Au Contraire: The Big Short

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(Dir. Adam McKay, United States, 2015)

That’s Edutainment!

As cinema’s vast history has shown, one of the most effective means of conveying messages – no matter how subtle or, conversely, on the nose – to compliant audiences is to couch a scathing critique in comedy. Even as war raged on across Europe and Hitler’s Germany remained a looming threat to democracy in the 1940s, films like Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be and Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca unapologetically lampooned the ideologies and supporters of the infamous dictator and, in Lubitsch’s case, daringly the man himself. Or, as the uncertainty of a perceived imminent nuclear holocaust plagued those on both sides of the Cold War divide throughout the twentieth century, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove shockingly poked fun at the idea of a room full of just a few men wielding the power to end the world. And, more recently, films as varied as Bong Joon-ho’s The Host and Andrew Stanton’s WALL*E have taken on environmental irresponsibility in bitingly satirical fashion. Through the years filmmakers with agendas have found the perfect formula to get their messages across: turning their causes into entertainment.

It should come as no surprise, then, that liberal-minded satirist Adam McKay – probably best known for Anchorman and other occasionally funny, occasionally political shenanigans with Will Ferrell – turned to comedy to take on the recent financial crisis and subsequent recession that left millions of Americans unemployed and unable to pay their mortgages. McKay teams with screenwriter Charles Randolph and a slew of A-list performers – notably without Ferrell – to bring Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book of the same name to the screen. With its timely subject matter, talented cast, and strategic release date, The Big Short appeared in its promotional cycle as textbook Oscar bait. And, while McKay’s film doesn’t do much to disavow that notion – not to mention its inevitable five Oscar nominations – it refreshingly rejects the typical prestige picture mold in favor of something rather unexpected.

For though it hits its obligatory melodramatic and conventional plot-fueled marks, The Big Short actually plays more like a documentary than a traditional narrative fiction film. From Ryan Gosling’s opening monologue – part voiceover, part direct address to the camera – onward, McKay’s film intentionally draws attention to its own farce. Throughout, characters consistently break the fourth wall and even admit when the filmmakers take artistic liberties with the actual events the film is based upon. This welcome self-reflexivity is all too rare in films based on true stories, and at times even recalls Jafar Panahi’s latest (much, much greater film) Taxi as actors in that film confess their performances to other characters who may very well be actors too. And, since McKay is not in the same league as the great Panahi in terms of artistic ambition, it begs the question why he chose this unconventional delivery for his filmic interpretation of the recent economic meltdown.

The film has received praise and criticism for one specific accomplishment that both critics and viewers have agreed upon: the very deliberate dumbing down of the complexities of the events that caused the housing market to crash and the ensuing financial crisis. Gosling’s character comments early on during his scene-setting prelude that if the audience is already confused by his terminology, it’s intentional: people on Wall Street want the American public to think only they can do their job, he asserts. It’s a scathing indictment of the type of people The Big Short lambastes, and it’s still only one of the film’s earliest and tamest. The remainder of McKay’s film is a parade of heartless idiots who are either too dumb to see the impending crash or too rich and insulated to care, or both. McKay’s intentions are clear. Nearly eight years on he’s still (righteously) angry with those responsible for the economic downturn who seem perfectly comfortable with the rest of America paying for their mistakes. The Big Short, then, is his attempt to set the record straight, point fingers in the right direction, and warn an unassuming public of this ever happening again. Furthermore, his aim is clearly to ensure that every single viewer – from the economist to the completely clueless – understands what happened.

His directorial decisions, then, become all the more clear. By allowing his characters to break character and by casting some of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars, McKay’s nearly begging us to see past this mere reenactment to get to the heart of what his film has to say. He even goes so far as to include three cheeky interludes featuring famous celebrities – Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez – as themselves explaining complicated financial concepts in uncomplicated fashion. Robbie, while taking a bath, teaches us that “subprime” just means “shit,” Bourdain compares collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) to unwanted fish parts while cooking, and Gomez teams up with economist Richard Thaler to explain synthetic CDOs while playing blackjack. It’s a clever move, and its purpose is impossible to miss: Americans listen best when their favorite celebs are talking. Within the context of The Big Short, these interludes work, but self-aware condescension is still condescension.

