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New Films – and New Criticism of Film Criticism

Most attention this week has been on “Incredibles 2” and “Tag” (unless you’ve been enjoying the first weekend of the Sacramento French Film Festival). And they’re deserving of attention as both are fun films.

Incredibles 2” manages, after a 14 year hiatus, to re-capture the appeal of its predecessor, doing so with lighter versions of many of the themes of darker superhero films (the danger and costliness of well-intentioned superhero infrastructure destruction and the prohibition of the use of powers, for example). Written and directed, again, by Brad Bird and reuniting most of the original voice cast, it’s another clear winner for Pixar.

Tag” is based on a real life game of adult tag, played over decades by a group of friends. They’ve played for one month every year (May in the film, February in real life), increasingly complicated as they’ve moved around the country. The film makes it into a slapstick farce that’s a neat escape – but it’s also shown in a way that would yield countless cuts, bruises, and probably multiple broken bones. Reading about the game that inspired the film, and even just the few clips during the end credits of the original players, suggests more stealth and fewer body slams among the original players.

But there has also been discussion online about the state of film criticism, especially the overwhelming number of white men (like me) reviewing films – with many reviews (not mine) reposted and collectively quantified by websites such as the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes (RT). And this has been suggested by at least some of the cast of last week’s “Ocean’s 8” to have been a contributing factor in that film’s weak reception and box office performance.

But that’s an odd commentary given that the same pool of reviewers praised “Hereditary” (and Toni Collette’s lead performance) in the same opening week, and given also that “Ocean’s 8” (68% positive, 6.3/10 average) scored almost identically, among critics at RT, to 2007’s “Ocean’s 13” (70% positive, 6.4/10 average) and better than 2004’s “Ocean’s 12” (54% positive, 5.9/10 average). The most noteworthy difference, also at RT, between “Ocean’s 8” and “Ocean’s 13” is in the audience response, which is weaker for “8” (49% liking “8,” 75% liking “13,” and 60% liking the less well reviewed “12”). (For comparison’s sake, “Ocean’s 11” (2001), was reviewed at 80% positive, 8.2/10 average – with 80% approval from audiences – with all statistics accurate at the time of writing.)

That audience response may also be an outcome of societal bias, but it seems a little too easy to blame critics, and also a little off, when that same pool of reviewers championed “Lady Bird” and “Get Out” as the best reviewed films last year, and “Moonlight” the year before. And a quick inspection of the top ten films, as aggregated on RT from that same database, for the last three years show at least half featuring female or minority leads and storylines. Writing and directing are still male-dominated but it’s also worth pointing out that much of the criticism of “Ocean’s 8” was for the direction, by a man, and not the female cast.

Meanwhile, although reviewed by a tiny fraction of the number of reviewers that write about mainstream theatrical releases, 9 out of 10 (at the time of writing) RT reviewers are reacting positively to “Set it Up,” which was released on Friday by Netflix. “Set it Up” is a formulaic but extremely well done romantic comedy about two assistants who decide to set up their respective bosses to make their own lives easier – the theory being that if they’re busy and happy dating each other, they’ll be less of a handful at work.

The two leads (the assistants – played by Zoey Deutch and Glenn Powell) are white but it’s noteworthy, in the world of film narratives these days (and society), that one works for an African American man (played by Taye Diggs) and the other for an Asian American woman (played by Lucy Liu) – both very successful and powerful. The film is both written (by Katie Silberman) and directed (by Claire Scanlon) by women. And it’s very tight in both of those areas, with both being relatively new to film but with Scanlon being a directing veteran of many television sitcoms. I watched it and found myself anticipating both lines of dialog and shots – but not in a way that was boringly predictable, rather in a way that just felt like it kept hitting the mark, time after time. I also enjoyed SNL’s Pete Davidson in a supporting role as Powell’s roommate.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com), on its mobile site at least, shows that Gary Ross, the director of “Ocean’s 8,” will next direct a film referred to as “Untitled Cyrano de Bergerac Project.” “Set it Up” is repeatedly described, internally by its lead characters, as a story in which the two bosses are being “Cyrano’d” by their assistants (and alternatively as “The Parent Trap” for bosses). There could be a lot worse inspiration for a new film than a couple of fun hours in front of Netflix.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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