Heavy Hitters

Yes, dear, I'll explain the plot to you when you're olderThis week, the studios start to get serious and important after the relative frivolity of Thanksgiving blockbusters. I hope you brought your intense face.

Atonement“: Some critics are swooning over Joe Wright’s luxe adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel; I am not one of them. I had the same response to this film as I did to Wright’s feature-length compression of “Pride and Prejudice”, which was that I appreciated the attention to detail in the production design and the costumes, and admired the camerawork, and didn’t much care about the bigger picture. And if Keira Knightley doesn’t learn to breathe through her nose, she’s gonna end up with a chronic sinus infection, I just know it.

The Golden Compass“: Then again, “Atonement” looks like a masterpiece of storytelling when compared to Chris Weitz’ compression of Philip Pullman’s epic fantasy novel, which shoves as much plot as possible into every frame, at the cost of any possible emotional connection one might make with the characters. Who are these people? What sort of world do they inhabit? Yeah, great, it’s shiny and has dirigibles and talking polar bears … but for the love of an absent god, the “Star Wars” prequels have more character development. And fewer insipid Kate Bush songs.

The King of Kong“: Now, this is a movie. Seth Gordon’s weird little documentary, about the rivalry between a couple of thirtysomething Donkey Kong gamers — one an emotionally vulnerable family man, the other a swaggering douchebag — is the kind of character study that happens when the stars align just so, and a filmmaker finds the right angle on the perfect subjects. It’ll be on DVD next month, so don’t worry if you miss it in its limited theatrical run … but that said, I think this would be awesome to see with a crowd.

Poor Boy’s Game“: Look, Clement Virgo’s a really nice guy and he lives in my building and everything, but this is another one of his slickly produced disappointments. Good performances, sharp editing, and a script that starts off mired in cliche and goes completely off the rails by the third act. I really wish someone would give him a solid commercial script, because he’s only ever as good as his material. And this material, specifically, kinda sucks.

More movies to see over the weekend, as the Toronto Film Critics Association deadline looms and everything has to be crushed into the next seven days. Yes, including “Alvin and the Chipmunks”.

I really do love my job, you know.

21 thoughts on “Heavy Hitters”

  1. Considering your previous post, it is very timely that I am writing this now, in response to your two reviews today in the Metro paper. Now, there is no need to worry about big words, as I am a writer and have been a film critic in past. So please, use all the big words you deem necessary, as I am about to take issue with not only these two reviews, but also your skill as a film reviewer in general.

    I’ll preface this by saying that I have been reading the small Metro paper for about two years, in the morning on my daily journey to work. I have found your reviews, more often than not, terribly biased, and poorly worded. This encompasses your seeming distaste of anything “Hollywood” or especially “popcorn”, as well as your lack of objectivity concerning the craft. If it isn’t independent, or documentary (most of the time anyway), you dislike it, and review it in a harsh light. This in itself is not a bad thing, as you are more than welcome to dislike any film you choose. My problem arises from your significant lack of, like I mentioned above, objectivity. The film reviewer needs to see a film, and look at it with an unbiased eye (don’t worry sir, I realize you do not have one) and tell those things that were good, those things that were bad, and how this is all composed as a whole for the final product. You don’t do this. In fact, most of the time your personal distaste for the film gets right in the way and you can’t let go of it.

    Let’s start with The Golden Compass, shall we?