For the most part, McKay keeps up this momentum, and his film is consistently entertaining as it over-explains the issues at its core, but in its final third he unfortunately kowtows to the pressures of Hollywoodization as the story devolves into sentimental melodrama. This is especially true of Steve Carell’s character’s narrative thread (which is too bad since he delivers the film’s best performance) as his growing heart of gold for humanity perfectly aligns with his repressed feelings of loss over his brother’s recent suicide. Too, the film unfortunately commits the same fault as Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air – another recent, hyper-relevant Hollywood take on the recession. Throwing in brief scenes of a misled stripper with five homes and bad loans and a tattooed tough-guy whose landlord isn’t paying the mortgage on the home he rents for his family doesn’t automatically make a movie sympathetic to those most affected by the economy tanking. McKay’s film still follows a group of men who profited (in the billions, I might add) from the market crashing. A heartfelt inner monologue from a reformed Christian Bale doesn’t help much either.

Though its back half diminishes some of the goodwill from its promising opening moments, The Big Short isn’t a complete failure. It certainly does un-complicate a very complicated issue. Thus, as a cautionary tale or as an unlikely big-budget, star-studded essay film, The Big Short is mostly a success. But, it’s at its least convincing as the piece of compelling narrative fiction that it needs to be to win awards at year’s end. It flails awkwardly as McKay attempts to swing between two very different registers, and the film’s at its worst when hitting its obligatory dramatic cues.

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Au Contraire: Pierrot le fou

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(Dir. Jean-Luc “Cinema” Godard, France, 1965)

Beautiful Mess

Jean-Luc Godard’s postmodern jaunt down the rabbit hole, as it were, is simultaneously an extension of his groundbreaking, crowd-pleasing debut Breathless as well as a thesis statement for his entire career. Ten films into his impressive ‘60s output – now both affectionately and derogatorily known as the New Wave – Godard, it seems, was ready for something new while refining the familiar. This, then, is both the appeal and the drawback of Pierrot le fou, a film that foreshadowed its maker’s future twelve-year stint as a political activist-cum-director and provided an apt summation of his rule-breaking techniques that had defined his cinema thus far. As a political document, Pierrot is relatively tame – pervasive, yet veiled critiques of the Vietnam War and the ensuing Cold War between the U.S. and Russia abound – and if anything, it’s more a parody of proto-revolutionary zeitgeist captured in the inanity of Anna Karina’s implausible babysitter/arms smuggler. In this way, Godard’s typical anarchic approach fits the material perfectly and works better here than in Breathless (its most obvious comparison from his body of work), but there’s something still markedly forced or disingenuous about this aesthetic too.

Thus, Pierrot le fou – more than any other of the filmmaker’s many films – provides a microcosm of my feelings on Godard as a whole. I find myself compelled by the man’s audacity, yet repulsed by his arrogance. Both attributes coexist in nearly every one of his works, which has subsequently kept this cinephile from every truly loving any one of them. (Contempt comes close, but that film also found Godard coming as close to crafting a regular ol’ movie without compromising his principles.) Pierrot – though probably one his most interesting films – is no exception. While viewing it, the experience is nothing short of rhapsodic. It’s a kaleidoscope of beautifully composed images and boasts a plethora of ideas bursting with potential. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s casual turn as a disgruntled Parisian bent on escaping his painfully bourgeois life is worth the price of admission alone. But, when the film ends, an unmistakable feeling of hollowness settles in. Godard’s once fresh fragmented, montage style suddenly seems stale, the incessant philosophizing becomes grating, and the token allusions to pop culture, cinematic history, and literature have all but worn out their welcome. Pierrot is Godard’s most perfect beautiful mess. And maybe he intended that way.

As far as narrative goes in Godard’s cinema, it’s never as important what he tells as how he tells it. That’s never more apparent than here. The plot that kickstarts Ferdinand’s (Belmondo) adventure with Marianne (Karina) is a flimsy, wholly unconvincing story if there ever was one. Godard barely seems convinced himself. He cushions this Hollywood-bred outlaw setup with so many narrative detours, increasingly outlandish shenanigans for his two leads, and literature quoting to stand in for his characters’ emotions, that we – as well as Ferdinand it seems – forget why he left in the first place. Karina’s unfortunately one-note faux-revolutionary driven to the edge by boredom doesn’t help. If Godard was going for skewering the growing counterculture that swept youth on both sides of the Atlantic in the late-‘60s, he should have left Karina’s gun-toting babysitter a peripheral character. And yet, her inclusion to the very end signifies another, perhaps unexpected success for Pierrot le fou.

