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Ten lessons for film critics from J. Hoberman

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After more than twenty years as the paper’s senior film critic, J. Hoberman was laid off by The Village Voice yesterday. Hoberman told New York‘s Daily Intel that he was “shocked, but not surprised” by the news and that it would be “disingenuous to say [he] hadn’t considered the possibility that this would happen eventually.”

The news may not have been surprising, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing. Hoberman had been a fixture at The Voice for decades, but he never coasted on his reputation; in this fan’s opinion, his recent work is as good or better than anything he’s ever written. There are lots of good film writers associated with the paper. But the place will never be the same. For film lovers, J. Hoberman was the voice of The Voice.

Of course, I’m not exactly an impartial observer of these events; as a former student of Hoberman’s at New York University, I owe the man a lot. After his class — a seminar in film criticism — Hoberman helped me get an internship at The Voice, which led to writing for The Voice, which led to, y’know, my whole professional career. So many established writers look down on younger film critics, insulting their knowledge and their taste. Not Jim Hoberman, whose former students include The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis and L.A. Weekly‘s Karina Longworth.

Even before Hoberman helped jump-start my post-graduate life, his class was one of the best and most important I ever took at any level of my education. His insights into the craft of film criticism and his pointed but encouraging assessments of our work were invaluable. As Hoberman fans might expect, his homework assignments were often unusual. One week he ordered us to see a movie that looked terrible and find one thing we liked about it. Another time we had to write the lede of a review after watching just the first ten minutes of a film.

I still have my notebook from Hoberman’s seminar. I refer back to it often. After hearing last night’s bad news, I took it out again and flipped through it. There was good advice on every page. I’ve decided to share ten of his lessons here (I’m keeping the rest for myself).

Hopefully, I’ve followed most of them. God knows I’ve tried. But not all of us are J. Hoberman. There’s a reason he’s the best at what he does.

On the fundamentals:
“Ask yourself the question, ‘What do people want to know about a movie that they’ve never seen?'”

On plot:
“Plot synopses automatically ruin a review.”

On brevity:
“Watch for excess words. If there’s a shorter word, use it.”

On editors:
“Work with them for the good of the piece. Don’t have ego. Don’t compete.”

On interviewing filmmakers:
“If you’re thinking about it, ask them about it.”

On digressions:
“The longer the em dash, the weaker its impact.”

On taste:
“Always ask yourself why you like what you like.”

On bad movies:
“Vent your spleen. In criticism, it’s better to be angry than depressed.”

On the competition:
“Never read other critics’ reviews. They cloud your judgment.”

On deadlines:
Never miss a deadline.”

Who’s your favorite film critic? Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Underworld

Under Your Spell

10 Otherworldly Romances That’ll Melt Your Heart

Spend Valentine's Day weekend with IFC's Underworld movie marathon.

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Photo Credit: Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection

Romance takes many forms, and that is especially true when you have a thirst for blood or laser beams coming out of your eyes.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a werewolf, a superhero, a clone, a time-traveler, or a vampire, love is the one thing that infects us all.  Read on to find out why Romeo and Juliet have nothing on these supernatural star-crossed lovers, and be sure to catch IFC’s Underworld movie marathon this Valentine’s Day weekend.

1. Cyclops/Jean Grey/Wolverine, X-Men series

The X-Men franchise is rife with romance, but the steamiest “ménage à mutant” may just be the one between Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Their triangle is a complicated one as Jean finds herself torn between the two very different men while also trying to control her darker side, the Phoenix. This leads to Jean killing Cyclops and eventually getting stabbed through her heart by Wolverine in X-Men: The Last Stand. Yikes!  Maybe they should change the name to Ex-Men instead?


2. Willow/Tara, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Joss Whedon gave audiences some great romances on Buffy the Vampire Slayer — including the central triangle of Buffy, Angel, and Spike — but it was the love between witches Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) that broke new ground for its sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a LGBT relationship.

