This year, more so than even the chaos that was 2016, has been the year of fact vs. fiction. A divided country has strayed away from agreeing upon facts and debating action, to being unable to even agree on what exactly constitutes a fact. An obvious proponent, of course, has been the push by many to discredit the media industry at large. It’s already served as fodder for a bevy of uncomfortable holiday meals (with plenty more to come later this month, I’m sure), but, to brave optimism, it’s also provided us with some truly revelatory filmmaking. That such films — like Steven Spielberg’s hotly buzzed “The Post” — were in production long before turmoil struck, is worth noting. But, happenstance aside, the gravity that films about journalism have taken on in light of the political and societal climate of the moment, is real, and it’s more important than ever that the diligent reporters and editors that populate newsrooms the world over get their due. The HBO doc “The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee” mostly succeeds at doing just that.
The name Steve Madden is an interesting one. For those who came of age in the ‘90s, Madden’s shoes, with their ridiculous, disproportionate advertisements, their high-fashion style, and their affordable cost were defining and, pretty quickly, ubiquitous. But, in the last two decades, the shoe mogul has been most associated with Wall Street and his notorious transgression: Early in his company’s growth, Madden hitched his wagon to Jordan Belfort — of “Wolf Of Wall Street” fame — and became embroiled in an insider trading scheme. In 2004 Madden was charged, convicted and sent to prison. But, as the new documentary “Madden: The Steve Madden Story” makes clear early on, people don’t exactly know who Madden is, even though he’s the mastermind behind one of the most successful shoe companies in history. It’s exactly what Ben Patterson’s film sets out to correct.
The nuanced art of the review is not one often discussed in the mainstream. Reviews for books and albums and movies are — at their best — read, taken into consideration, and, ideally, embraced or discounted (more often they are simply forgotten). It’s a process that frequently subjects them and their authors to questions of merit and value, but rarely dissects the myriad complexities that make up what it means to review a work of art; critiques are rarely critiqued. (For instance: how often does, say, an Entertainment Weekly or a Rolling Stone analyze the merits of the presumptively intrinsic value awarded a “critical consensus”?)
By its nature, the art of review is inherently muddled. Because, not only is it an art, but it is the art of reacting to art, which — I will needlessly point out — is itself a reaction, of sorts, to life. Meaning, before a word is even written, a review is vastly removed from the inciting incident, that moment of original artistic creation. But, nevertheless, it has and will remain our means of (superfluously?) determining the worth of a given text. So, not only is it confusing but subjective and divisive.
Which is all to say that there is no right or wrong way to write a review. There are schools of thought, standards, systems, recognized rules, ethics, and a plethora of things we unconsciously associate with the reviews we encounter. But I’ve come to notice a lack in reviews. Not in quality or quantity, but in the ability to recognize and confront the –isms that continue to abound in Hollywood films.
For the sake of this argument, I will focus on two films released this year — Everybody Wants Some!! and The Jungle Book — that have concluded their theatrical runs and mostly faded from public discourse.
But before doing so, I should note my personal bias, and thus, another source of dissonance: Richard Linklater, the director of Everybody Wants Some!!, is quite likely my favorite filmmaker working today. In fact, the Before trilogy is my Star Wars (a saying I generously adopted from a friend). I’ve always found Linklater’s work to be thoughtful and evocative. His minor efforts are slight but enjoyable: typically meandering innocuously along with characters chasing moment-by-moment bliss. But his major works, I’ve found, are transcendent philosophical touchstones that helped shepherd me into the world of the thinking and helped shape me — I imagine — into a critical participant in this voyage we call life.
Which is exactly why I was so let down by Everybody Wants Some!!. I went into the theater with sky-high expectations and was met, almost instantly, by a film that reveled in open objectification. My gut reaction — which I know never to trust — insisted that the film was set in the 1980s and that recreating the male gaze was simply part of recreating the accepted, if unseemly, reality of the era. So I waited, assuming that our just-along-for-the-ride protagonist Jake (Blake Jenner) and his buddies would come to a moment of epiphany about such objectification — though, in retrospect, the notion of the film resting atop such an outdated discernment also would have been a letdown.
