Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Day the Cineplex Stood Still

I've always known people had shitty tastes in movies - I mean, I used to work at a Rogers Video, for one, so I know all too well what sort of crap people would favor; and I've seen critics get movies very, very wrong before. From Pauline Kael's legendary hatred of Cassavetes to Ray Carney's dismissal of the entire work of Hitchcock (among others) to Jonathan Rosenbaum suggesting Joe Dante's Small Soldiers is some sort of satirical masterpiece to - oh, hell, I don't know, about every fifteenth review Roger Ebert writes - I've known you can't place stock in even the most celebrated critics; one must rely on ones own judgment and view films very carefully, regardless of what anyone says. I would never prevent myself from seeing a film that interested me based on a bad review, or see a film that didn't interest me because of a good review; there is no critic whose opinions I trust that much. (Robin Wood, whom I esteem more than any of the above, admires Larry Cohen's It's Alive, for fuck's sake! His writing off of Cronenberg at least made for an interesting contribution to the discourse about that filmmaker, who deserves to be queried more than he is). Rotten Tomatoes suggests that somehow if you poll enough critics, you can abstract some sort of trustworthy judgment about a movie, but various recent films that I have genuinely enjoyed, like M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water and his somewhat less delightful, but still interesting The Happening, have gotten below 25% on the Tomatometer, while predictable, trivial garbage like Iron Man, morally bankrupt, politically unacceptable shit like The Dark Knight, and expansive follies like PT Anderson's There Will Be Blood (which presumes to write the politics out of an Upton Sinclair novel and re-inscribe the text so that it offers an intellectually hollow "false dilemma" choice between two flavours of greed, and not much else) have been praised to no end, all receiving over 90%. (My views on those last three films here, here and here). The vast success of these films at the box office further suggests that one cannot trust audiences, either. Shit will rise to the surface as often as it sinks, and not everything that sinks is shit. Though a sort of critic myself, I really think people should trust no one when it comes to what movies to see, but rather follow their own intuitions and keep an open mind. The best critics go very very wrong on occasion, and the vast majority of them are just newspaper hacks who wouldn't know a good movie from a grilled cheese sandwich.

Somehow, though - cynical as I am about what people write about movies - when actually watching a film, I can still be awestruck to know that people are so wrong about it. Case in point: The Day the Earth Stood Still, a consistently interesting reworking of the old SF classic that succeeds on any number of levels. It has a few problems - it takes a few too many shortcuts in the name of keeping a brisk pace, leaving more unexplained than it rightly should, and its CGI, when not spectacular, is embarrassingly bad - like the video game quality snake wriggling towards the floating sphere - but it is generally narratively engaging, visually striking, has some fascinating dialogue, interesting characters, sympathetic politics, and, even when it pushes too far in one direction or another, does so no more than almost any other Hollywood entertainment currently in theatres. People with a serious interest in SF, with a fondness for B-movie values - because this is basically a very expensive and very good B-movie - or who just want to see how the story has been updated will find even more reasons for enjoying the film. It's a tough one not to like, overall - I even choked up at times while watching it (try to guess when).

Despite all this, in what I believe is its opening week in Vancouver, it is playing to near empty cinemas - there were fewer than a dozen people in Cinema One at the Scotiabank tonight - and has a mere 21%, as of this writing, on the Tomatometer. It is going to be an expensive failure indeed. This is truly a shame. And while I can hardly complain that there were fewer idiots in the cinema than usual to distract me from appreciating the film, I have to say in the movie's defense that I had a great ol' time tonight - that it gave me exactly what I wanted and hoped for, and that I think it worth anyone's time. I doubt I'd see it again, mind you, and I'm not going to praise it as I would the works of Kelly Reichardt or Robinson Devor or other truly important contemporary American filmmakers - but I would suggest that anyone with a hint of curiosity about this film not be dissuaded by its bad box office, bad reviews, or so forth. Go see it for yourself; I think this film deserves a fighting chance, and if you're the sort to be bothering with actually reading what I write, you might find yourself in agreement with me...

Or not...

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