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What Is The Point Of Being A Critic?


This week’s blog has turned out to be bigger than my Olympic Games tribute last year so let’s get to it…

 

The Crucible

 

I’m mentioning this as it leads into my discussion for the week.

 

The Crucible is the current production from the Queensland Theatre Company.  It opened a week and a half ago and a review from opening night was posted on the website of the Brisbane Times by Katherine Feeney (otherwise known as CityKat).  Her review was scathing.  Feeney said “powerful moments of fragile vulnerability are drowned out by yawning dullness”, “moments of high drama seem contrived and uncomfortable” and “the audience is left with awkward embarrassment”.  You can read her full review here.

 

I first picked up on the review through Brett Debritz’s website.  You can see his own thoughts on the matter at: http://www.debritz.net/node/2039.

 

What’s interesting though are the comments from the public which have been posted on the Brisbane Times website in response to Feeney’s article.  Here’s a sample…

 

The review reminds me of something an academic who couldnt otherwise get a job in the real world would write. You know, the sort of people that want everyone to think they are smart because of their oh so laa-dee-dah intellectual prose. There is this phenomenon called "Plain English" now luvvy, suggest you try it some day because these days, everyone just thinks youre a, well, wanker ;)

 

I am quite familiar with the play, and was thrilled with the freshness, modernity and texture of the production. So it seemed for much of the opening night crowd. I don't know where your "awkward embarrassment" was.  You wield a big stick KF. I think that whooshing sound might be you missing your mark.

 

I was there on opening night and what I saw was a brilliant, heart-breaking and refreshing production of what is one of my favourite plays of all time.  What Brisbane needs is better critics who review the show they watched. Not the one they wanted to.

 

Oh nonsense! At best this scrap of pretentious reviewing is at best naive, and at worst just plain ignorant.  Sorry, get an experienced reviewer or one that can present a balanced view if you want to be taken seriously by those who know their theatre.

 

After the savage attack back on Feeney, a few then came to her defence…

 

“I can't help but agree with the reviewer. I saw this production early into its run and was extremely disappointed

 

I thank this reviewer for their bravery to not hop on the bandwagon and to tell it how she saw it.”

 

“It really troubles me City Kat, for the very crime of disagreeing with the overall (and rather self-congratulatory) consensus that this production was "a triumph", and (eek!) not being a 'legitimate' theatre reviewer is being pillorised online - on this discussion thread as well as others.  My god. I reckon that back in Salem it is these people who'd be screaming 'witch witch'. Is going against the majority still enough to get you hanged in this day and age?”

 

I’d been keen to see the play but the controversy tipped me over the edge and ensured that I would.  I struggled to round up my usual posse of friends so I saw it on my own at the Saturday matinee in a packed theatre.

 

I really liked it.  I’m no theatre critic (although it would be cool) and I’ve only seen two other productions this year, but I am familiar with the story.  I saw a cinematic version of The Crucible in 1997.  It starred Daniel Day Lewis, Joan Allen and Winona Ryder and earned an A grading.

 

Arthur Miller’s story is timeless if you ask me and I enjoyed the way it was presented on stage by the QTC.  There were some very intense scenes and a few light hearted moments to mix things up.  I loved the set and lighting also.

 

If you want to see what all the fuss is about, The Crucible is still on until November 14 at the Playhouse (a very nice theatre I might add).  You can find out more at http://www.qldtheatreco.com.au/.

 

I’m also excited about next year’s QTC program – including The Little Dog Laughed, Fat Pig and The Clean House.  My conversion from the big screen to the live stage will continue…

 

 

A Critic’s Role?

 

This debate regarding The Crucible has left me thinking – what is the role of a critic?  I think it’s easy to articulate to summing it up in four simple points…

 

Point 1:  Promotion

 

I’ve never seen a film which was unanimously liked or disliked.  We’re all different people and we’re all going to take something different away from a film.  Even if two moviegoers are similar, they may still see a film differently based on the mood they’re in at the time.  For example, it’s tough to get excited about a film if you’re tired or have had a long day at work.

 

So I do see my role as important in terms of “promotion”.  Through my website and though the ABC, I try to get people interested in going to the movies.  It’s that simple.  There are some awesome ways for the people of Brisbane to experience an art form (movies, plays, musicals, concerts) but they often don’t know they’re on.

