A.O. Scott talks criticism; the NYT’s chief film critic holds forth at Bryant Park

What’s a critic’s job? What kind of mindset is required? Who needs critics, anyway?

A.O. Scott, since 2004 the New York Times’ chief film critic (a title he now shares with L.A.-based Manohla Dargis), held forth on the art of criticism during a lunchtime talk Tuesday.

AO SCOTT

On a surprisingly un-steamy day, when the midtown park was filled with office workers and tourists enjoying the mild sun and gentle breezes, Scott carried on a lively dialogue with Scott Adlerberg, Brooklyn novelist and resident film expert for the park’s “Reel Talks” series.

Tuesday’s program was titled “Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth,” also the title of Scott’s 2016 book.

“You have to leave yourself open to the possibility of being surprised,” Scott said, regarding the frame of mind he tries to adopt when reviewing, regardless of a film’s genre or budget, or his own expectations.

The two covered a lot of ground, including:

  • The omnipresence of superhero movies. “They’re a big part of any film critic’s job now,” Scott said. “They could be better, they could be more ambitious, and they could be more fun.”
  • Related: The strain of authoritarianism that seems to run through the various superhero universes, and how it may (or may not) reflect society at large.
  • The “blockbuster imperative,” which serves to keep superhero movies and other big-budget tentpole productions from taking chances, instead often sticking to tried-and-true Hollywood formulas.
  • The extreme defensiveness some readers express in response to negative reviews of any given movie. Scott recounted a 2012 Twitter war with Samuel L. Jackson, sparked by a review of “The Avengers.” “Why does it make people feel so mad … personally insulted and wounded?”
  • Related: The “Twitter mob” — “fans who see themselves as victims, not bullies.”
  • Critics’ usefulness as scapegoats, for those looking to engage — even if never in real, live conversation — with someone on the opposite side of the fence regarding a movie.
  • The critical gunfight over Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” released in 1969. The Times’ Bosley Crowther, who had reviewed movies for the paper since the 1940’s, served the role of “the designated square” by shooting down the controversial, antiheroic crime film. Pauline Kael, a verbose and later celebrated critic, wrote a 9,000-word response to Crowther’s review. “She kind of made it a cause,” Scott said.
  • Related: The critic’s role, often unwanted, as a defender of “standards,” or accepted conventions of filmmaking.
  • The Times’ Vincent Canby’s dismissive review of George Romero’s now-classic b/w zombie shocker “Night of the Living Dead,” also released in 1969, as “made by some people in Pittsburgh.”
  • The seemingly short leap made by film critics — the New Wave’s Godard, Truffaut, and Rohmer, Americans Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Schrader — from reviewing to making movies.
  • Related: Quentin Tarantino’s similar obsessiveness and analytical bent (although he never worked as a film critic), which served as a springboard for making movies.
  • Scott’s antipathy toward “the rule of the algorithm” — the tendency of apps and other digital tools to keep viewers from straying beyond their genre safe space.
  • The “death of cinema” paranoia, which dates at least as far back as the introduction of sound.
  • Movie review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. “It can be useful as a snapshot of collective opinion,” Scott said.

The free-admission “Reel Talks” series at Bryant Park continues Monday, Aug. 6 at 12:30 pm, with “Lucy at the Movies: The Complete Films of Lucille Ball,” with Adlerberg interviewing film historian Cindy De La Hoz.

“Django Unchained”: Combo Road Movie, Buddy Flick, Southern-Twisted Western, Love Story, Revenge Fantasy, and Exercise in Exploitation (review)

Django new(also reviewed for Folio Weekly)

Stars Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington. Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino. R. 165 minutes. Critic’s grade: B+

Is Quentin Tarantino’s highly anticipated “Django Unchained” a road movie, a buddy flick, a Southern-twisted  Western, a love story, a revenge fantasy, a revved-up exercise in exploitation, or a loopy wish-fulfillment retelling of a shameful chapter in American history?

Short answer: Yes. It’s all of the above. The film, a disturbing and provocative if undeniably entertaining blend of action, comedy and drama bolstered with sterling performances by Jamie Foxx, Leonard DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz and Kerry Washington, also carries the distinction of being the most violent mainstream movie of the year. The body count is awfully high, the murders are graphic and gruesome, and the blood frequently splatters and spurts, in a manner reminiscent of that of Sam Peckinpah, the revered, once controversial director of violent Western spree “The Wild Bunch,” among other less celebrated films.

