floor, a wonderful little symbol of time and futility, which all ends with the train’s passengers on a beach, walking, as if making a pilgrimage, to a trash heap—perhaps of the bodies and belongings on the other train? This, too, might say something of ‘success’ and its perception, as Sandy is forced to confront his desires, and where they end.

Now, if Sheremet had merely followed the path of other critics he would have engaged in the same, rote dismissal of the opening as being a mere “rip-off.” However, he doesn’t let other critics impel his analysis and lets the scene speak for itself. Sheremet acknowledges some of the wonderful symbolism, such as the whistle, the suitcase full of sand and the trash-heap that encapsulates many of the film’s themes. But because Stardust Memories has been so poorly evaluated by critics blinded by their own biases they have also contributed to the neglect of a great work of art. Sheremet not only then makes the case for Stardust Memories, but for good criticism for criticism allows one to understand and appreciate works of art deserving of the time.

Sheremet defends other Woody Allen films that have been either neglected or are rarely seen and evaluated objectively such as Interiors, Celebrity, Cassandra’s Dream and Scoop. He also argues the inferiority of some critical favorites, such as Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris (though he still argues that the former has some great moments while its entirety being overrated.) What’s great about this book is not so much the originality of his assessments in contrast to the majority, but the reasoning he uses to construct those assessments. For example, Sheremet agrees with the consensus which lauds Crimes and Misdemeanors, but he comments on things that are not only missed by many critics, but are actually pertinent to why the film is so great:

Dolores is not only killed, but her utter shallowness is remembered by Judah, even after her death, wherein she confuses musical composers, or waxes poetic on the eyes being ‘windows to the soul,’ despite us knowing that her own eyes were empty, with neither definition nor identity when she was killed. Yet, for all this, it is Judah at the center of it all, and it’s Judah who, far more than being a mere symbol or plaything, is something far more real. He is just ‘another guy’…separated only by the style and the frequency of his rationalizations, while the fact that he is ultimately a “winner,” to use Dan Schneider’s word, affirms the Bible’s oft-ignored dictum: for whoever has, more shall be given, but whoever does not have, even that shall be taken away. This is ‘might’ as it begets might, and riches for Judah Rosenthals, but even as Judah argues at the film’s end, no fairy tales, nor happy endings.

Not only is this damn good writing, but it also deepens the reader’s appreciation for the film. But Sheremet’s analyses on some of Allen’s “lesser” films are also quite fruitful. His essay on September is partially a lesson on the difference between a film being great and one being merely good. He writes that while September is “a character study of a ‘damaged’ woman…there is still no defining moment where this is obvious, or really comes to the fore via great visuals, dialogue, or symbols…There is nothing, for instance, like Dorrie’s mental breakdown in Stardust Memories, fractured via edits, or Martin Landau’s ‘gaze into the unknown’ via the dead lover’s eyes in Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

It also helps that Sheremet is a pretty good writer. For instance, his review of another “lesser” film of Woody Allen’s, Alice, is written in a second-person narrative style that positions the reader as the director of the film. It’s an interesting approach that does a number of things: 1.) It makes an essay on a film that isn’t particularly deep a bit more interesting to read. 2.) It helps diversify the essays a bit stylistically. 3.) It further helps the reader divide Woody Allen, the person, from the film, demonstrating one of the book’s central posits as well, it stresses the importance of that posit. Critics, according to Sheremet, treated the film as “mere puffery” for it succeeded some of Allen’s greater works, yet if the film had been directorial debut by someone else then the film would have been praised.

However, this is not just a book of film criticism, but is also about film criticism itself as an entire section of the book deals with six major critics of Woody Allen—Roger Ebert, Dan Schneider, James Berardinelli, Pauline Kael, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ray Carney—with the first three belonging to the “pro-Woody” camp and the latter three being in the con. Sheremet dissects some of the critics’ arguments without relying on snark, nor does he ever nitpick; he takes their criticisms, like Allen’s films, head-on. For example, while he argues that Berardinelli often got Allen right, more so than a lot of other critics, he emphasizes that it’s not just enough have the right conclusions, but to be able to realize why such conclusions are correct and justify them (though he does point out that Berardinelli often comes up with good reasons to back up his claims.) But, perhaps, the most can be gained from this section is from Sheremet’s views of Allen’s detractors. Kael, Rosenbaum and Carney all seem to suffer from similar things: an inability to address a film on its own terms and an inability to separate the artist from the art. This section is ultimately a demonstration on what it means to be a critic and what all that entails. As a bonus, Sheremet includes a brief correspondence between him and Rosenbaum where Rosenbaum provides some rather bizarre views on Allen and the role of the critic (for example, Rosenbaum claims that the last thing a critic wants to do is evaluate yet, as Sheremet points out to him, that’s all Rosenbaum has ever done.)

