Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Recession Cinema

This week was the four year anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which can be regarded as the start of the financial crisis. In the years since filmmakers have responded with recession cinema, feature films dramatizing the ethical implications of the crisis and documentaries examining the causes or profiling the people involved. Here is a look at some notable films:

Richard Gere stars as the president a hedge fund attempting to sell his company before anyone notices its financial troubles.

A Better Life
Films dealing earnestly with poverty are rare from Hollywood but this picture tells a moving story about an illegal immigrant working and raising his son in California.

Capitalism: A Love Story
Michael Moore's documentary about the financial system was not his best work but Moore's skill as a filmmaker and his charm as a storyteller make up for many of its flaws.

Client 9: The Rise of Fall of Elliot Spitzer
This profile of the former governor of New York has some overlaps with Inside Job and is an interesting tale of intrigue.

A documentary on Michael Ruppert a reporter who predicted the financial crisis.

The Girlfriend Experience
Steven Soderbergh's film about an upscale escort (played by former adult film actress Sasha Grey) examines the impact of money on intimacy and relationships.

Inside Job
Of all the films on this list, Inside Job is indispensable as it explains the mechanics that caused the financial crisis.

Margin Call
The best dramatic film on this list, Margin Call examines the first twenty-four hours of the financial crisis in a fictional investment bank.

Too Big to Fail
Based on the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin, this film dramatizes the major players in the financial crisis, focusing on Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Oliver Stone's sequel to his Oscar winning 1987 film takes place amid the recession. Money Never Sleeps isn't anywhere near a good as the original, but the depiction of the crisis is very good.

Win Win
Paul Giamatti plays a struggling lawyer and a high school wrestling coach who finds himself involved with a troubled teen who he has taken in. Although not directly about the ins and outs of the recession, it does reflect its impact on the middle class.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Thoughts on Reviewing Agitprop Documentaries

On last Sunday’s show I reviewed 2016: Obama’s America, a documentary purportedly analyzing President Barack Obama’s influences in order to define Obama’s worldview. Directed by Dinesh D'Souza and John Sullivan, the film concludes that Obama possesses a post-colonial, anti-capitalist ideology that drives his administration's policies.  As I stated in the review (available in the Sounds of Cinema review archive), agitprop documentaries are usually hailed or condemned depending on whether they confirm or conflict with the petty partisan allegiances of the viewer. But the problems with 2016: Obama’s America go beyond politics and it is an ugly piece of pseudo-intellectual nonsense. The process of reviewing this picture made me think about the challenges and goals of film criticism which are especially pronounced when tackling a film like this.

What I do on Sounds of Cinema is not that different from what journalists and political pundits do and like them I have to be concerned with accuracy and fairness. As a film critic my integrity is everything as it is the only reason people should put any stock in my commentary. For the most part this means I follow a few simple guidelines: see as many films as I can even if they involve genres, actors, or filmmakers that I do not enjoy, clear my mind of expectations about what the film is or should be, watch the film all the way through before judging it, avoid reading reviews by other critics before seeing a film and continue to avoid them until after I have generated a complete draft of the review.  In the process of forming a judgment about a motion picture I focus on what the filmmakers aim to do, how well they do it, and assess the value of the filmmakers’ intents and accomplishments. These guidelines have served me well and act as controls to ensure my conclusions are sound and fair.

One of the criticisms that I sometimes encounter as a critic is a charge of false elitism in which I’m reminded that “It’s only your opinion.” That is true: my reviews are articulations of my opinion but I will argue, as any critic must, that my opinion is a good one. My judgments are rooted in a broad appreciation of cinema from non-narrative art films to Hollywood blockbusters and they are informed by an education of cinematic form, theory, and history. With the controls that I’ve placed on my method, I’ll gladly set the arguments of my reviews against anyone else’s (although preferably later reviews as opposed to those I wrote eight years ago when I started this show).

But when it comes to a film like 2016: Obama’s America I always approach reviewing it with a sense of both responsibility and trepidation. Despite the methods that I have enacted to control my judgments there is an inherent degree of subjectivity involved in reviewing films. Agitprop documentaries, especially those about political subjects, are going to appeal or collide with my own political and ideological opinions. At some level this is true of any film. Whether it is a documentary, a comedy, or a horror film, the personal politics of the viewer always come into play. Every piece of art is an expression by the artist of how he or she sees life, or at least one facet of it. Whether or not we determine a piece of art to be “good” is based in part on whether we accept that expression as true or not and that is largely dependent upon how the artist’s point coalesces with the ideology of the viewer. Even if I somehow tried to strip value judgments out my reviews I’d be reduced to commenting only on form but not function; I could write about the quality of the filmmaking craft but I wouldn’t be able to comment on what those things mean which is exactly what astute readers should want from both artists and critics.

