Behind the Curtain, again

2016’s film watching is well on track to eclipse the number of films seen in 2015, and I’m going to TIFF in September and that’ll mean watching another set of films bigger than most of my friends watch in the cinema in a year. I have taken to posting capsule reviews on Facebook, it’s a bit unsatisfying. I’ve also read more new novels and non-fiction this year than I did last year, including some really really good books – Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels being the stand-out fiction and This is Not the End of the Book being the most page-turning non-fiction. Generally I’ve kept my thoughts on those to myself.

When writing my reviews I always try and take the view that the film really does work, and is doing something and it’s deliberate, and taking the success of the film as a core premise I try and understand how and why. To me, that’s real criticism, whereas I think most of the reviews I read are little more than a highly-filtered emotional response, which can point out interesting features in a work but which don’t really explore the deeper meaning of the work or the strategies it uses. Just consider the following (typical) snippet from a dismissive review of Central Intelligence:

As in Thurber’s last movie, We’re The Millers, there are hints of a much darker (and better) comedy buried throughout; a throwaway moment even suggests that Bob—who rides around on the same motorcycle Calvin had in school—might be manipulating the former prom king’s over-inflated sense of his teenage glory days for his own gain. But instead of pursuing that angle, Central Intelligence opts for everybody-learns-a-life-lesson schmaltz and the kind of listless, feature-length-gag-reel vamping that’s become a common viewer hazard ever since Hollywood convinced itself that anyone can direct improv.

I can’t help but read something like that and think that the reviewer had an emotional response of “I don’t like this” and then followed it up with “wouldn’t it be better if…” without really engaging with the deliberate strategies involved in exploring identity inherent in this, which the film leaves as subtext. My reading of this dynamic was quite different, and ultimately also rooted in an emotional response – I laughed instead of cringed. In my reading, Calvin effortlessly coasted through High School, but when the challenges of the real world began to emerge he didn’t adapt and his current malaise is the result of recognising that pure talent isn’t sufficient in the real world. Bob has looked at Calvin and recognised that without that inherent talent, the answer is hard work. Bob has a genuine confidence in Calvin, which over the course of the film leads to Calvin having a genuine confidence in himself and he moves from being passive at the start of the film to playing an active role in events at the end. Is this “everybody-learns-a-life-lesson” story? It sure is – but recognising a genre template is the first 1% of really grappling with a film – you might as well dismiss Rope as just being a “whodunit”, without recognising the extremely sophisticated reinterpretation of the classic whodunit denouement: the dinner party with all the guests.

In short, the role of a reviewer is to shoot from the hip and hope that their combination of experience, eloquence and personal taste hits the mark for a particular audience. I’m more interested in Criticism ™, where a work is pulled apart to examine its insides with a range of technical tools, and sometimes you must indeed conclude that a film is a failure – but I watched Central Intelligence in a crowded cinema which never really stopped laughing, so to write that off with a “C-” really seems to speak more to the snobbish value system of the reviewer than the film and its relationship with its audience.

There are two problems I’m having in keeping up with my writing aspirations are mostly time and energy. I’m trying to re-engage with other forms of writing, and I’ve been finding that the more sophisticated my critical skills become paradoxically the longer they take to deploy. I came out of The Nice Guys inspired to write about what I thought was a really interesting film, and a month or so later I’m still chipping away at it, trying to really get the best version of the best critical view written, while addressing what is an increasingly large range of other reviews I’ve read.

The second problem is that these reviews disappear without a trace into the ether. 10 years ago blogging was a community activity; any post would garner some level of response. These days it seems like the readership for all blogging is relatively low, and it also seems that passive absorption is the norm. The crystal-clear case in my mind is Jenni’s recent review of Monty Python’s Holy Grail. When I asked Facebook for recommendations of female critics recently, Jenni was the clear winner – and yet she was able to post a scathing review of one of geekdom’s all-time classic films, beloved by millions, and receive absolutely no comments. 10 years ago, I think a post like that would have kicked off a serious pro/con debate about the merits or otherwise of the film. It’s got a hugely interesting commentary on then-current UK politics built in, and is philosophically non-trivial, yet there’s no denying that it’s assembled-sketch format isn’t always successful, something they rectified in Life of Brian. We tend to talk about social media these days as being an echo chamber, but the reality often seems to me that its more dangerous aspect is its silence and passivity. Writing in that environment is like trying to have a warming fire with a single stick.

So, just in case, below is my list of films seen but not reviewed so far for 2016. Sing out if there’s anything in particular you’d like to know more about:


Grandma ****, The Raid 2 ***Four Rooms ***John Wick ***The Revenant ***The Assassin *Bridge of Spies ***The Big Short ***Dear White People ***A Bigger Splash ****Bone Tomahawk **Hitchcock/Truffaut *** (and the book on which the film was based ****), Our Brand Is Crisis ****Me, Earl & the Dying Girl *****High-Rise ***Triple 9 **Zootropolis ****Theatre of Blood ***The Ides of March **Eye in the Sky ****Captain America: Civil War ****Victoria ***Our Kind of Traitor **Mustang *****X-Men Apocalypse *Whiskey Tango Foxtrot ****Love & Friendship ****The Nice Guys ****Independence Day: Resurgence ***Central Intelligence ***Ghostbusters ***Tale of Tales ***.

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4 Responses to Behind the Curtain, again

  1. Steve Sigley says:

    I like reading your reviews. The effort you put into your writing is apparent, and appreciated. There is in this review a real insight to your approach and gems like this help broaden my own views. So thank you.

  2. ekobyrne says:

    I went to that car/Americana museum yesterday that wasn’t open when you visited, and they had (one of?) the original Ghostbusters car(s?), and I saw it and thought of you and how I should go see the new Ghostbusters in a theater if I want to see more female-led comedy.

  3. Maksim Mukhammedov says:

    It would be interesting to see you go deep into Civil war, which in my view has both highs not always seen in such a movie, and lows which severely undermine those highs

  4. Pingback: Captain America: Civil War [2016] | My One Contribution To The Internet

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