Desson Thomson on Archetypes in ‘Dark Knight’ and ‘American Teen’

Posted on August 2, 2008 at 10:10 pm

One of the most thoughtful and knowledgeable movie critics I know, Desson Thomson, appeared on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” this week to talk to Scott Simon about what ties “Dark Knight” and the new documentary “American Teen” together — the way they explore archetypes. He has some fascinating insights about the way the documentary was shaped in the editing room and the way that what draws us into superhero movies is seeing both hero and bad guy — like the “American Teen” geek, beauty queen, athlete, and rebel — turn out to be more complicated than we expect.

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Quote of the Week Teenagers Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Good Review of A Bad Film — Cynthia Fuchs on ‘Step Brothers’

Posted on August 1, 2008 at 9:35 am

I often say that when movies are good, critics are very, very good, but when movies are bad, they’re better. It is a challenge sometimes to write an interesting, meaningful review of a dumb comedy like Step Brothers. One of my favorite critics, Cynthia Fuchs, did just that with her review. She did not ask the film to be more than it aspired to be but respected what it was enough to engage with its aspirations and implications within its own terms.
Unable to intervene, ever-pert Nancy (Mary Steenburgen) is, in fact, this spectacle’s ideal audience, the girl who can’t fathom the anti-nuances of masculine ritual. Watching her man-children clobber each other to sweaty, gasping pulps, she’s reduced to abject impropriety… Apparently the only possible punchline for this going-nowhere-slowly scene, Nancy’s exclamation also makes clear the fundamental logic of Step Brothers. Demonstrating (and occasionally exaggerating) the lewd, brutal routines that make up the lengthy, much celebrated transition from boy to man in U.S. consumer culture, the movie has plenty of ground to cover. The fact that it’s ground often traversed in Ferrell’s movies and more recently, in co-producer Judd Apatow’s movies, doesn’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm or inanity. Rather, the repetition seems to up the ante: how much more can be said, showed, or countenanced? How low can it go?
I love the way she says that films like this “simultaneously to ridicule and celebrate masculinity” and her comment on the role that the female characters play helped me to understand my own reaction:
While they surely ensure that the boys, for all their homoerotic/homophobic rites, are emphatically heterosexual, the women also provide the film’s necessary internal audience. Appalled by manifestations of male insecurities and aggressions, they embody those social, domesticating judgments that make such manifestations seem so wild and crazy. That is, the boys are most plainly appalling when the girls are appalled.

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Quote of the Week Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Quotes of the Week: Dark Knight and Mamma Mia

Posted on July 23, 2008 at 8:00 am

The Dark Knight has inspired some very thoughtful reviews. Anonymous DC critic “J.J.” wrote that the film moved him to tears:
Perhaps it’s because the film has characters I grew to care about, scenes that soaked my heart in adrenaline and sociological themes that range from the unsettling to the horrifying. This movie moves beyond good and evil and enters into our world, which is much more complicated than comic books. This is the first film-with-terrorism-metaphor that our age of terrorism deserves. And it will stop your heart.
His description of Heath Ledger’s performance is one of the most astute I’ve seen:

Everything you hear about Heath Ledger is true. And we should’ve expected it. He was the best actor of his generation, and his ability to mash depravity and hilarity into something compulsively watchable…The Joker has never made more sense than he does here…As played by Ledger and as written by the Nolans, the Joker is walking anarchy, cackling sadism, crime for the sake of crime. He is a terrorist without a god to kill for. His actions are beyond random; they are perpetrated not in the name of something but solely for the consequences. And he is capable of understanding (and exploiting) our suppressed desires for this type of anarchy. Ledger makes you root for him, then, inexplicably, makes you feel utterly depraved for doing so.

The moment I saw Mamma Mia! I knew critics would not be able to resist one of my least favorite contemporary terms: “cougar,” used to describe a sexually active woman over 40, usually portrayed as desperate, predatory, and interested in much younger men.
Tanya in the movie, as portrayed by Christine Baranski, is a sexually active woman over 40, but she is far from desperate or predatory and has an entire musical number about resisting the advances of younger men. And yet, she was called a “cougar” by a number of critics including Bill Gibron of Pop Matters and Mike Russell of the Oregonian (who did not like the movie), James Ward of the Visalia Times-Delta (who did), and Chris Hewitt of the Twin Cities’ Pioneer Press (who liked it a lot, and who includes a nice assessment of ABBA’s tunes and lyrics).
If you must, use ABBA lyrics in your headlines. “Take a chance on this movie.” “This winner doesn’t take it all.” But let’s retire the word “cougar,” all right?

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Commentary Quote of the Week

Quotes of the Week: We Don’t Love Paris

Posted on February 8, 2008 at 7:10 am

I love to read other critics’ reviews. When movies are good, they’re very, very good, but when movies are bad, they’re better. Paris Hilton’s new movie, The Hottie & the Nottie at least inspired two of my favorite critics and gave them a chance to demonstrate their own insight and humor. Now that’s hot.
Jeanette Catsoulis in the New York Times:

One would think that after increasingly embarrassing forays into reality television, the Internet and the penitentiary, Paris Hilton might have taken a moment to reflect on her choices. Or perhaps not: with “The Hottie & the Nottie” Ms. Hilton proves yet again that introspection — not to mention shame — is as alien to her as a life without paparazzi. Custom designed for its smirking star (who is also an executive producer), this tasteless train wreck asks only that she preen and prance on cue.

Desson Thomson in the Washington Post:

“Hottie” could have been a witty, playful affair in which love is played up against beauty and Hilton’s larger-than-life presence is the inside joke at the heart of everything. But Nate’s quest to end up with Cristabel is as hopeless as Wile E. Coyote’s, forever chasing that elusive Road Runner. That he gets close enough even to befriend her is laughable. Like Nate, we are mere Notties. And we are supposed to feel oh-so privileged for getting to watch Paris through the glass.

hottienottie200.jpg

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