Godard’s personality is without question infused in every one of his films from Breathless to Goodbye to Language, but what perhaps makes some of those entries more interesting is when his personal life shines through too. His marital troubles with Karina lent an extra layer of pathos to Contempt, particularly given her notable absence from that film. And so it is with Pierrot. The pair’s marriage ended shortly following the release of this film, and it makes the startling finale all the more poignant. Ferdinand, as a stand-in for Godard, follows his lover as they forge a new life together, but she also leads him dangerously close to self-destruction. Are we to read more into Marianne’s insistence that Ferdinand give up his newfound happiness consuming books and ruminating in a diary in seclusion so she can once again enjoy the thrill of life on the run? Is Marianne’s late-film betrayal a mirror for Karina herself? When Ferdinand pulls the trigger, then, it’s as if Godard has severed ties at last. That love is forever gone. And, though Karina never drove Godard to suicide as Ferdinand meets his self-inflicted violent death, Pierrot le fou marks the end of a fruitful partnership (though she appeared in one more of his films Made in U.S.A. released a year later) and the beginning of a new artistic direction without her. Oddly enough, it seems, when Godard tries his hardest to be existential, he’s all the more interesting when it winds up being intensely personal too.

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Au Contraire: Sátántangó

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(Dir. Béla Tarr, Hungary, 1994)

Cinematic Badge of Honor

In film culture, there’s a temptation to crown a cinematic work a masterpiece based solely upon its novelty. Of course, there are films aplenty with alluring setups that only serve to enrich the already profound content – the intentionally restrictive setting of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the meta-narrative structure of Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, the circumstances surrounding the illegal filming of Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, or, more recently, the twelve-year shoot of Linklater’s Boyhood. And yet, for every legitimate defense of Linklater’s winsome coming-of-age drama and its headline-ready tagline “twelve years in the making,” there are a slew of arguably unmerited hyperbolic reactions to other attention-grabbing films – Memento’s “the story’s told in reverse!” or Russian Ark’s “it’s all one shot!” or The Artist’s “it’s the first silent film in years!” Sadly, many films will never rise above their promising appeal. Add to that list Sátántangó’s “it’s over seven hours long!” – an opinion that’s likely to get me nowhere fast in most discussions on “serious cinema.”

Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr has directed precious few films over the four-plus decades of his career. He’s adored in some circles for his philosophical bent, his signature marathon takes that can last upwards of ten minutes, and for carrying the torch of “slow cinema” following the death of Andrei Tarkovsky, a filmmaker who Tarr is forever destined for comparison. Though largely unavailable until recently, Sátántangó – his only feature released in the 1990s – is most often heralded as the director’s magnum opus and one of the greatest films of all time. For the 2012 edition of Sight & Sound’s prestigious, decennial critics’ poll, Sátántangó ranked 36th – a place shared with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and just ahead of classics The 400 Blows and Pather Panchali. It’s safe to say that enough published film critics deem Tarr’s work more than deserving of inclusion in the never-ending conversation on the supposed greatest films of all time.

One might wonder, “but who has the time to sit through a seven hour movie?” Critics compiling a list of the best films of the Nineties? Only “true” cinephiles? Gluttons for punishment? Well, I dared to answer that question myself by sitting down to watch Sátántangó over the course of one weekend. Having only seen Werckmeister Harmonies prior, I went into Sátántangó with very little experience with Tarr. Seven hours later, however, I must confess I’m not exactly itching to see more. In short, Sátántangó is needlessly long, occasionally boring (*gasp* the ultimate offense to a true cinephile!), a tad self-indulgent, and, in this viewer’s opinion, pales in comparison to its immediate successor – a masterwork of 21st century cinema, Werckmeister Harmonies.

