My editor informs me this week's issue will be focused on media literacy. I don't believe I could be accused of possessing said literacy and, as a writer of movie reviews for print media, could more aptly be called obsolete or deaf to the mewl and clamor of contemporary culture — perhaps a relic. But no matter; same team, right?
I developed an interest in film criticism as an art form — one will note that I do not use any of those words to refer to what I do; I didn't even name this column — shortly after I began to understand the breadth, depth and personal significance of cinema. We are all raised on movies and, as a corollary, by television; in most cases they are the primary artistic and cultural influences of our young lives. But for most of us it takes years, even decades, to see movies as anything more than entertainment, the wallpaper on the living rooms of our minds (many of us never do). Still, they are important signifiers and unifiers, creators of a social shorthand that can help refine our tastes, delineate like-mindedness, ease conversation and, in some rare instances, forge friendships. There is a moment, though (and not for everyone), when the notion of cinema as an artform, as a compendium and culmination of all precedent artforms, crystallizes. And in that moment, how we engage with the medium, already so important in our emerging cultural identities, deepens. Shortly after the moment of clarity (epiphany?) one begins to realize there are writers of some insight and skill grappling with this newly expanded universe of art. Of those, some create undeniably scholarly work, which to me can suck the air right out of something I frequently find joyful and liberating (which is not to say there isn't a place for it). I was always drawn more to the critics who sought to make art of discussing art, a marriage of literature and film, my first and second loves.
Being of a certain age, I grew up in the bloom of pop-criticism, of Gene Shalit and Siskel & Ebert and Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide. Even then, before the internet killed culture, profit drove the commodification of taste, dumbing criticism down into thumbs and stars — the tomatoes of the day. Published movie recommendations were everywhere when I was a kid but I had no idea they were borne of a literary movement, albeit one they were in the process of killing.
And so as I started my own nerd journey into the aisles of the video store, I began to explore the corollary nerd-dom of film criticism. I won't belabor this beyond recommending James Agee's monumental collection Agee On Film and Roger Ebert's The Great Movies, both fine examples of how lively and personal and creative criticism can be. I never seized the opportunity to explore Pauline Kael's work as much as I'd like, largely for a similarly lamentable reason I've read of hers regarding her own writing.
My tiny liberal arts college had a nascent film studies program when I was there but it was of the primary source variety, with very little study of criticism. What we did read tended toward the academic and, at the time, I became more focused on the movies themselves. Meanwhile, my more central studies in the English department, largely joyless literary criticism, took up the majority of my time. Well, that and smoking weed and hiding in my apartment. By the time I graduated, and here I crudely paraphrase Kael, academia had sapped the life and fun from writing, literature and criticism.
By the time I came back around and eventually began occasionally filling in at the Journal (I'll try not to date myself any more than I already have but it's been a minute), popular criticism as we knew it was already dying on the vine, broken like so much else into clicks and likes, and ones and zeroes. Simultaneously, I imposed a moratorium on myself, refusing to read criticism while I was publishing it, hoping to avoid repetition and the cardinal sin of plagiarism, intentional or otherwise.
I suppose there may be some hope in the pendulum correction of culture, where now we see appreciation of the analog, the finely crafted and individual beginning to arise anew, that criticism as a genre, or at least thoughtful consideration and discussion, might re-enter the cultural conversation. In the meantime, I count myself fortunate to see my rambling little personal essays, which usually come around to saying something about movies and which, taken altogether, probably offer as complete a psychological profile of the writer as one is likely to get, see life in the pages of an actual paper, almost as rare a thing in itself as the art of criticism.
John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.
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CLUE (1985). Tim Curry and Madeline Kahn in the conservatory with the candlestick. PG. 94M. BROADWAY.
JOKER. A skeletal Joaquin Phoenix and potty mouth Robert DeNiro star in the DC villain origin story. (Everyone's playing for second — Prince as the Joker forever.) R. 121M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
MISTER AMERICA. Mockumentary about a delusional man who, after beating a murder rap, runs for district attorney. Starring Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington. R. 86M. MINOR.
ABOMINABLE. A girl (Chloe Bennett) and her friends (Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor) help a yeti with magical powers find its way from Beijing back to the mountains. PG. 97M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
AD ASTRA. James Gray's film about father and son astronauts is an action movie with feeling and intellect exploring loyalty, family, futility and hope, even while a lunar rover chase keeps us on the edge of our seats. Beautifully filmed with Brad Pitt at his best. PG13. 124M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
DOWNTON ABBEY. Shhh. There's no Boris Johnson, only Maggie Smith throwing shade and sipping tea. PG. 122M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
GOOD BOYS. A raunchy, funny, surprisingly gentle coming-of-age movie about a trio of pre-teen besties trying to get to a party while beset by angry teen girls. Jacob Trembley, Keith L. Williams and Brady Noon. R. 89M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
HUSTLERS. Jennifer Lopez stars with Constance Wu in a reality-inspired drama about strippers who conned their wildly unsympathetic Wall Street clientele. It's entertaining and a little dangerous, but shies away from harsher aspects of the story. R. 109M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.
IT CHAPTER TWO. Despite welcome flashbacks and excellent turns by Bill Hader and the terrifying Bill Skarsgård, the resolution of the Stephen King's clown horror is overloaded with exhausting jump scares and iffy subplotting. R. 169M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
OFFICIAL SECRETS. Keira Knightly and Matthew Good about the woman who blew the whistle on the intelligence manipulation that led up to the Iraq War. R. 112M. MINOR.
PEANUT BUTTER FALCON. This moving, funny story of a pro wrestling hopeful with Down Syndrome never condescends to its characters or its audience, and Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen and Dakota Johnson give deceptively natural performances. PG13. 95M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
RAMBO: LAST BLOOD. Whatever the original may have had to say about the struggle of warriors returning from war is lost in the false bravado, fantasy indulgence and queasy politics of this weird turn toward battling a cartel. R. 95M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill