Can Critical Thinking and Summer Blockbusters Coexist Peacefully?
By Bret Dorman
I work at a movie theater.
Today I saw Fast and Furious 6. For the second time. Not because I liked it THAT much, but because I have a podcast and wanted to take notes. That way, during our discussion of the movie, I could point out specific lines of dialogue or character traits. Instead of saying the movie has bad writing, I could point out how a cliche line of dialogue was used incorrectly, thus giving an insight into how I view movies and provide “proof” that the movie had bad writing instead of it merely being my opinion.
For the record, I did not hate Fast 6. I gave it a C-. I love the spirit of the movie. I think it has a lot of admirable things going on for ‘dumb fun’ movies. But at the same time, just because a movie is self aware or just ‘dumb fun’ or not trying to win an Oscar; doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be critical of them.
After seeing the movie I visited concessions to chat with some coworkers, where a fellow coworker asked what I thought. One of my (younger) managers started to laugh as I gave the movie an “ehh” face reaction. She said “You don’t want to ask him that. He’ll rip the movie apart. He doesn’t like movies ‘like that.’ He’s a critic. Don’t tell him your favorite movie because he’ll just rip it apart.”
Without seeming like I was personally offended, I just want to say I found this deeply offensive. Now I have a good working relationship with this manager and we have had conversations before. So I know what she meant to say, but it’s how it came out that struck a chord with me.
I replied, directed to our other coworker, “Or tell me your favorite movie and I’ll tell you why its awesome!”
There’s this idea that all critics like to nitpick. And yes, I fancy myself a somewhat critical thinker. So when I watch silly movies, I still watch them through a critical eye. Nitpicking doesn’t HAVE to mean you don’t like something. Yes, some people do nag over every little detail or cherry pick their nitpicks. “How can none of those badguys hit him?” “There’s no way those guards wouldn’t check his I.D.” “How can that monster not see him behind the pillar?”
There’s a certain level of believability I am willing to suspend when it comes to movies. Badguys generally have bad aim. Military personal and law enforcement officers don’t always act perfectly. Monsters don’t kill main heroes. I get it. The better movies minimize these necessary evils or address them in a realistic way. But that’s fine. Some of them are so outrageous they should be addressed.
But I look at movies and address my complaints because I care about them. I want movies to be good. By voicing my opinions about them, I’m trying to engage in a conversation about what makes good movies good and bad movies bad. I want movies to be good. I promise.
I liked Iron Man 3. A lot. I do think there are issues. I could nitpick them. But I don’t think letting those nitpicks ruin my fun is worth it. I like having fun. But I also look at the movie with a critical and nitpick the things I do like. That’s why I have an ENTIRE SECTION on my blog called MINUTIA MADNESS, where I examine the tiniest moments of movies and fully explain how one emphasis on a word or one unique little movement or look can be THE GREATEST THING IN THE WORLD!
So yes, in the Fast 6 movie, there is a part where a character says “You’re still playing cop, well this is above your pay grade.” But the character is not really playing cop. He is motivated solely by personal reasons. The “pay grade” line is a normal cliche piece of dialogue we hear a lot. Denzel hears it in Inside Man. He responds “Well just raise my pay grade.” Its cool! But here it just makes no sense. So I point that out. It is not good. But in a movie like Dirty Hairy, I point out how Clint Eastwood emphasis the word *clean* in his famous Magnum .44 monologue. THAT IS AWESOME!!!
I have this conversation with a lot of people. Just because I expect a lot from movies doesn’t mean I approach every movie the same. My favorite movie of 2012 was Dredd (because I don’t count Tarantino movies). DREDD!!! If you try to lump me in with most critics, you would MAYBE see Dredd as an HONORABLE mention on SOME internet critics Best Of 2012 lists. A couple amateur people might have it on their Top 10’s. And a few “normal” folks like me loved the movie. In fact, I put A LOT of action movies on my Top 10 list. In fact, a lot of the movies I love and dissect the most are action movies. Why? Because I like them. And I care.
So yes, I don’t like the term ‘dumb fun’ because I don’t like the idea I have to shut off my brain to enjoy movies. I don’t think you should HAVE to. That’s insane! At the same time, I don’t see why movies can’t be absurdly fun. I don’t see why we can’t USE our brains to create imaginative situations for our characters to endure in cartoonish fashion. One of my favorite movies of all time is CRANK 2!vLet me repeat that. CRANK 2!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I have banned it from my occasional “wacky” Top 5 lists because I would include it TOO MUCH!!! THAT’S HOW MUCH I LOVE CRANK 2!!! The movie isn’t dumb. Listening to the commentary only confirms the creators are extremely self aware and in on the jokes. A man’s head in a fish tank being kept alive? A man surviving a helicopter fall JUST BECAUSE? A man turning in a giant version of himself a la Godzilla FOR NO REASON?! These aren’t dumb. These are fun. These are creative people treating the world of Crank like a live action cartoon on speed with adult jokes.