That epiphany never came. Instead what followed was a gratuitous number of lingering ass shots; a scene where a strange man pursues a girl by secretly following her home, then taping notes to her door; and a needless sequence of topless women having sex with (shirtless but never naked) men. To boot: Only one female character is allowed to evolve into a real character; the rest are relegated to remain objects of male desire. To be conservative about it, I was disappointed.
What truly surprised me though, was the unabashed love that critics heaped upon the picture (it carries an exceedingly healthy 87% on the Tomatometer). Nowhere was there so much as a mention of the picture’s depressing portrayal of women. My confusion was only compounded after I sat through Disney’s aimless and offensive The Jungle Book, which managed to rake in the praise (it has an enviable 94%) despite its blatant racism. The success of these two films and the lack of conversation about their overt affronts has left me at a loss: Where is the critique?
For simplicity’s sake, we will ignore why the wizards at Disney deemed such an inexcusable property, based on such an inexcusable book, worthy of remaking, and instead focus on why we aren’t talking about it. (Also, it should be noted that not everybody has ignored the flagrance; Anthony Lane’s review at the New Yorker tackled some of the bigotry The Jungle Book held on to, though such critique seems absent from the conversation surrounding Everybody Wants Some!!.)
The question, of course, is not really where is the critique, but why aren’t we talking about these –isms? Certainly, we are critical of the work of Michael Bay (for all sorts of –isms) and other mindless blockbuster titans who have made their names on reckless abandon and insensitivity (I’m looking at you, Zack Snyder). So what then gives Linklater a pass? Before this year I surely would have been the first in the room to defend any sacrilege to his name. And it is not as though one flub should send him to moviemaking purgatory. So, are we collectively afraid of what will happen if we point out the failings of an indie darling prized for his thoughtfulness and sensitivity? I have the sinking feeling that the answer might be yes. Like it or not, Michael Bay is far removed from the critic crowd, but Linklater, on the other hand, is a critic favorite. Which is not to say that he can’t make a bad film and be called out on it. But rather that a bad film is dismissible. Everybody makes bad films. The objectification of women, though, is a more glaring offense, a charge I think we may be afraid to level at one of our own.
So what then happened with The Jungle Book? Director Jon Favreau went back to his roots with Chef but is certainly still a summer tentpole mainstay, and Disney might as well be the Rupert Murdoch of cinema. So we aren’t ignoring Louie — and his not-at-all-updated rendition of “I Wan’na Be Like You,” a song predicated on the idea of inequality and the assumption of white supremacy — because of any allegiance with his creators. Therefore, I am left to assume that we are too smitten with the nostalgia kicked up by the remake, as though the landmarks of our childhood are above reproach. Didn’t we learn last year, during the fight to remove the Confederate Flag from South Carolina, that nostalgia is not a feeling that should be left uncritiqued?
Certainly, I don’t mean to call for a retroactive boycott of these films (Besides The Jungle Book already reeled in $900 million — plenty to greenlight the inevitable sequel). In fact, I’ve even recommended Everybody Wants Some!!, because, after the clunky and exposition-laden first act, the film really does take off. And, in true Linklater style, I laughed and I longed and, by the end, felt deep pangs of understanding and kinship towards the young men unwittingly gearing up to wrestle with their place in the world — after all, college and baseball only last so long.
What I want really is a conversation. Obviously, certain films are bound to be worse than others, their –isms more flagrant, but all films — different and diverse as they may be, indie or not, nostalgic or not — deserve to be held to the same standard. And understandably, this standard will only continue to evolve as we clumsily lumber in the direction of progress and equality. Which is not to imply that there isn’t work to be done today: just because a film is enjoyable doesn’t negate its ability to pass the Bechdel test, one of the many painfully low bars we’ve currently set ourselves.