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by Bill Gibron

6 Dec 2007

Sidney Lumet has made some of the greatest films of the modern era, stellar works with titles like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict. He’s also hacked his way through some undeniable garbage including The Morning After, A Stranger Among Us, and the god awful Gloria remake. With his last significant film being the uneven Vin Diesel vehicle Find Me Guilty, many believed his best days were behind him. After all, at 83, the one time master of the TV drama had come a long way from the medium’s Golden Age. Bowing out gracefully was obviously not in the cards—until now. Even if he never makes another film, Lumet has relit his fading limelight with the amazing thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Fragmented and ferocious, it’s one of the best efforts of his often uneven career.

It all begins with a botched robbery. The tiny Mom & Pop Hanson family jewelry store is hit one fateful morning, the thief taking everything he can get his hands on, including the life of loveable co-owner Nanette. Luckily, she plugged the perpetrator before he could get away. The loss of their matron devastates the Hansom clan—or at least, that’s how it seems. Father Charles becomes obsessed with finding out why his store—and wife—were targeted, while siblings Andy, Hank, and Katherine are distraught. What no one knows, however, is that the burglary was masterminded by the two brothers. Andy has been stealing from his job, and using the money to indulge in all manner of perversions. Hank’s failed marriage has landed him in debt, missing child support payments hanging over his head like a dark cloud of guilt. The notion of robbing their parents’ small store seemed like the easy way to solve all their problems. But desperation never leads to flawless execution, and before long, the crime complicates matters in ways no one, not even the conspirators, could imagine. 

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is kinetic. It’s dynamite laced with electricity. It’s a perfectly played puzzle that’s final images make for an astoundingly satisfying statement. It’s about greed and the lack of money, morality and the lack of ethics, love and the lack of commitment. It takes standard human foibles and amplifies them to the stuff of glorified Greek tragedy. With amazing performances, pitch perfect direction, and a story that crackles with flawless mechanical timing, we wind up with another stellar example of that solid suspense subgenre—the dark double cross. In a year that’s seen the equally exceptional Gone Baby Gone and No Country for Old Men, Lumet’s return to glory stands right along side them. It’s depressing and daring, showing that even six decades in, this heralded director is not about to go softly into that good night.

This is a movie about desperation, pure and simple. Andy, the cocksure older brother, is desperate to get his life in order. He’s been stealing from his employer. He’s been blowing the money on drugs and male prostitutes. He’s convinced his wife is onto his numerous excuses about their finances and his free time. If he can talk his younger brother Hank into knocking off their parents pride and joy—a strip mall jewelry store—all his problems will be solved. And he’s picked the right accomplice. Hank’s situation is no better. He owes his ex-wife thousands in child support. He lives in a rundown, dumpy apartment. He’s tired on living in the shadow of his seemingly successful sibling and longs to regain the favor he once had with his father. For him, the cash would settle debts and reestablish his reputation.

Lumet then locks these two (thanks to an excellent script by feature first timer Kelly Masterson) in a dangerous game of trust and trickery, mirroring their frightening flawed nature with the results of their best laid plans. Plot is crucial to enjoying this crackerjack effort, and yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead does something very interesting with the narrative. Instead of playing it out linearly, following the Harmon’s plans from start to finish, the material is mixed-up, Pulp Fiction/Rashamon style. It allows motives to hang over the most innocuous sequences, while consequences cloud the conspiring. It lets us see beneath the surface of Andy and Hank, and once the deed is done, the effect their bungling has on everyone involved.

Lumet lines up some powerful talent to pull this off, and his casting is confident. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose everywhere this awards season (he’s also in The Savages and Charlie Wilson’s War), literally bares all as the slimy, scheming Andy. From an opening sex scene with co-star Marisa Tomei to his confrontations with grieving father Albert Finney (who appears to wear a perpetual mask of horror on his aged face), Hoffman is all open sores and conniving deceit. He uses his stocky shape to suggest power, but in his eyes we see nothing but a little boy lost. Equally impressive is Ethan Hawke. An often marginalized actor, he is very good here, turning the hapless Hank into a well intentioned but basically inept adult. He’s the necessary catalyst for Andy’s lofty ambitions. He’s also the mechanism that will drag both of them down.

