November 9, 2019
On When Reflection Diminishes Appreciation
Some time ago, I read a column by a film critic in San Francisco who had recently seen and written a review of 2013’s Man of Steel. The review was to be published in the upcoming Friday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, but he confessed to being conflicted: The review he’d written was mainly positive - he’d given the film three stars - yet as time passed, he was finding himself increasingly critical of the film, and it had became harder for him to justify what he’d written. His question was this: Should he still give it 3 stars, or should the rating reflect his newfound reservations?
I imagine most critics have had similar experiences. I remember watching Roger Ebert’s opinion of the 2004 film In My Country go from thumbs-up to thumbs-down within minutes after hearing Richard Roeper criticize the film, and back in 1993, a reviewer essentially proclaimed that he must have been temporary insane when he gave Another Stakeout 3 stars. That review remained unchanged, but would he have been wrong to ask his editors to reduce it to 2 and a half stars in subsequent publications?
Back in the early days of this blog, I reviewed the first two versions of Ben Hur, and in the ensuing years, I’ve come to consider William Wyler’s 1959 version as being undeserving of the accolades I bestowed on it. (I gave it 3 and a half stars.) The film now seems bloated and simplistic, its creators unwilling to take any real risks. There are also long stretches in which nothing of significance happens, and its most famous sequence is unnecessarily prolonged, much like the pod race in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and concludes with a completely foreseeable outcome. I even recall – or at least I tell myself I do – being relieved when the film reached its conclusion, and if asked today, I doubt I would recommend it.
Recently I went back and reread my review. (I must admit that it is one of the worst reviews I’ve written. It contains very little critical analysis of the film, the majority of it reading like a summary of the first thirty to forty-five minutes of the film.) I found myself tempted to edit the review in order for it to reflect my current opinion of the film, but I stopped myself. Then I considered adding a second rating and labeling it Upon Further Reflection, but this didn’t seem appropriate either. I ended up leaving it the way it was.
Ben-Hur, of course, is not the only example of films that I no longer appreciate as much as I did when I first saw them. Here are a few more and a brief explanation of why they fell from grace.
Hannah and Her Sisters - 1986
Watching this again after so many years, I was struck by the sheer convenience of it all. While Michael Caine’s storyline still resonates, it’s wrapped up too nicely with a throw-away line about how he much he indeed loves his wife. As for the Woody Allen storyline, it works until his character just happens to be walking past a record store where a woman whom he was once set up on a blind date with is shopping. They get to talking, and a scene later, they married and expecting a child. If you know Woody Allen’s films, the pattern isn’t entirely surprising. He has a tendency to throw in a convenient encounter as a way of providing a fairy-tale ending, and knowing that, it was harder to see this early use of the technique as innovative or sweet. I still liked the film, but it’s just a 3-star like.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens - 2015
Like many, I wanted to like The Force Awakens, so much so that I think I subconsciously blocked out the parts of the film that didn’t work and amplified the impact of those that did. Therefore, I talked about how great it was to see Han Solo after so long and to see that he hadn’t changed all that much. I liked the introduction of the new characters, and I particularly enjoyed the rescue attempt that makes up much of the last part of the film. However, as time went by, this appreciation began to be dwarfed by the film’s more questionable elements – the map to Luke Skywalker, the confusing status of the Rebel Alliance, the borrowed plots and scenes from previous movies, the helmet that we saw being reduced to ashes in Return of the Jedi. And as time progressed, the older version of Han Solo made less sense. Here, after all, is a man whose son has turned to the dark side, endangering everyone he knows and cares for, and he just leaves. Not only that, he adopts the carefree role of a man with no worries and a great sense of sarcasm. Sure, he gets serious later, but when you finally understand all that’s happened, it’s inconceivable that he would just pack up and leave. And doesn’t he know that nothing good ever comes of walking along a narrow lane toward a young man carrying a lightsaber? Everyone in the audience did. Needless to say, I like the movie much less than I initially did upon leaving the theater.
The Dark Knight Rises
When I saw the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, I liked what I saw a lot. Well, let me quantify that. I liked a lot of the first half. Films about the physical toll that being a superhero can take on someone fascinate me. For example, Logan was a stronger film because the lead character was a weaker version of himself; likewise, The Dark Knight Rises. Seeing Bruce Wayne limping and walking with a cane made the character human; making him shun billions because a creation of his could be used for nefarious purposes gave him a conscious. Add to that an interesting debate about the wealth gap in Gotham City and contrasting perceptions of Batman and Harvey Dent, and you had the potential for a different kind of superhero movie. I gave the film three stars because of all this.
However, the more I reminisced about the film, the most I focused on the extremely unfocused and poorly scripted second half – with Bruce Wayne being visited by Ra’s Al Ghul in a dream and being given a clue that turns out to be false; Bane’s shifting schemes; the odd way both Wayne and Bane travel to and from Gotham rather easily despite Bane’s proclamation that no one and nothing enters or exits the city; the ludicrous idea that the entire police force is sent to one place and then trapped there for who knows how long, yet still emerges in well enough shape to march into the center of town and wage war with both Bane’s henchmen and the apparently scant number of prisoners he released earlier in the film; and then there’s the ending, which no amount of repeat viewing will ever be able to clarify. These are the things I focus on now, and were I to rate the film today, it would be in the 2 to 2 and a half star range.
And that’s the peculiar thing about time: It clarifies, and the more we look at some things, the less sense they make and the less appeal they have.