    I have read the books (before you bring it up), and I went to see this at a sneak preview last Saturday evening. I mention the books, because as a fan of them, I was naturally skeptical going in. Your review started off by saying that the film was decent in the area of special effects, and landscapes ect.. The backdrop if you will. You spent about 3 sentences (give or take) on that. You must bear in mind that this is a 5 or 6-paragraph review. 3 sentences. Then you go into what you didn’t like, and this lasts for the duration of the review. Lovely. You said it was rushed. If this film were a carbon copy of the book it would be nearly incomprehensible as a film. You can never do that, and it must be remembered that this HAS to be homage to the written work involved. The two formats are quite different you see, not that I would expect you to know this. My point here is that what you saw as rushed was in no way shape or form rushed. I found that there was A LOT to take in at times, but not too hard for those of us paying attention. I went with a few friends who have never read the book, and THEY had no trouble understanding what was conveyed. The film was not character’s just batting sections of the story around at one another as you put it. The scenes in the film are NATURALLY (see above about the difference BETWEEN film and the written word as mediums) shorter, and more to the point than in the book. Now, my second complaint about the rest of the review is that, I know you haven’t read the books, so the WHOLE basis of your review falls apart right there. Your whole review depends upon a comparison between the book and the film, but having not read the material you should no, in good conscience, make such a comparison. So you go on to talk about why daemons exist in this word, and why do some talk, and some don’t, as well as why if they are separated form their humans does this cause pain. Well, this actually leads me to believe you did not see the film at all Mr. Wilner. Is ay this because Eva Green’s character Serafina Pekkala spends the first 5 minutes EXPLAINING this to you! I would quote her, but instead I feel it pertinent to prove this to the 4 people who read your blog who may not have seen the film, and here, courtesy of Yahoo movies is that first 5 minutes narrative that explains that Daemons exist as peoples souls in her world.


    As to why some talk and some don’t, I am pretty sure they all don’t HAVE to talk in the film for the average filmgoer to know they all have the capability to do so. Mrs. Coulter’s monkey doesn’t talk in the book except to her in secret. This is conveyed in the film, and I am pretty solidly sure that in the long run it doesn’t matter that he does not.

    So, now I have mentioned the first film I had to read your review of today, now we move on to Atonement.

    I saw Atonement at the Toronto Int. Film Fest this year, and I was white knuckled for the entire piece. It is completely gripping and well put together to do exactly what it set out to do. It is meant to be uneasy. It is meant to be disturbing, and alarmingly quiet about this fact. It is not a film which one goes to expecting to feel good. It is definitely a cautionary tale, and acts as such. My problem with this review stems from the fact that you, once again, did not look at anything objectively at all. You actually spent the whole review mentioning unavoidable things that were good (the cinematography, the set pieces ect.), and you cast a pall on those by saying that it doesn’t work as a whole complete piece but you never explain why. You basically say, all these things are good, but it doesn’t work….WHY? I mean please, this is basic reviewing 101. This is a film in 3 pieces, each piece acted superbly well, and they complete as a whole the tale which McEwan set out to tell himself in his book perfectly. Joe Wright has done a great job of assembling a very hard to tell tale, and distilling it into a coherent narrative that might have been lost in someone else’s hands (see Snow Falling On Cedars, or Cider House Rules as examples of going wrong), and while it is not romantic period piece fare, it is nonetheless an important tale of caution.

    In the end, I must assume that no one has come forth to challenge your place writing reviews for the Metro paper, or they simply don’t care. The general public wants UNBIASED reviews. The general public wants reviews that do what is needed of them, and that is what I mentioned above about the good, the bad, and if that works as a whole, or not, and WHY. This is not hard. Roger Ebert does this every week. His reviews have always done this. You sir, are not a reviewer. I find it incredibly sad that the Toronto public has to put up with your tripe every Friday. It is also amusing to me that the other people who write reviews in said publication have no trouble being objective, and I find reading their columns completely refreshing. The TV guy doesn’t even have much to go on right now with the strike, and he STILL impresses me.

    Like I have said above, I am writing a letter to your editor about this situation, and while I would never openly call for anyone’s dismissal, I will indeed question the integrity of leaving someone like you at a task that you don’t seem up to sir. I will be including MY reviews of these two films that I feel more accurately achieve what is required of a review. Since I am sure said letter to the editor is going to make it’s way to you, I look forward to your inevitable reply. Be sure to use big words. Oh, and on that note I am quite sure that inferring that you’re reading public are “dense” is PROBABLY not the best course of action. Oh, did I lose you with the word “infer”?