Given the recent horrific murders in Connecticut, “Django Unchained” also has to count as Exhibit Hollywood in the coming attack on ultra-violent movies, television and video games. Tarantino, of course, already has begged to differ with those suggesting the presence of direct connections between real-life carnage and the cinematic kind. And let’s not forget the film’s status as a big-screen project with an unusually liberal use of the “N” word, which is uttered more than 100 times. The language retains the power to shock, and rightfully so. Yet it’s perfectly apropos for the characters, and setting.

The time is 1858, “somewhere in Texas,” during the run-up to the Civil War, as titles reveal at the start of another of the year’s exercises in narrative expansiveness. With a running time of two hours and 45 minutes, it hardly feels like that long. As was the case with so many Tarantino projects — lesser films like this one, as well as 2009’s far superior “Inglourious Basterds,” another ultra-violent revenge fantasy — the movie is fueled by a blend of movie-revisionist quirkiness and old-fashioned adrenaline.

The film’s start reveals the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), a dentist turned travelling bounty hunter, uses his wits and astonishingly quick and accurate marksmanship to off overseers of a slave chain gang. Schultz, like the Nazi officer played by Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds,” at first comes off as an exceedingly genteel fellow, using his oddly modulating, German-accented voice to say things like “allow me to unring this bell” and “dubious proposition.” Moments later, he administers lethal gunshots. While Schultz’s sympathies are admirable — he abhors the practice of buying and selling humans — his motives aren’t entirely pure, as he taps Django (Foxx) as an accomplice in a very profitable bounty business.

After multiple murders, beautifully photographed Western landscapes and an extended comic sequence involving Jonah Hill and a group of hilariously clumsy and addled Ku Klux Klan types, the pals end up at a plantation called Candyland, run with an iron fist by pretentious and cruel Calvin Candie (DiCaprio). There, the two, seen as a strange European man and his pretentious freed-slave sidekick, pretend to be mandingo merchants, seeking to buy a winner, a black man tough enough to best others in bloody fight-to-the-death matches.

Their true mission: They plan to buy, and then free, Broomhilda von Shaft (Washington), Django’s wife; the two were separated long ago when sold by another cruel plantation owner (Bruce Dern, onscreen for all of 30 seconds or so). Threatening to make the plan unravel is old Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a longtime Candyland house slave whose sympathies largely seem to lie with his master.

The filmmaker, working from his own typically smart, humorous script, keeps things moving at a fast clip, and clearly enjoys mashing up genres and styles, variously referencing everything from spaghetti Westerns to Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” to the Ku Klux Klan sequence from D.W. Griffith’s explicitly racist “Birth of a Nation.”

And yet, it’s all distinctly Tarantino-esque, stamped with a by-now recognizable personal style that viewers tend to either love, or love to hate. Hard to resist, if you ask me.

“The Man With the Iron Fists”: Martial Arts Fantasy — Bad-Good or Just Plain Bad? (review)

Stars Russell Crowe, Cung Le, Lucy Liu, Byron Mann, RZA, Rick Yune, David Bautista, Jamie Chung. Directed by RZA, from his script with Eli Roth. Rated R. 96 minutes. Critic’s grade: C

Is “The Man With the Iron Fists” a bad movie, or a bad-good (or good-bad) movie? It’s election season, so I felt obligated to take an internal poll, measuring my own feelings on the subject. While 45% of internal respondents called it bad-good, so bad it’s kinda’ good, 55% called it plain bad. Nearly a split decision.

On the minus side, the film, hip-hop star RZA‘s directorial debut, a Quentin Tarantino-“presented” martial arts fantasy shot in Shanghai, is marked by choppy editing, convoluted storytelling, poorly developed characters, variously over- and under-cooked acting performances and often laughable dialogue, with some of the unintentionally funniest lines spoken by Russell Crowe. “Baby steps,” he says at one point, more than a bit anachronistically, in a film set in a dangerous, exotic place called Jungle Village, apparently in the China of the late 1800’s. Later, applying his, uh, understated sense of humor, he says, “I always take a gun to a knife fight.”

And what is R&B singer Mable John’s “lost” 1966 classic “Your Good Thing is About to End” doing on the soundtrack? So maybe that belongs on the plus column, alongside kung fu sequences that are occasionally well choreographed and decently photographed, sometimes intriguing art, costume and production design and — depending on a viewer’s stomach for this stuff — a wild array of brutal chopping, kicking, stabbing and decapitations. Blood spurts and flows, often in crazy fountains of the red stuff. Little wonder, I guess, given the involvement of torture porn king and Tarantino pal Eli Roth (the “Hostel” films).

