Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Critics pass Wind

With the obvious exception of watching movies, probably the most fun a person can have—legally and with their clothes on—is reading about movies. After all, the first step in watching a movie is deciding what movie you’re going to watch. Unless you happen to live somewhere that has only one cinema with one movie screen within reasonable traveling distance (and not even I live somewhere that remote), then seeing a movie starts with making a choice. And the act of choosing is, in reality, even more complex because we aren’t restricted to merely what’s on at the cinema. Technology has put virtually any movie in existence literally within reach of our fingertips—most of them legally, for a price.

So, how do we decide what movie to see? We accumulate information on them from a number of sources: word of mouth from friends, advertising, mentions on TV entertainment and chat shows. But I would say that most serious moviegoers rely on published reviews. And that merely opens another plethora of possible sources. Your daily newspaper publishes reviews, but you can also get them from magazines, television, radio and, um, the internet. In fact, there are so many sources of information and opinion about movies that choosing which ones you want to spend time on is perhaps more complicated and involving than actually deciding what movie to watch.

Frankly, when you find someone whose film commentaries you love to read (or any writer you like to read, for that matter), reading that person can be a thoroughly satisfying activity quite separate from the evaluation and decision process of movie-going. In my student days of limited funds, some of the greatest joy I got from reading was perusing reviews and commentaries about movies that I had no immediate prospect of seeing—because they were playing only in Los Angeles and New York or maybe in another country or maybe because I simply didn’t have the couple of dollars needed for admission. Similarly, some of the most entertaining reviews I have read have sometimes been about movies that I could have seen if I had wanted to, but I didn’t want to. But that didn’t mean that the review I was reading wasn’t thoroughly and completely enjoyable on its own merits.

It’s my intention over the next week or two or three to ramble on about reviewers who have given me pleasure over the years—and those who have annoyed me—and also the pros and cons of different media for getting movie information and commentary. But for now, I will concentrate on one particular film critic because, well, he said something that perplexed me on Friday.

I have rarely read Kenneth Turan’s film reviews. (He writes for The Los Angeles Times.) But I hear him fairly frequently because he is the resident film critic on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. I have been hearing him off and on for years. Ages ago his critiques were on the other major NPR newsmagazine All Things Considered. I found him particularly annoying back then because the format for his criticisms were such that it seemed that he couldn’t be bothered to actually sit down and write a review and read it on the air. Instead, host Susan Stamberg had to interview him each week about some new movie, and his attitude was invariably that the movie wasn’t very good. Week after week, I listened to Stamberg, who usually seemed to have also seen the movie in question and, in her kindly fashion, was desperate for positive feedback on behalf of the filmmakers, more or less try to plead with him to find something good to say. He always refused, at least when I was listening. Then one day, when NPR was doing little on-air profiles on their various commentators (I think maybe it was during a pledge drive), I heard Turan give a talk about himself. He basically said that he realized a young age that he had insights into movies that were deeper and superior to other people’s and that’s why he became a film critic. Okay. Then he went off my radar for a while, until I noticed him on the morning program.

Since the old ATC days, he seems to have mellowed. Now he seems to gush about every movie he reviews. I haven’t decided if he just likes everything he sees now or if he is reviewing only movies that he likes. Anyway, he is somewhat easier to take than he used to be. But his insights are still way deeper and superior to mine because much of the time I can’t follow his train of thought. For instance, this past Friday he reviewed The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which made me sit up and pay attention, since I had not only seen that movie already but had written about it myself more than a couple of times. Naturally, he loved it. “It’s concerned not with how bad the British were,” explained Turan (silly me, I thought that was precisely what it was concerned about), “but with what the wrenching personal cost of fighting fire with fire was for the Irish.” Okay, that bit’s right. There is a scene where Cillian Murphy (who has made a fairly sudden career change from saving lives as a doctor to killing Brits) has to execute an informer and we are made to feel very bad for Murphy’s character. Then Turan adds, “When the Irish have to decide whether to accept partial independence or continue fighting, the film tips its hand neither one way nor the other.” Uh, okay, it’s true that director Ken Loach allows both sides to give their arguments, which is admirable of him. But when, at the end, he recreates the film’s opening scene, in which an old farm woman is brutally thrown out of her cottage, almost exactly but substituting Free State forces for the Black and Tans, well, I think he sort of tips his hand there.

Turan seems to have come away with the same impression as A.O. Scott (no relation) of The New York Times. Maybe they hashed it out between them in a bar after seeing the movie at Cannes last spring. Or maybe I’m on a different planet. Scott (no relation) compared The Wind That Shakes the Barley with Loach’s earlier Land and Freedom, which similarly was about idealistic rebels fight forces of oppression but end up also fighting one another, observing, “The logic of rebellion in ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ has a similarly grim implacability. You start out fighting an obvious, odious enemy, and you will end up killing your friends.” This makes it sound as though rebellion is futile. But I don’t think this is what Loach’s films are saying. The message I get is that the rebellion would succeed just fine if some of the rebels didn’t go soft and give up before the goal (which in Loach’s world is total redistribution of all land) is achieved.

But maybe I am imagining that, and the guys writing for the big national dailies have it right. Clearly, the only solution for me is to escape from the stubbornly persistent Irish winter and head for Cannes and see if I can get a glass of whatever those guys were drinking.

* * *

It was just a brief item in the movie insert of The Irish Times this past Friday. “Clint Eastwood,” it said, “will next direct The Changeling, set in 1920s Los Angeles. Angelina Jolie stars as a woman whose child is abducted. When the boy is found, she begins to doubt if he is her son and she suspects corruption within the LAPD.” That’s all there was. But thanks to the magic of the internet, those of us who care know the really important thing about this project. The script for the film is being adapted from the source book by its author, one J. Michael Straczynski, the creator and spiritual father of the greatest TV sci-fi series of all time, Babylon 5. The deal was made by Ron Howard, who will be a producer but who had to relinquish directing chores because of a busy schedule.

This news is exciting in its own right. The Changeling should be quite a movie. But B5 fans are ecstatic not only at the prospect of seeing their god JMS at the Academy Awards but about the clout this new high profile gives JMS. Are we now closer to seeing a Babylon 5 feature film? Or another TV series, particularly one that completes the cruelly aborted Crusade spin-off? Time will tell about those possibilities. But until then, there is something very real to look forward to in the summer: a pair of direct-to-DVD mini-episodes called Babylon 5: The Lost Tales, due for release in July. Hooray for Hollywood!

-S.L., 22 March 2007

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