Afterwards, Allen finally gets “his say” as Sheremet covers the director’s views regarding his contributions to film as well as his influences. In a sense, this essay can be lumped-in with the previous section for it regards Allen as a critic of his own work, though he’s a better critic of his work than his detractors (I doubt that Allen and his films are as obsessed with his Judaism as Pauline Kael is.) What’s good about this essay is that it hardly dwells on the minutia of Allen’s personal life for, at this point, it would be unnecessary to do so for there are tons of biographies on the man and such information would be largely superfluous in a book focused mostly on the films alone. What this essay shows is that Allen has often made insightful comments on his films, but is also somewhat unreliable when it comes to evaluating his own work (though, again, he seems to be better than most critics.) Allen often regards his films to be inferior to their influences even though, as Sheremet points out, that Allen often used his influences and bettered them as well. This essay also shows that artists sometimes can’t be trusted when they talk about their own work.

There are many passages that I could have quoted, but I’ll instead encourage you to seek out the book for yourself (and by seek out I mean clicking on a couple of buttons before you reach Amazon.com.) It’s not only a great book on Woody Allen, but on art and the art of criticism, which will serve as a great resource for those interested in the ways film operates.

The Astronaut’s Wife (1999) – Movie Review

I just watched another bad movie that nobody cares about; it’s called The Astronaut’s Wife. It stars Johnny Depp as the Astronaut, and Charlize Theron as the Astronaut’s Wife. There are some good things about it, but it mostly sucks. And this movie is called The Astronaut’s Wife.

Let me address the positives first: The acting isn’t that bad. The best thing about the movie, aside from maybe the cinematography and editing, is Johnny Depp’s acting, however even his performance isn’t enough to elevate the material. Charlize Theron has it worse; not only is her performance not very good but her character is paper-thin. The other notable performances are from Joe Norton and Clea Duvall. Norton plays a guy working at NASA who is fired after suspecting that Depp’s character is possessed by aliens, and Duvall is Theron’s sister. They’re okay too.

And because I don’t feel like describing the plot yet I’ll elaborate on one of the film’s other redeeming qualities. The cinematography, even though some of the shots are rather trite, provides some interesting images like when Charlize Theron is watching footage of the space shuttle Johnny Depp is on is landing she’s silhouetted against the footage, and when her husband launches off she moves her hand near a window which vibrates as the result of the shuttle. The way the movie is shot at least makes it a bit more engaging to watch, but it doesn’t make-up for the bland script.

The movie starts off with Charlize Theron and Johnny Depp (and in case you haven’t noticed I don’t remember their characters’ names and I don’t have the motivation to refer to Imbd) just before Depp is going to be sent up Earth’s atmosphere to repair a satellite. And five minutes in the movie already starts to suck. One of the main problems with the movie is that the two central characters like any depth. Maybe Johnny Depp is forgiven for he’s an alien, but Charlize Theron just sucks. In the first few minutes of the film we should have gotten a greater “in” to what their relationship was like before Depp met aliens, as to give the characters a bit more depth as well as help the audience greater understand Theron’s dismay later on. But instead of showing us a few minutes of what their relationship is like we’re merely told through some trite dialogue between Charlize Theron and Clea Duvall about how great Johnny Depp is. We are also get a scene where Charlize Theron is staring at the sky through the window when Johnny Depp is in space. These things don’t exactly help the audience get invested in the characters. They just stink. I was going to tap out but I kept watching. Why? What’s wrong with me?

So NASA panics because something happens with Johnny Depp and his partner in space, but they return to Earth, changed. Theron notices that Depp has changed somehow and refuses to discuss what happened on their mission. Depp then reveals that he wants to quit and move to New York after accepting an offer to work on weapons for the military or something. Weeks pass and the guy he was in space with dies at a party. Later on, his wife reveals to Theron that her husband was “off” ever since his return and has been communicating with the radio. She then kills herself in a way that’s probably not supposed to be comical but is anyway by electrocuting herself with the radio.

Another issue is the script’s predictability which really hampers the audience’s ability to feel any sort of tension. A few more weeks pass and the couple are living in New York City and Theron is about three weeks pregnant with twins. (Another thing: The scene where the twins are conceived start out at some museum with Theron against the wall with Depp all over her, then the camera moves and suddenly they’re in their bedroom–it’s an interesting way to present this and one of the better uses of cinematic technique the film has.) While Theron is shopping for baby crap, Joe Norton arrives (I somehow remember his name from the credits but not the character’s) clearly disheveled since he’s lost his job at NASA. He tries to show Theron evidence he’s gathered to show that Depp isn’t Depp but some alien-dude but Theron won’t have any of that for it might confirm her suspicions about her husband. While reluctant at first, she decides to have a meeting with him, after a phone conversation where he reveals that Depp’s partner’s wife was also three-weeks pregnant with twins when she died. The audience already knows, at this point, that Joe Norton is going to get fucking killed or disappear and probably leave some other proof for Theron’s character just in case. What makes it slightly creepy, however, is that Joe Norton’s death happens off-screen, as well as Theron’s sister’s death (or we presume she’s dead anyway.) But there’s a lot of scenes that follow an overused formula that most people who watch movies can easily detect. It’s okay to use a formula, but what matters is that it’s done smartly so that the audience forgets and focuses on the characters instead of plot convention.