The ripple effect that occurs post crime is so delicious that to go into further detail would ruin many of Devil‘s delights. Some may see the Coen Brothers in Lumet’s latest, and the comparison is not accidental. Longtime collaborator Carter Burwell supplies the musical score, and his Miller’s Crossing meets Fargo influences are felt throughout. Lumet also loves location, be it a rundown city apartment or an ultra modern rent boy’s penthouse. He explores the space, letting the camera linger on elements that offer insight into the people we are dealing with. In addition, there’s a level of personal juxtaposition here that cannot be ignored. Andy lives in a luxuriant flat, its tastefulness hiding his blackened heart. Hank is practically destitute, his home a jumbled wreck of hand me downs and leftovers. Yet aside from his never-ending money problems, he’s a decent man, undeserving of his eventual fate.

It makes for a volatile combination, one doomed to fail and bound to be painful on the rocky road down. Yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is ultimately about cruelty of karma, of how one man’s simmering evil comes to taint and twist everyone around him. Andy is indeed the corrupting influence, a disconnected child who feels entitlement allows for any transgression, no matter how horrible. He turns his brother into a killer, his father into an obsessive, his wife into an adulteress, and ultimately, he becomes the literal and figurative ender of life. The title here is taken from an old toast, a beer-soaked bragging about beating Satan at his own game. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead may signal a reinvigoration of Sidney Lumet’s standing, but it’s much more than that. It’s filmmaking as art, and endearing entertainment. Its impact will remain with you long after the final frames fade away. 

by Bill Gibron

6 Dec 2007

It’s a crime how we treat the elderly in America. Disposable, burdensome, and no longer warranting dignity, we warehouse the old in an odd attempt to master our own fleeting mortality. We create buzzword balms like “assisted living”, “retirement community” and “senior hospice”, all in an attempt to avoid the more scandalous label “nursing home”. Adult children caring for their enfeebled parents have become a post-modern social phenomenon, a glorified gut check for often distant siblings and their inadvertently affected families. In her latest film, writer/director Tamara Jenkins explores the effect that infirmary has on The Savages—a brother and sister whose abusive father is slowly succumbing to dementia. Yet instead of investigating only the comic or dramatic possibilities of the story, the filmmaker falls into some often unnecessary quirk, rendering important themes and issues slightly surreal.

When we first meet the deteriorating Lenny Savage, he is scribbling obscenities in feces on his barely coherent girlfriend’s bathroom walls. When she eventually dies, her family wants nothing to do with the degenerating man. A call to his kids on the East Coast sets a series of events in motion. Wendy is a single NYC writer making ends meet as a temp while hoping to land an artist’s grant. Jon is a professor at a local upstate New York college. Together, the duo travel to Arizona, gather up their failing father, and place him in a local Buffalo care facility. Wendy hates it, seeing it as a less than honorable end for her dying dad. Jon couldn’t care less. He just wants the problem solved. Both are bothered by the notion of caring for a man who abandoned them 20 year before, yet his crimes against the family seem insignificant when compared to his present state. Still, for the Savages, this backhanded reunion is bringing the past into perspective—and they really don’t like what they see.

Walking precariously between real world gravitas and the far too isolated and idiosyncratic, The Savages is a wonderful premise undermined by some unnecessary pretense. It stands as a stoic effort, an excellent attempt at getting to the heart of the whole ‘kids caring for their parents’ problem. But with its lack of focus and frequent flights of unnecessary fancy, director Jenkins constantly corrals her ambitions. We can tell that this story strikes a nerve in the filmmaker. She fills the screen with passion, turning a pair of angst-driven artist types confronting the realities of life and death into a manifesto on humanity. But then the narrative drops in too many literary signatures—the sage Nigerian orderly, the world weary Polish girlfriend—and the film gets sidetracked. Perhaps if Jenkins had figured whose story this really is—Lenny’s, Jon’s, or Wendy’s—we’d feel a deeper emotional connection. But their father’s illness is not the catalyst we anticipate it being. Instead, The Savages marks it as part of a three act arc, and then forgets to properly finish it off.

