Critical Unfairness: Just When Do We Wave the White Flag?

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The contradiction in film criticism certainly does not go unnoticed. Sure, there are countless films that are praised and applauded for its excellence in quality and creativity. Unfortunately, the overlooked cinema fare that deserves just as much attention (more so than some of the recognized critically-acclaimed selections on an impressive selection of critics’ and moviegoers’ radars) get lost in the proverbial shuffle. It is simply the professional hazard of the movie industry because not every well-received and standout gem will get its rightful due come major awards season in Hollywood.

Just how many times have we as movie reviewers and/or movie fans become indignant when we realized that the special piece of entertainment we personally and critically cherished came up short and empty in expectations? Again, every smart kid in the classroom cannot get a gold star as we remain a competitive society in the world of celluloid superiority. Here is where extremely good luck and great timing are essential. It is no wonder why we can come up with endless Oscar snub listings, correct?

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHTo present an example of such an assertion let us refer to a wonderfully structured and intelligent film in co-writer/director Andrew Wagner’s 2007 narrative Starting Out in the Evening. Movie critics across the board (present company included) agreed that Wagner’s clever and literate Evening was destined to be earmarked for end of the season awards with particular attention to veteran lead star in seasoned actor Frank Langella (giving one of his most brilliant on-screen performances in many years). The majority of film reviews for Wagner’s Starting Out in the Evening were overwhelmingly encouraging and rightfully so. It almost seemed like a crying shame when Wagner, Langella and the film was snubbed as Oscar time came rolling around in early 2008.

A Sarah Lawrence College academic column entitled “The Writing Life, In Pictures” (penned by Lisa W. Romano) cited me and other critical colleagues about our affinity for skillful cinema such as Starting Out in the Evening (for access in checking out the entire article go to):

http://www.slc.edu/magazine/money/faculty/

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A.O. Scott, film critic for The New York Times, described Starting Out in the Evening as an “intelligent, careful adaptation of a near-perfect novel by Brian Morton.”

“Intelligent films about artistry and romantic/familial relationships aren’t necessarily a dime a dozen,” writes critic Frank Ochieng in the worldjournal.com. “In fact, it is that rare occasion when character studies pertaining to the world of academia and undefined affection register with such prominence and prestige. Writer-director Andrew Wagner’s Starting Out in the Evening is the epitome of sophisticated cinema that echoes this particular sentiment.”

But Langella has earned the praise of many critics. Roger Ebert predicted an Oscar nomination (which unfortunately didn’t materialize), and the film review site emanuellevy.com said “Frank Langella gives such a towering, multi-nuanced, and fully-realized performance that he elevates this dramatic entry into one of the best features to be seen at Sundance Festival this year.”

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In the spirit of championing films that seemed grossly ignored or not credited accordingly with movie industry accolades despite5-reese-witherspoon-election-636_0 rave reviews from critics and movie audience alike is Alexander Payne’s sharply funny and perceptive high school political comedy Election from 1999 (okay, Payne did manage to secure an Academy Award nomination for Writing-Adapted Screenplay but that seemed so minimal considering his resourceful direction and lack of Oscar-worthy acting acknowledgement for his lead actress Reese Witherspoon as the infuriating yet annoyingly spunky overachieving student and senior class president Tracy Flick or a robust comical supporting turn by Matthew Broderick as the put-upon history teacher Jim McAllister). 

Many fans can probably rattle off a few of Payne’s big screen gems highlighted by such critically notable ditties as 1996’s Citizen Ruth, 2002’s About Scmidt, 2004’s Sideways, 2011’s The Descendants and last year’s heralded Nebraska in 2013 (which incidentally criminally skipped an Oscar-caliber supporting performance by former SNL castmember Will Forte).

Blisteringly original and subversive, Payne’s Election gave a major facelift to satirical high school comedies that resonated with accommodating wit and cynicism while  heading into the millennium of movie-making where his Midwestern narratives and quirk-ridden protagonists register with feisty approval.

