Death of the Critic

Film

Superpowers and Storytelling

Written by: Tom Blaich

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We love our superpowered heroes. Flight, strength, laser beams and more in the hands of people just like us. And the more powerful that they can be, the better. But as our heroes cross the limits of humanity, it adds more and more complications to how the story fits together, and how we, as an audience, can relate. When you start looking at superpowers, the very laws that govern our reality start to break down, and writers have to deal with the way in which this affects the plot. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are multiple characters capable of warping all of reality to their whim, unkillable monsters, stones that embody pure power, literal gods, and extradimensional entities that rule over time itself. Yet so many of these reality breaking characters play by the rules of our normal universe.

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Product Placement: Realism vs. Marketing

Written by: Tom Blaich

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It is a familiar experience for anyone who has watched a movie or binged a TV show: the main character will be talking, walking down a busy street and in the background, we will see storefronts plastered with ads for the same few companies, Coke or Taco Bell or some other massive corporation. Often, these ads don’t even stick out, fading to the background much like they do in our everyday life (which might itself serve as some accidental commentary about the massive marketing pushes we are subjected to).

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Anatomy of a Scene - Jarhead

Written by: Tom Blaich

Jarhead_Swofford


This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.

Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless.

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Anatomy of a Scene - It Follows

Written by: Tom Blaich

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Something is following you. Hunting you. Heading in a straight line for you at every single moment of your life, awake or asleep. It can take the form of anyone, whether that be a stranger or someone you love. It wants to kill you, but it also wants to hurt you in the process, and this haunting presence is always lurking at the back of our minds, behind every corner or walking extra.

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Anatomy of a Scene - The Matrix

Written by: Tom Blaich

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It is harder than you might think to make a great action scene. But it isn’t that hard to make a good one. Just get an engaging actor, give them a big gun, and a crowd full of goons to let loose upon. A scene like this is entirely serviceable, but many directors try to make it more complex by incorporating too many characters, with too confusing of action, and all of a sudden, you don’t know what is going on anymore. What was once a good action scene has become terrible. A good scene needs to remain clear, no matter what. You should be able to identify the positions of characters and how they are moving through the world, without unnecessary establishing shots bogging it down, all while remaining compelling and heart pumping.

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Anatomy of a Scene - Dredd

Written by: Tom Blaich

Dredd


Violence can be abrupt, and horrible, and graphic, but at the same time, it can be oddly beautiful. 2012’s
Dredd adds its own take on the action genre through its highly-stylized depiction of violence that is at once horrific yet also strangely beautiful. The titular Dredd is taking along a new recruit onto a mission for her to prove herself before she is otherwise forced out of the judge’s academy. She is our surrogate throughout the film, the naïve lens through which we can start to interpret the horrors that we see.

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Situational Invincibility and How it is Ruining Action Movies

Written by: Tom Blaich

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We like our action movies to be big, to be brash, to be full of gunfights and cool explosions and scores of dead bodies littering the streets in the wake of our stalwart hero. But this same desire often raises a problem: our hero can’t die, or even barely be hurt at all, so all elements of tension, all suspension of disbelief go out of the window.We never wonder if our hero will rescue their friend or kill the bad guy, because you can be damned sure they will, with only an annoying flesh wound and a few smartass quips to speak to the “struggle” that they went through on the way.

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Anatomy of a Scene - Alien

Written by: Tom Blaich

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Alien has changed so much as a franchise since it was first made. It went from science fiction horror to action to crossover monster battles. But it all started with this, a few people trapped on a ship with their worst nightmare. When we talk about horror, we speak a lot to tension, that feeling of building unease that makes us worry about what is coming next. More importantly, it makes us almost beg for it to happen. Alien begins with almost an hour of it, moodily piling on the tension before taking it away all at once.

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Logan and the R-Rated Superhero

Written by: Tom Blaich

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Deadpool
came out almost a year ago and somehow managed to be a huge commercial success. With Logan coming out today, many have predicted that this success will be repeated. But what does this mean for the comic book superhero? Comics can be dark, frequently being much more explicit than their on screen counterparts. Glossy pages splashed with blood and gore, provocatively dressed heroines, and sinister plots spanning decades. Movies aren’t afraid of violence, but blood and sex make them squeamish.

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Anatomy of a Scene - Chef

Written by: Tom Blaich

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Sensuality is a difficult thing to portray. Making a man like Jon Favreau sexy is only adds onto the challenge. He falls well outside the lines of “conventional” good looks, especially those of Hollywood’s masculine ideals. But the scene where he cooks for Scarlett Johansson in his apartment is as sexy as any we’ve seen. It combines light and playful shots with loving attention to detail to bring you a veritable feast for the senses: aural, visual, and more, as you can almost smell and taste the pasta that he makes for her. It is a scene about simplicity in many ways, in the midst of a turning point for his character, foreshadowing the rest of the film, and perfectly encapsulating his passion as a chef.

