I Died and Went to Heaven (In 900 Words)
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Starring Kristian Lin, in his first full year as a movie critic.\r\n
Ten years ago I wrote my first movie review, for my college newspaper (Sneakers and Rice University, if youíre interested). From the time I started pillaging the local library for MGM musicals and the Marx Brothers in my early teens, Iíve always loved movies, but with a critical love. It was a huge thrill the first time I saw my name in print on a review in which I got to share those thoughts with others.
Iím afraid to count how many movies Iíve seen since then. Reviewing movies has always helped me feel more engaged with the world, since films are the last bastion of shared cultural experiences ó most people donít read the same books or listen to the same music or watch the same tv shows, but movies cross social barriers better than any other cultural medium.
Last fall, I became a full-time movie critic. What does that mean? It means that 2002 was the first year that I spent January to December watching and writing about films (in 900 words or less) for a living. It means that at age 28, Iím living my dream. Instead of paying for movie tickets once a week, I now see movies three or four times a week for free. I donít have to listen to babies crying and idiots talking on their cell phones while the hero stalks the killer or tells the girl why he loves her too much to just let her walk out of his life. I get to see everything that comes out ó and all on my bossí time. (Cue maniacal laughter.)
Of course, it also means subjecting myself to Slackers and Juwanna Mann and Serving Sara and The Rules of Attraction. If this were a movie as bad as those, I would now reveal that becoming a critic has taken the joy out of films, that Iíve become jaded and my dream job has become an unholy nightmare.
Nope. All you folks who think being a movie reviewer is a cool job ó you are so right.
Just do the numbers. Beginning last December, when I saw my first film officially released for 2002, Iíve seen 242 new movies. Theyíve asked me What Time Is It There?, What to Do in Case of Fire?, and Who Is Cletis Tout? Iíve seen local theaters play Brown Sugar, Red Dragon, and White Oleander in the same week (if Blue Crush had hung around another week, it would have joined the club). Whether youíre a Comedian, a Secretary, a Tadpole, or an Enigma, whether youíre The Catís Meow or All About the Benjamins, itís been a pretty good year for all of us moviegoers. Talk about picking a good time to make my entrance.
That doesnít even include the movies I watched for background research, to fill in gaps in my personal cinematic education, or just out of curiosity, if you can believe that. All told, I probably spend eight to ten hours a week either in movie theaters between here and Dallas, or at home in front of the VCR. I havenít grown fangs or anything, but itís safe to say Iím in no danger of getting sunburned at my job.
Are there drawbacks? Sure. I now know the stretch of I-30 between Fort Worth and Dallas better than I know my kitchen. But despite enduring hours and hours of bad radio on the road, one blowout, and lots of bad movies this year, Iíd be a Big Fat Liar if I said this job was Far From Heaven.
For a film critic, Iíve learned, the yearís rhythms are different than for others. Janaury, rather than being a dead space in which to recover from Christmas, is full of the previous yearís backwash. Well into February Iím still writing reviews for last yearís movies as they reach our screens: Lantana, Monsterís Ball, Iris. Itís a stressful time, because these films have been labeled by their distributors as Important. Itís my job to separate the true quality films from the pretentious, high-minded duds and, more importantly, say which films I think my fellow critics have overrated. I always want to write well, but these prestige pictures mean I have to argue well, too. I find myself looking forward to spring, when my reviews of films like Crossroads and Blade II wonít be fraught with significance, and I can loosen up and have some fun.
March brings the Oscars, which I usually watch like a spring version of the World Series. Not this year, though.
I used to rain curses on the Academy every year at Oscar time, but I havenít gotten really exercised with them since 1998, when Titanic, Good Will Hunting, and As Good as It Gets got richly undeserved awards. Now, as a critic, the spring workload prevents me from concentrating on the usual injustices in the nominations. Sure enough, the only nominated film Iím rooting for ó Moulin Rouge ó gets shafted. The fact that my reviews appear in print every week also means that I feel less need to spew venom during Oscar time, since Iím always free to talk up or talk down a specific movie at any time.
People put too much stock in the Oscars, anyway. That people get upset over Golden Globe Awards, which sell themselves as Oscar indicators (they actually donít predict Oscar winners particularly well), is proof that weíve lost perspective. All the same, Iím pretty sure that if My Big Fat Greek Wedding gets a Best Picture nomination next February, Iíll be a little peeved.