Lenny’s plight is indeed the most intriguing element here, probably because it’s the least self-centered. Both of his children live lives of proscribed isolation, existing within a wounded world of their own creation. Wendy can’t commit, looking for a “Daddy” to substitute for the clichéd father figure she never had. Yet that only partially explains her on again, off again trysts with in-it-for-the-sex middle aged married Larry. In fact, all throughout the film, she seems more interested in one-upping her professor brother than achieving a happy parental medium. Jon is also insular, but at least he appears functional. Sure, he can’t connect, allowing a three year relationship to fizzle because of an expired visa. Yet he’s not the volatile mess the movie hints at (we hear a great deal of innuendo about the physically abusive childhood he had at the hand of his dad). In many ways, The Savages is all set up. We keep waiting for the catharsis, the moment when the old wounds finally open, seep, and then start to heal. It never comes. 

Instead, we keep circling around our characters, convinced they will provide the reveal that the material mandates. From the opening, we know that Lenny has been a distant, inattentive parent, part of a lifelong pattern in the Savage clan. And Phillip Bosco’s amazing performance provides some insight into such a horrifying history. Though his degenerative disease amplifies his anger, this is clearly one bitter, brutal man. His rage mirrors the meekness of his adult children quite well. While it would have been nice to learn of the real life horror show that occurred all those decades ago, Jenkins feels that suggestion speaks louder. It really doesn’t. Since Wendy appears flighty, not clipped, and Jon jaunts around as if this is all a matter of everyday dealings, we never really see the stereotypical signs of a life spent in the presence of a paternalistic ogre. Instead, The Savages wants to broaden the scope. It thinks we’d be more interested in watching Wendy and Jon zone out on stolen Percocet, or moderate the responses of African Americans to Al Jolson’s blackface routine from The Jazz Singer.

Eccentricity can work to lighten a dark and dire narrative, but Jenkins relies a little too openly on the odd juxtaposition to give her film the right authenticity. Jon and Wendy manage to move their father rather easily, and once in the nursing home, he becomes a kind of storytelling stopwatch. Plot points revolve around his increasing illness, and the disposability of his dilemma turns into an anticlimactic epiphany. Most families in the Savages situation have to wait a long, heartwrenching time as their loved one slowly fails and fades away. Here, it’s a Thanksgiving to Christmas cross to bear. In addition, we never really see much interaction between the trio. Jon and Wendy visit their father often, yet we only catch them when Lenny is snoozing or explosive. The siblings never discuss the problem, offering only predetermined responses to keep things settled. The best moment comes when Jon confronts his sister’s senseless desire to move their father to a ‘higher class’ facility. “There’s nothing but death in there” he shrieks, face showing the pain he obviously masks. Everything else, he points out, is just window dressing for the guilt ridden families footing the bill.

Indeed, it’s the performances that save The Savages, giving it far more weight than the script can supply. Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives Jon the requisite quiet side, yet you can feel a real ache within his soul. Though Jenkins tries to thwart his efforts (he has an important moment while strapped into a homemade traction device), he’s the tenderness the rest of the characters lack. Bosco again deserves praise for being both completely fearless and all but archetypal. Who he is as a man is never more important that what he symbolizes as a stigma, but we still find dimension in Lenny. Laura Linney will, perhaps, be the biggest problem for audiences. She’s a totally written wreck, a scattered screenplay invention that feels incredibly phony half the time. Her problems appear menial, a measure of a life lived in the shadow of something devastating. Yet because Jenkins has determined that the facts stay buried in the background, The Savages never opens up. Instead, it uses its earnestness and entertainment value to truck along to a nominal conclusion.