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Anatomy of a Scene - Heat

Written by: Tom Blaich

Heat


Characterization through action is what defines film. “Show, don’t tell” is the mantra repeated to writers across the world, yet it is rare that we actually see it done well.
Heat takes this to heart, and the first time that we see our cast of ne’er-do-wells assembled together on screen, we instantly get a sense for who they are, the relationships they have with each other, and the direction the film is headed in. They do this with a combination of action and horror to create a sense of dark foreboding around the group of men.

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Gun Porn - Our Fascination with the Firearm

Written by: Tom Blaich

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We love guns. Big and small. As long as it goes bang, we want to be able to sit and watch. Guns are ingrained in the American culture and they fill our media to the brim. It is hard to play a game or go to the movie theater without seeing a few of them. It has gotten to the point where the depiction of guns in movie and games crosses the boundary into the real world. You can see it in gunstores across the country, where teenagers stare at racks of rifles and pistols, lusting after the high-tech weaponry like a dog with a bone.

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Anatomy of a Scene - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Written by: Tom Blaich

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When a movie tells you how it is going to end, you know as a member of the audience that the ending matters less than the journey to get there. And over the years it has become almost a trope, where a movie opens with the main character in a very bad situation, before flashing back to find out how they got there, then promptly letting them escape. But then there are movies like this one, where they don’t engage in the trope. Jesse James dies in this movie. We know it from the second we look at the cover or walk into the theater. He is going to die, and we are going to have to watch.

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Anatomy of a Scene - No Country for Old Men

Written by: Tom Blaich

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It is rare to see a truly evil character. Films are full of villains, but the truly evil ones are few and far between. Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh is one of the rare few that is simply Evil. It isn’t only what he does that makes him evil, but how he does it. His introduction has him being calmly led to a police car and driven to a station, where we watch as he slowly escapes his bonds before wrapping the chain of his handcuffs around the deputy’s throat. There is a look of exhilaration, of excitement on his face as blood begins to spurt from the deputy’s neck, and his boots squeak across the floor. Nothing is said, and the only thing you hear are gasps of exertion and the sound of a man struggling vainly to try to save his life.

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Anatomy of a Scene - Foxcatcher

Written by: Tom Blaich

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The end of a character’s life is so important. We’ve watched hundreds of heroes die over the years, brought down in the line of duty in a noble sacrifice to save others, gasping out a final message before they finally succumb to mortal wounds. Death in movies is often very clean, very romantic almost in its depiction. But occasionally reality creeps in and death becomes something ugly. In
Foxcatcher, we watch the descent of two men into shadows of their former selves. Promising Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz who will do anything to win, and enigmatic millionaire John DuPont, a man who has everything he could need, but nothing that he wants.

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The Hero's Journey

Written by: Tom Blaich

We try to give our audience as strong of a background in the themes and ideas that we talk about in our essays. As we look at media of all types, we can see so many common themes that run through our canon, our comprehensive body of work. The more media that you start to consume, the more common threads that you will begin to notice. Perhaps the most common is that of the "Hero's Journey". In essence, the Hero's Journey is a quest that a main character goes through to undergo some kind of personal growth. Harboring deep ties to Arthurian legend, you can see the same set of plot points and character archetypes instilled in so many of the stories that we tell.


You have your main character. Maybe they are a noble knight, or a chosen warrior, or some kid who doesn't quite know their place in the world. They have a specific goal: conquering a dungeon, defeating a dragon, or just talking to a pretty girl in gym class. All along the way they are faced with challenges that stimulate the growth of the character not only in strength of body, but also of character. It is the classic coming of age tale that is told in so many ways by so many different people. Read More…
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Anatomy of a Character - Pulp Fiction

Written by: Tom Blaich

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Repetition is a powerful thing, and showing cycles can lead to powerful implications.


Pulp Fiction is one of my favorite movies of all time. There is something about the characters and dialogue that clicks together and works in a way that many films strive to achieve.it is a set of very strange people all caught up in some of the most eventful and important days of their lives. And in the center of this maelstrom, we have Jules, the fast-talking, bible-quoting, gun-toting hitman with a soft spot for cheeseburgers. In many ways, the entire movie revolves around the character arc of Jules and how he changes throughout the film.