 

Point 2:  Expanding Horizons

 

Everyone always knows when a big blockbuster is showing.  The stars appear on television talk shows and magazine covers.  Posters adorn bus stations and the insides of movie theatres.  Trailers and other advertisements dominate the smaller screen.  I speak of films like Transformers, Star Trek and the upcoming New Moon.

 

I’ve said this numerous times before but my review of these films is meaningless.  I could give New Moon an F-grading (please note I haven’t seen it yet – I’ve got a preview next week) but I don’t think it would stop a single person from seeing it.  In this regard, there’s not a lot I can do as a critic.  My promotion of the film serves little purpose since everyone knows its out anyway.

 

I prefer telling people about a smaller film that’s currently in movie theatres which has received little-to-no advertising.  I like to promote low-budget Australian films which blossoming stars.  I like to get people to film festivals as a way of opening their eyes – so many movies are made and yet we find ourselves drawn to the big action blockbusters through the manipulation of the media and Hollywood studios.

 

I hope that my positive reviews of some smaller, unheralded films have served a purpose and expanded people’s movie-going horizons.

 

Point 3:  Offer Insight

 

I sometimes slip up on this point (especially for films I don’t like) but a good review should offer insight.  Given that a critic sees so many films, they should be able to pick up on details which others may not.  When I watch Margaret and David on At The Movies (two incredibly experienced critics), they often say something which leaves me thinking “you know, they’re right, I can’t believe I didn’t realise that.”

 

It’s like anything in life – we learn through experience.  If I spoke to a leading theatre critic following The Crucible, then I’m sure I would have listened intently.  This is a person who has seen countless performances and would likely have good taste.

 

In my own movie reviews, I try to include titbits of information and quotes from actors/directors which readers might find interesting.  This can be particularly so after someone has seen a movie.  You can then read back on a review and think – “ah, I didn’t know that’s what the direction was trying to achieve.”

 

Point 4:  Generate Discussion!

 

The above three points all lead into what I think is the most important – generating discussion.  Disagreeing about a movie can be really fun.  I’ve had plenty of chats this year regarding Transformers.  It was a film I didn’t like for reasons which can you read in my own review.  But I’ve spent a lot of time debating its merits with other people – some who liked it and others who didn’t.  There’s no right or wrong answer.  It’s great to talk about, to interact with people.

 

After I saw Capitalism: A Love Story, I had lunch with two friends and we debated it for a solid hour.  I have another friend who loves the movie Swordfish (I hated it) and we stir each other up about it whenever we get the chance.  When I saw 25 Down (the theatrical show covered in another of my blogs), I went to dinner with friends afterwards and we broke it down in great detail.

 

Discussing our favourite movies, songs, books, plays, musicals, artists… it’s part of the richness of life.  It explains who we are and what we stand for.  I love it.

 

Having gone through all of that, perhaps I should be grateful to CityKat.  I disliked her opinion but it inspired me to go see The Crucible even more.  There you go.

 

 

Matt’s Best Of The Decade – Musicals & Action/Adventure

 

My fingers are sore so let’s quickly get to part 4 of my best of the decade series.  This week, I’m looking at musicals and action/adventure films – two very different genres.

 

We’ll start with musicals and whilst there aren’t a lot of them to choose from, there were two clear standouts…

 

Moulin Rouge (released in 2001) – full review is here.

 

Chicago (released in 2003) - full review is here.

 

I do love a good musical and these two were exceptional.  The great thing too with a musical is you can watch it again and again and again.  The songs are forever imprinted in your brain.  Honourable mentions in this category go to Mamma Mia, Hairspray and High School Musical 3.

 

Action/adventure films are my least favourite genre (well, aside from romantic comedies).  I find so many of them formulaic and predictable.  The plot is often underdeveloped.  The best of the bunch though were:

 

The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (released in 2001) – full review is here.

 

Batman Begins (released in 2005) – full review is here.

 

I loved all of the Rings films but it’s the first one I consider the best.  Batman Begins was an iconic movie as far as I’m concerned – director Christopher Nolan proved that you can take a dead franchise and reinvigorate it.  The same thing happened this year with Star Trek.  My honourable mentions are Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Gladiator, Spider Man, Snakes Of A Plane, Death Proof, King Kong, Master & Commander and Apocalypto.