Granted, not every tale centering on the ravages of aging needs to be a grim dramatic tour de force. For ever family facing the prospect of death with clothes renting hysterics, people pass without so much as a considered whimper. Had The Savages shown us Lenny’s limited life before death finally came to call, we might feel shortchanged. We’d wonder about his family, and their apparent lack of caring. Jon’s routine remains relatively unchanged throughout the course of the film, so we gain no additional insight from following his plight. And Wendy—she’s a Woody Allen heroine without the snappy repartee. She’d be a bad story subject if only because she’s too peripheral to all that’s happening. So maybe Tamara Jenkins was right in making her movie a statement about all three. Too bad then that the final assessment is so slight. The material definitely commands something much deeper.

by Bill Gibron

6 Dec 2007

Have no fear, Tolkien lovers—Phillip Pullman is not about to steal the big screen title from our beloved Lord of the Rings. The greatest trilogy of all time is still safely sitting in first place, having vanquished previous pretenders to the throne such as The Chronicles of Narnia, the awful Eragon, and the recent The Seeker: The Dark is Rising. All hoped to become future franchise epics. All fully failed to achieve said sense of scope. While there will be a second installment of C. S. Lewis’ veiled theological tall tale, the search for the next big flight of fantasy continues. The latest installment comes from New Line, the company that took the risk on Peter Jackson and wound up winning. Sadly, The Golden Compass feels more like an afterthought than a solid cinematic challenger. While it strives to be the all-inspiring spectacle the genre requires, its universe is too self-contained to truly connect with audiences.

In this parallel place (explained as being like Earth, but with a difference) we meet our heroine in training, young Lyra Belacqua. Constantly followed by her shapeshifting ‘daemon’ Pan (nothing more than the physical incarnation of her soul), this spry orphan is the niece of university science superstar Lord Asriel. By studying something called ‘dust’, the professor has stunned the educational community with his conclusions on temporal placement and the existence of additional worlds. He’s also earned the ire of the Magisterium, an all powerful government cabal that longs for the complete control over—and the undying obedience of—the citizenry.

After her uncle heads to the realm of the ice bears, a place where he can continue his work, the mysterious Mrs. Coulter arrives at the school. She promises to take Lyra to the snowy Northern climes as well. But her motives are far more nefarious. See, our petite protagonist is the last person capable of reading the golden compass, which is actually a truth telling device known as an alethiometer. With it, she hopes to uncover the truth about Coulter, the Magisterium, and the whereabouts of her fellow children. Seems someone has been kidnapping them, and as we soon learn, the reasons are horrifying at best.

Like most mistaken attempts at grandeur, The Golden Compass thinks details can substitute for dimension. In Phillip Pullman’s picturesque predicament, lots of erroneous facts try to make up for a vague, vignette oriented narrative. Unlike true classics of the form, there is not a single overriding goal here. Our lead Lyra is not on some magical quest, nor is she leading a fellowship hoping to rid their realm of the ultimate evil. Instead, what we have here is a series of intriguing possibilities that fail to play out in any significant or satisfying manner. If this is part of New Line and director Chris Weitz’s plan, that’s all fine and well, and if all three films in the His Dark Materials series get made, perhaps this film will feel less foundational. But as a stand alone effort, something styled to entertain us now, The Golden Compass is incomplete.

Most of the problems stem from Lyra’s journey. As an audience, we need the inherent curiosity of the goal to keep us interested. We really should feel the same longing as our hero or heroine. Yet when we learn of everything involved in this story—the totalitarian Magisterium, the findings of Lord Asriel, the unique nature of the ice bears, the hideous truth about the kiddie concentration camp Bolvanger, the wicked witchiness of Mrs. Coulter—only one element stands out. In fact, a kingdom dominated by salient wildlife ends up as The Golden Compass‘s single significant reason for being. Without it, the rest of the film would feel like The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T without Theodor Geisel’s gift of satire. In fact, the typical British fascination with child endangerment (Pullman is from the UK) is apparent in every kid stealing subplot here. It often feels like The City of Lost Children without a hint of Caro and Jeanet’s visual grace.

