Monday Morning Critic – 7.19.2010 – Inception Reviews and the notion of Groupthink, Shutter Island

Every Monday morning, InsidePulse Movies Czar Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings an irreverent and oftentimes hilarious look at pop culture, politics, sports and whatever else comes to mind. And sometimes he writes about movies.

One of the things that internet has allowed is that there are an insane amount of great writers who now have a place to write about film. Good, bad or indifferent there’s plenty of space out there for anyone who has an opinion. And while it has led to people who are borderline-retarded having a place to shout to the world about whatever nonsense they feel obligated to say. And in the day of the internet age, we’re seeing two things: the level of discourse has coarsened significantly and that critics in all shapes and sizes are proving to be less relevant than ever.

One reason is that some critics become prominent not for what they say but for going against the “established” opinion. Armond White is usually the first guy people think of in that regard as he’s the one notorious for busting Rotten Tomatoes’ perfect scores and giving positive reviews to universally despised films. But even in his contrarian opinions there’s great stuff to be found and another writer by the name of Christian Toto got me thinking.

That and I’d reached the end of internet porn. Really, there is an end to it. Your monitor will go all bluey and an error message will pop up saying something like “You’re looking for Brazilian Fart Porn. Do something productive.”

Toto is a guy some people have heard because he’s all over conservative talk radio when it comes to discussing film. Political talk radio is amusing because all the crazies come out; it makes for a wonderful distraction, especially when my usual sports talk stations becomes monotonous. There’s only so much sports you can listen to before you need a break and since I’m not really a music guy I surf the AM dial. That’s where I first heard Toto on the air; I think it was as a guest with Hugh Hewitt. All the right wingers really sound alike to me; it’s 75% crap and 25% interesting mental exercise.

I don’t know Toto’s political beliefs, nor do I really care, but when it comes to film he’s one of the best out there. He has a great perspective and has really embraced the concept of being an online critic and blogger. And this past week he posted something about the buzz behind Inception that got me thinking, mainly that perhaps a bit of groupthink could be behind some critics and their high opinions of that film (and others). It is well worth the hype, as I LOVED the film and think it’s perhaps the best of the year so far, but I can see how some people would dislike it as well. It’s a massive blockbuster that requires you to keep your brain turned on at the door, as opposed to the usual “turn your brain off and accept that the film is so fonking retarded” that passes for entertainment.

As much as I’d like to think its White being a contrarian for many of his dissenting opinions on film, I think there’s much more behind the sentiment than anyone’s willing to admit. While I think a lot of critical opinion is because certain actors, directors and films are great and everyone recognizes it, I think that film critics are like any other group of people in that groupthink (a situation in which a group of people all think alike and contradictory opinions aren’t viewed) is something I think doesn’t get acknowledged because no one wants to be “that guy.”

As in that guy who hated the film that everyone else loved/hated, or that guy who spoiled (x)’s 100% perfect Tomato meter. Both of those happen to follow White around, as he praised Jonah Hex and HATED Toy Story 3. While I disagreed with his assessments I can see why he thought the way he did; he’s a bit of a nut but he knows film and the art of cinema better than most critics. But I think he does one thing a lot of film critics are unwilling and unable to do: disagree with the masses within as opposed to the masses at the Cineplex.

It’s something I touched on during my review of The Last Airbender and wanted to go in depth about, but unfortunately that was neither the time nor the place. Considering most critics in particular areas all see films together on a fairly regular basis it’s not shocking that similar opinions would flow; in the rare screening I attend (life has gotten a lot busier in the last year or so, more than I had imagined) its familiar faces and familiar conversations. And I’ve seen people who had mild opinions at the screening turn in much more spirited reviews in either direction because of buzz from other people. Part of it is readership and we all know it; it’s much more fun to be mean to a film and you generally get more eyeballs for a film on either end of the spectrum.

But the other thing I’ve seen is that there are plenty of critics who don’t want to stand out, either. No one wants to be the turd in the punch bowl, so to speak, in the same way little kids have to have a joke ready after anything major happening. Like when Michael Jackson died, if you were a third grader you better have a joke about him ass-raping some little kid the day after or you were getting beat up during lunch. I think a lot of film critics tend to be the same way; it’s one thing to dislike a film slightly, it’s another to be mean-spirited because you want to be the meanest about a film. Reading reviews for Airbender I was stunned to see so many critics turn up the vile if only because a handful had done so early on. If you don’t have your hilariously awful thing to say about a film then you stand out.

It’s akin to the same way adults with single digit IQ’s and Wilmer Valderrama try and top each other with “yo momma” jokes. While I can see why people would want to trash the flick, mainly because it’s awful, the over the top nature kind of turned me off. Yeah, it’s bad, but it isn’t a crime against humanity and I think sometimes perspective gets lost in the internet age of film criticism. The web has made it easier for people to get into film criticism without any formal training or dues paying, like in the olden days of television and print, so I think we’re not seeing the death of the film critic like many have written about.