  2. In reference to the previous comment posted, it’s writer placed unfortunate emphasis on ability to deal with big words. Mr. Wilner did not “infer” that the reading public are dense, he “implied” it. To infer is to take a hint; to imply is to give one. Also, it should have been “YOUR reading public” not “YOU’RE reading public” since “you’re” is a contraction for “you are”. I would normally not correct someone’s grammar or vocabulary, but calling attention to it so directly as part of his criticism of Norman’s criticism was too great an invitation.

    As to the content of his comment, while I cannot comment directly on either “The Golden Compass” or “Atonement” since I have not seen either, I have long considered Norman Wilner my favorite film critic. I have listened to or read his opinion through his days on Bob McAdorey’s show, through his tenure at Starweek, and now in Metro and this blog. I appreciate his calling attention to smaller films, foreign movies, and documentaries that might otherwise escape my attention, but I have never felt he looked down on “popcorn” movies, only badly made ones. An example of his popcorn cred…his fondness for zombie movies.

    I do not look for mere descriptions of what’s good, what’s bad, etc., in a movie review. I want the reviewer’s personal opinion. Norman’s reviews are the ones I check first because I have found in the past that I agree most often with them. They are a good indicator of whether I will enjoy the movie. I don’t always agree…I loved Johnny Depp in “The Libertine”…but even then I enjoy the wit and intelligence of his writing.

    And his good grammar.

  3. Yes, and calling attention to my mistakes in spelling, and grammar is a great way to slam me. Bravo. I made one mistake….in all that writing (you’re). Writers do this you know…from time to time. Actually “infer” was a reference to a song…..hence my use of the word. It was meant a a small jibe that was only used to allude to said song, and the reasons for its use, but clearly escaped your vast intellect.

  4. …oh, and if you read my post properly I said I had no problem with knowing the opinion of the reviewer personally…whether they liked it or not….but they MUST follow it up with actual technical reviewing….otherwise it’s just his random thoughts…and should be titled as such.

    That said, I don’t expect sympathy in the comments on his blog…which I assume is mostly read by people like you who want to be told what to see.

  5. You want “objectivity” in a movie review? Stick to press releases. No art form can be judged objectively–or you wouldn’t have sparked this little debate in the first place “J, Scott W”(?). (Face it: you’re mad because Norm has once or twice ragged on something you like, and it’s a difference of opinion that has unfortunately fuelled your sanctimony, since his side of the argument’s in print.) You don’t think Ebert’s reviews are biased? I think–no, I’m positive–he’d take offense to that. (Ever read his review of BLUE VELVET? His distaste for the treatment of Rossellini’s character coloured his entire perception of the film, something he readily admits. And yet his critic peers loved the movie almost unanimously.)

    The whole point of movie critics is that we use them as barometers. You become acquainted with their tastes and learn to judge them against your own. You can’t adequately consumer-report on something so reliant on so many variables. In this case, a predilection for Nicole Kidman, for example, is sure to buy the movie a lot of goodwill. And if you can’t stand her, can’t be OBJECTIVE and UNBIASED about her? Well, it’s gonna be a longer haul. Likewise one’s attachment to the source material. I need to hear a critic’s biases because I very simply can’t make an informed decision about what I might enjoy seeing at the multiplex tonight on the basis of a so-called objective summary. If you tell me you hate ham sandwiches and I happen to love them, I’m more grateful than indignant, because now at least there’s a basis of comparison. But if you just tell me what a ham sandwich *is*, we’re not getting anywhere.

    I’m starting to see why you are a self-described *ex* movie critic.

  6. Haha! Really Bill? Is that all you’ve got? Really? Like I said above, OF COURSE a person’s personal taste is going to flavour their review, and OF COURSE that is bias….it’s an opinion for gods sake. I don’t care that this happens at all. I don’t have a problem with him not liking it!! What you don’t seem to GET is that my point wasn’t that Mr. Wilner shouldn’t like and not like films at will, and let us know that….but to be TECHNICAL about it too. Did you read ALL of my post? I went on to say my issues were with what he chose to pick on in his reviews. Things that are, in the case of The Golden Compass, not only explainable to those who paid attention to the film, but also to those with a firm grasp of how the human condition works. The Atonement review is a non-review that mentions nothing past “he didn’t like it” really, and in that is essentially fluff that means nothing to someone who wants to see the film and is curious about it.