What director Chris Weitz does bring here is a sense of solemnity. He’s not out to cutesy this material, and his lends a nice level of density to some otherwise puffy points. It’s a credit to his approach that a sore thumb moment like Sam Elliot’s arrival onscreen (playing the only Southern drawling sodpounder in all of this mangled multiverse) doesn’t stick out more than it should. Additionally, the filmmaking is so fluid that we don’t even recognize that Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman (as Asriel and Coulter, respectively) disappear from the narrative for huge chunks of time. In fact, it’s safe to say that there is much too much going on in The Golden Compass at any one given moment. Either we’re dealing with Lyra’s learning of the ambiguous alethiometer (there are one too many trips into its dust driven mechanical workings) or watching unnamed villains scheme and conspire like a veiled Vatican 2. Christian and Catholics who complain about this movie better get their targets straight. They should focus less on Pullman’s atheism and more on the lamentable lack of fun involved.

By far, the best sequences surround Ian McKellen (apparently, no fantasy film can go forward without his involvement) as the voice of exiled ice bear Iorek Byrnison. Fully aware of how to bring this kind of material to life, we really get involved in his Shakespearean tale of betrayal, loss, and redemption. From retrieving his stolen armor to regaining his rightful place in the polar community, we root for this animal outsider, and his climatic battle with the bruin that usurped his throne stands as the single best sequence in Compass‘s often overwrought running time. In fact, had Weitz found a way to streamline the story a little (his script tries to incorporate more information than a movie can successfully manage) and focus solely on Iorek, Lyra, and the discovery of Bolvanger, we’d enjoy the journey more. Weitz makes the mistake of frontloading things, trying to explain it all before the subtext and side characters are even necessary. Along with the relatively formulaic facets of the tale (guessing Lyra’s parentage is pretty easy), there’s just too much groundwork and not enough sparkle.

Still, in its limited way, The Golden Compass does engage us. The daemon element that opens the film definitely draws us in, and when we see the unbridled fury of the bigger than life bear fight, we hope the movie has made it over the introductory hump. But then the uninspired ending arrives, a cobbled together collection of happenstance, accidents, and deus ex machine broomsticking. Unlike the battles for Middle Earth, there is no splendor in this confrontation, no feeling of dignity among the defenders and amorality amongst the attackers. No, it’s just a showpiece send off, a way of getting the first part of the plot over with before jumping into the second book’s storyline. When he made The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson took all three books and conceived them as a single entity, taking aspects of each to elevate his overall concept for the films. Here, New Line and Weitz are obviously hedging their bets. The “one at a time” ideal means The Golden Compass has to do a lot of Pullman and Dark Material‘s heavy lifting. Sadly, it can’t handle it all. 

by Bill Gibron

5 Dec 2007

What is it about the Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy that causes so much critical consternation? In some corners, the films are viewed in the proper perspective - wildly entertaining blockbusters that push the limits of spectacle and scope. In other, more perplexing views, they are unsatisfactory stink bombs, poster children for studio excess, superstar hubris, and clueless directorial overindulgence. No matter that the movies have made scads of dough - this is just the lemming like reaction to clever marketing and a manic mob mentality. Dollars do not equal aesthetics. Yet the questioning of their popularity remains. It couldn’t possible have anything to do with the films actually being good - or dare it be said, great.

But indeed they are great. With the arrival on DVD of the third (and for now, final) installment in the series, it’s interesting to look back and see where the franchise originated, and how it came to transcend the House of Mouse’s misguided merchandising scheme. It all started with the atrocious Country Bears. Disney, desperate to trade on any element of its legacy it could, decided that the next great source of motion picture magic was its well known theme park attractions. With their profile and popularity, even a lousy big screen translation was bound to generate some much needed revenue. Sadly, two of the three proposed projects were incredibly lame. After Bears’ baffling combination of live action and actors in clumsy costumes, and Eddie Murphy’s inadvertent homage to Mantan Moreland, The Haunted Mansion, no one could envision the next installment salvaging the strategy.

