Archive for August, 2013

WHEN IS GOOD GREAT?

Posted: August 26, 2013 by mwerntz in Uncategorized

Kevin and I had this conversation a few weeks ago over text, and I’m just now getting around to writing it up. Not much has substantially changed, I don’t think, in that I haven’t seen any truly excellent films since then which would alter my thinking on this. Thanks, The Management.

What is it about a movie that makes it more than simply a technical work of art? What is it about a movie that lodges itself in your soul and mind that only happens for a select few films? This is truly one of the perennial arguments in art, namely, what makes a good piece of art great, and I doubt what I’m going to put forward here will resolve this. But, in terms of a 5 point ranking system–with 1 being a complete dog and 5 being the apex of film-dom—what makes a 5 a 5?

In a nutshell: any film can be a really good film; most films, if they hit all the notes right, can be at least a 4. Directors in the heart of their craft can hit an absolute home run on the technical side of things, with pacing, casting, sound, score, script, editing, acting, and so forth. There’s millions of details that go into the creation of an amazing film, of which having a good story is only one. Case in point: the distance between Casablanca and Johnny Dangerously is the distance between the Earth and the moon, for reasons compounded by the fact that Michael Keaton should never, ever, ever play a gangster–not even in a comedy. If it were simply the fact that the latter didn’t have the right screenwriter, or had Michael Keaton instead of Humphrey Bogart, that’d be fine enough. But then you’d have to explain to me how the recently released Paranoia managed to cast both Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman–two actors I would pay to watch wash dishes–and still get such terrible reviews.

No, acting is not enough. Having all the technical skills is not enough to go from good to great. Johnny Dangerously is a cheap shot, so let me take a little more controversial pick to make my point: Tree of Life. On all technical counts, Tree of Life is a masterpiece–the shot selection, the casting, the script, the cinematography. But when I showed this film to my students, the room broke in half between those who thought it was truly a great film, and those who appreciated the artistry, but could seriously care less. What is it about a film that enables it to simultaneously be recognized as a technical work of genius (a solid, recognizable 4), but yet for some, it breaks into that elusive 5 category?

I can think off-hand of maybe a handful of films that I’ve seen which qualify for this elusive “5” ranking. I’ve seen many “4”s, many really good films; this weekend’s The World’s End was a really good 4–solid script, great casting, funny, and Nick Frost in MMA-style action sequences. But whereas the 4s and 5s both share the same technical credibility (script, shot selection, etc.), the 5, I think, does something inside the viewer which can’t be accounted for by technical perfection. The 5 finds a way to lodge itself in your thinking and your fears and your loves so that you can’t think or fear or love without this film now and forever more being a part of your acting. When I read the Psalms now, I can’t read them without seeing Jessica Chastain weeping or washing clothes. When I consider future job prospects, I think of Brad Pitt’s piano sitting aimlessly in the corner, the witness to hard career choices.

This is what makes even discussing the difference between the good and the great both productive and frustrating: they have so much in common. The good and the great both travel the same lines of excellence, have marked the same seams of technical quality. But at some point, the great finds a way to not simply do something in front of the viewer (the good), but to do something inside of the viewer. And so, in the theater when I first saw Malick’s work, I saw in rapture after the credits rolled while the guy in front of me said “What was that?”

There’s no accounting for why this is. I can’t explain why this movie grabbed hold of me and throttled my imagination and sense of wonder, but did nothing for the row in front of me. The 5, while having some objective merits, is in some ways extremely subjective, in that its observable excellence did something ultimately beyond observation. What we as those who care about film is to listen to those who have encountered a 5 try to put it into words, that perhaps we too may see a 5 when all we saw before was excellence.

We Were Merely Freshmen…

Posted: August 12, 2013 by barberjo in Uncategorized

Believe it or not, we were freshmen once.

photo4photo3photo2photo1

ADMISSION – Accepted or Denied?

Posted: August 11, 2013 by barberjo in Film Reviews, John

Admission

Marketing is stupid.  In the alien world of Hollywood, a movie has to fit into a particular niche, or it gets lost. And if it doesn’t fit any of those niches? If it’s a square peg? Well dang it, we’ll shoehorn it into one style or another. And, of course, when that happens, the movie gets lost.

ADMISSION got stuck into the Romantic Comedy black hole, and it was a terrible mistake. Is it romantic? Yes. Is it funny? Yes. But it’s nothing like the stuff that the Hollywood Romantic Comedy machine machine churns out on a regular basis. It’s so, so, so much more than that.

This film centers on Tina Fey’s character Portia, an admissions counselor at Princeton. It’s her job to judge teenagers based on their resume and GPA and to determine if they’re worthy of the coveted “Accepted” check mark. “What’s the secret to getting in?” she asks. “There is no secret.” But that’s not quite true, and as the movie progresses we learn exactly what the secret is – the secret is passion. Being passionate about something is the mark of a successful applicant, and Portia learns that it’s also exactly what’s missing from her life. She’s in a boring long-term relationship with a boring guy. And, worst of all, she’s convinced herself that her life is perfect.

She meets Paul Rudd’s character, John (great name), who is all passion. He’s out of control passionate and she has no idea what to do with him. But for Portia, he’s problematic for another reason. He gives her a piece of information that shakes her the the core. And instantly, that perfect life is gone.

I don’t want to give too much plot information here. because for me, discovering these plot elements was beautiful. Not knowing from the trailers that all of these things were going to happen was great.

But here’s the thing that separates ADMISSION from the typical rom-com kinda film. This movie is about grown-ups that have to make grown-up decisions, some of which blow up in their faces. These characters do dumb things, but they do them for all the right reasons. So often in this kind of movie, characters do stupid things that real people would never do. But in ADMISSION, their cringe-worthy moments feel like things we’ve all done a million times.

I’ve got to say something about the performances as well. Tina Fey is excellent, of course… so much so that it really feels like she’s playing herself. She’s not Liz Lemon here. Her character is not a fish out of water – she’s a fish in completely comfortable water, and that’s the problem. Paul Rudd is so comfortable in this role that I found myself wondering if anyone else could have played it. It couldn’t be more in his wheelhouse. It’s perfect for him, but he’s never on autopilot. Also, Lily Tomlin and Wallace Shawn, two comedy vets, play it fairly dramatic and are great. Special kudos to Nat Wolff, who plays an auto-didactical genius  and holds his own with these giants.

Is ADMISSION perfect? No, not even close. If anything, it could be a little gutsier. It tends to try to straddle the rom-com/indie fence a little too much for me. It seems to be trying to appeal to the DATE NIGHT core audience as well as the AWAY WE GO crowd, and its identity is a little tough to nail down. That being said, I loved it. I found myself respecting the characters, which is a rare thing. At the end, Janna was crying, I was smiling, and we both loved it.

ADMISSION is about character, self-examination, motherhood, sacrifice, and messiness. It’s a film where adults have to confront being adults, and they have to figure out what that means in their own context.

ADMISSION gets four Ugandan orphans out of five. Watch it.