March also brings a screening of Kissing Jessica Stein at the AMC Palace, which I take in with an overwhelmingly lesbian audience. (Of course, thatís only an assumption, but I think itís a safe one seeing as the screening is organized by Fort Worthís gay and lesbian film festival, Q Cinema.) I watch it again a couple of weeks later at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas with a mixed audience. Both times the reaction is uproarious laughter. Too bad I canít make another Dallas screening ó this for a local Jewish organization so I could get the reaction of the movieís other targeted niche audience.
It gets me thinking about the people I see movies with. The audiences at film screenings vary according to circumstances: press screenings (critics only), preview screenings (critics plus people with connections to publicity outlets), sneak previews (one-time screenings inviting the viewing public), and regular showings (where we pay to get in just like you do). Critics tend to be more restrained in their reactions because theyíve seen so many movies, whereas sneak preview audiences tend to be more enthusiastic because theyíre getting to see a movie before everyone else does. Some of my colleagues include the reactions of their fellow audience members in their reviews and either rail against the crowd or cite them as reinforcement of their own opinions. I like to keep the crowd out of my reviews, because crowds can be fickle, moody, hard to get a fix on. When Iím watching a film I have enough to concentrate on without weighing and measuring my fellow audience members as well. I sometimes disagree with a regular crowd (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) or my colleagues (The Pianist). Still, I donít report on them unless they do something extraordinary. (I should state here and now that at the screening for Chicago three weeks ago, my fellow critics burst into spontaneous applause when the movie ended. The last time that happened was for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and even then I donít remember the applause being this enthusiastic.)
Still, the reactions of regular viewers do help me. Comedies in particular play much better when theyíre watched with a paying audience. The crowd can draw your attention to jokes you might have missed. This is why I remain puzzled by the critical and financial failure of Simone ó I watched it with three different audiences, and they all cracked up at the right places. Watching Jackass: The Movie, on the other hand, was pretty painful ó in part because I was forced to realize that some people actually consider the antics of Johnny Knoxville and Co. as entertainment. (Some people also consider the movie gay porn, considering how much those guys get naked. I guess it could be.)
Itís not just comedies, either. Good horror films benefit from audiences, too. The first time I saw The Ring was with my fellow critics, and I wasnít surprised by the story because I had already seen the original Japanese version. It wasnít until I saw it again at a sneak preview that I realized how clever the movie was at setting the audience up. There was a palpable exhalation when the little girlís body was found, and some moviegoers actually left the theater because they believed the film was over. Thus, you could feel the fear running through the auditorium at the point when the Naomi Watts characterís son turns to her and says, ďYou werenít supposed to help her!Ē (Youíll just have to go see it to understand.)
People have asked me whether my job interferes with my ability to enjoy a film the way most moviegoers would. It doesnít. Even when I wasnít being paid for it, I watched movies critically. (I think everyone does, except little kids. And possibly the people who paid to see The Hot Chick.) When a movie works for me, Iím content to let it do its thing. Itís when it stops working that I start asking questions as I sit there in the dark:Why did they kill that guy? Why doesnít she just tell him the truth? Do the filmmakers actually think this stuff is funny?
I also get asked whether watching so many movies has made me blasť. It hasnít happened yet. At least 90 percent of the time, the lights going down in the theater gives me that little kick of wondering what Iím about to see. The day I stop thrilling to the infinite possibilities of cinema is the day Iím useless as a critic and probably as a sentient human being.
Dallasí Angelika and Magnolia theaters both enjoyed their first full year of operation in 2002. That translated to more running around for me: More art-house films in Dallas means potentially more indie films I need to see because they might cross over to our territory.
Itís good that the independent and foreign films in the early going of 2002 are considerably more interesting than anything Hollywood is putting out. Y Tu MamŠ Tambiťn gets into the early running as one of the yearís best films and manages to hold its place. So does Nanni Morettiís The Sonís Room, an Italian study of grief and loss. The discomfiting Frailty is an unsettling look into a mind gripped by religious mania. In the past, Fort Worth had trouble attracting these non-studio films ó last yearís best movie, Waking Life, never got here at all. This year, even with the demise of the Gourmet Cinema program at AMC Sundance and the temporary closing of Bedfordís Central Park Cinema, most of the highly touted art films have made their way to Tarrant County. The UA Hulen continues to be the prime place to see these, although some have gone to AMCís theaters at Grapevine Mills, Hulen Street, or downtown Fort Worth. If this continues, the problem will cease to be getting the films here and become attracting a consistent audience for those films when they arrive.
