MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: Why, After 500 Episodes, Slagging The Simpsons Is Unfair

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: Why, After 500 Episodes, Slagging The Simpsons Is Unfair

nullAt some point, a show stops being a show and becomes a utility: gas, electricity, water, The Simpsons. That’s not my line; it’s cribbed from a quote about 60 Minutes by its creator, the late Don Hewitt. But it seems appropriate to recycle a point about one long-running program in an article about another when it’s as self-consciously self-cannibalizing as The Simpsons. Matt Groening’s indestructible cartoon sitcom has run 23 seasons and will air its 500th episode on February 19. It hasn’t been a major cultural force in a decade or more, unless you count 2007’s splendid The Simpsons Movie, but it’s still the lingua franca of pop-culture junkies, quoted in as many contexts as the Holy Bible and Star Wars, neither of which includes lines as funny as “Me fail English? That’s unpossible!” I haven’t seen the 500th installment yet because it wasn’t done when I wrote this piece, and that’s probably for the best; pin a thesis to any single chapter and the kaleidoscopic parade of The Simpsons will stomp it flat. Early in the show’s run we rated episodes. Now we rate seasons. In seven years, we’ll be rating decades.

Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson appeared in short segments of Fox’s The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987 and got their own series roughly two years later. By now, the series has sunk its roots so deep into the popular imagination that we tend to forget it was once considered déclassé, maybe even dangerous. Twenty years ago, Evangelists and politicians denounced The Simpsons as a televised toxin that weakened parental authority and coarsened the culture. Oblivious to the love that Homer, Marge, and the kids showed for one another, they blasted the clan as a disgusting, dysfunctional unit that was unfit to anchor a prime-time cartoon. During his 1992 reelection campaign, President George H. W. Bush even pledged to help U.S. families be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”

You can read the rest of Matt's article here at New York Magazine.

Matt Zoller Seitz is publisher of Press Play and TV critic for New York Magazine.



null[EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play presents "Should Win," a series of video essays advocating winners in seven Academy Awards categories: supporting actor and actress, best actor and actress, best director and best picture. These are consensus choices hashed out by a pool of Press Play contributors.]  





[EDITOR'S NOTE: In a yearly feature titled "Oscars Revisited," Press Play takes a look back at the Academy Awards race from earlier eras. Our inaugural series focuses on the five Best Picture nominees from calendar year 1981: Reds, Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Chariots of Fire.]

For years after the release of his box-office breakthrough Jaws, Steven Spielberg fantasized about directing a James Bond picture. He got his chance, sort of, with Raiders of the Lost Ark, his first team-up with his longtime friend and fellow "movie brat" George Lucas. The two were on vacation in Hawaii in 1977 after the release of Lucas' own career-redefining blockbuster Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope but before the release of Spielberg's next movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg told Lucas of his desire to make a Bond film; Lucas replied that he had a better idea, and Spielberg instantly seized on it as "James Bond without the gadgets." It was about Indiana Smith, an archaeologist who travelled the world unearthing buried treasure, fighting bad guys and witnessing supernatural events; Lucas envisioned it as an homage to the World War II-era cliffhanger serials that he, Spielberg and other '50s kids used to watch in reruns on local TV, only in color and CinemaScope and in Dolby stereo. Spielberg liked the concept but suggested changing the hero's last name from Smith to Jones.

nullFour years and a $18 million worth of Paramount's money later, Spielberg and Lucas released Raiders of the Lost Ark, featuring up-and-coming action hero Harrison Ford — Han Solo in Lucas' Star Wars franchise — as the whip-cracking archaeology professor trying to keep the Lost Ark of the Covenant out of Hitler's hands. As scripted by Lawrence Kasdan, who rewrote the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back, Indy was a rumpled, unshaven, refreshingly human hero, surly but decent, less like a Bond-style sexy sociopath than a Gary Cooper character in a bad mood. The combination of Ford's casual fearlessness, Lucas' gee-whiz sensibility, Spielberg's kinetic precision and costar Karen Allen's tomboy sass made the film into the year's biggest hit, a sleeper that rolled into multiplexes opposite Superman II and the latest James Bond entry For Your Eyes Only and stole their box office thunder. Raiders grossed $209 million in North America and took the "So popular that we can't ignore it" spot in the following year's Best Picture lineup. It also inspired knockoffs, including the network TV series Tales of the Gold Monkey and Bring 'Em Back Alive and the movies High Road to China, Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile

nullSpielberg didn't stint on the violent action; this was probably one the first PG movies in which a lone hero singlehandedly and bloodily eliminated scores of foes, and definitely the first in which the power of God made Nazis' heads melt, implode and detonate, spewing meat chunks into the camera. Three summers later, the even more extreme violence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the Spielberg-produced Gremlins inspired the creation of a new MPAA rating, PG-13. But the film's real draw was its mastery of pacing and tone. For a large production shot in several countries, Raiders was light on its feet, zipping through scenes without a wasted frame. And it managed the same neat trick as Spielberg and Lucas' earlier films in managing to seem at once self-aware and innocent. The duo plundered recent and past film history like kleptomaniacs on a prowl through Macy's. The deranged finale evoked Brian De Palma's Carrie and The Fury; Indy's wild escape beneath the carriage of a hijacked truck echoed a similar stunt in John Ford's Stagecoach; the final shot in which the Ark of the Covenant, recently recovered from Hitler's minions, is wheeled into a gigantic warehouse was filched from Citizen Kane. The transitional sequences depicting the global progress of Jones and company via cross-dissolved travel footage and maps festooned with animated red lines was so brazenly old-fashioned that it made the circa-1981 audiences that I saw it with laugh and applaud. (As I recounted in a piece about Raiders for The House Next Door, this was the first film that made me realize that movies could be expressions of a singular sensibility — that they were directed.)