 

Next week, we’ll look at the documentaries.

 

Over and out.

Australian Cinema: Me, A Choc-Top & An Empty Theatre

 

I must start this week’s issue by saying another well done to Spencer Howson and his crew at 612ABC.  The latest radio ratings were announced today and they’re on top once again – narrow victors over Nova 106.9 in the morning time slot.  Should I disclose that you can hear me on Spencer’s program at 6:50am every Thursday morning?  No, I don’t think I will.

 

Into The Shadows

 

On Saturday night, I went to see Into The Shadows at the Palace Barracks Cinemas.  The film is a new documentary which looks at a lot of the problems with the Australian film industry.  It talks about how difficult it is to obtain funding.  It looks at how many Australian films which do get made are “gloomy” and unmarketable.  It discusses how the major chains (Hoyts, Greater Union) stifle competition and make life difficult for independent cinema.

 

A key point it does make is how the public doesn’t support Australian cinema.  I think it was the 2007 year (from memory) where the box-office takings for Aussie films made up just 4% of our domestic box-office.  We spent more than 70% of our money watching American films.

 

It was an interesting doco but the irony comes in the fact that I was the only one sitting in the cinema.  That’s right – it was just me, a butterscotch choc-top and an empty cinema.  I can tell you now that this film will make next-to-nothing.  It’s a shame but that’s reality.

 

I’m not going to get into a long-winded debate about the current merits of the Australian film industry.  It’s a topic I’ve covered before and I do my best to promote great local product.  This year has been an exceptionally good year.  I know Margaret and David on At The Movies (without a doubt our most well known critics) also flog any Aussie film they can.

 

Unfortunately, our culture is heavily influenced by the Americans.  We watch their television shows, we buy their music and yes, we watch their films.  Don’t get me wrong – there is some good stuff that has come from the United States.  However, I am POSITIVE that they aren’t the “be all and end all” of creativity.  There are other countries who have equally gifted artists.  Yet for whatever reason, we get sucked in by the great American marketing machines and spend our dollars watching Transformers and Harry Potter.

 

I don’t have an answer but I do encourage everyone to expand their horizons – and not just watching something because Entertainment Tonight tells you to.

 

AFI Awards

 

Last week, the nominations were revealed for the 2009 Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards.  I was very disappointed this year by the change in voting.  Non-industry AFI members (such as myself) are now no longer able to vote for the best picture category.  This is something I have done for over 10 years and it has always given me pleasure.  There is a new audience award category but it’s just not the same.

 

Anyway, I must point out my disgust to see that Baz Lurhmann’s Australia was overlooked for a best picture nomination.  The film has made $37m here in Australia – the second highest grossing local production of all time (behind Crocodile Dundee).  To put that into perspective, only 5 other Aussie films have made more than $10m locally in the past decade.  I know that not everyone was a fan of the film but that massive box-office shows how popular it was and I think the majority of people did find it entertaining.

 

Instead, the 6 films nominated for best film this year are Balibo, Beautiful Kate, Blessed, Mao’s Last Dancer, Mary & Max and Samson & Delilah.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Samson & Delilah will win and it’s a worthy choice.  That said, I’m miffed at how some of the other nominees (without naming names) snuck in at the expense of Australia.

 

Another problem with the awards is that you see the same films nominated again and again throughout all the categories.  It’s the same as the Oscars too.

 

Look, that’s enough of my ranting in that regard.  The award winners will be revealed in December and you can view the full list of nominees here.

 

Matt’s Best Of The Decade – Thrillers

 

Now it’s time for part 3 of my best of the decade series.  We’re looking at a more familiar genre this week – thrillers.

 

I need to point out that there a lot of films which cross genres.  Many thrillers could just as easily be classed as a drama.  I had my trouble myself trying to split my own short-list of films between thrillers and dramas.  It gets even harder when you start looking at the romantic or comedy genres.

 

Anyway, it was a tough choice once again but the two films which I’ve settled upon this week are…

 

Donnie Darko (released in 2002) – full review is here.

 

The Talented Mr. Ripley (released in 2000) - full review is here.