Some other interesting films play in Dallas, but never reach our theaters. Here, then, is as good a place as any to put the best movies that didnít play in Tarrant County:
1) 24 Hour Party People, a highly entertaining docudrama about the music scene in Manchester, England, during the 1970s and í80s, and a very funny film by a profoundly humorless director, Michael Winterbottom.
2) Metropolis, Rintaroís highly disciplined yet completely bonkers anime adaptation of Fritz Langís silent classic, which was on the video store shelves before it even played in Dallas.
3) Scotland, PA, an update of Shakespeareís Macbeth that transplanted the story to the 1970s and worked better than it had any right to.
4) The Salton Sea, D.J. Carusoís derivative but lightly effective gangster film set in the world of meth addicts.
5) 8 Women, FranÁois Ozonís bizarre but enjoyable musical comedy/murder mystery, with huge French film stars making up the cast.
6) Sex With Strangers, a documentary about couples who swing.
That last one wasnít nearly the best documentary in a year filled with great examples of the genre (Standing in the Shadows of Motown, The Kid Stays in the Picture, Bowling for Columbine), but it was definitely the most provocative, and not just because it was about people who have sex with strangers. Itís thought-provoking because itís a documentary that might not be a documentary. Rumors flew all over the internet that filmmakers Harry and Joe Gantz had staged portions of the film or possibly even created them out of whole cloth. They pointed to the suspiciously smooth camerawork and editing, the coincidences that conveniently brought characters from different storylines into the same room, the dialogue that flowed so freely that it could have been scripted.
Most documentary films have exhaustive press notes that go into minute detail about the circumstances under which the film was made. This movie was vague on those details. It didnít even give the last names of the people in the film, ostensibly to protect them. (Protect them? Those people get all kinds of naked and have all kinds of on-camera sex, which doesnít look faked, by the way.) The resolution of the love triangle between ďCalvin,Ē ďSarah,Ē and ďJulieĒ is so outrageous that I know I would have rejected it as too unbelievable if I had seen it in a fiction film. The possibility of it being real, however, forced me to take it seriously ó just like the tv reporter whose bitching about his haircut in Michael Mooreís Bowling for Columbine would have been a caricature if he had shown up in a fiction film. ďCalvin,Ē whether he was for real or not, may well have been the most evil character in this yearís films. Sex With Strangers turned out to occupy an inordinate amount of my thoughts, because it raised factual questions and philosophical ones. And not because of all the naked people. Well, maybe a little bit.
As the year goes on, the summer blockbusters come out and do good business in an all-too-predictable way. Movie industry analysts have a much better handle on the movie seasons than I have. The franchises and popcorn thrillers still dominate the summer, the prestige pictures still dominate Christmas, though some studios put out popcorn pictures at yearís end as well for counter-programming. Spring is for romantic comedies and what Hollywood considers lighter fare. August used to be the dog days, but now the quiet period is around Labor Day. (Someday, someone will put out a blockbuster movie on that weekend to ďopen the fall season.Ē When Hollywood figures out how to make every weekend a venue for an ďevent movie,Ē the suits will be happy.) Smaller films depend on reviews and word-of-mouth for box-office, so their release dates matter less.
Most of the screenings for the press are in Dallas, which means many hours in the car. Who knew that being a movie reviewer would mean being a road warrior? To overcome summer road hypnosis, I turn the air conditioning directly on my face. Playing the radio also helps keep me awake ó but not pleasantly. I learn firsthand that radio really does suck. Accidents on I-30 prevent me from seeing The Time Machine and keep me out of the first 40 minutes of The Pianist, which I make up for when the company sends me a DVD screener late in the year. I blow out a tire on my way to see Treasure Planet ó I catch a screening a few weeks later instead ó but I see Far From Heaven after I get a new tire, so it still winds up being a good day. Repetition also produces some insights, like realizing that the parking lot at Dallasí Regent Highland Park Theater was apparently designed by an insane person. Turns at extreme angles, the absence of stop signs, and three different paths funneling into one simultaneously make it perfect ground for low-speed collisions.