Reviewing a film like 2016: Obama’s America is intimidating because it requires me to be much more conscientious and rigorous about how I evaluate it. In this case, approving or disapproving of President Obama may predispose me to like or dislike the film; in the interest of full disclosure, I have mixed feelings about Barack Obama’s presidency but more than likely I will vote for him this November. But if that is the only criterion upon which I evaluate the film then I am no different from the partisan apologists who crowd the airwaves and my credibility as a film critic is diminished.

Reviewing this film is categorically different from reviewing Obama and his presidency. A documentary whose perspective I ideologically disagree with can be well made and ethically argued and as a critic I have to acknowledge that. The reverse is also true; in my review of Fahrenheit 9/11 I commented that Michael Moore’s filmmaking is exceptional but the director has a tendency to jump to conclusions in his argumentation; when I reviewed An Inconvenient Truth I noted that the argumentation was solid and the information was important but it wasn’t much of a film.  As it is, the cinematic merits of 2016: Obama’s America are uneven as the sound is often poor and the dramatic recreations frequently look ridiculous. But the more serious problems with the film are found in its arguments which are intellectually dishonest and appeal to underlying racial prejudices in the American electorate. As I concluded in my review, there is a serious conservative documentary to be made criticizing the presidency of Barack Obama but this is not it.

The other source of my trepidation about reviewing a film like 2016: Obama’s America is not about me but about my audience. We are in an age in which the media is so fractured into ideological camps that anyone can seemingly find the perspective that suits him or her. Does your regular film critic say that 2016: Obama’s America is dishonest? Well, just do a Google search and eventually you’ll find someone who says otherwise.This kind of ideological fracturing has the effect of rendering facts moot but it also has the broader impact of creating echo chambers in which bad ideas and poor arguments are insulated from criticism. This has a deleterious impact on the culture as it sabotages the marketplace of ideas which requires a robust and open discourse. This isolationism especially threatens critics. Like the journalist, the critic must speak truth to those in positions of power (i.e. filmmakers) but critics must also be prepared to confront audiences and point out the problems of the movies that they love. An environment in which critics operate in fear of losing their audience or of being marginalized by a meaningless political label can have a chilling effect on criticism.

With these issues hanging over my head, I considered simply ignoring 2016: Obama’s America. But that would be a cowardly decision and if critics at large decided to avoid these kinds of films it would enable unscrupulous filmmakers while leaving the movie-going public without a discourse that will allow them to evaluate these films. In that case nobody wins. The only suitable answer is vigilance on my part as a critic but also on your part as consumers of film and of film criticism. After all, part of the joy of cinema is found in arguing about movies with fellow cinephiles and the more intelligent the debate, the bigger the joy. The purpose of criticism isn’t for me to tell you what to think about a movie but to role model how to think about it and hopefully supply a framework through which we can all better appreciate the movies.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Summer 2012 in Review

Labor Day weekend brings the summer of 2012 to a close. Before we transition into the fall and the Hollywood awards season, here is a look back at this summer’s movies:

The Good
The Avengers – The match up of superheroes Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Nick Fury was some of the most fun to be had at the movies all summer.

The Dark Knight Rises – This cycle of Batman films came to one hell of a finale. But beyond entertaining us, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy may be the defining epic of our time.

The Expendables 2 – Yes, it’s crude, chauvinistic, and dumb but this sequel was also self-aware, shamelessly entertaining, and a better movie than its predecessor.

Hope Springs – This funny and touching story about a couple facing old age features a terrific performance by Tommy Lee Jones.

Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson broke out of his more insular humor with one of his most accessible films.

ParaNorman – The best animated film of the summer was smart and even a little subversive.

The Bad
Battleship – A movie for viewers who thought Transformers was too cerebral.

Dark Shadows – Once upon a time, Tim Burton’s films were modern fairy tales with great characters. Now they are just exercises in art direction with Johnny Depp mugging for the camera.

Hit and Run – A story of obnoxious characters making stupid decisions.

Piranha 3DD – It is one thing to make an exploitation film but quite another to fail so completely at it.

Sparkle – The filmmakers aspire to Dreamgirls but what they’ve created is much closer to Glitter.