 

Donnie Darko is a heck of a motion picture.  It’s got some really stylish stuff.  I loved the montage at the start of the film to “Head Over Heels” by Tears For Fears.  Just as amazing was the final sequence set to “Mad World” by Gary Jules.  The story is complex and you’ve got to keep on your toes.  I’ve seen it several times and not even I am convinced I fully understand it.  The film also boasts one of the best individual scenes in a movie – the part where Jake Gyllenhaal confronts Patrick Swayze at an open forum.  I went through this scene a few weeks ago in my blog and I laughed so hard when I saw it for the first time.

 

The Talented Mr. Ripley is in my opinion, the best film from the late director Anthony Minghella.  Minghella will be more remembered though for The English Patient, which swept the Oscars in 1996.  I’ve read the novel on which The Talented Mr. Ripley is based and this is one of those rare instances where the full essence of the book (and maybe even more) comes through on screen.  It’s always been a benchmark for me on how to adapt a great novel.  Matt Damon’s character is incredibly complex – he is insecure but incredibly cunning at the same time.  He shares some wonderful sequences with Philip Seymour Hoffman (my favourite actor of the last decade).  It also has a great film score from Gabriel Yared (the soundtrack is in my collection) and ends on a perfect note.

 

Honourable mentions this week (which will get a certificate of commendation from me in the mail) go to Mulholland Drive (which will be mentioned again very soon), Hidden, Memento, The Pledge, Insomnia, The Mothman Prophecies, 28 Days Later, Mystic River, Notes On A Scandal, The Others, Collateral, The Bourne Supremacy, Wolf Creek, Let The Right One In, Duplicity and State Of Play.

 

Next week, we’ll look at the action/adventure genre.  I’ll also sneakily mention my favourite musicals.

Killed By Hype... As Opposed To A Vampire


No storm can stop this week’s blog.  I drove through torrential rain tonight out to Indooroopilly to see an advance screening of the new Scott Hicks film, The Boys Are Back (out Nov 12).  You could hear the thunder during the movie and the lights even flickered briefly during one moment – must have been a power surge.

 

Killed By Hype

 

I am officially “over” the Twilight movie series.  I actually liked the first film.  It was a nice surprise – something a little different and it was great to see it do so well at the box-office.

 

However, since that time, I haven’t been able to get away from all the hype and over publicity for this next film (which I’m yet to see).  It may be a good film but I’m sick of hearing about it.

 

Tickets have been on sale for weeks and there are special midnight screenings when it comes out on November 19.  Radio stations have been taking it up – giving away tickets to premieres and talking about any gossip they can in relation to stars Robert Pattinson (who has zero credits to his name outside of the Twilight saga) and Kirsten Stewart.  Let’s not forget about the trashy magazines either.  Every time I’m queuing up in a supermarket, I see their two faces looking back at me with some crazy, sensationalistic headline.

 

I’ve learned from experience that the more you hype up a film, the more likely it is to disappoint.  I’m sure that just all the Twilight devotees will love it anyway – no matter how good or bad it is.  Other more discerning moviegoers may not feel as passionate.  It’s kind of like the Harry Potter series.

 

This won’t mean anything to the big studios that will be rolling in money when New Moon is released.  This film is going to make sooooooo much money that it’s not funny.  I wish I owned a share in it.  I should have written that vampire script after all.

 

Let me finish my rant by saying that I’m more looking forward to the Coen Brothers film which is being released on that same day (A Serious Man) as opposed to New Moon.

 

Matt’s Best Of The Decade – Animated Films

 

Last week, I started my look at the best films of the decade.  This week’s focus is on another area of cinema which has grown exponentially over the last decade – animation.

 

Back in the mid 1990s, it was Disney who dominated the animation game.  They’d release one big blockbuster every year.  Things changed in 1995 with the arrival of Toy Story – the first computer-generated full length film ever made.  You can forget how quickly times have changed.  Animation is everywhere today.

 

In 2001, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences introduced a new category at the Oscars – best animated feature.  It’s a category which has been very competitive since its inception.  Shrek took the honours in 2001 and WALL-E won last year.

 

It wasn’t easy coming up with my two top animated films for the decade and the two that I’ve decided on may catch people off guard – because they’re both in a foreign language.  They are…

 

Spirited Away (released in 2002) – full review is here.