The inside of my car, amazingly enough, does not become an unholy mess ó amazing not only because of the amount of time I spend there, but also in view of what my apartment looks like. Fortunately, the Trinity Railway Express delivers me to several Dallas theaters, salving my environmental conscience somewhat. Riding the rails takes a bit longer, but the trains are big, clean, and well-lit, and itís a great relief to travel on a cold, wet day without worrying about road conditions.
I watch Road to Perdition on a Monday morning in July, eat lunch, take the train back to the office, and start writing. About an hour and a half later, the review is in pretty much the shape itíll be in when it runs. If only they were all like that! Exactly how I write these articles is a process thatís still somewhat mysterious to me. I donít take notes while Iím watching a film; itís too distracting to look down from the screen and write something in the dark. Instead, I go to the nearest computer as soon as I leave and write down everything I think, then work on it later. At some point (I hope) it turns into a well-wrought piece of prose that captures what I think about the film in question. My review of Insomnia in May is that rare instance when Iím more or less happy with my work at the moment it comes out. I see the film far enough ahead of time that I can take a jewelerís approach to my writing, boiling down concepts, trimming extraneous words two or three at a time, making each sentence count.
Sometimes, however, the time simply isnít there. A few hours before we go to press on the last week in September, the Fort Worth opening of The Kid Stays in the Picture is cancelled when we already have it planned for the lead review. At the same time, I find out that Igby Goes Down will be opening in Grapevine instead. Having seen the latter film at the Angelika the weekend before, Iím able to hammer out the review in a little less than an hour. Thatís the real pressure in this job. (I just re-read the review, by the way. Itís not bad, all things considered. Although thereís this: ď...this performance is more focused and integrated. Igbyís adolescent tumult manifests itself in bratty, intellectually charged sarcasm.Ē I mean, howís that for clotted prose? This is supposed to be a movie review, not a term paper. I miss graduate school, when I could get away with writing like that.)
September arrives, and the major entertainment publications come out with pieces previewing the fallís movies. The last months of the year are the busiest time for a film critic, and in previous years, I found myself caught short when it came to research. The movies that are shown in the last months tend to include a disproportionate amount of literary adaptations. I like to read books before I see the movies that are based on them, as well as watch original versions of movies before I see remakes or sequels. (Some of my colleagues prefer to come in fresh, and thereís something to be said for that.)
Last year I didnít have the time to do everything I wanted. This year Iíve learned from my mistakes and started reading early. I track down the Japanese version of The Ring in September, I read Tolkienís The Two Towers in October, then polish off Stanislaw Lemís Solaris over two afternoons in a bookstore. One studio helps me out by sending me the book Catch Me If You Can in an outdated Pan American Airlines bag. Iíve never read any Graham Greene before I get to The Quiet American, but Iíve seen so many film adaptations of his books that I feel as if I already know him. Herbert Asburyís The Gangs of New York bears little resemblance to the Scorsese film, and Louis Begleyís About Schmidt is even less like the movie starring Jack Nicholson, but the films stand more or less on their own.
I start working on my Top 10 list in June or July and keep a running tally, adding worthy films as I watch them. In November, after Far From Heaven and Punch-Drunk Love both bowl me over and join the ranks of this yearís greats, I begin to believe that 2002 is one of the greatest years in cinematic history. Then I realize that the Christmas blockbuster rush is yet to come, and I know that movies good enough to crack the Top 10 in years past arenít going to make it this time.
Finally December arrives, with multiple screenings each day and loads of time out of the office, during which I see more of my fellow critics than the people at my own newspaper. I canít escape the movies at home, either, as Iíve got stacks of videos and DVDs of the yearís films sent to me by studios for Top 10 consideration. (My movie collection will soon consume all the available floor space in my apartment.) My expectations for the December films are high, and yet the movies manage to exceed them. There are always high-profile, star-studded duds among the Oscar contenders, but even those are fewer in number this year.
Donít let cinemaís nostalgia merchants tell you about 1939 or 1962 or 1971 or even 1999. Donít be fooled by the box-office grosses of The Sum of All Fears or Scooby-Doo or XXX. The bad and mediocre stuff falls away, and the important films remain or lie waiting to be discovered. Iím in the business of finding the good, the odd, the interesting, the humorous, the stylish, and the bizarre (I hope you are, too), and I found so much in my first full year that I can only hope subsequent years measure up. The golden age is now. Buy stock in popcorn.
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