Willow is smart and confident and isn’t even sure of her sexuality when she first meets Tara at college in a Wiccan campus group. As the two begin experimenting with spells, they realize they’re also falling for one another and become the show’s most enduring, happy couple. At least until Tara’s death in season six, a moment that still brings on the feels.


3. Selene/Michael, Underworld series

The Twilight gang pales in comparison (both literally and metaphorically) to the Lycans and Vampires of the stylish Underworld franchise. If you’re looking for an epic vampire/werewolf romance set amidst an epic vampire/werewolf war, Underworld handily delivers in the form of leather catsuited Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and shaggy blonde hunk Michael (a post-Felicity Scott Speedman). As they work together to stop the Vampire/Lycan war, they give into their passions while also kicking butt in skintight leather. Love at first bite indeed.


4. Spider-man/Mary Jane Watson, Spider-man

After rushing to the aid of beautiful girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the Amazing Spider-man is rewarded with an upside-down kiss that is still one of the most romantic moments in comic book movie history. For Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the shy, lovable dork beneath the mask, his rain-soaked makeout session is the culmination of years of unrequited love and one very powerful spider bite. As the films progress, Peter tries pushing MJ away in an attempt to protect her from his enemies, but their web of love is just too powerful. And you know, with great power, comes great responsibility.


5. Molly/Sam, Ghost

When it comes to supernatural romance, you really can’t beat Molly and Sam from the 1990 hit film Ghost. Demi Moore goes crazy for Swayze like the rest of us, and the pair make pottery sexier than it’s ever been.

When Sam is murdered, he’s forced to communicate through con artist turned real psychic, Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg in her Academy Award-winning role) to warn Molly she is still in danger from his co-worker, Carl (a pre-Scandal Tony Goldwyn). Molly doesn’t believe Oda is telling the truth, so Sam proves it by sliding a penny up the wall and then possessing Oda so he and Molly can share one last romantic dance together (but not the dirty kind). We’d pay a penny for a dance with Patrick Swayze ANY day.


6. Cosima/Delphine, Orphan Black

It stands to reason there would be at least one complicated romance on a show about clones, and none more complicated than the one between clone Cosima (Tatiana Maslany) and Dr. Delphine Cormier (Evelyne Brochu) on BBC America’s hit drama Orphan Black.

Cosima is a PhD student focusing on evolutionary developmental biology at the University of Minnesota when she meets Delphine, a research associate from the nefarious Dyad Institute, posing as a fellow immunology student. The two fall in love, but their happiness is brief once Dyad and the other members of Clone Club get involved. Here’s hoping Cosima finds love in season four of Orphan Black. Girlfriend could use a break.


7. Aragorn/Arwen, Lord of the Rings

On a picturesque bridge in Rivendell amidst some stellar mood-lighting and dreamy Elvish language with English subtitles for us non-Middle Earthlings, Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) bind their souls to one another, pledging to love each other no matter what befalls them.

Their courtship is a matter of contention with Arwen’s father, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), who doesn’t wish to see his daughter suffer over Aragorn’s future death. The two marry after the conclusion of the War of the Ring, with Aragorn assuming his throne as King of Gondor, and Arwen forgoing her immortality to become his Queen. Is it too much to assume they asked Frodo to be their wedding ring-bearer?


8. Lafayette/Jesus, True Blood

True Blood quickly became the go-to show for supernatural sex scenes featuring future Magic Mike strippers (Joe Manganiello) and pale Nordic men with washboard abs (Hi Alexander Skarsgård!), but honestly, there was a little something for everyone, including fan favorite Bon Temps medium, Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis).

In season three, Lafayette met his mother’s nurse, Jesus, and the two began a relationship. As they spend more time together and start doing V (short for Vampire Blood), they learn Jesus is descended from a long line of witches and that Lafayette himself has magical abilities. However, supernatural love is anything but simple, and after the pair join a coven, Lafayette becomes possessed by the dead spirit of its former leader. This relationship certainly puts a whole new spin on possessive love.