But then again, the Cranks are on the extreme end of the unbelievable spectrum. Movies like the Transformers and the Fasts and most Superhero flicks try to combine outrageousness WITH realistic character and drama. In that case, the movies become a delicate balancing act. Like Lady Justice holding her scales. “Unbelievability/fun” goes in one scale and “Character development/plot advancement” go in the other. I don’t mind if your movie takes cinematic shortcuts or huge leaps of logic with things like the U.S Justice System or the LAWS of Physics. But it all better equal out.
If you have a character, who is banned from the U.S. find a way back into the states, that’s fine. If part of that plan is getting an old partner to pull a favor, whatever. But if you’re doing something that silly, the reasoning for it better be goddamn entertaining. You can’t manipulate logic and common sense to have a character sit in a jail cell and talk to another character about information we already know or learn information that is completely useless. And when the characters start fighting with shivs, the fight better be not be a goddamn mess. It should be intelligible, if not down right intense/over the top. In Fast 6, THIS HAPPENS! A character banned from the U.S. enters a maximum security prison with the help of his old partner. Is told he has to “be out by 9 a.m.” Then he learns info we know/don’t care about/isn’t useful. Then he gets in a fight that is shot with close ups/shakey cam/fast editing. THIS IS NOT GOOD. THIS IS BAD. THIS IS DUMB, WITHOUT THE PAYOFF OF FUN.
In Transformers 3, the Autobots pretend to board a spaceship, that gets blown up. The human characters think the goodguys are dead. Then surprise! They are alive! This diversion is completely unnecessary. It takes time in an already bloated action movie to give us something that doesn’t need to be. The quicker the Transformers get to Chicago the faster they can ANNIHILATE the city.
In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark is without his suit(s). The reasoning is he doesn’t have full access to Jarvis (his robot A.I. omnipotent butler). But the writers use this as an opportunity to develop Stark and put the MAN in danger, allowing him to both physically, and later creatively, solve his problems. You could whine about how he doesn’t have a back up plan or how can his suits not just find a way to get to him, but I think the movie provides a sound enough internal logic to address this. Yes, things could be a tad different, but THE TRADE OFF of making Stark suitless is worth it because we get some awesome fights and a MacGuyver-esque sequence.
Now I admit, sometimes it just comes down to personal tastes. Some of the trade offs in Star Trek 2 I am more than willing to find acceptable while others are vehemently against. That’s fine. But I’m not about proving a movie is good or bad so that you will have the exact same taste as me. I’m advocating that we think critically, and yes, even creatively and imaginatively, in a way so that we can explain our thought process and provide evidence when necessary.
The reason why I pick on some movies is I want ALL movies to be fun. I try to like every movie. When it comes to summer explosion filled action popcorn flicks, I’d say 50% are okay. 25% are fantastic, and 25% are terrible. And I hate when people pick on all these movies though and lump them together. So I try to explain why some are dumb-dumb and some are just creatively fun trading certain things for fun. Some of my favorite movies are not the kind “critics” would name as their favorite (The Professional, Transporter 2, True Lies, and more).
Critics aren’t just people who like sad weepy dramas or films by eccentric crazy people who labor intensely over every shot (cough Kubrick cough). Yes. I do like “good films” like Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction, and Blade Runner and more. But that’s because I like every type of film. I just think there are different levels of good in every genre, and I try to seek out the best of them all, for the different reasons that make them that way. Then I study what makes the best the best and try to make people realize that the terrible ones don’t need to be terrible, because there is better out there.
Just because I’m not willing to turn of my brain doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy movies. In fact, put me in front of a movie I do enjoy (The Fifth Element) and I GUARANTEE I will have more fun and express myself more passionately during and after that movie than you watching a crappy-to-mediocre movie you claim is fun because you don’t have to think during it.
I don’t analyze these movies and watch a movie I find mediocre twice in three days because I am a curmudgeon who likes being miserable.
I do this because I care.
Perhaps too much.
Takes off glasses.
Stares longingly into sunset.
Single tear forms.
GIANT MONSTER APPEARS!!!
Sorry folks, I gotta run.
Until we meet again,
Try to challenge your brain,
And have some fun…