License to kill joy?

In my last post post I talked about criticism –be it of films, books or advertising- as a flawed construct. And while I’m now going to critique a new movie I will still try and frame the discussion objectively. My topic is the new James Bond flick, Spectre, which I saw a couple weeks ago. In short, I found it lacking. Good looking, the movie was guilty of something no Bond film should ever be: dullness. My tweet: “Too much GQ and Architectural Digest and not enough Maxim and Vice.” Even the actor, Daniel Craig is on record as being weary of the 007 roll and claimed this would be his last. This was no doubt encouraged by his serious injury midway through filming, which he gamely played through. Still, he looked over it. The whiz bang charisma of his portrayal in Skyfall was long gone. Instead we got a glum and tired James Bond, phoning in the ass kicking. I was not shaken. I was not stirred. Such was my opinion.

Over Thanksgiving, which we always spend with my wife’s family in Kansas City, I looked forward to asking my brother-in-law his opinion of the flick. David is as avid a James Bond fan as I’ve ever known. He is ridiculously passionate about the icon. Yet, I figured even he would agree with me on my assessment.

I figured wrong. David, and frankly everyone at the dinner table, thought Spectre was “fabulous… thrilling… sexy” – everything I didn’t. I was like: “Come on, people. It was almost boring. I was looking at my watch!”

But I got no support.

Fade to black. We are home now. My wife has a cocktail party with a bunch of her new friends from California. I decide to ask them their opinion of the film. Surely, these sophisticated women in Mill Valley would know a dull bond when they saw one.

Once again, I was wrong. They, too, adored Spectre. “Where was the suspense?” I asked. “Where wasn’t it?” they responded. I reiterated my (allegedly) clever Tweet. No reaction. Incredulous, I ranted. They raved. “Even the song was dull,” I muttered, sinking back into the couch.

So, could I have been –gulp- wrong? That’s the thing about opinions: there is no right or wrong. There is just what you got out of it. And clearly a lot of people got something out of Spectre I didn’t.

I don’t have a moral. In my previous post I wrote about my ambivalence to criticism. What is interesting now is the idea that people can experience the same exact thing so damn differently. This is the intangible that critics –if not everyone- almost always forgets, including me: that my eyes and ears lead to only my brain nobody else’s. When we assume our take is the only take we are making a big mistake.



Though I studied film in college, and wrote film criticism for three of my university newspapers, I don’t do movie reviews here. However, I do use movies as reference. Often. Personally and professionally, they are a constant source of inspiration. They are for a lot of people. Perhaps more than any other medium, movies shape our popular culture. And in doing so the advertising that permeates it. Like ads, films are accessible to just about everyone. Indeed, when they first came into being movies were made primarily as entertainment for the lower classes. Not as art, per se but so working people could escape from the dreariness of factories and the weariness of farms. The upper classes went to museums and the opera. Until they realized movies were a lot more fun.

Fade to black.

Yesterday, I took in a matinee of Brad Pitt’s apocalyptic thriller, World War Z. Having read the book several years ago and being a major fan of horror (in particular zombie horror), there was zero chance of me not seeing this film. If I didn’t have family responsibilities I would have likely been among the very first.

I’m sure Mr. Pitt and his many nervous backers hope there are plenty more just like me. Reasonable assumption -at least when the film scoped at south of 100 million dollars. After all, zombies have been the new it girls of horror for some time now. From no-budget snarlers to A&E’s The Walking Dead, reanimated corpses have been animating popular culture in frightening proportions.

The book.

Alas, the troubled film cost over 200 million bones to make. There are not enough fan boys on earth to cover that spread. Which is how I fear this film got into trouble. Trying to capitalize on Pitt’s fame. Trying to capture female viewers. Trying to be all things to all people so as to get box office, World War Z comes off as a middling thriller and a mediocre zombie movie.

One need only look at the PG-13 rating to know WWZ was doomed. With VERY FEW exceptions you just can’t make good undead horror for less than an “R.” For one thing, you can’t show the carnage, which I feel is absolutely necessary to the genre. This film doesn’t. To put it bluntly no one gets eaten in this film. Hell, I don’t recall even seeing blood. On behalf of fan boys everywhere: WTF?

It ain’t undead if you don’t show some leg (pic from The Walking Dead)

Yet, the film is just intense enough to keep a shit-ton of normies out of it as well. Granted, films like Zombieland and Warm Bodies and shows like The Walking Dead have opened doors to the genre few had thought possible: women, children and happy people.