    Oh, and for the record, if I had a stack of papers here I could go back to a review of a film we both didn’t like…and tell you why THAT review was garbage…because it isn’t about the subject matter Bill….but then I don’t expect his “dense” readers to have gotten that from my comment.

  7. But you contradict yourself, because, as you say, Norm does get into the “technical” (whatever that means) in his GOLDEN COMPASS review in addition to expressing his opinion.

    Whatever, I see where this is going and it’s nothing worth my time. Or Norm’s, for that matter.

    Apologies, Senor Wilner, for taking this guy’s bait.

  8. Speaking first to the 18th century style, glove-slap given to Mr. Wilner (“You sir–are not a film reviewer”) my immediate thought is: “God. I hope not”. The word is “Film Critic!” you owlish knave, a pox on thee!

    This is ersatz Truffaut, but I believe that the best response to a work of art, is another work of art. Now, I am one of the damned, wretched souls who believes that film criticism is as valid an art form as film production (if not more so in some instances), and so–I implore you, J. Scott—that instead of expunging your spleen on Mr. Wilner, why not offer up instead your own aforementioned reviews of “The Golden Compass” and “Atonement. Given that you are (by your own admission) a former film critic yourself, I’m sure you’ll have no problem with the invigorating thrust and parry that is the earmark of all good discussions about film, whether the forum is a website
    or in the hallowed halls of Basic Reviewing 101 (Word to the wise: Don’t sit next to the guy who says “Cronenbergian”) Given that Mr. Wilner has been a professional critic for several years, perhaps he knows you already. Because, you know: You’re a former film critic.

    Failing that, perhaps you might want to consider posting under your full name and/or offering a helpful link to your published work so that the “general public” can better asses your critical approach. Speaking as a member of the “General Public” myself, aside from a little “Tenderness”, I must heartily insist that Mr. Wilner remain irreparably and irredeemably “biased” (ed-pls. read in all caps. It makes it all emphatic like)

    My morning commute and Popcorn Crud (cred?) depends upon it.

    All things being equal. “The Golden Compass”? What a pile of shit.

  9. @ Bill: Thanks for your defense; I appreciate the effort you put into the responses. But this really does boil down to someone who’s upset that I don’t share his taste in films — or, in this specific case, overproduced faux-literary pap.

    @ Chris: Really? You’d actually admit to watching “Entertainment Desk”? Even I’ve tried to push it from my memory — I was greener than a very green thing back in those days, and wore a series of really terrible sweaters in the winter of ’97. Plus, there was this one week I was on when I swear all they shot was my bald spot. Oh, the shame of it.

    … and, finally, @ J, Scott W: I’d have a lot more respect for your opinion if you didn’t repeatedly misquote the reviews with which you so passionately disagree, and if you didn’t pull the idiot rhetorical tactic of accusing me of not seeing the film. Screw you, buddy; I saw it, just like I see every movie I review, because that is the job. Why should I bother to respond to any of your concerns if that’s the level on which you’re addressing me?

    Yes, I saw the prologue to “The Golden Compass”, and yes, I stand by my assessments. It doesn’t matter that we’re given a quick precis of the rules of Pullman’s universe, because the film never shows us any of those rules in action: “Show, don’t tell.” I understand the setup just fine … but the rest of the film moves through every scene at such a rapid clip that, as I said in my review, there’s no time to define the characters or establish any emotional connection with the audience. Stuff just happens, a lot, and then the movie’s over.

    I’m sure it’s all far more resonant if you’ve read all the books; how could it not be? But as a cinematic experience, it’s a lot of meaningless exposition shouted against some very nice digital backgrounds. If they took three hundred frames and published them as a coffee-table companion to the novel, it’d probably be awesome. And just as two-dimensional.