9. Nymphadora Tonks/Remus Lupin, Harry Potter series

There are lots of sad characters in the Harry Potter series, but Remus Lupin ranks among the saddest. He was bitten by a werewolf as a child, his best friend was murdered and his other best friend was wrongly imprisoned in Azkaban for it, then THAT best friend was killed by a Death Eater at the Ministry of Magic as Remus looked on. So when Lupin unexpectedly found himself in love with badass Auror and Metamorphmagus Nymphadora Tonks (she prefers to be called by her surname ONLY, thank you very much), pretty much everyone, including Lupin himself, was both elated and cautiously hopeful about their romance and eventual marriage.

Sadly, the pair met a tragic ending when both were killed by Death Eaters during the Battle of Hogwarts, leaving their son, Teddy, orphaned much like his godfather Harry Potter. Accio hankies!


10. The Doctor/Rose Tyler, Doctor Who

Speaking of wolves, Rose “Bad Wolf” Tyler (Billie Piper) captured the Doctor’s hearts from the moment he told her to “Run!” in the very first episode of the re-booted Doctor Who series. Their affection for one another grew steadily deeper during their travels in the TARDIS, whether they were stuck in 1950s London, facing down pure evil in the Satan Pit, or battling Cybermen.

But their relationship took a tragic turn during the season two finale episode, “Doomsday,” when the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose found themselves separated in parallel universes with no way of being reunited (lest two universes collapse as a result of a paradox). A sobbing Rose told a holographic transmission of the Doctor she loved him, but before he could reply, the transmission cut out, leaving our beloved Time Lord (and most of the audience) with a tear-stained face and two broken hearts all alone in the TARDIS.

This Movie Makes No Sense: “The Nutcracker: The Untold Story”

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There are good movies and bad movies.  And then there are those movies that defy easy categorizations.  The inexplicable, the incomprehensible, the indecipherable: these are the movies that make no sense.  And that’s why we love them.

Right down to the core of its conception, “The Nutcracker in 3D” — now known on video in 2D as “The Nutcracker: The Untold Story” — makes no sense. Its director, Andrey Konchalovskiy, worked on this adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” ballet for twenty years. Can you imagine spending twenty years of your life on a single work of art? You’d have to be obsessed. So here’s what Konachlovskiy had to say about his obsession with “The Nutcracker” from the film’s making-of documentary:


“When you’re analyzing the ballet, you realize there are two parts, and the first part is the story and by the end of the first part, the Mice King has already failed.  The second part is just potpourri and celebration.  There’s no story anymore.  So in a sense, it was impossible to follow the story that was written for ballet.  So when I started to think about the film in different terms, I realized it’s just a fairy tale.  And you cannot make a fairy tale with big chunks of dance.  So then I returned to the source [E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”], where evil exists.  And Hoffman’s story is much more deep and philosophical and interesting than the quite poor story of the Tchaikovsky ballet.”


Okay, so clearly he wasn’t that obsessed with “The Nutcracker.” In fact, it kind of sounds like he doesn’t like “The Nutcracker” at all. And yet he still spent twenty years trying to adapt it. His eventual solution was to remove all the ballet from the ballet and replace its “quite poor story.” Andrey, I’m sorry. When you turn “The Nutcracker” into the adventure of a little girl and an obnoxious toy fighting giant rats dressed like Nazis who dance and occasionally electrocute sharks, you lose the right to call anything a “quite poor story.” That’s just how it works.

Konachlovskiy’s desire to make “The Nutcracker” by stripping it of its inherent Nutcrackeryness makes no sense. That’s like making a Batman movie where Bruce Wayne never puts on a bat costume. Do you think Warner Brothers would give me $90 million to make that “Batman?” Because that’s how much money Konachlovskiy was able to get to make his deranged version of “The Nutcracker.” $90 million bucks. For dancing, shark electrocuting Nazi rat people.

I understand “The Nutcracker” name has brand recognition. But it has brand recognition as a ballet. Reimagining classic material has its place, but it’s a task that requires sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and a true willingness to break from precedent. Konachlovskiy tried to have it both ways. He didn’t like the ballet’s story, refused to include ballet dancing, but he still kept Tchaikovsky’s music. Even worse, he had Tim Rice (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King”) write lyrics to Tchaikovsky’s music and made the cast sing them as conventional musical numbers.