But not 200 million dollars worth. Case in point, the matinee I saw was less than one third full. And it was raining out! Not a good sign for an aspiring blockbuster in its first week let alone a good horror movie.


I don’t like musicals. Even “good” ones. They have always struck me as silly or, worse, just plain dull. Don’t get me wrong. I respect the genre and those who appreciate it. Mostly. I just can’t take them seriously.

And so it is with this prejudice I took my wife to see Les Miserables, the Academy Award winning film based on the musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo. I’d never seen the actual musical (see above) let alone read the book. Yet long before the film I’d been aware of the show. Like Cats, Chicago and Wicked Les Miz is an unavoidable piece of popular culture. If I shut my eyes I can vividly see those iconic posters beckoning we pedestrians with as much fizz as Coca Cola. But for all their ubiquity the ads never persuaded me. That is until the movie came out and the kudos along with it.

Um, I still don’t like musicals. And I didn’t much care for this one either. Alas, I found myself getting bored and fidgety. I kept hoping beyond hope that the talented cast would take a break from singing and just have a goddamn conversation. But they never did. Everything was a lyric. And once I succumbed to reality I kept waiting for an amazing, recognizable tune. None was forthcoming. The actors sang about tables and chairs and looking down and not looking up and everything else. They warbled about the mundane and melodrama to the point where it all blended together like Thousand Island dressing, heavy and too sweet.

“Stop or I’ll sing!”

I’ve got to give Hugh Jackman his due. Wolverine has chops. Frankly, all the stars in this studded affair deserve props for getting outside their comfort zones and singing not badly for 150 fucking minutes. Even Russel Crowe. He only sometimes reminded me of a crooning William Shatner. It couldn’t have been easy.

By far my favorite part of the movie was the way it looked. From the opening scene, as epic as Titanic, the sets were stunning. If you’ll forgive a pretentious French term, the “mise-en-scene” was impeccable. All that period detail, as good as in Lincoln and maybe even better. Thank God. Otherwise I would have been tres miserable instead of merely somewhat.

You will empathize…

Twenty-five years ago, upon seeing David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly, I was transformed into a true believer of science fiction and horror. I went into the film expecting reasonable scares and a good time. That happened. And so did something else. Allow me to backtrack…

In 1986, like most young men, I adored sci-fi and horror movies. However, like most people, I also accepted them for what they almost always were: fun, escapist pulp. Nothing more… and yet that was good enough. Christopher Lee’s Dracula was sexy and scary. Good enough. Godzilla and his friends were campy and fun. Good enough. Planet of the Apes was cool and different. Good enough.

The Fly changed all that. From then on I realized these genres could (and should) deliver the best films in the known universe, full of awe, terror, bewilderment and sense of total fucking wonder. Not just brutal scares as in Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist and Alien. But wonderment, too!

A transforming experience

Such is the takeaway from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This bold redo of the franchise is 98% perfect and I forgot the other two percent. The story works. The writing is tight. The filmmaking is sharp. Each scene begets the next, surprising and delighting, taking us further into an altered reality where mistreated primates rise up…

I won’t spoil the movie nor “review” it. But I shall praise it. Let’s start with the cast. Not James Franco and John Lithgow. They’re fine. They do a marvelous job. But these apes! They are nothing short of a marvel. Especially Caesar the lead ape. Though created via CGI and the limb-bending prowess of Andy Serkis, he comes to life absolutely. His evolution –pun intended- is rendered with such care and detail. We ache for him. We root for him. We don’t just sympathize with these filmic primates (as we did with King Kong) we empathize with them.

Empathy. I’m not even sure that’s what author Pierre Boulle was going for when he wrote his novel, Planet of the Apes in 1963. Probably just satire. And that was good enough. The subsequent films did a yeomen’s job of capturing those qualities but ultimately came short, each film degrading more and more into a comic book. Still, good enough.

The Fly made us rethink the human condition, then under siege by the all too real specter of AIDS. Similarly, Rise explores such of-the-moment issues as neuroscience, pharmacology, Alzheimer’s disease and the treatment of animals. All of this without being preachy or dumb.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a damn fine movie. Timely in its science. Timeless in its story. By comparison, the other big summer movies I’ve seen (Transformers, Super 8, Cowboys and Aliens, X-men First Class, Captain America) are just good enough.

More praise, from L A Times (and others)::