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In discussing the critical unfairness of exceptional films that get neglected despite their greatness in entertainment value we can almost flip the script and point fingers at some movie critics that sometimes go against the grain and recommend cinematic fare that is deemed disposable by the majority although serving as noted guilty pleasures for the film reviewer at large. The golden question remains: just how can a professional film reviewer embrace a well-known dud with no redeeming value whatsoever? Then again why do a majority of folks like to play volleyball in the nude on the hot sand? It is just one of those things that does not have a definitive answer or explanation. Plain and simple. Why is there critical unfairness in recommending known bombs when other undesirable fare gets raked over the coal? It depends on one’s interpretation of what is someone’s yummy treat to another’s yucky defeat.

Back in 1996 I came out with a daring film review enthusiastically endorsing director/co-star Ben Stiller’s black comedy The Cable Guy while the supportive sentiment was not exactly shared by the majority of my critical colleagues or movie fans back in the mid 90’s. I got the naughty-minded knock of Stiller’s impish lampooning regarding the dependence of baby boomer television couch potatoes and overt preoccupation with trivial pop cultural media obsession. Hey, I even thought Jim Carrey’s off-kilter and high-wire performance as the darkly spastic and clingy TV cable serviceman Chip Douglas was erratically creative and possible Oscar bait. And then the backlash arived and it wasn’t pretty folks:

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“Ochieng, you call yourself a movie critic? What kind of joke are you to suggest that The Cable Guy is worth anybody’s time and money? You couldn’t even judge the film accurately that is forming in my cup of Lipton soup! Give up your critic’s credentials before it is too late! –Harry S., Chicago, IL

“Frank, thanks for buying into Stiller and Carrey’s high-priced dreck and acting as their critical approving stool pigeon. You get the secret payoff and us readers get the misleading brushoff! You remind us how much online film critics and lawyers deserve to sink in the same boat. You are welcome to buy the next ticket on the second doomed Titanic and please do not bring a life preserver.–Dawn P., Boston, MA

“I will go out on the limb Ochieng and guess that there will be no Pulitzer Prize in your movie reviewing career. Go back to the stick movie theater seat from which you crawled under!”–Sebastian W., Olympia, WA

“Frankie buddy…leave the movie reviewing to sane human beings that actually know film. In the meanwhile, start up a new career as a pastry chef or better yet…just choke on the pastries PERIOD!”–Jean M., Troy, NY

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Yikes…what a tough crowd! It is safe to say that standing tall behind some decorated duds as a critical commentator on movies is asMSDSTTU EC002  popular as being an IRS auditor in late April at the end of tax season. Hey, it is a dirty job but someone has to do it, right? And for the record let it be known that I let my “guard down” and actually favored such anointed celebrated stinkeroos as 1997’s Batman and Robin and 1992’s forgettable adventure family fantasy Stay Tuned starring familiar TV treasures John Ritter and Pam Dawber (sorry but some of the yesteryear R-rated rabid-sounding reception I received is not printable for a family-friendly viewing audience). Such is life, huh?

So again the question begs this inquiry: just when do we wave the white flag in surrendering to the conditional rules of critical unfairness in cinema? Is there a way where we can as movie enthusiasts ensure our right to have unnoticed or ignored well-made films tapped for honorable consideration in the elusive eyes of a potential Golden Globe or Oscar or Sag Award? And what about the so-called hypocrisy of giving legitimacy to some selected failed flicks while other uneventful crap gets the poisoned pen? There is simply no rhyme or reason behind the rules of critical acceptance or denial. If one can articulate their treasured stance for The Cable Guys, Batman and Robins, Stay Tuneds, Ishtars or any Russ Meyer busty and lusty exploitation vehicles of the world then hey…all the power to you.

At this point it is a guessing game in terms of how the fairness is applied to warranting the critical scale of both grand and grating cinema and what deserves a positive tap on the shoulder and what does not.

Consider yourself a lifeguard and dare to dip your big toe into the unassuming water. Is it safe to dive in, swim and accept the conditions? Or perhaps is it wise to grab your towel and head for the showers while calling it the day? Incidentally, please excuse the swimming metaphors…after all, it is currently in the middle of a busy steamy summertime season.

–Frank Ochieng

 

 

 

 

 






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