Anyway, Norton’s dead and leaves a tape for Theron to find. He tells her important things or whatever. Then Theron realizes that the twins are evil alien children so she attempts aborting them via pills. Depp finds out and she tumbles down some steps. She wakes up in the hospital then later-on dreams about her sister getting killed by Depp. She then flees with Depp following her. She finally makes it back home with Depp right on her. She blocks the door, but when Depp finally breaks in he finds her in the kitchen with the radio in the sink with the faucet running, and her holding the plug-in. It seems like she’s about to kill herself and the alien-babies, so Depp tries to get her to stop (one thing I forgot to mention is that Depp is clearly and evil alien person and not Theron’s husband anymore, despite the possible ambiguity my retelling might suggest.) Then the whole place starts to flood as Theron, whilst Depp was trying to break-in, had started running the bath tub and every faucet in the house. Depp is underneath water raining from the ceiling then Theron sits up on the stool, making sure her feet don’t touch the water and plugs the radio in, electrocuting Depp which forces the bad CGI ethereal goop that’s supposed to be the alien out of his body. The alien, in desperation, enters Theron and possesses her. Jump to a few years later and the twins and kids going to school with a new father. Theron then says something about how they’re going to be pilots or whatever. Aliens.

Now, even though it goes against convention with the bad guys winning, this ending blows. There’s the silliness with turning on all of the faucets and bath tub. But what if Depp gave-up and left? Theron would have looked pretty silly with all that water running. And plus it just seems like a weird fucking plan to just electrocute Johnny Depp. Another issue is how did Theron (now controlled by the alien) manage to get out of that situation? The home is flooded and there’s a dead guy on the floor. Did she make it look like a suicide? Does that mean she cleaned-up all the water as well because if her husband was going to off himself why would he turn on every faucet? Why did I watch this movie?

It’s not like the movie had a bad premise. It’s basically about a woman who, at first, is reveling in her perfect life with the perfect husband, but then she has to deal with her husband as she realizes something within him has changed. The movie could have also used some more ambiguity. Like maybe it isn’t all that clear what the deal is with Depp. Maybe he could have just been traumatized by something in space and can’t talk about his wife with it, like he’s trying to cope with shell-shock and remain stoic. Subtlety could have also been to the script’s benefit as well as a less reliance on formula. All the elements were there to make the movie pretty good, but it’s the script that failed to coalesce everything. So I would not be recommending The Astronaut Farmer’s Wife. It’s too predictable and boring and Charlize Theron isn’t very sexy in it, unless you’re into dancing preggos. Yeah, there’s a scene where she’s pregnant and dancing to some music on the radio. I’m not sure why, but I think it was to include a cheap “scare” when Johnny Depp suddenly appears, startled Charlize Theron. This movie sucks–thanks for reading!

Antichrist (2009) – Movie Review

Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist contains a simple story: in the aftermath of their child’s death, a therapist (Willem Dafoe) decides to help treat his depressed wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) by spending some time in an isolated cabin where she is to confront her fear of the woods. However, not everything goes to plan as the wife slips further into insanity and drills a hole in William Dafoe’s leg. Despite the simplicity of the plot, the movie is rife with religious and spiritual symbolism, imagery as well as graphic nudity and sex. All of these elements would have been fine if they had been employed in service of storytelling, instead the audience is subject to a film that seems to try to confide in the audience its import yet is confused as to what it is actually trying to say, save that the director is a pretentious nut.

Don’t get me wrong, this is an intriguing film, but it’s also a mess. There were a number of opportunities that Lars Von Trier’s screenplay could have taken advantage of. The most interesting thing about the film isn’t the graphic sex nor the disturbing violence or the ideas it tries to pass-off as being deep, but the two central characters. Lars Von Trier could have written the characters and just let them muddle in their relationship and let the symbolism and moments pour out organically, and it seems that was what he was going for at first, but around halfway through the movie everything starts to go off the rails.