It had an unproven cast. The director was, at the time, best known for his commercial kiddie film Mousehunt and the hit horror film The Ring. And then there was the subject - the cinematic scourge known as pirates. The last time anyone attempted to resurrect the buccaneer, auteur Roman Polanski was helming the biggest bomb of his career. Disney apparently didn’t learn the lessons from that undeniable disaster. Yet they weren’t the first to revisit the scallywag storyline. In fact, Renny Harlin also ruined his vocational options - and his marriage - with the Geena Davis clunker Cutthroat Island. Still, Uncle Walt’s cronies persevered, They placed idiosyncratic actor Johnny Depp in the lead, surrounded him with dozens of known British talents, and took the entire company to the Virgin Islands. There, on a fully refurbished boat, the same old peg legged clichés were measured out, circling a story about ancient superstitions laced with post-modern irony.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was the result, and for many, it remains the best movie of the entire trilogy. Since it started life as a single entity, not the foundation for an actual franchise, the completeness of the narrative is hard to overlook. Depp’s brilliant turn as Captain Jack Sparrow started an outright cult, and when viewed in retrospect, it’s hard to see anyone else in the role. Still, it was a risk for producer Jerry Bruckheimer to hire the star. He was mostly known for his unusual choices in roles, not for bringing audiences through the turnstiles. Still, Depp’s dandified dance with the material made Curse of the Black Pearl commercial, and indicated the need for another installment in the series.

There are other elements worth noting in the first film, facets that reinforce its claim to classicism. The entire subplot involving Barboosa and his undead crew brought new life to an old genre, and Verbinski’s visual flair found untold tricks within the tired material. When one sees the shot of skeletal bandits crossing the ocean floor on foot, the novelty of such a sequence reinvigorates a dormant fantasy fan’s aching aesthetic. Indeed, everything about Curse of the Black Pearl was built on the old school designs of the original popcorn movie mavens. It’s Jaws jammed into Star Wars, with just a sprinkling of CGI spice on top.

The second installment, subtitled Dead Man’s Chest, tried to trump the evocative nature of the first film, and for the most part, it succeeded. Created simultaneously with the third episode (At World’s End), it marked a decision by Disney to go the bigger, badder, and broader route with the series. Everything here is larger than life - the swordfights (actors Orlando Bloom and Jack Davenport have an actual standoff on top of a rotating mill wheel - as it travels through a jungle thicket. Really.), the situations, and the fatal consequences for all involved. Verbinski shows his true skills here, producing action that rivals the work of his obvious heroes (Spielberg and Lucas). Yet he also handles the smaller moments with grace and gravitas.

The masterstrokes of using Davy Jones, his ocean life encrusted crew, the haunted Flying Dutchman, and the mysterious allure of the sea may have mimicked the original’s villainous monster’s format, but the director tried to turn the combination of acting and artful effects into something almost tragic. Thanks to Bill Nighy’s marvelous performance as Jones, as well as the numerous storyline sidesteps the film provided (the ship-killing Kraken was also amazing in 35mm), made the movie one of 2006’s finest. It also mandated a finalizing piece, a movie that would make everything that came before seem small and insignificant. At World’s End became that necessary knock out blow.

Unlike the other Pirates films, At World’s End feels the most segmented. It has to deal with so many issues, so many characters, and so many arc endings, that it can’t help but appear partitioned. But when the pieces add up to something this satisfying, the knotty narrative devices speak for themselves. Sure, Keira Knightley is a tad shrewish, and Chow-Yun Fat is fine for what is mostly a cameo clip, but who cares. The epic battle in the middle of revived goddess Calypso’s maelstrom stands as one of the most amazing works of visual wizardry ever captured on film. Even better, Verbinski constantly keeps his creativity front and center. Why have a last stand showdown between Captain Sparrow and Jones on the deck of the ship when the same fight along the top rail of the Dutchman’s main mast would do nicely. Why simply repeat the same crustacean crew from Part 2? Why not add in a few new seafood scumbags into the mix?

There’s also a real emotional center this time around. Since we believe this will be the last time we ever see the Pirates crew, we lament the loss of favored personalities, and relish the destruction of the antagonists. When our heroes are in harms way, we fear for their safety, and we understand the doomed dynamic facing some of our most treasured icons. In fact, when the storm has cleared and the dead are left to travel to the underworld, At World’s End seems to stutter, if just by the smallest bit. Instead of ending on a note of defiance or depth, we get cute callbacks that tend to indicate a studio-mandated desire for future installments. If the high standards of the first three films are maintained, it’s hard to envision Disney stopping here.

