Film Reviews and Essays, Both Approachable and Intelligent
WRITTEN BY TYLER SMITH/2017
What do we talk about when we talk about film? For critics, the answer is as vast as life itself. Relationships, phases of life, other worlds, common morality, religion and politics are just the tip of the Titanic-claiming iceberg. Also, don’t forget actors, characters, plots, storylines and audience expectations. All of that being (ideally) subject to directorial intent, and however discernible that proves to be. The shape of critical focus it has everything to do with the particulars of whatever movie is at hand.
Some critics have been known to go on with generalities for a good paragraph or two before even mentioning the subject of the review itself, the reason anyone is reading in the first place. Contrary to certain conventional wisdom and editorial biases against such practices, there’s nothing wrong with setting the stage. Some things are worth properly setting up… if only to dissect it immediately thereafter.
Case in point, the newly published Worth Watching, by Tyler Smith. Simply put, Worth Watching is a slick compilation of Smith’s previously published critical reviews and essays, hand selected by the author from his various web work and academic pursuits at UCLA.
Tyler Smith is no stranger to sharing his thoughts on movies, obvious not only by the fact that he’s put out a book about them. As cohost of the popular film podcast Battleship Pretension, as well as his own Christian faith-centric film podcast More Than One Lesson, he’s logged over ten years and countless hours of informed movie talk, all the while also fun, articulate on the fly, and relatable.
At 250 pages, the self-published book is a reasonably narrow paperback, impressively bound and professional presented. While the murky front cover image leaves a bit to be desired (an inky dark movie theater auditorium by way of Nine Inch Nails), the roughly eighty-one reviews and essays it houses make it nonetheless indispensable.
Worth Watching is consistently informative at nearly every turn, challenging readers with thoughtful twists, interpretations and sidebars that stem from the various films he reviews. The fact that most of the films hail from roughly 2011 onward, resulting in a fairly narrow initial flow of recent movies, should be no deterrent – every critic had to begin sometime. In the name of accessibility and legitimate general interest, there is a pronounced focus on familiar blockbusters and other widely released multiplex titles. These include The Jungle Book, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Split, and a great many Marvel and Pixar films – all reviewed uniquely and distinctly. Yet, such passed-over gems such as Steve Jobs, The End of the Tour and The Squid and the Whale are also covered. Most of these are positive reviews, another deliberate choice made in the name of common approachability. If Smith wields any agenda in all of this, it is to urge the masses to accept and understand the value of film criticism.
In his review of Thor: The Dark World, a film I routinely forget exists at all, Smith lands firmly upon something widely overlooked by so many other critics whom are so quick to dismiss comic book fare: that at the heart of the Marvel machine are relationships. This comes amid a conversational give and take about the movie’s honest strengths and weaknesses. This evidences the writer’s bona fides, resisting the Internet Age’s decree that opinions to be all in or all out on any given topic.
To balance the collection’s lean towards the new, Smith includes several reviews of “Classics” in a longer section of the book made up of slightly modified reviews originally in conjunction with Blu-Ray releases. Here we find equally fine takes on The Night of the Hunter, The Blue Angel, and even Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.
Perhaps Worth Watching‘s greatest distinction from other books of it’s type is its section devoted to “Faith Based Films”. Smith has valiantly cast himself into the often precarious and no doubt frustrating role of “Christian film critic”, tasked with assessing the steady flow of evangelical movies, so many of which are so often lacking. Smith makes no bones about calling out the lesser efforts. It is, however, his spotlighting of the few that he deems worthy that make one sit up and take notice. I for one came away ready and willing to check out Believe Me and The Case for Christ. But later in the book, in an essay all its own, Smith goes considerably farther into the topic making a great argument for why this type of film, the “Christian Social Drama” is indeed its own emerging genre. As hokey and saccharine as it so often is.
Having made no secret of his own religion and politics over the years, I can say with all authority that Smith is the kind of guy whom Christian Right-wingers should be thrilled to have in their midst. As an open minded, compassionate, and truly pro-art individual, his voice is a valued treasure amid the sea of left-leaning sameness which he operates in. The diversity that Worth Watching brings to ones bookshelf is reason enough to pick it up. But there are, of course, more reason than that.
Regarding elements that I wish would’ve been included, there are only a few. Including the publication dates of each piece would’ve given a decent sense of timing to the individual pieces. Even moreso, a brief look back by the author at the beginning or ending of each piece would allow for any existing critical distance and re-evaluation that may’ve since occurred. Smith’s opening weekend review of the Oscar winning Birdman is a very positive evaluation, the likes of which I also granted the film at the time. Today, however, I find it primarily insufferable. Every critic has instances of personal re-evaluation, I’d love to read of any such thoughts, one way or the other.
And one other nit to pick… The order in which the reviews are presented is a riddle I’ve yet to decode.
I’ve maintained that all we film critics really have is our honesty. That, and our unwavering devotion and possibly unhealthy hyper-focused obsession on this greatest of all art forms. Ideally, these qualities coupled with a journalistic fervor and ability to communicate certain facts and original ideas results in thought provoking commentary that exists alongside the film itself. Criticism need not be purely dry and intellectual (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It can smack of humor. It can be dismissive if need be. Capturing the experience of the film is key. Doing so in one’s own distinct voice and style is all the better.
In one of the included short essays towards the back, Smith laments and explores the underlying animosity that so many seem to harbor for critics. He boldly asserts that critics are not here to tear down, but to reinforce; and that perhaps the knee jerk detractors of the profession should consider examining their own motives and expectations. Yet, Smith understands that any such crusade is a “small potatoes” affair. In his review of the sadly ignored 2014 Oscar Isaac film A Most Violent Year, he writes, “Perhaps the only chance anybody can have isn’t to try to change the system, or to work outside the system, but to recognize that it will always be there, working as it always has, I just simply try your best to work with in it.”
As one film critic essentially reviewing another, I must say that it’s refreshing to be able to openly talk shop. The fact that I was hand selected by a critic whom I already harbored a healthy respect for is a terrific honor. And, it makes me all the more relieved that I can honestly report that Tyler’s Book (as he calls it on his site) is truly a good one!
Robert Hornak, a “Classic Film Czar ” and regular contributor at ZekeFilm.org, provides the foreword to this fine volume. He’s also a regular and well-spoken cohost of Smith’s More Than One Lesson. A fantastic critic in his own right, Hornak’s involvement not only points to his own heartful willingness to selectively be a part of such film-furthering endeavors, and it also reveals Smith’s own pursuit and commitment to quality. It should be no surprise, then, that he was unable to resist being the first to use a line worth paraphrasing, Worth Watching is worth reading.
Worth Watching is available for order exclusively from the author, at the More Than One Lesson website.