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Fetish on Film

Written by: Tom Blaich

I've written about sex for this site before, but today I want to talk about another oft-overlooked part about sex on screen: kink. It is an aspect of sex that most people try to ignore because it doesn't fit in their neat little box of what sex is and what it should be. A dirty deed that isn't to be talked about, done only between a man and his wife in their bedroom at night. If you want to show a character as really wild, you'll have them break one of these conventions in their sex. Maybe they'll have sex out of wedlock, or do it in a different room of the house.

When we see "abnormal" sex, sex that strays from these rigid moral guidelines, it is usually done to show us how "weird" a character is, how "non-normal" and different from the main character they are. Bad people are linked to kinky sex all too often in film, as if a predilection for whips and leather makes a person evil instead of simply kinky.
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The Christ Figure

Written by: Tom Blaich

When discussing criticism, there are a few things that deserve your attention. Usually drawn from our broad cultural touchstones they are themes that we can all easily recognize and understand, even if we aren’t conscious that we are doing it. Shakespearean tales and biblical stories have seeped into many facets of our literature and they aren’t far away in most of our media.

Especially the Christ figure. If we want our hero to be good, just, kind, and honest, then who better to compare them to than the man himself, Jesus Christ. It seems like you can’t watch a movie without tripping over someone who is supposed to remind us of Jesus. From the obvious, like Neo and Superman, to the more subtle, like Optimus Prime, Harry Potter, and Aragorn. But what makes a figure Christ-like? And why do writers choose to do it so often? Read More…
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Anatomy of a Scene - Sicario

Written by: Tom Blaich

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Sicario
might be my favorite film of last year. Excellent cinematography, soundtrack, and story drove the film, backed up by some of the best acting I have seen in a while. Emily Bunt was fantastic as the driven Kate Macy and Josh Brolin was infuriatingly calm as the anonymous CIA agent Matt. But the star of the show for me was Benecio del Toro’s performance as Alejandro, who dominated the screen whenever he entered the frame. Dark, mysterious, aggressive, and caring, he presented an interesting and conflicted character that stayed just mysterious enough for you to want to know more about him.

At the climax of the film we found Alejandro sitting across from the cartel boss, Alarcón, who they have been hunting for the entire movie. Alejandro has snuck into Mexico through a drug tunnel that he assaulted alongside a team of Delta operators, Matt, Kate, and Reggie. He captures a lower level meter of the organization and uses him to sneak into Alarcón’s house, leaving a trail of dead bodies in his wake as he takes a seat at the family’s dinner table.

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Death Doesn't Matter Anymore

Written by: Tom Blaich

Movies have raised the stakes. We have started to aim bigger and bigger. No longer are our heroes in any danger, or a simple building, plane, or even airport. Now cities are cast aside as fodder as the entire world is targeted, or even more. Each blockbuster feels like it needs to one-up their predecessor. It has created an ever increasing arms race of destruction, a spiral with no end in sight, and in doing so, it has made death and disaster cease to matter.
X-Men: Apocalypse, Suicide Squad, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and so many more.

We watch as our villains wipe out entire cities with a wave of their evil hands to prove how powerful and merciless they are. When they do, we are supposed to empathize with the victims and fear for the lives of our heroes. Instead we find ourselves feeling bored and eating for the writers to brush these events under the rug by the conclusion of the film with no one, except for the big bad, any worse for wear. Except for all of the dead civilians but hey, who cares about them.
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Showing Sex

Written by: Tom Blaich

It is really hard to write a “good” sex scene. It’s even harder to show one on screen. It is so easy to slip into the realm of heady, erotic fantasy as two lovers caress each other’s heaving bosom’s and dripping sexes. Bad sex scenes make you almost uncomfortable. I did not sign up for
50 Shades of Grey in my fiction. Moreover it feels like a teenager’s perception of what sex is like between two people: romantic, well lit, clean, and perfect. When, for the most part, sex is just sexy. Funny and awkward and so many other things. Actual sex is so far removed from what you will see in your average movie to the point where I almost wish it wasn’t included.

Rarely do I watch or read a sex scene and come away thinking, “Yeah, they got that entirely right.” It is almost never an actually significant part of the plot or character development, and they feel like they were included simply to titillate the audience. It has become a cop out to show how attracted two people are to each other to have them have sex, as opposed to actually showing a complex relationship through good acting and writing.
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The Makings of a Good Horror Movie Kill

Written by: Tom Blaich

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Ever since the advent of the slasher genre, horror movies have tried to become more and more inventive with the way they splatter their gallons of blood across the screen. We can only watch so many unstoppable murderers slash horny teens with machetes before we get bored. We want our mythical killers to be as ingenious as they are deadly. Our desire for the dastardly machinations of vengeful beasts is the whole reason that franchises like
Saw or Final Destination can not only continue to exist, but thrive. To see the wild and wacky ways that writers can invent to kill teenagers who stumbled into the wrong haunted graveyard.