Well maybe “conventional” isn’t the right word. A “conventional” musical would not feature Albert Einstein — played by Nathan Lane — teaching children about the theory of relativity through a song called “It’s All Relative.” Ballet, that doesn’t work in a fairy tale. But Albert Einstein singing about physics? Perfect match!

Technically, Lane’s character is only referred to as the main child protagonists’ “Uncle Albert,” but he looks like Einstein, talks in a thick German accent, and peppers his dialogue with famous Einstein quotes like “Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” This leaves only two possibilities. One: the character really is Albert Einstein. Or, two: these children’s uncle is a schizophrenic named Albert who thinks he’s Einstein. That certainly would explain a)why Uncle Albert is the only person in the film to speak in a German accent, b)why the children’s parents seem so uncomfortable leaving Uncle Albert alone with their kids, c)why Einstein, who was Jewish, is so enthusiastically celebrating Christmas, and d)why Einstein frequently breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience (i.e. he’s clinically insane and he can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality).

Such mental illness would put him in good company with the rest of his family. His niece, Mary (Elle Fanning), suffers from similar delusions. After Uncle Albert brings her and her brother Max (Aaron Michael Drozin) a nutcracker toy for Christmas (and after he sings to them about how all motion is relative), Mary imagines that the Nutcracker comes to life and enlists her help in his ongoing war with The Rat King. The Rat King — John Turturro in an Andy Warhol wig and prosthetic rodent nose — has taken control of the Nutcracker’s kingdom. He also transformed “NC,” as he likes to be called, from a boy into a wooden toy. And he employed a rat army dressed like Nazi stormtroopers to steal children’s toys and burn them in his “smoke factory” in order to blot out the sun.

And thus we come to another crucial element of the film that makes no sense — the weird Nazi imagery. The Rat King gives Hitler-esque speeches about liquidating the human population to make way for the rats, his soldiers are garbed in black leather, jackboots, and helmets, and his smoke factories evoke clear associations with gas chambers and prison labor camps. This stuff might make a little sense if the film was set in Nazi Germany, and these fantasies were a child’s way of understanding the madness of war (a la Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”). But “The Nutcracker in 3D The Untold Story” appears to be set in peaceful 1920s Vienna — hence the appearance of figures like Einstein and Sigmund Freud, who also makes a cameo. So Mary’s imagination invented or somehow predicted the Holocaust? How does that work any better in the context of a fairy tale than a ballet?

It doesn’t. “The Nutcracker: The Untold Story” is one of the most mesmerizingly misguided films of all time. Nothing about it makes sense. If the movie is set in Vienna, and Uncle Albert has a German accent, why do Mary and Max have American ones? And why do their parents have British ones? And why are there so many rat puns in the screenplay (“You dirty rat!”)? Was it written by Arnold Schwarzenegger? Why get rid of ballet dancing and replace it with terrible song and dance numbers? And why the hell does The Rat King have a giant shark in his throne room? And why does he electrocute it at the end of his big production number? Does he bring in a new shark every time he feels like singing? “In case of goose-stepping emergency, break shark?”

“The Nutcracker: The Untold Story” is not a movie that’s “so bad it’s good,” like “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” It’s not characterized by ineptitude, at least not on a technical level. The execution of the CGI, prosthetic makeup, and production design is sharp. It’s just that the ideas underpinning that execution are so goddamn bizarre. It shouldn’t be possible to work on a single film for twenty years and wind up with this. All reality must be an illusion. There’s no way “The Nutcracker: The Untold Story” actually exists.

“The Nutcracker: The Untold Story” is available on DVD and Blu-ray. If you see it, let us know what you think of it in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

Five easy ways to turn January into a great month for movies

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January doesn’t have the best reputation among cinephiles, possibly because January is, hands down, 99 and 44/100% pure crap when it comes to movies. Studios are still focused on their award contenders from November and December, audiences are getting back to their lives after a long vacation, and most of the movies released between January 1 and 31 get dumped there for a reason; namely, they’re terrible. In January 1996, Hollywood released Pauly Shore’s “Bio-Dome,” the orangutan “comedy” “Dunston Checks In,” and the immortal “Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace” all on the same, terrible day. It was January 12th, if you’re curious. We should probably light a candle every year to remember all the movielovers who died that day of acute bad movie poisoning.