To be clear, by no means do I consider Sátántangó a bad film, for I don’t pride myself on contrarianism for its own sake. Its brazen rebuke of the ideologies and politics of a power that had only recently loosened its grip on the nation of Hungary is both welcome and deeply felt throughout the film’s runtime, in its desolate landscapes and constant collision of its debauched characters. The utter depravity of humanity is nearly palpable in every one of the film’s roughly 150 shots. The stark compositions Tarr creates are impressive, and he does capture ugliness beautifully. Too, I found the at-times simultaneous chronology of the film’s twelve overlapping sections engaging and cleverly in keeping with the movement of the titular dance. And yet, after seven languorous hours, I found myself wanting more. And yes, my biggest complaint with Tarr’s admittedly accomplished work is its length, for I don’t believe it serves its narratological or allegorical purpose. Some films do require their daunting runtimes. Akerman needed those three and a half hours of Jeanne Dielman for her titular character’s daily routine to become our routine to then maximize the startling climax when that familiarity is shattered. Tarkovsky needed his three and a half hours of Andrei Rublev (his longest film) for the impact of his central character’s late-film redemption to be as deeply felt in spite of the agony suffered until that moment. And, Edward Yang utilized his near four hours of A Brighter Summer Day to give voice to a host of characters whose stories together painted a portrait of an entire struggling nation.

Simply put, Tarr didn’t need seven hours to stoke his nihilism. And a crushing, dispiriting nihilism is exactly what Sátántangó captures. Of course, optimism is no requisite for crafting meaningful cinema. Tarr’s later triumph Werckmeister Harmonies bears testament to that notion. It’s a tragic film, one that offers an equally pessimistic view of humanity, but there’s also a hopefulness imbedded deep within it, even if that’s mostly due to its beautiful artistic flourishes – something Sátántangó lacked in this viewer’s opinion. Akerman, Yang, and especially Tarkovsky wielded their long-take aesthetics to underscore the themes, visual metaphors, and engrossing narratives of their greatest works. Tarr attempts to do the same here, but after the umpteenth shot of battered people trudging over muddy roads, I can’t help but feeling like maybe we’re just watching people walk through the mud and not much more.

So, why the near-unanimous praise? The detractors’ voices are disturbingly quiet with regards to Tarr’s cinematic monolith. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to the current attitude toward slow cinema and languidly paced narratives in general. In much of today’s discussion on film, long takes equal contemplation, impenetrable obscurity equals philosophical import, and endurance of such lengthy craft is tantamount to the truest form of artistic appreciation. If that sounds cynical, then I’d challenge any staunch admirer of this film to quantify its merits if Tarr had told the same story using the same visual delivery in under two hours. Sometimes, it seems, film experiences like making it through the entirety of Sátántangó are worn as cinematic badges of honor to separate ourselves from the undedicated masses. But, truth be told, there isn’t a soul I’d recommend Sátántangó to. Frankly, seven hours is far too long to dwell in such negativity when there are so many filmic works of art enthralled by the mysteries and beauties of life itself.

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Au Contraire: Birdman

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(Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, United States, 2014)

Say You Love Me

How much does Hollywood love movies about Hollywood? Enough to shower The Artist and Hugo with accolades and awards at year’s end back in 2011 despite the overwhelming critical opinion that several other films were much more deserving. Enough for the AMPAS to inexplicably anoint Ben Affleck’s Hollywood-fest Argo Best Picture for 2012. Maybe this explains the current enthusiastic praise and award season success of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). To say Birdman is a bad movie would be unfair. It’s technically accomplished to be sure. And, there are one or two novel ideas here, but it’s certainly not as clever it hopes to be. Thus, in the wake of Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel among others, it leads one to wonder, why Birdman? Are critics afraid to criticize it? It should go without saying that no film – even one crafted as a sly auto-critique – is immune to criticism. Just because an amalgam of Iñárritu’s detractors appears in the film as a self-righteous theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) doesn’t mean film critics shouldn’t weigh in honestly on Birdman whether good or bad.

Iñárritu’s film straddles the blurry line between art and commerce with a self-referential setup and a classic Hollywood story of a washed-up actor making a comeback. The actor in question – Riggan Thomson – played the superhero Birdman in a previous incarnation of his dwindling career and has set out to rejuvenate his reputation by adapting Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” for the stage. Riggan’s story should immediately register familiarly as the actor who plays him is Michael Keaton who similarly starred as Batman in ’89 and again in ’92. Likewise, Keaton’s career has remained largely under the radar since. It’s the first instance of meta that will go on to define the remainder of Birdman.

