Monday, August 12, 2013

Looking Back on Ebert Presents

I just stumbled upon Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's entertaining review of the new book "My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles" in the Chicago Tribune. He intelligently and humorously rips the book and its editor, Peter Biskind (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) apart. "His writing is clunky with out-of-place references jammed into sentences that have to be read backward to be understood," Vishnevetsky writes. The great thing about the review is that Ignatiy gets the chance to make a case (an intense Jonathan Rosenbaum devotee, his conclusion is that this particular book sucks and that anyone at all interested in Welles should read "This is Orson Welles," which Rosenbaum edited), which is something I happened to just recall he never got a great chance to do when he co-hosted Ebert Presents at the Movies. 

When someone has such complicated ideas and eclectic tastes as Vishnevetsky does, it can be difficult to come across as entirely coherent when you only have a few minutes to talk about an individual film (though he's great at it with the written word; his capsule reviews are more compelling than most critics' full-length pieces, and the brief reviews he's been writing this summer for the AV Club are outstanding and fully sound). I was a fan of the show during its brief run, and I'll still go back and watch a review as a kind of refresher. The other night I re-watched Brad Bird's Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and really enjoyed it; I think it might be one of the best, and just flat out fun action movies since Raiders of the Lost Ark. Afterwards I checked out Ignatiy and Christy Lemire's review of it (I had recalled some interesting disagreement on that one when it came in late 2011) and found myself  staring right at that problem Vishnevetsky sometimes faced on the show.

It primarily has to do with the films in which Vishnevetsky disliked and had to then argue against Lemire's more predictable (though in no way invalid) opinion. If you know nothing about Vishnevetsky's interests in movies, you could catch on by watching a few episodes that he loves form, the way in which a movie is structured, how it plays, how shots are framed, etc... Now, of course he values narrative complexity, great performances (I recall he credited Rutger Hauer as the reason Hobo with a Shotgun was any good), and interesting themes, yet what sets him apart seems to be his knowledge, and appreciation, of smart visual filmmaking. And it often takes precedence over whether the screenplay's any good, which is why he's always been quick to embrace anything by Paul W.S. Anderson or Tony Scott. Yet the problem with such interests is that they're not especially easy to elucidate when discussing a particular movie in such a short time. Watching the review of Mission: Impossible, I was quite struck by this: 

Leading into their little argument, Lemire says the movie is "Just a fun, thrilling escape all around, thumbs up!"

Vishnevetsky, who is often very respectful towards a film he criticizes (unless, like most, he absolutely hates it), responds  "I like Brad Bird, I like the Mission: Impossible movies," but he complains that it "moves poorly" and that besides the great Dubai sequence, it's "choppy" and "clunky." He also dislikes the "long scenes of exposition and theme and character development." Now, I understand that he felt the movie looses its own two feet a bit after the Dubai sequence. I think it's not too bold to say that it's one of the most thrilling movie scenes of all time, and thus everything that comes after it is bound to be a letdown in comparison. But I actually thought the film held its own as well as it could following that sequence. Bird knows it's the best thing in the film, so he wisely makes the climactic showdown in that fancy parking garage move along pretty quickly. As cool a set-piece as it is, it only lasts a few minutes, which is great because at the point the movie is long enough to be completely satisfying but also close to stretching beyond its welcome. 

I don't think Vishnevetsky's other complaints were entirely valid, and if they were, then he would have needed more time to explain himself. The bottom line is that, as seen in this review, Vishnevetsky has a lot more on his mind that just pointing out the basic pros and cons of a movie, and consequently this might be the wrong platform for him to be operating on. That being said, the fact that he tries to point out some fundamental problems in big budget movies is wonderful; even if he can't quite prove that his points are legitimate, he at least raises eyebrows towards a movie that almost everyone else universally liked. 

Another example of this would be 50/50, a comedy that I laughed at frequently and also found to be pretty touching (despite my general disdain for cancer movies), but that Vishnevetsky called a con with a "cancer gimmick." But during the review, his argument simply didn't hold up. So many people absolutely craved the film, yet he had major problems with it and was unable to clearly communicate them in the brief time allotted. And also, some of this has to do with the back-and-forth nature of the show, meaning usually before Vishnevetsky might have a chance at explaining himself, he has to let Lemire cut in.

In no way am I criticizing him for his work on the show; on the contrary, I loved what he brought to it, and despite these examples, a lot of the time he was able to pinpoint exactly why he liked or disliked a movie. And his negative response to Shame was one of the most refreshing pieces of criticism that year. I wanted to hug him for pointing out some pretty basic problems in a movie that was given far too much praise. What I'm really trying to say is that perhaps he simply has too many interesting things to say for a show like this. Give him a good ten minutes to talk about a movie, and I think his potential as a television critic would find much greater fulfillment. Or, he can just keep writing, which I'm perfectly happy with, too. 

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