The film itself is divided into four chapters (chapter one-“Grief”, two-“Pain”, three-“Despair”, four-“The Three Beggars”) which are sandwiched between two black-and-white sequences. The intro sequence is beautifully composed in slow-motion and shows the couple having sex while their child frees himself from his crib and walks out the window to marvel at the snow. Scenes like this show-off one of the strengths of the film which lies in the cinematography, by Anthony Dod Mantle. There are a few other scenes and images that are excellently crafted, but they are unfortunately inter-cut with drawn-out periods of boredom.

Sometimes the symbolism is either over-wrought or near nonsensical, but there are some visuals that work. At the end of the first chapter, William Dafoe’s character witnesses a deer in the woods, but as the camera gets the closer we see a dead newborn hanging from it, then we look back and see the character’s face. This works for it not only acts as possible foreshadowing, but also reveals something about Dafoe’s character.

But then there are some attempts of symbolism that aren’t as successful, like in a ridiculous scene where Gainsbourg’s character, after Dafoe’s character refused to hit her while having sex, is running outside in the nude while its dark and then starts masturbating the bottom of a tree. She is suddenly slapped by her husband and then resume copulating underneath the tree, but as the camera pans up we see human limbs from bodies trapped underneath the roots of the tree. It’s an interesting image that sticks in the mind, but it’s both obvious and confusing given the rest of the film. It’s already bad enough that the area of woods is called “Eden” but then to have the couple have sex underneath the tree… but what’s worst is that, instead of reinforcing some sort of point about humanity or religion, it only muddies the movie up thematically. There’s other spiritual and religious symbolism in the film, but the problem is that they just seem thrown in there as a way to compensate for the script’s shallowness. It’s almost as if by juxtaposing graphic sex and obvious religious symbolism Lars Von Trier was hoping that some sort of meaning would coalescence  within the viewers’ mind.

The movie seems to be trying to be a critique on humanity using religious symbolism, but it’s sometimes difficult to say what the actual critique is other than that humanity plain sucks. It seems to be trying to convey something deep but ends up confused, nearly making the whole film pointless to watch. It probably would have been better, it seemed, if Lars Von Trier focused instead on the couple’s relationship and what they represent, mainly emotionalism versus rationalism and how each approaches grief.

After their child dies, the wife is hospitalized for a month after fainting. The husband, who’s a therapist, quickly takes control of the situation by suggesting that she should not take the prescribed dosage her doctor recommends, stating that the feeling of grief is natural. When they’re both back at their home he begins to treat her like one of his patients. But she calls him out on this and his pompousness. One can’t help agree with her while also realizing that her comments are also stemming from her own resentment toward her husband for both being distant in the past as well as being well-composed during this situation while she’s an emotional trainwreck. However, the viewer might also suspect, at least from the beginning, that the husband may be treating her as a way for him not to deal with his own emotions. She becomes suicidal and even more depressed as she bangs her head against the rim of the toilet and he finds her. When she tells him that her biggest fear is the woods of “Eden,” but instead of getting her to an institution, in his arrogance, he decides that the two of them should go there. This is a good set-up for an interesting character study and drama, and while Lars Von Trier lets the conflict of the movie grow from this, he does so unrealistically. This is evidenced by how, at the end, the wife becomes completely crazed while he a stereotypical, condescending psychologist spouting nonsense. Lars Von Trier is comfortable going to easy route and trying to disturb and compel the audience rather than presenting a believable story.

Apparently this movie ignited controversy when it came out, which I can believe. In the opening sequence we’re shown penetration and violent sex scenes. Either would have been okay if it were service to revealing some (no pun intended) about the characters. The violent sex scenes sort of do this, but toward the end of the movie it becomes gratuitous. But the main problem with the movie is its pretentiousness. While the movie sets-up some of the sex scenes as a way to show the ugly side of humanity it ends up being apparent that Lars Von Trier is just trying to shock the audience with violence and bizarre psycho-sexual bull and hoping that the movie would just coast on that as the audience isn’t thinking too hard if anything is coherent or not.

It’s a shame that this movie isn’t better. I’ve only seen one other Lars Von Trier movie, Melancholia, which I actually thought was pretty decent where all the symbols and information in the movie was all necessary. See, good symbolism is all about having a point and conveying that point or idea to the audience in an original way that’ll remain in the audience’s mind for a while. While some of the images found in Antichrist has some impact they still needed some idea to hang from in order to truly work.

While the script isn’t good for the reasons I’ve mentioned, the other aspects of the movie are actually pretty good. The best thing about Antichrist is the cinematography, but the sound editing and score also deserve some attention as they help heighten some of the disturbing things in the movie, making them more effective. The acting is also fine, especially by William Dafoe, but it’s a shame that they didn’t have better material. As great as some of the technical aspects are, everything ends up being dragged down by the lousy script. If it weren’t for the acting and cinematography this movie would have been terrible and near-unwatchable. Whatever, I guess it’s time to watch Nymphomaniac now.