Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Grate expectations

Speaking of propaganda, here is another interesting question. How much do movie reviews (and, for that matter, general word of mouth) affect our opinions of movies that we see?

If we hear nothing but negative things about a movie but we go to see that movie anyway, are we less (or, for that matter, more) likely to like the movie ourselves? Barring some scientific test that involves inducing amnesia in its subjects so that a movie viewer can see the same film for the “first time” twice, there is really no way to know. The way we experience a movie or any piece of art or entertainment is invariably bound up to some extent with what is going on with us personally, how we are feeling at the time and what information and or opinions we are absorbing in the time period. There is really no getting around it.

And, of course, this all goes back to something I’ve repeated time and again on this web site. If this is not your first time here, then you can repeat with me: movie reviews tell you more about the reviewer than they do about the movie.

Since I mostly see movies after I’ve read reviews and/or heard word of mouth about them, that buzz inevitably winds up as part of my own critical assessment. Sometimes I feel as if I am critiquing the critics nearly as much as I am critiquing the movie. Sometimes the criticisms I have read or heard are validated. But often I find myself impelled to the contrarian view, as if something within me resists becoming part of a herd. Or maybe it’s just a matter, say, in the case of a movie that has been roundly condemned by critics, that my expectations get lowered and, when I finally get around to seeing the movie, I find it better than expected, i.e. the soft bigotry of low expectations. For example, after reading and hearing all the venom unloaded on Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code, I was compelled to see the movie myself, just to satisfy my curiosity as to whether it could really be as bad as “everyone” said. I honestly didn’t know beforehand if I expected to be pleasantly surprised or to endure a couple hours of tedium. In one of those strange echo chamber effects that are more common in political punditry dealing with things like, say, a botched joke by John Kerry, every single reviewer seemed to be required to mention Tom Hanks’s hair and how distracting it was. In the end, not only did Hanks’s hair not distract me but I actually found the movie fairly entertaining if, like most Hollywood thrillers, a bit silly at times. Would I have liked the movie less (or, for that matter, more) if I had seen it without hearing and reading all the commentary beforehand? I will never know for sure. I would like to think that my opinions are my opinions and aren’t molded by factors outside of myself and the movie in question. But that view is almost certainly optimistically naive.

Speaking of Ron Howard, allow me a brief aside to express some gratitude to the former-child-star-turned-A-list-director. Last summer Howard greenlighted a project based on a novel called The Changeling. Originally, he was going to direct it himself, but eventually the pressures of other commitments forced him to pass on the directing chores to someone else. He hired the author of The Changeling to write the screenplay. And this simple act caused that novelist—who has been very busy for years as a writer and producer—to suddenly be thrust up to a higher level of play in the virtual reality game that is Hollywood, magically giving him more clout and the ability to move projects rather than to merely pitch them and hope for the best. The name of that writer happens to be J. Michael Straczynski and, if you have been reading these pages at all for the last while, then you may be able to guess the rest. Yes, JMS has used this new-found clout to bring back Babylon 5! Now, this doesn’t mean a new TV series or even a revival of the aborted series Crusade or Legend of the Rangers. Nor does it mean a feature film. What it does mean is that recently JMS started production on a series of “mini-movies” that will be released direct to DVD. Originally planned to be a half-hour each, but recently expanded to a somewhat longer length, they will feature some cast members of the earlier series and will take advantage of newer effects technology than was available in the early days of B5, when the series’s special effects were generated on an Amiga-based system call the Video Toaster. As America’s Democrats would surely agree this week, sometimes life works out even better than you expected. Okay, end of digression.

A couple of times a year I get the chance to form views of a few new movies without the contamination of other reviewers’ views. This usually involves my attendance at film festivals where I get a chance to see movies that have not been released yet, sometimes ones about which I have heard little or nothing. It is always interesting to compare the reactions of “real” critics that, for a change, come after mine. Last year at the Cork Film Festival, I got to see two major Hollywood releases before reading any reviews of them, as well as three smaller films before they opened on either side of the Atlantic. And, if I am a natural contrarian after reading the reviews, I seem to be one even before reading the reviews. I had a lukewarm but not hostile reaction to James Mangold’s Walk the Line and was surprised later on to watch it get fairly enthusiastic reviews and go on to get five Oscar nominations, including the two top acting categories, with Reese Witherspoone winning for her performance as June Carter. I simply didn’t see that coming. To me, it seemed to be a pretty standard biopic. On the other hand, a movie I really did like, Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown, which I fully expected to repeat the director’s success with films like Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, was savaged by critics and roundly rejected by moviegoers. Maybe I was spun not by reviews (which had not been published before I saw the film) but by Crowe’s previous work and reputation, which spurred expectations that my mind fulfilled. But I don’t think so. This year I fully expected to like or at least admire Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, based on her earlier films, and those high expectations only made my disappointment worse—devastatingly making me question whether Lost in Translation was really as good as I had thought it was. (I still think it was.)