    “Atonement”, well, you liked it way more than me. (Although: “White-knuckled”? Really? Through all the drawing-room shenanigans of that first hour?) But I think I was pretty clear in expressing my central problem with it: It’s technically polished and emotionally empty. I believe I used the word “bauble” to convey just that.

    See, Joe Wright doesn’t care about his characters; they’re just stick figures to facilitate that awesome tracking shot of Dunkirk. He’s taken McEwan’s novel and tried to turn it into “The English Patient”, because it’s got doomed love and World War II in it. He even got Anthony Minghella to appear in a cameo, at which point the pursuit of glory by association seemed so naked that I was felt bad for Minghella, who probably thought he was just helping out a pal.

    But here is the thing: I only have 300 words — 320, on a slow week — into which my opinion can be compressed. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for lengthy recaps of the plot, or Ebert-level digressons. (The guy has two to three times my space for every movie; of course he’s going to have room for more “technical” detail.)

    Basically, it boils down to this: If I like a movie, I’ll spend most of the review telling you why I did; if I don’t like it, I’ll spend most of the review telling you why I didn’t. Naturally, a negative review will have more negatives than positives; if it had more positives than negatives, it wouldn’t be a negative review, would it?

    And, J, Scott W, if I can ask a stupid question: Why am I telling you this? As a former film critic yourself — and one who, protests to the contrary, seems to be gunning for my job — surely you understand what’s involved with writing a review. I mean, if you want to post your takes on the films here, feel free; the Metro editors will just forward them to me anyway, and I figure you’ll want to share it with the class.

    As Bill says, movie critics aren’t objective and unbiased plot-synopsizers. We can’t be; this is art appreciation, after all, and art appreciation is inherently subjective. We’re the canaries in the coal mine, out there to test the air and report back with a whistle or a sickly cough. Some people share my sensibility, and seek out the movies I like; others decide they don’t share my taste at all, and use that as their guide.

    If you’ve decided you don’t like me personally, well, that’s cool, too; I imagine there are plenty of people who’ve conjured up an unflattering image of me based on my work. If that bothered me, and I started to write to please some imagined judges of my own presumed bias … well, I’d be a really lousy canary.

    But thanks for reading. Seriously. I appreciate your time, even if I don’t appreciate your attempts at communication.

  10. Wow, Mr. Wilner, you really DO let your dislike blind you to the product. It’s astonishing really. As for human/Daemon interaction, and feeling….there were many instances. Let’s see…Lyra and Pan interacting with one another for starters is shown as a very unique and bond-like relationship that one might have if the voice inside them that they deliberated with DID actually live outside them. Stellmaria and Pan squaring off against one another and growling while their two humans were arguing. Lyra says, when speaking with Billy Costa, that stealing a scholars robe would be akin to touching another persons Daemon with your bare hands….which obviously tells us that it is very taboo. When we find out what they are doing at Bolvangar…..I am pretty sure that Lyra’s reaction to what almost happens to her is very clear! I could go on, but even though you claimed to have seen the film, you didn’t pay attention….BUDDY!

    Somehow I knew you were going to bring up the space in which you have to write, which is why I have written my reviews to match your word count. I am NOT going to send them here for your readers….they will go to your Editor…at which point, feel free to post them yourself. I am sure I have raised your ire enough to do so, even spitefully.

    As for Atonement, I will say that one word will not do. Bauble…..oh aren’t we inventive!

    I am NOT gunning for your job. I want to put your securely in your place, or MAYBE, JUST MAYBE influence you to take more bloody time, and THINK about your reviews.

    I don’t KNOW you personally so I can’t weigh in as to whether I like you or not…..my only thoughts come from your posts on this blog…and based on THAT….I’d probably hate you in person.

  11. …oh and you never answered to your use of the book (“characters shouting the details of Philip Pullman’s complicated plot back and forth”) as comparison…when you haven’t read the book. Sorry pal, but you shouldn’t do this if you don’t know what the frak you are talking about.

  12. @ David Gibson: Aw, thanks! And you’re very forgiving, too; I’m pretty sure I, too, dipped into the “Cronenbergian”, when I was young and irresponsible.

    @ J, Scott W, part one: Imagine my relief that you’re not after my job. But if you think any of this sniping equates to putting me “securely in [my] place”, you are seriously overestimating your debating skills. That word you use, “inventive”? I do not think it means what you think it means.

    @ J, Scott W, part two: So, hang on … that _wasn’t_ Pullman’s plot? And I _didn’t_ see the film far enough in advance to maybe pick up the book afterward and see where all the big ideas came from? If you’re going to snipe, you should snipe from a position of strength, rather than argue an assumption as though it was a truth fact.

  13. If you’d read the book you’d KNOW the stuff you were bitching about in your review. Picking it up for a gander doesn’t qualify you I am afraid. If you WANT to use the book as a comparison in your reviews…..then READ the whole thing, otherwise don’t bother, because contrary to what you might think your absorption skills are, you lack of knowledge on the plot of the book is staggering. So yeah, dance around my question by saying you picked up the book, when clearly you haven’t ACTUALLY read it. Do yourself a favour, and read it. Maybe you’ll learn something about how a good writer…writes.

  14. @ J, Scott W: You continue to deliberately distort my statements in order to have an argument. Good for you. But if your entire criticism of my review comes down to “the movie doesn’t work if you haven’t read the book”, well, that just means the movie doesn’t work.

    Movies aren’t books. And in a good adaptation, elements of the original text will be dropped (or added in) to better serve the experience of the film as cinema. And the best directors will find ways to invite newcomers into the story.

    Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy had the time to let Tolkien’s characters breathe and become three-dimensional, while slicing out portions of the text that didn’t directly affect the story; even Andrew Adamson’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” does a lovely job of preserving the intimacy of C.S. Lewis’ writing in a far shorter span of time.

    “The Golden Compass” does not do that. It’s an empty spectacle. If you need to read the book to care about the characters rushing around inside of it, then it’s a failed adaptation, plain and simple. I stand behind my review.

  15. Why did you spend a paragraph re-iterating what I said in my first post about films based on books being homage? Perhaps you ought to come up with your own thoughts. You can stand by your review all you like, that still doesn’t change the fact that it’s a bull**** review that doesn’t work. I am not distorting your statements, in fact in some cases I have copied and pasted from your review directly. In a perfect world those of us who read the little metro subway paper in the morning would not have to read your little rants every Friday. Your column ought to be called “My Opinion”. The guy who does the DVD reviews….he’s GOOD at what he does. He writes like they should be written. I realize that what you do is meant to be subjective, and that you have your opinion, but why do you have to be so incredibly prickish about the way you word them? Where did you go to school to learn that sort of journalism? I begin to wonder if the reason you were let go from Starweek was actually “space on the page” issues or not. Seriously. I am not the only one who has a problem with the way you write. Nearly everyone I talk to says that you, and Peter Howell from the Sun, and Owen Gleiberman from EW ought to go and hang out together on a desert island where you can all just hate on things for the rest of your lives and be grumpy old men together. Why do you review films when you clearly only like like 5 a year? You claim to love your job…..I don’t buy it for a second.

    I’m done here with you, as you can tell.

  16. As a film critic myself, and a colleague of Norman’s, I think J, Scott W seems to have a hard time understanding the concept that having opinions on films is the whole point of being a critic. Otherwise all we’d be doing is summarizing the film without recommending for or against anything. That may be what Mr. Scott W would want but it would hardly make for interesting reading. So, here’s how it works, Mr. Scott W. A good critic is one who backs his opinion up with a succinct, thoughtful and knowledgeable review of the film, and the history behind it, which is exactly what Norman does so well every week in Metro. Clearly, Mr. Scott W has gotten his nose bent out of shape because Norman doesn’t like the films he happens to like, which is too bad but not Norman’s problem. Incidentally, Peter Howell writes for the Star not the Sun. If you’re going to diss the critics, get your facts straight.

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