The story’s MacGuffin, if you will, is a shipment of gold so valuable that it’s worth the sacrifice of thousands of lives. It’s really an excuse for RZA to gather a cast sure to appeal to international audiences, and fit them into various bad-guy and good-guy slots. Crowe, a sort-of mercenary fighter named Jack Knife (Jack the Ripper on holiday?) is in town to join forces with freed American slave Blacksmith (RZA), who specializes in unusually lethal weapons, and Zen Yi (Rick Yune, “The Fast and the Furious”), a super-fast combatant seeking to avenge the death of his father.

The three plan to launch an offensive against the likes of showy villain Silver Lion (Byron Mann, “Catwoman”), a glam rock-looking fellow who killed Zen Yi’s dad, his right-hand fight master Bronze Lion (Cung Le) and a scary, Hulk-like guy (WWE wrestler Dave Bautista) whose body parts turn to impenetrable brass when he gets really, really angry.

The mix of eccentrics also includes Lucy Liu as a beautiful, flirtatious and crafty madame whose loyalties may not be what they seem, and a pretty and (of course) good-hearted prostitute played by Jamie Chung (“Suckerpunch”). Given the blank-face readings offered by several actors, much of the cast apparently was required to spend time at the Keanu Reeves School of There-But-Not-There Acting.

RZA, reportedly inspired by the martial arts fare he absorbed growing up in New York, to his credit does keep the whole enterprise moving at a fast pace. There’s little time to think about how unevenly it’s all directed, edited and acted, or whether the story makes much sense. For the filmmakers, that’s probably a good thing.

DGA Nominations: Lee Daniels and Tarantino In; Clint Squeezed Out

Precious director Lee Daniels has become the first African-American nominee for a Director’s Guild of America award.

Daniels was one of five directors nominated for awards this morning, including James Cameron for Avatar, Jason Reitman for Up in the Air, Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds, and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker.

Surprisingly absent from the list: Veteran director Clint Eastwood, whose Invictus has picked up glowing reviews and wound up on several year-end Top 10 lists. Eastwood previously received three DGA nominations; he won for Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven.

Cameron won in 1997 for Titanic. This year’s other DGA nominees are first-timers. All except Daniels were nominated for Golden Globes, along with Eastwood, and all are expected to land Oscar nominations.

Bigelow, Cameron’s ex-wife, is the seventh woman to land a DGA nomination.

The DGA winner has gone on to receive the Oscar for best picture all but six times since the awards were launched in 1949, according to a column published today by Los Angeles Times writer Tom O’Neil.

The winner will be announced Jan. 30 in Los Angeles.

People’s Choice Awards: Lessons To Be Learned

I’m clueless about how the winners of the People’s Choice Awards are determined, and I’m not sure I really want to know. Not unlike the American Music Awards, the whole thing comes off as little more than the entertainment world’s version of a high-school popularity contest.

But the film industry can always learn lessons when these shows come along.

A few takeaways, aside from that whole no-accounting-for-taste thing:

Four wins for Twilight: New Moon — 1)Even long past those ginormous box-office returns, “Twilight” fever remains in full force, meaning no end on the horizon for the movies and tie-in products; 2)The teenybopper crowd has the power to break a movie big; 3)Vampire fever lives.

Breakout Actress: Miley Cyrus (for Hannah Montana: The Movie, over the likes of, oh, never mind) — See No. 2, above.

Actress: Sandra Bullock & Comedy Movie: The Proposal — 1)Time to bid adieu to that whole notion about actresses of a certain age no longer getting the good roles or pulling in filmgoers (also see Meryl Streep, but not in these awards) and 2)When it comes to second acts in the lives of American actors, determination and persistence sometimes pay off big.

Independent Movie: Inglourious Basterds — 1)You can always count on a Nazi to make a good villain, even more than 60 years after Hitler’s atrocities and 2)Celebrity can help even the most independent-minded directors (like Quentin Tarantino) find audiences for their movies.

Actor: Johnny Depp (Public Enemies, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus)
— See No. 2, above, and substitute “actors” for “directors.”

Action Star: Hugh Jackman (X-Men Origins) — Some (handsome) guys have all the luck.

Family Movie: Up — Sometimes even high-quality animation wins out.

Comedic Star: Jim Carrey (A Christmas Carol) — Go figure.