The Watch – It’s unfair to say Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill, Vince Vaughn, and Richard Ayoade were just going through the motions. That would imply they were actually doing something.

Films You Didn’t See But Should
Most moviegoers spend the summer running from one Hollywood tent pole to another. This was an exciting summer with some highly anticipated releases like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises but there were also a lot of films released this summer that didn’t benefit from major marketing campaigns or wide theatrical releases. Others were given limited release earlier in the year and were issued on DVD this summer. Here is a look at what you might have missed:

Coriolanus – Ralph Fiennes’ fierce adaptation of one of William Shakespeare’s lesser known works is a smart and well-made picture that provocatively connects the politics of the original text with current events.

Friends With Kids – Two middle-aged friends decide to produce a child. This is an example of how a fairly standard plot can be livened up by smart character writing and better than average performances.

Margaret – A teenager gets caught up in the aftermath of a traffic accident. Although it is longwinded the film is also an interesting story about guilt, empathy, and responsibility.

Marley – In the last few years there has been an underappreciated but steady stream of impressive music documentaries (see: Pearl Jam Twenty and Anvil: The Story of Anvil) and this portrait of reggae musician Bob Marley is a comprehensive look at his music and legacy.

Rampart – Although not a film for mainstream audiences, Rampart reunites the director and co-star of The Messenger and it has a fascinating performance by Woody Harrelson. 

Take This Waltz – Michelle Williams continues to prove that she is one of the best actresses of her generation in this story about a married woman tempted with the possibility of an affair.

Summer of Box Office Flops
The summer is generally considered the major revenue season for Hollywood but 2012 had a number of very costly productions that did not do nearly as well as hoped by studios. Prefacing the summer was Disney’s spring release of John Carter, which had a $250 million production budget but only grossed about $73 million domestically and $209 million internationally. This was the loudest and most widely publicized flop but John Carter was not the only film that failed at the box office. Universal’s Battleship cost $209 million but only took in $65 million domestically and another $237 million internationally. There were also films that did not exactly fail but did underperform. Sony’s Men in Black 3 cost $225 million to make, drew $178.5 million domestically, but did manage to generate $445 million internationally. Warner Bros. Dark Shadows cost $150 million but only made $79 million domestically with a worldwide total of $236.5 million. Also underwhelming was The Amazing Spider-Man, which cost $230 to produce and made $735 million worldwide. That’s not a bad gross but it is still less than the take of any of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, including the generally reviled Spider-Man 3, even though the 2012 film benefited from inflation and the 3-D surcharge. The summer season was brought to a close with the release of The Oogieloves and the Big Balloon Adventure which may have had the worst opening weekend ever for a wide release.

What does this mean? Financial failure is a part of show business but what we have here are major investments from nearly every major Hollywood studio failing to generate expected returns and that is bound to make executives skittish. Box office results have no bearing on whether a film is good or not (see also: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) but it does influence what projects get made. A general rule of thumb is that financial success breads imitation and failure is a dead end. Note that although nearly all of the above titles were reboots or adaptations of preexisting materials, the most successful films of the summer (The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man) were new installments of familiar franchises while less recognizable titles fared less well. Because Hollywood’s business practices are fundamentally conservative (especially when there are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake) look for more sequels and remakes or reboots in the future but expect that they will come from increasingly familiar sources.

Animated Kids Films
Animated films are a popular form of family entertainment but most of the films this summer were geared much more toward children than family audiences, including Pixar's Brave.
  • Brave
  • Ice Age: Continental Drift
  • Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted
  • ParaNorman
  • The Oogieloves and the Big Balloon Adventure
Return of Muscle Men
Over the past few years, there has been a nostalgia for the 1980s evidenced by homages and remakes of films from that decade. The summer of 2012 continued that with a return of the “hard body” films of the 80s, which had been epitomized by actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.
  • The Avengers
  • The Dark Knight Rises
  • The Expendables 2
  • John Carter
  • Magic Mike
Are Musicals Dead (Again)?
This summer saw the release of Sparkle and Rock of Ages. Neither of them were very good nor did they generate much revenue. Two films aren't enough to declare the genre dead but when pared with waning interest in television shows like Glee and American Idol this might signal a decline.

Taylor Kitsch – Box Office Poison?
What do John Carter, Battleship, and Savages have in common? All three underperformed at the box office and all three featured actor Taylor Kitsch in a lead role. It’s too bad since Kitsch is a capable and likable actor, he just needs better material.