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Nostalgia

Written by: Tom Blaich

Memory is a powerful thing. Especially precious memories. Every one of us has a certain set of things that remain precious to us over the years. We remember fondly the time that we first experience them, and we always look back to them. Be it a particular book, movie, album, song, or game, nostalgia is a powerful force that shapes our opinions and our tastes.

That being said, it has no place in criticism.
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Schlock - A Torrid Love Affair

Written by: Tom Blaich

For some reason, we love bad movies. Unlike any other form of media that we have, there is a fascination with truly awful movies. With the Sharknado’s and Troll 2’s of the world. To the point where there is an entire portion of the film industry focused on creating this D-level schlock. We don’t see this attitude in music or games. Terrible products are shunned in most industries but for some reason flourish in film. You can see a resemblance to the old, pulp paperbacks peddling in sleazy romance and smoky detective tales. Read More…
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Commando: The Best Action Movie of All Time

Written by: Tom Blaich

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Gather around and let me tell you a tale of the greatest action movie ever made. Our determined and glistening hero, rippling with absurd muscles and bristling with enough armaments to destroy a small country, finds himself waging a war against a South American despot, all in order to save his lovely and innocent daughter. It’s a tale that will live on through the ages. I’m of course talking about
Commando, the 1985 Arnold Schwarzenegger film, also starring Alyssa Milano, Rae Dawn Chong, and Vernon Wells.

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The Surprisingly Progressive Gender Politics of Some Like it Hot

Written by: Tom Blaich

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It is not always an uplifting experience to look back to the past and how we treated people differently. Unfortunately there is a history of treating marginalized groups poorly in the United States. Basically if you weren’t a straight white male, you got the short end of the stick in many cases. And this is very evident in looking at films. Film is, in essence, a snapshot of the time in which it was created. Looking back you can see the proliferation of ideas throughout American culture simply by looking at actors on screen or the actions they take and the statements that they make.

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Compulsory Heterosexuality in Film

Written by: Tom Blaich

When we look back at film, it is amazing to see how far we have come, but at the same time how far we have to go in the portrayal of characters on screen. Even now, epithets like “fag” are used as the butt of many jokes. Look, for example, at the 2007 film Superbad. In it, character Seth refers to another character as “Fagle” multiple times, and its intended to make the audience laugh. But what it does is it shows us the way in which heterosexuality has been accepted entirely as the norm, and that anything that exists outside of it is laughable in some way. If a character is not a heterosexual, or actively seen as a heterosexual, then they are weird, and need to be made fun of or fixed in some way. Read More…
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Movies and Games

Written by: Tom Blaich

Like many of my peer in the critical space, my interests follow a certain path of pop culture and pop media. I love everything from books, to music, to movies, to games, and more. And fortunately for myself, I was born at what is perhaps the most perfect time in the world to enjoy these mediums, as a huge growth of creativity is taking place, a veritable Cambrian explosion of creativity and tech for me to play with. Unfortunately, the one are in which this innovation is lacking is with movie tie-in games, a genre oft overlooked by fans, and for very good reason. Read More…
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Movies and Criticism

Written by: Tom Blaich

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I love movies. I always have. There is something inherently magical about the experience of watching a piece of film, old or new, and experiencing a story in front of you. For the longest time I have been fascinated by films. So I’ve consumed them. Studied them. Attacked them with a voracious appetite. I wanted to know more than I already did. They became a part of my life, something that became a part of traditions within my family. Something that I could turn to for comfort. There is something magical about re-watching a film, and remembering the first time that you watched it. What your experience was.

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On The Act of Killing

Written by: Tom Blaich

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Death is one of the most significant events in our lives. It’s one of our only assurances. It is going to happen at some point. Whether you like it or not. Death will visit us, touching someone, somewhere, somehow. It’s an event that forever changes those who it touches. It has an impact that cannot be understated.

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Lighten Up

Written by: Tom Blaich

Sometimes we are sad. Something happens. Big or small. And it just hits you. You yearn for the familiar comforts of home. A warm hug. A bowl of soup. Something familiar or happy.

Movies have always been an outlet of mine. Something that I can use to decompress. To enjoy myself. To occupy a space that needs to be filled. There is something comforting about having that presence of someone else there. Over the years I can think of dozens of films that have kept me company, and I fondly remember them.
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