Thursday, June 05, 2008

The bravest movie review I've ever seen

I enjoy watching movies quite a bit, so, of course, I spend a good deal of time reading movie reviews. Through the powers of the series of tubes I can read hundreds of movie critics from all over the country, but over the years I've narrowed down my "must read" reviews to four sources. All of them present reviews that are mostly free of promotional material filler and almost all of them eschew numbers or star rankings. Read the damn prose review! Numbers are not opinions!

First up is Pajiba: Their tagline is "Snarky reviews for bitchy people." Accordingly, it's perfect for bitchy ol' me. I've been following them for years now, and their ever-growing roster of writers deliver some of the sharpest, funniest, and downright subversive critical reviews of movies, television, and (lately) books out there. All of their writers are extremely capable, but definitely read anything by webmaster Dustin Rowles and lead film critic Daniel Carlson. Rowles' contributes to the arts of hyperbole and snarkiness, whether skewering 27 Dresses or singing the praises of underrated films like Final Destination or Mission Impossible 3. Carlson is generally more thoughtful and does a good job of describing how it can feel to get swept up in a film, even if it ends up somewhat disappointing. See his reviews of Serenity, Spiderman 3, and No Country For Old Men to see what I'm talking about. I agree with Pajiba almost without fail. Call it ninety-eight percent.

Next up is Roger Ebert. Do I have to defend this? Although he's not as tack-sharp as he used to be, he's still quite prickly and comes armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of film culture and history. For the educational opportunities alone, each of his reviews (and his weekly Answer Man columns) are essential reads. I find myself agreeing with Ebert about eighty percent of the time.

For a quick hit, there's always the AV Club. The reviews are short and clever. I also agree with them maybe eighty percent.

Then, there's Stephanie Zacharek over at Salon. I find that I agree with her less often than the others here. Maybe 3 times out of 5, or 3 out of 4. That's splitting hairs. What makes her an essential read every week is how she approaches reviews from angles I never would have expected. In her review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban she's bold enough to claim it's among the greatest fantasy films of all time; I'm with her there, especially the way she describes the poetry of the film. While other reviewers talked about how faithful it was to the book or whether kids would like it, Zacharek is on a totally different level of appreciation. She always approaches films with refreshingly open eyes.

And the review she posted today might just make her the most essential film critic out there. What review, you ask?

You Don't Mess With the Zohan

You read that right.

Go. Read. I'll still be here.

[taps foot]

I KNOW, RIGHT? How delightfully insane!

Allow me to summarize every other Zohan review you're going to read this weekend:
Idiots and frat boys like Adam Sandler. Adam Sandler seems nice enough, but, god, what a stupid premise for a movie. Rob Schneider is in it. Insert deserved snarky comment about how Rob Schneider owes his career to Adam Sandler. Talk about toilet humor. Talk about how thoroughly stupid this movie is. Maybe I cracked a grin, once, but no belly laughs. 1.5 stars.

There. I saved you the time of reading most reviews. I have another post in me about how most reviews seem to come off an interchangable Model-T assembly line, but that can wait. Back to Zacharek and Zohan.

Zacharek has the stones to... well, just look. Sit down. This goes places:

"You Don't Mess With the Zohan" -- in which Adam Sandler plays an Israeli counterterrorist commando whose big dream is to become a hairdresser -- is the movie "Munich" should have been. At the very least, it's got to be the first picture to use smelly-feet jokes as a means of parsing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


... there's nothing more offensive in "Zohan" than the sequence in "Munich" in which Eric Bana -- as a Mossad agent who's trying to escape the violence of his past -- makes love to his wife, as flashbacks of the murders of the Israeli Olympic team in 1972 in Munich run through his head. "Munich" was a fictionalized story set against a real-life backdrop of tragedy: Bana plays an agent assigned to avenge the kidnapping and murder of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. In "Munich" -- its first half, at least -- Steven Spielberg attempts to wrestle with some morally ambiguous issues, particularly the question of whether violence is ever morally justified, or necessary. But Spielberg tiptoes up to the complexity of those issues only to pull back from the edge. And his conclusion -- "Violence begets violence" -- isn't particularly enlightening or deep.

"Don't Mess With the Zohan" is the braver movie, for the way Sandler uses throwaway humor in the service of a strong point of view. "Zohan" never even addresses the viability of violence as a solution. It posits, from the start, that the only way to solve this seemingly unsolvable conflict is by forging human connections. You can tsk-tsk Sandler's penchant for dumb, crass humor all you want, but there's some meaning behind his madness. Is there nothing more human, more humbling, than the idea of smelly feet?

Hole. E. Shit.

That, my friends, is what happens when you go into a movie with no preconceptions. That's bold, clever, and I can almost guarantee you you're not going to see any other review of Zohan quite like that.

So am I going to see Zohan? Not likely. I mean, Sandler comedies lost me after the dreck of Little Nicky. But I won't dismiss it immediately, which is what my gut reaction would have been.

So, mission accomplished, Miss Zacharek. I now think you're the single boldest mainstream film critic in America, and easily one of the most essential.

Am I crazy? Am I missing some essential critical voice? Who do you read? Let me know in the comments!

Update 6/6: A.O. Scott of the New York Times went there too in his surprisingly positive review. I may have jumped the gun on this one.

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