The film’s story primarily centers on the days leading up to the play’s opening night on Broadway. Iñárritu – via Emmanuel Lubezki’s inspired camerawork – follows Riggan and the other performers and crew as they prepare for the widely anticipated premiere. Lubezki’s camera snakes through the darkened labyrinth of the St. James Theatre’s backstage featuring much-talked about long takes (brilliantly edited to give the appearance of one two-hour uninterrupted take) effectively pulling us into Riggan’s story and allowing this talented troupe of actors to act for more than a few seconds. To be sure, it’s probably Birdman’s greatest feat. Lubezki is a DP in a class of his own, at once capable of producing endless reels of gorgeous footage for Terrence Malick (The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder) and pushing the boundaries of digital cinematography for Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Gravity).

During the film, Riggan battles his inner demon – his former alter ego Birdman – who presses him to throw off this hopeless ambition and accept fame and fortune by donning the cape and mask once more by returning for Birdman 4. His conscious egotism suppresses this urge throughout and propels him to continue with the play despite signs of potential failure – a loose cannon of a performer (Edward Norton), his daughter’s (Emma Stone) insistence on his increasing irrelevance, his manager/friend’s strict attention to the bottom line (Zach Galifianakis), and the threats to destroy his play from one stuffy critic (Duncan) who fittingly drinks alone each and every night.

Many a film critic has rallied behind Birdman precisely because of this setup. Of course, one could easily point to its technical achievements and solid performances, but the vast majority of the ink spilled lavishes praise upon Iñárritu’s willingness to confront the compromise of artistic vision in the face of dollar signs and mass appeal. It’s a notion as old as the Movies itself. What do we consider art, and what is just product? Which films seek to cash in the most each weekend, and which ones seek mostly to engage and offer something new? In crass terms, which ones are films and which are just movies? Do we consider Transformers in the same breath as The Tree of Life? One has certainly reached a wider audience and has raked in a pretty penny for its studio, but even its critical detractors would agree that Malick’s is the better film.

But, I would argue that it’s an over-discussed subject that may be perpetuating a false dichotomy. On one very crucial point, The Tree of Life, Birdman, and Transformers are all on an equal playing field; they are all movies – images and sounds captured by a film crew featuring actors – and are all thus subject to criticism, debate, and thought despite the intentions (artistic, financial, or otherwise) with which they were made. Would Riggan be selling out if he chose to don the cape again? Or, worse, is his bid for Broadway glory fueled by his desire to be loved again? Ultimately, the motivations lie within Riggan alone. Iñárritu, it seems, is too quick to exonerate him possibly in hopes that we too might like what he has to offer. Is it too much of a stretch to picture Iñárritu himself standing in Riggan’s spot on stage confessing his desire to be loved? As an artist, it should be nothing to be ashamed of. There are very few artists who can honestly say they care very little about what their public thinks. That notion is not more than a fan’s daydream.

Birdman, then, functions just as much as a portrait of its maker’s wrestling with his own art as it does for the characters that populate it. There are instances of bona fide filmmaking here, but Iñárritu’s film ultimately suffers from a few glaring missteps. For one, Birdman contains some downright bizarre dialogue, a few one-liners that fail to register as funny and more or less just weird. The film opens with Riggan’s scene-setting voiceover thoughts. He concludes that his dressing room “smells like balls.” Okay… The film is littered with these non-sequiturs that draw unwanted attention to a fairly clunky script. Later, during the intermission of the play’s premiere, attendees congregate outside the theatre and comment on the strength of the play’s first act, but there’s something unmistakably awkward about the dialogue. I haven’t been to a large number of shows, but do people really talk like that? I’m inclined to think not. The cringe-inducing dialogue hits a low point with Emma Stone stating “this is power” while showing her father a video of him running around NYC in his underwear going viral. Yuck.

