Sunday, January 26, 2014

Disagreement or Contradiction?

I've read two reviews of the new Jack Ryan movie (I haven't actually seen it), one by James Berardinelli and the other by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. I found it rather amusing, and rather interesting, that Berardinelli said this about Kenneth Branagh's direction of action scenes in the film:

Director Kenneth Branagh, who showed in his Shakespeare adaptations that he understands how to maintain a smooth, controlled pace, uses that quality to good advantage in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. There are at least three action sequences (a hotel ambush, a heist, and a car chase) that, in less expert hands, could have been dull and generic. As choreographed by Branagh, they crackle with tension and suspense. At its best, the movie feels relentless, almost exhausting. The necessary connective tissue between the adrenaline-fueled scenes is also deftly handled; the movie rarely threatens to bog down due to excessive exposition. At the same time, there's a little time for character development.

And Vishnevetksy this:

A movie doesn’t have to be original to be entertaining; surefooted direction can energize the most clich├ęd material. Suspense, however, isn’t Kenneth Branagh’s strong suit. The actor-director, who also plays Jack Ryan’s villain, is fond of visual quirks (his last film, Thor, was chock full of canted angles) that create a patina of eccentricity, but don’t function in any meaningful way. Jack Ryan has a few of these oddball flourishes—a double lens flare which obscures everything else in the frame, a hard dolly-in during a stabbing—but when it comes to the movie’s centerpiece scenes, Branagh keeps things bland. The major action sequences—several car chases, a shoot-out, and a break-in at a high-tech skyscraper that probably seemed less out-of-place when the project was set in Dubai—are messy and uninvolving, composed largely in disorienting telephoto-lens handheld shots

These two critics must be quite different to make such contrasting claims. Now, because I haven’t actually seen the film, I can’t assess the action scenes myself, but based on knowledge of these two critics, this might be more than a mere disagreement.

First off, I generally like Berardinelli. A simple critic with low ambitions, he offers assessments of films that are in no way academic, but also not entirely subjective, either. He gives unbiased, reasonable opinions and tends to do a pretty good job of backing up his claims about narrative and character. As a writer he’s pretty formulaic, and he rarely crosses the bridge from reviewing to film criticism. There’s nothing especially distinct about him, but his honesty and lack of pretension is usually refreshing. Also, he tends to be one of the more reliable critics when it comes to big studio movies. That said, if he was in a younger generation, I cannot imagine he would have the success he’s had over the last 18 years. He simply happened to be one of the first thoughtful and knowledgeable people to use the Internet to post reviews of movies.

One major distinction between him and Vishnevetsky (other than the fact that their style and tastes couldn’t be more varied) is that the former approaches movies as stories, while the latter puts an enormous emphasis on the purely cinematic attributes of a film.

Consequently, it’s never exactly clear how much Berardinelli knows (or, for that matter, cares) about filmmaking as a craft. So when he says that under Branagh’s direction, Jack Ryan’s action scenes “Crackle with tension and suspense,” it’s hard to tell if he’s saying this because he actually examined the way the scenes were put together, or if it’s because that’s how he felt watching them.

Vishnevetsky, though, sees the director as an architect, and is always concerned with not just what he’s designing, but how he’s doing it. With an expansive knowledge of film style and history, he’s able to pinpoint different ways a director is putting scenes together, why, and whether it’s effective. Even a review of a bland product like A Madea Christmas shows Vishnevetsky’s acute awareness of structure:

Style-wise, Perry seems to be stuck in 1931, and there’s an undeniable early-talkie charm to the film’s long takes, out-of-nowhere wipes, slightly mismatched reverse angles, just-a-tad-too-long cutaways, and stage-voice performances. (Abundant echoes—audible whenever the characters are standing in front of a metal surface—suggest that Perry has a thing against lavalier mics.) The oddness of Perry’s Madea movies owes less to incompetence than to eccentric working methods. The fact that scenes involving Madea tend to run long and are interspersed with generic reactions from other characters reveals that Perry improvises most of her dialogue in one-and-done takes, while everyone else in the cast sticks to a script. (Some of the film’s Madea improvs are even funny.) Perry’s sense of visual blocking is stubbornly old-fashioned, with above-the-waist wide shots intercut with close-ups in which only the speaking character is visible.

By not actually analyzing the action scenes, but merely calling them good, Berardinelli is falling into a trap shared by many critics: discussing form without solid backing. As a result, this pretty pointless case of opposites in a pretty pointless movie might actually have larger importance in the context of criticism in general. 

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