What I think we’re beginning to see are film critics becoming more aware of the fickle nature of their audience and we’re seeing the realization that the film critic really doesn’t matter when it comes to box office receipts. When one of the worst reviewed films of 2009 (Transformers 2) makes $400 million, and one of the best (The Hurt Locker) doesn’t gross the former’s catering budget, you begin to see something. The film critic isn’t like the dodo, but perhaps closer in spirit to the personal advice columnist. If you got rid of Dear Abby most people would shrug their shoulders and go “oh well” but if you got rid of the Sports section you’d have people cancelling en masse.

Part of being noticed, and part of trying to maintain relevancy, is to stand out (good or bad) for being more bombastic with your opinions. It’s something we see in politics, sports, and nearly every other portion of life. No one wants to read about the guy who says “this is ok” or “this is not so good” in any aspect because it’s not as fun. Look at the ways we discuss on the web now; we’re all guilty of saying remarkably vile things because someone merely disagreed with us. Combine that in an atmosphere where even a magazine like Variety eliminates their film critic and outsources it to independent writers on a per diem basis and it leaves people not wanting to be the turd in the punch bowl.

A Movie A Week – The Challenge

This Week’s DVD – Shutter Island

Inside Pulse Movies Superfan Sebastian Howard asked me to tackle it this week, has been doing so for a while, so sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded. Thus I tracked down and rented Shutter Island, Scorsese’s latest opus from earlier in the year. It felt odd actually renting a film, as opposed to buying or borrowing it, but there’s a reason why I didn’t plunk down cash for this film: Because it’s not that good once you get past the atmosphere Scorsese creates.

Based off the book of the same name, the film follows two U.S Marshals, Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), charged with finding an escaped convict. Ferried over to Shutter Island, the two conduct an investigation into the insane asylum to find a killer. Surrounded by the criminally insane, it’s up to Teddy to push through what seems like a conspiracy to get to the truth of the matter. But what he finds isn’t what he is expecting.

And from a sheer technical perspective this is an engrossing flick. Scorsese absolutely nails the atmosphere, putting in equally parts creep and horror. Shutter Island isn’t a place anyone would want to visit for good reason; it’s filled with crazies inside and equally creepy personnel (including an excellent Ben Kingsley). Every aspect about the film, in this regard, is Scorsese at his best. He develops an intense atmosphere and ratchets up the pressure throughout; it’s pure setup as opposed to story-telling. And the problem is in the story-telling, which is rather absurd when you consider that Scorsese is perhaps the greatest cinematic story-teller America has ever produced.

The key to the film is that it hinges on a twist; while I’m not going to be a d-bag and spoil, what I will say if you don’t figure out the twist early on you must be blinder than Ray Charles. And I bet even he would’ve seen it. While the film has one of the best endings of 2010, the twist is so obvious from the beginning that the big reveal isn’t as powerful as it ought to be. It’s a device that works better in novels then it does in film for a reason. It’s easy to see if done poorly and completely ruins the film if done for no good reason. This is the former, not the latter, and it takes away from the power of the finale. We can see it coming and when it happens it’s a shoulder shrug.

It’s a bit of a shame because DiCaprio is on his game for this film. Bound to be overlooked at awards season due to time, and his awesome performance in Inception, this is a better role because it’s a bit more meaty. Teddy is a man with a dark past, and a darker future, and he tears into it like an actor possessed. This isn’t showy, “give me an Oscar” style that some bust out when it comes to bigger parts or films that are geared for Oscar season. DiCaprio carries this film and keeps it interesting, at least, and very well nearly pulls off the highest honor you can: acting so well you don’t realize a film’s not that good.

Originally slated for an awards season release, it was bumped to an early spring release to try and garner an audience. It did, making for one of Scorsese’s highest grossing films, but it’s more of a shame than it is a great film that deserves large grosses. Considering he already has his Oscar for The Departed, it’s easy to see why this was bumped from awards season to the spring of the next year. It was a case of a film that wasn’t that good that wouldn’t have found an audience in what was a crowded winter season able to find one in the spring.

No recommendation either way.

What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 Pints of Bass Ale and community college co-eds with low standards at the Alumni Club

Ramona and Beezus – Based off of a children’s novel, apparently, it’s a starring vehicle for new tween queen Selena Gomez.

Skip It – Wake me when Selena releases a sex tape to rival Miley Cyrus’s in a couple years.

Salt – Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a CIA covert op. When a Russian walks in and claims she’s a double agent, she has to prove her innocence while trying to save her kidnapped husband.

See It – This was originally a vehicle for Tom Cruise, which he eventually left to do Knight and Day, so either it’ll end up being Cruise’s Officer and a Gentleman head-slap of a decision or a good move on his part. The trailers seem awful, but Jolie has enough clout nowadays (and the supporting cast is good enough) that she doesn’t have to take bad parts or be in movies destined to fail. It’s a true test of her star power; if she can bring in an audience as an action hero it’ll show she’s more than tabloid fodder and prestige pictures.

Do you have questions about movies, life, love, or Branigan’s Law? Shoot me an e-mail at and you could be featured in the next “Monday Morning Critic.” Include your name and hometown to improve your odds.

Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @MMCritic_Kubryk.

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