Perhaps more egregious than a questionably written screenplay is Iñárritu’s arguably unfair treatment of critics and artists alike. The entire critical community has been reduced to one cartoonish peripheral character in Duncan’s Tabitha Dickinson. Not only does Iñárritu give her some of the film’s worst lines (“Aren’t you afraid I’m going to write you a bad review?” – each word clearly enunciated), he also paints her with a snobbish attitude toward the arts and dismisses her profession (not once, but twice!) with a “those who can’t create, critique” zinger and never revisits her character again. True, online publications are rife with critical vitriol that, to be blunt, deserves never to be read. Lofty and unexplained opinions are not befitting an intelligent critic (as Dickinson isn’t portrayed here), but Iñárritu’s view toward criticism in general is rather shortsighted. A large part of what makes art art is how the public interacts with it. A good critic, a thoughtful critic, should shed light on nuances, influences, issues, or particularly exemplary touches that casual fans of art may miss. We need critics just like we need artists. His willingness to take self-satisfying film criticism to task is commendable, but there is more depth to be found in the similarly themed, five-minute soliloquy at the end of Pixar’s Ratatouille. In that film, food critic Anton Ego recognizes that critics “risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to [their] judgment.” Edward Norton’s drunken Mike Shiner says as much in one scene spitting in Dickinson’s face, but it feels a bit more genuine from the mouth of the critic instead of a potentially embittered performer.

His portrayal of the tortured artist isn’t much better. Here again Iñárritu touches on that aforementioned false dichotomy. Art and poverty coexist where commercialization and wealth cannot. This widely accepted notion (extending into other forms of art too – notably current conversations regarding a suffering music industry) asserts that a true artist must forgo potential financial returns for their work lest they risk compromising their artistry. Birdman the alter ego comments that during his heyday Riggan was ignorant of his own insignificance in culture, but at least he was happy. Why? Riggan’s motivation for throwing himself wholeheartedly into this production is revealed as a desperate need to reassert his position in cultural conversation, but is this the only motivation an artist could possibly have for making the ever-controversial jump from screen to stage, or vice versa? And, why shouldn’t an ambitious artist expect to make a living off their art? Of course, the risk of choosing a career in film, music, or literature is that one may not reap monetary benefits or achieve fame, but is it really so wrong for him or her to aspire to it?

Iñárritu’s final error finds the director unfortunately retreading familiar water. Though his latest is nowhere near as guilty as the insipid Babel in this regard, Birdman proves that Iñárritu can’t seem to shake his need to achieve relevance. Comments about Twitter, going viral, current superhero movies, public perception in the age of social media, and the more-pertinent-than-ever discussion surrounding artists “selling out” abound in Iñárritu’s film as if to assert this is how we live now. It might rouse critical discussion today, but this plea for relevance may very well lead to his film fading ever so quickly when another film seeks to define the cultural climate come December 2015. Today’s buzz will always be tomorrow’s distant memory. So, shall we call Birdman art? If its creator thinks so, then sure. But, not every painting is a Monet.

(Writer’s note: This evaluation was originally written upon first viewing in January 2015 prior to Birdman‘s inevitable Best Picture win at the Oscars.)

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Au Contraire: Introduction

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Thus far my evaluations on this site have been resoundingly positive. There’s a reason: I tend to only write about films I like. And while for the most part I don’t intend to change this, I thought I might start sharing some less optimistic thoughts I’ve had about certain films. Of course, I by no means intend to begin writing about whatever blockbuster franchise hits the screen, but I wondered what it might be like to discuss a film that is either widely loved by the mass critical community or the more esoteric cinephilic community.

Consensus can be a powerful engine to drum up support for films or filmmakers rarely seen – the surprise Palme d’Or win for Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives or the unlikely Oscar nod for Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing or the inclusion of many great films from cinema’s past and present on the 2012 iteration of the Sight & Sound‘s enormous critics’ poll. And yet, consensus can also create immovable monoliths – works that detractors dare not comment upon for fear of being labeled a contrarian. Do online message boards ever allow negative reviews of Tarantino films? Even when his watery, so-called progressive politics are actually troublesome (Django Unchained)?

Well, in this new occasional column “Au Contraire” I’ll present an alternate viewpoint to the established opinion on any given popular film. My inaugural evaluation is of last year’s Best Picture winner Birdman – a film, that in this writer’s opinion, won far too many awards and garnered undeserved praise. Lest anyone think I’m taking the easy way out by picking an Oscar winner (as that institution carries very little clout for most cinephiles), my next entry is on a film from the seemingly critic-proof Béla Tarr. Let the angry comments begin!