Still, some will complain at length about these otherwise excellent films - and it could be a literal matter of viewpoint. No matter the set up, no matter the expensive technical traits, these films really weren’t meant for DVD. Their scale is so seismic, so completely off the cinematic charts that to try and rein them in via a home theater package is nothing short of a fool’s paradise. Trying to appreciate the slow motion descent of Lord Beckett in the middle of his ship’s destruction, or the amazing moment when we follow the Flying Dutchman down into the murky depths from a distinct POV on such a limited scale could affect anyone’s judgment. Then again, some people just hate these masterful movies for no discernible reasons but their own. It’s their opinion and their entitled to it. Time will probably alter their otherwise informed judgment.

Indeed, one can easily see the Pirates of the Caribbean films become the seafaring Star Wars for an entire generation. Like Lucas’ beloved space opera, these outsized extravaganzas with their mixture of comedy, mythos and stunt spectacle could function as the inspiration for a thousand messagaboard debates, and an entire online legacy. Thanks to the Internet, one could envision this happening sooner than later. Indeed, for some, it’s already begun. The Depp contingent have become obsessive, seeking out any and all information they can about their fated star, and minor characters like Marty and the ditzy duo of Ragetti and Pintel have their own honored corp. It’s clear that these movies have made an impact that transcends their viability as populist motion pictures. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise stands as stellar cinema. It should be celebrated as such.

by Bill Gibron

4 Dec 2007

Being a film critic does have its advantages. Yet the problems can often outweigh the perks. Seeing an anticipated title well before regular audiences remains an undeniable benefit. Having to explain in 1200 words why it fascinates or just fails miserably (sometimes, within 24 hours of the viewing) stands as the date stamped IOU. There’s a trade off that few really comprehend, entertainment for effort, the ability to ply one’s (hopefully) cultured aesthetic for the pure joy of dissecting cinema. Not every critic is a writer per se - words are not their paintbox, but their PR punctuation marks - and in an analytical paradigm where ‘good/bad’ often defines a reader’s literary limits, opinions are an unclear commodity. Still, there are factors one should consider when reading any review, aspects within the very process itself that frequently twist a scribe’s sensibilities.

Let’s start with the most basic element of the movie going experience - the image. Print quality, especially in the post-millennium ‘all but digital’ domain should never be a problem. Since a critic is getting the chance to see a first run film, the visuals onscreen should be first run quality as well. A good example of this maxim is illustrated by the recent press screening for Beowulf. While the film was released in both 2D and 3D versions, the studio made the wise decision of showing reviewers a gorgeous, near flawless multi-dimensional transfer. The characters literally popped off the screen, and any underlying issues (dragging second act, unsatisfying ending) were minimized by what was clearly an optical feast. Even the most seasoned skeptic walked out of that showing staggered by the detailed images presented.

On the other side of things was the recent screening for The Golden Compass. Desperate to regain the monetary momentum crafted by their Lord of the Rings gamble, New Line is trotting out this potential franchise with an ad campaign that emphasizes the epic spectacle and scope of the story. We are dealing with a fantasy realm that combines facets of art deco architecture, neo-sci-fi environs, and a CGI subculture of anthropomorphized ‘ice’ bears. It has Nicole Kidman looking swanky, Daniel Craig looking dashing, and the whole wannabe classic appearing sumptuous and rich. Indeed, based on the intriguing commercials alone, the visuals threaten to rival those of Peter Jackson’s masterpiece itself.

Yet that’s not how it looked at the preview screening this week. Instead of an experience that took your breath away, The Golden Compass was a clear ocular letdown (the film’s entertainment issues will be left for another day). The opening shots seemed acceptable, as did moments where two main characters walk an old fashioned Victorian college. But the minute the totalitarian Majesterium was revealed, a fuzzy, almost faded look became the norm. By the time the action moved to the ice bears and their kingdom, the computer graphics looked cloudy and unclear. Colors were faded, and details were in short supply. It was almost as if the studio supporting the picture had decided to trot out a worn out copy of the film for prerelease evaluation.

