Monday, December 15, 2008

At the Movies, 12/14/08

Ben Lyons, report to Sister Aloysius regarding you review of Doubt. Now!

For weeks, Ben Lyons has wielded the "Rent it" rating like the blunt object that it is--using it far too often and unnecessarily when a more efficient tool would do the job better. But his latest "Rent it" is simply unconscionable. Sometimes what he says is just foolish, but when Ben disses one of my favorite movies of this year, I take it personally.

Ben tells us that Doubt was probably good as a play but there is no reason why it needed to be filmed or, for that matter, why we need to see it in the theater, so "Rent it." Lyons doesn't seem to realize the utter lack of logic of this statement--if it works better in live theater than film, then it will certainly work better in a movie theater with an audience than watching it at home by yourself on a TV screen (or on an iPod or in a plane). But that is hardly the point--I can think of five great reasons to recommend Doubt: Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, and writer John Patrick Shanley. Of those four great performances, Ben says he was only impressed by one (Davis)!

This is a film that defies expectations, showing us how Catholic priests got away with child molestation for decades (or did they?), not in a didactic way but in a subtle, character driven drama. No, this is not a terribly "cinematic" film--the story is told through dialogue and not pictures, although the scenery of a working-class Catholic school in the Bronx is perfect--but there is such a keen sense of drama and mystery in this story that makes it incredibly riveting. Really, more screenplays should have this sense of questioning and curiosity about their characters, continually catching us by surprise and showing us how complicated such an open-and-shut case really is.

Unfortunately, Mank's "See it" helped very little, saying that it was a great movie "Until the final line which absolutely made me wince," which made it merely a very good movie. Incredible! The ending is stirring and encourages you to rethink the entire subject of the film. If this made Mank wince, he must have rolled his eyes at "Jack, I swear."

But only to prove the silliness of encouraging us to "rent" Doubt is Lyons's 3 to See recommendation. Because there was not enough time for DVD recommendations (which in recent weeks have included just telling us DVD's that are out, regardless of whether they are even worth seeing), he decided to include the new DVD for Horton Hears a Who in his 3 to See (the other two were Frost/Nixon and The Reader). That means that not only was Slumdog Millionaire kicked off the 3 to See, but we are encouraged to rent Horton instead of seeing Doubt.

Finally, we cannot forget another tongue-lashing by Mank regarding Nothing Like the Holidays, against Lyons's "Rent it" (again?) rating. Mank, citing Lyons, says "'Harmless. Predictable. Contrived.' If that's the best thing you can say, you got to say 'Skip it.'"


Anonymous said...

I haven't seen Doubt yet but I think you're too hard on Lyons here. Plenty of respected critics gave it bad or lukewarm reviews.

"Rent it" is for mediocre movies, movies that are barely worth seeing, movies worth seeing just once and movies that are worth seeing despite a lot of problems.

If Ben is saying this is a movie worth seeing despite some caveats, which I think he is, a "Rent it" is appropriate.

Anonymous said...

Update: I saw "Doubt" recently and I thought it was a mixed bag. I'd give it a thumbs down myself.

For one thing, I thought it did work badly as a movie. As a play, it must have been better.

For another, I thought Meryl Streep's performance was just bad. Hammy, over the top- like the nytimes' review said, she seemed to be in a different movie from everyone else.

Scott said...

Thanks for your comment, but I couldn't disagree more (as you would probably guess!) especially about Streep. I think the three main characters (Streep, Adams, and Hoffman) are very distinct, and of all of them Streep seems the most of her time and character (mid-60s nun). She carries the most weight in terms of holding up the old-fashioned church attitudes and, I think, makes it both believable and harsh.

To paraphrase Spinal Tap, there is a thin line between great and hammy acting, and in my opinion Streep nails it.