But just because Hollywood’s mostly turned their back on January doesn’t mean you have to as well. There are plenty of ways to turn January’s Cinema Dead Zone into a Videodrome of delights. Follow these five simple steps, and you’ll be a much happier moviegoer this month.

1. Don’t Assume That It’s Bad Just Because It Was Released in January.
Granted, in the majority of cases, that assumption would be correct. But almost every year good movies open in January. You just have to dig a little deeper to find them — they’re not so much diamonds in the rough as truffles buried in pig shit. In January 2011, we got critical favorites like “Nostalgia for the Light” and “Kaboom;” in January 2010, I fell in love with “Sweetgrass,” a tiny documentary about sheep herders that wound up on my top ten list that year. Other good-to-great January releases over the past twenty-five years: “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days,” “Cloverfield,” “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” “City of God,” “Half Baked,” “Fallen Angels,” “Zero Effect,” “Waiting For Guffman,” “Before Sunrise,” and “Broadway Danny Rose.” The odds are long, but not impossible. This year, you can try your luck with “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” “Miss Bala,” and “Haywire.”

2. Check out Video on Demand.
The multiplexes may be filled with platforming awards contenders and garbage from the studios’ discard piles this month, but you can find a ton of interesting new stuff right in your own home. Straight-to-video or VOD used to come with a stigma of cheapness and failure — movies premiered there only as a last resort. Not anymore; now filmmakers use VOD and digital downloads as a more cost effective way to reach a wide audience. In the waning days of 2011, that’s where “House of the Devil” director Ti West premiered his new film “The Innkeepers” and Edward Burns released his latest microindie, “Newlyweds,” which he shot for just $9,000. Tomorrow, one of the most acclaimed festival thrillers in recent years, “Kill List” from British director Ben Wheatley, bows on VOD. You want to talk about a joyful noise — that’s the sound I make when I get to watch “Kill List,” which I’ve been dying to see since last year’s South by Southwest, without having to put pants on. (Too much information? Sorry.)

3. Visit Your Local Repertory Theater.
Because January tends to be a slow month for new releases, repertory distributors often exploit the weakness in the market with some of the most interesting offerings of the year. In recent Januaries, you could have caught revival screenings of “Last Year at Marienbad,” “The Battle of Algiers,” “Le Cercle Rouge,” or a pair of forgotten documentaries by Martin Scorsese. This year, you can watch a Robert Bresson retrospective in New York City, a collection of “Super 80s” kids movies in Los Angeles, or a haunted house series in Boston. Ignore what your therapist tells you and do what I like to do at this time of year: live in the past.

4. Catch Up on Cinematic Blindspots Online.
If you’re not fortunate enough to live near a good revival house, there are plenty of classic films available right at your fingertips on Netflix Watch Instantly, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and assorted other streaming services. Rainer Werner Fassbender’s sci-fi epic “World on a Wire” doesn’t hit Criterion Blu-ray until Februray, but you can already watch it on Hulu Plus. If you’re more of a Howard Hawks fan, Netflix has “Scarface,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “Redline 7000,” and more. Internet streaming turns any month of the year into the Golden Age of Cinema.

5. Embrace the badness.
Every year there are at least a couple of terrible January releases so bad that they’re actually worth seeing as sociological experiments in the field of human endurance or just as an opportunity to get your buddies together — and by buddies, I mean like Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker kind of buddies — and enjoy the hell out of some schlock cinema. Pick a time when you’ll be the only ones in the theater — either really early or really late at night — and get good and rowdy on Mark Wahlberg strapping money to his chest. Remember: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Or at least make fun of them.

What January releases are you looking forward to? No, it’s not a trick question. Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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