It’s a trend that’s become more and more obvious over the last few years. When Roger Ebert complained in the ‘90s that movie theaters were cutting down the candle power on their projectors (to save electricity to, in theory, save money), he was pointing to the beginning of an unnerving trend. While owners and distributers scratched their heads over why attendance was waning, exhibitors were passing less luminescence through their carefully constructed negatives. The result was routinely dissatisfied customers, bad image recreation, and an overall feeling that going to the Cineplex was a worthless, unsettled experience.

Home theater didn’t help matters much, and frankly, it still doesn’t. Over the last few months, DVD releases of Transformers, Ratatouille, and Hairspray have looked remarkably better than their preview screening counterparts. Since many critics don’t revisit a film once they’ve seen it (a question of pure time and future obligation), their one and only experience with a title prior to writing it is during these less than impressive press outings. When it happens, when a previously viewed film can seem totally different on your high end digital set up, the experience can be quite revelatory. Granted, there is an additional concept to be weighed - the initial shock of seeing something fresh vs. the familiarity inherent later on - but unless you’re purposefully trying to retrograde your visuals (ala Grindhouse), the first time out of the box should be the best.

That’s rarely the case, however. Danny Boyle’s Sunshine looked stunning during its screening. The Invasion looked awful. The Bourne Ultimatum was so bright and washed out it seemed neutral. Bee Movie practically vibrated off the screen. The importance of this distinction cannot be underplayed. Story is vital, as are cinematic standards like theme and mood, but when you can’t enjoy the proposed power of an animated animal fight to the death, when your enchanted realm (as in Stardust) looks like a badly photographed travelogue, when darkness obscures your chills and thrills, you realize the dilemma the critic faces. In fact, it boils down to one important question - how does someone charged with analyzing a visual medium respond to crappy visuals?

DVD reviews have it easy. The format mandates such scholarship. When Fox sends websites watermarked screeners (the better to fight piracy, so the studio says), critics frequently take the company to task. After all, how does a consumer advocate comment on the final product provided when he or she does not receive same? It’s like lying to the reader. Even better, why does a film journalist avoid said understandable declarations? If they sat through Halloween, barely able to see Rob Zombie’s reimagined horrors playing out on screen, shouldn’t they mention the subpar presentation? Or is it just a question of avoiding the issue all together, secure in the knowledge that the opening weekend audience will see the best print possible?

Yet that’s not always the case either. While the DVD version of 300 emulated the big screen version quite admirably, there was something about the clarity offered in the theatrical experience that was quite unique. On the opposite end of aesthetics, Spider-Man 3 looks better on the digital format than it ever did in a Midwest Multiplex. It could be a company by company thing (AMC seems worse than most, with independent theaters appearing to pride themselves on the best possible picture available). It could also be a matter of studios saving the best prints for paying crowds (even ticketed screenings are freebies to those in attendance). Whatever the case, there are definitely times when a critic has to overlook a sloppy transfer simply to do their job. It’s commiserate to having a music critic listen to a CD on blown speakers.

As directors like George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis push for a switch over to pure bitrate purity, and Luddites lament the possible death of celluloid, the inconsistent visuals experienced both in and out of the big screen experience mark one of the main reasons for customer dissatisfaction. People want to see high quality visuals and their equally evocative replication for their money. High prices, dull product, and slight/scandalous subject matter may also become part of the disagreement, but the inability to clearly see the subtle beauty of a Scottish countryside (as in The Water Horse), marks a major stumbling block.

So the next time you envy a critic for catching your favorite superstar’s latest magnum opus, remember this considered caveat - they may not be seeing the best possible image of your hero/heroine. You, who fight traffic, pay for parking, stand in line, and feel the highway robbery pinch of theater snacks, may be getting the better end of the widescreen deal. At least you get to see the movie in the mandated style you agreed to. For the reviewer, early mornings spent shifting through incomplete narrative threads or avoiding preview audience glowers is par for the course. But the last thing they should have to worry about is the lack of contrasts in the climatic battle between witches, wildlife, and the wicked. For a film reviewer, image is everything. Sadly, most press screenings drop the ball on this vital part of the process. 

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