 

Persepolis (released in 2008) – full review is here.

 

What’s also a little strange about my two choices is that they’re both simple, hand-drawn animation.  It’s cool seeing a computer animated film which is rich in detail (like anything coming out of Pixar lately) but it’s the story which is important above all things.

 

Spirited Away is from acclaimed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki and won the Oscar in 2002 for best animated film.  It’s pretty “out there” but that’s what I loved about it.  Miyazaki has such a vivid imagination, a creativity which cannot be matched.  It has a permanent space in my DVD collection and I never get tired of seeing it.  A beautiful tale.

 

Persepolis blew me away at last year’s Brisbane International Film Festival.  It’s actually a rarity too in that it’s black and white animation.  It’s a darker story (not necessarily suited for young children) and left me feeling uneasy at times.  It proved that you don’t need to have real actors to convey raw emotions.

 

I have plenty of honourable mentions this week and they include Chicken Run, Shrek, The Incredibles, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, Ratatouille, Kung Fun Panda, WALL-E, Cars, Up and Coraline.

 

You can bet there’ll be a lot more animation in the years to come – especially of the 3D variety.

 

Next week, I’ll look at my favourite thrillers of the decade.

 

Matt's Best Of The Decade: Let's Start The Ball Rolling


As I mentioned last week, another decade is about to come to a close.  Over the weekend, I put my thinking cap on to determine how I can sum up these 10 action packed years of cinema.

 

With roughly 10 weeks remaining this year, I’ve decided to do my wrap up over this period.  Each week, I’m going to focus on a different genre and name my 2 best films from each.  I was only going to name one film initially in each genre but just found it too hard.  The buffer gives me a chance to expand a little further.

 

Just because a film featured prominently in my top 10 list for a certain year didn’t guarantee it a spot in my decade wrap.  Some films do age better than others and have had the chance to see some of the films a second, third, fourth… time has helped me develop a better appreciation for just how great it is.

 

In total, I’ve seen and reviewed 2,021 films between 2000 and 2009.  There’s still two months to go of course so the final total is to be determined.  I point this out because it wasn’t an easy assignment trying to pick my favourites.  I started with a brainstorming session on a bit of paper and slowly narrowed the field.  It was sad to leave certain films out but I might sneak them in for a quick mention along the way.

 

Matt’s Best Of The Decade – Foreign Language Films

 

Foreign language films have exploded in Australia over the past decade.  With many new cinemas opening their doors, the demand for different types of movies has increased.  At the start of the decade, one of your only chances to see foreign language films was at the Brisbane International Film Festival.  Now, it seems there’s a foreign language film released each week.

 

On top of that, there’s a multitude of mini festivals shown in Palace and Dendy cinemas.  There’s also Bollywood which has infiltrated Australia – there’s a new film shown at the Hoyts Regent here in the city each week.

 

Having sifted through them all, my two favourites were:

 

Y Tu Mama Tambien (released in 2002) – full review can be found here.

 

The Lives Of Others (released in 2007) – full review can be found here

 

I remember seeing Y Tu Mama Tambien at the 2002 Brisbane International Film Festival.  It started with a full-on sex scene and it finished with one of my all time favourite endings – Julio and Tenoch sitting in a café with a narrator describing events.  Mexican director has since gone on and made Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban (the third in the series) and Children Of Men.  He’s creative and knows how to tell a story.

 

The Lives Of Others was my favourite film of 2007.  It had won the Oscar for best foreign language film but even I wasn’t prepared for how good it was.  It opened my eyes to a period of German history that I didn’t know much about.  Many German films focus on the atrocities of World War II but this film was set in the 1980s – just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.  I have to say that I was saddened to learn of the passing of star Ulrich Muhe who died not long after the film was released.  Her earned a posthumous BAFTA Award for best actor but lost to Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood.

 

Honourable mentions in the foreign language category go to films including The Spanish Apartment, The Motorcycle Diaries, Downfall, Turtles Can Fly, The Diving Bell & The Butterfly, The Counterfeiters, Summer Hours, No Man’s Land, The Man On The Train, Talk To Her and Kitchen Stories.

 

Next week, I’ll look at my favourite animated films of the decade.