I think my affection for Elizabethtown had mostly to do with the fact that I related to it. Like Orlando Bloom’s character, I have worked in the go-go new corporation environment of the Pacific Northwest and have also recently made a journey to bury a parent. I have also made my own sentimental journeys across America, as Bloom does in the final reel of the movie. To be sure, I wasn’t sure in the early stretches whether I was going to wind up liking the overall movie or not, but the final bits won me over. Many critics pointed to the scene where Susan Sarandon tap dances at her husband’s funeral as what is so awful about the movie. But the point of that scene was precisely how awful and tacky the moment was. And how uniquely American it is. I related totally to the squirming of the movie characters watching her performance. I’ve been there, and seeing that discomfort depicted on the screen validated my own experiences. Obviously, other people’s mileage varied.

At that same film festival, I also saw the Charles Bukowski-based Factotum, Stoned, about the mysterious death of Rolling Stone Brian Jones, and the dark Nick Cave-penned Australian western The Proposition. As I had expected, the first made a small ripple before disappearing. I thought the other two might make more of a splash because of baby boomer interest in the Brian Jones story and Cave’s fan base, but neither of them seemed to make much of a splash either.

This year at Cork I got another shot of being second-guessed rather than second-guessing. In the past month I have seen no fewer than seven movies open, on one side of the Atlantic or the other or both, which I had already seen (including the aforementioned Marie Antoinette). Death of a President hardly counts though, since there was so much buzz about it beforehand. Interestingly, most reviews I have read seem to have more or less said the same as what I said. Middletown has only played in Ireland so far, and The Irish Times certainly liked it better than me. This might involve a bit of local boostering, but I’d say it’s more of a case of the movie’s prejudices matching the reviewer’s. The History Boys is playing in the UK and Ireland and no one seems to like it as much as me. This may have something to do with the fact that many people here would have had the opportunity to see the stage play, which involved the same director and cast, thereby allowing for the tendency of many people to prefer a work in the incarnation in which they first saw it. (A bit of snob-ism?) As I wrote in my own review, it will be extremely interesting to see how it plays in America later this month, given the recent political season and the film’s freewheeling, non-judgmental view of blurred mentor/student physical boundaries. My guess: popular entry in urban arthouses but a non-factor in suburban multiplexes. Duh. I also loved A Good Year, which has been playing over here for a couple of weeks. Giving me a sense of Elizabethtown-like déjà vu, it has been roundly savaged by Irish and British reviewers alike. The Irish seem to not like it because, maybe, it’s too English? Conversely, my favorite English critic, Mark Kermode rubbished the film for being too faux English. His points of condemnation were the fact that Russell Crowe wore glasses and that an establishing shot included “the gherkin” (a pickle-shaped London skyscraper). Will Americans like it better? I have to think that there has to be some sort of an audience for it. After all, someone has been buying all those Peter Mayle books. I concede that the movie is by no means profound or overly inventive. But it was the most pleasurable rest my brain got all that week. Given a choice between it and Crowe’s and Ridley Scott’s previous collaboration, Gladiator, I would gladly sit through A Good Year again, and I stand by that statement.

Then there is Borat. Yes, I laughed frequently and heartily. And, yes, I frequently cringed and felt not good about myself for being in the cinema. Reviews on both sides of the pond seem to have echoed this ambiguous reaction. Most interesting to me is the Irish critical reaction. Reviewers here seem to think that the movie is some bloody work of absolute genius. This definitely tells me something that I kind-of sort-of knew about the Irish commenting class but which I was trying not to know. I just can’t wait for Sasha Baron Cohen to create an offensive Irish character for his TV sketch comedy series, which could be the basis for his fourth movie. (Bruno, the gay Austrian fashionista, will be the subject of his third.)

My favorite movie of this year’s film festival and of the year so far was Sixty Six. As with my unexpected favorite from two years ago, Danny Boyle’s Millions, I found myself in the unaccustomed situation of being completely won over by a movie about children. Is this the effect of my own parenthood? Maybe, but I don’t think so. After all, there are lots of other movies about children that have definitely not been made more appealing to me since I became a dad. If I want to indulge in self-analysis, it probably has more to do with the fact that both movies focus on the younger of two brothers, a situation I know exceedingly well. It must be that, since there is little else in the film that I identify with—being neither English nor Jewish. As with Millions, I had a strong emotional reaction to the movie—which, at the end of the day, is what most of us are hoping for from a movie. Like the best of Frank Capra’s movies, it was actually depressing for much of its running time, yet soaringly uplifting at the end. Sixty Six opened last week in the UK and Ireland, and I am afraid that the reviews were largely respectful and positive but tepid.

I feel fortunate that I got to see it when I did. You see, I went into the screening literally knowing nothing about the film, having heard not one word about it or even knowing it existed beforehand. When I saw it, it came upon me as a wonderful surprise. Moviegoers in the regular cinemas will not get that chance. Its ad campaign blares, with huge block type, that the movie is from “the makers of Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually!” While I actually liked both those movies (but not the wretched Bridget Jones sequel), that comparison gives you absolutely no idea what to expect. Sixty Six is really nothing like Love Actually. A Good Year is actually a lot more like Love Actually. (Think the plot about Colin Firth and the Portuguese housekeeper.)

And while, as I’ve learned, not knowing what to expect is actually a very good thing, expecting the wrong thing can be a very bad thing.

-S.L., 9 November 2006

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