nullRaiders was a career-redefining entry on the resumes of its major players. Ford stepped into the lead after CBS refused to release the filmmakers' first choice, Magnum, P.I. star Tom Selleck, from his TV contract, and proved he could sell tickets without a laser pistol in his hand; the film's success marked the start of a 20-year run as one of Hollywood's highest-paid actors. Ford's regular employer Lucas showed the studios that he wasn't just the Star Wars guy. The movie also revived Spielberg's career momentum after the box-office flop of 1941 (1979), an epically overscaled bit of period slapstick that in retrospect feels like a dry run for Raiders, an immense physical comedy that owed as much to Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton as it did to poverty row cliffhangers, with a stalwart hero taking on armies. The film and its sequels went on to comprise one of the most financially successful and stylistically influential series ever made. With their superficial awareness of the texture of certain periods and places, Jones' pre-World War II shenaningans felt like a precocious schoolboy's fantasy — flip books scrawled in the margins of a history text. Lucas, Spielberg, Ford and their collaborators pushed this sensibility further in the film's sequels, which saw Indy cheat death in pre-war Shanghai, British colonial India, Nazi-occupied Austria and Germany (where Indy ends up getting his father's Grail diary autographed by Hitler at a book burning!), and an atomic testing site in 1950s Roswell, New Mexico, (which gave prankish new meaning to the phrase "nuclear family"). Although mainstream critics and general audiences enjoyed the series (except for the long-delayed fourth film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which some fans viewed as a personal affront) Indy's adventures had their detractors. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael complained that Raiders lacked the human touch of Spielberg's earlier hits and was lukewarm on The Last Crusade — although with typically Kaelian perversity, she adored The Temple of Doom. Alternative press critics pointed out — correctly, but without much impact — that Indy's adventures had an ahistorical and oddly pre-sexual vibe, and that Lucas and Spielberg's depiction of "foreign" cultures was cluless at best, racist at worst; for a long time, Indy's second adventure Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom was banned in India. For a brief period in the late '80s and early '90s, Lucas brought Indy to TV. His youthful adventures were bracketed with segments narrated by a geriatric Indy, a craggy-faced, one-eyed icon whose appearance was inspired by documentary footage of the old John Ford.

The Indy films do have a personal sensibility, although it's admittedly obscured by gunshots, explosions and supernatural maimings. The films feel like daydreams, not product, and their fusion of spectacle, mayhem, slapstick, banter and miracles has no equivalent elsewhere in cinema. And the saga does have an implied narrative that's more knowing and gentle than Spielberg and Lucas' detractors care to admit. Over the course of four films, the arrested adolescent Indy grows up, taking responsibllity for a surrogate family in The Temple of Doom (a prequel that feels like a sequel), reconciling with his estranged dad in The Last Crusade, then coming to terms with mortality and reconnecting with Marion and the son he didn't know he had in Crystal Skull. There's something to be said for Indy's brand of resourcefulness; it's earthbound and useful, rooted in emotional reality and ultimately touching. He's a superheroic everyman, surly and self-effacing — James Bond as Yankee prole. "I'm going after that truck," Indy tells his buddy Sallah, before throwing himself into the movie's most raucous action setpiece. "How?" Sallah asks. "I don't know," Indy replies, pushing his hat down tight on his head. "I'm just making this up as I go."

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play.

OSCARS 2012: PRESS PLAY contributors argue for their favorites

OSCARS 2012: PRESS PLAY’S staff picks their favorites


After last week’s announcement of this year’s Oscar nominees, a handful of Press Play contributors gathered together via email to discuss the highs and lows in some of the major award categories.  Below are some of the highlights of the conversation, and as always, we encourage you to keep the discussion going. The site's consensus picks for the films and individuals that should win be announced next week, starting Monday.

Matt Zoller Seitz: Has anybody seen A Better Life, for which Demián Bichir was nominated as Best Actor? That seemed out of left field. I feel like Gary Oldman might be a lock for that one, what do you think?

Glenn Close and Rooney Mara nominated for Best Actress is interesting, too. Some thought Close's work was too stunt-y. Mara seems a total surprise for me, as her character is so not Academy-friendly (in terms of looks and demeanor), and Mara is not anywhere close to a known quantity.

nullAli Arikan: Rooney Mara has been lauded by the critics and the industry, and the studio had been hyping her since the summer, so I'm not at all surprised that she got a nomination. Despite the fact that the Millennium books are terrible, people seem to love them, and Lisbeth Salander has become an iconic character. Plus, she also did sterling work in a solid film. What is interesting, however, is that either she or Glenn Close edged out Tilda Swinton for We Need to Talk About Rosemary's Omen. I thought she would be a lock.

I am happy about Moneyball, a film I thought I would hate, but ended up loving. I am one of the few in "our circles" who felt The Tree of Life was lacking, and I don't think it deserved a Best Picture nomination over Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Extremely Loud and The Help are just risible. The latter was always going to be in there, but I thought Bridesmaids might have snuck in instead of Extremely Loud. Either way, having nine nominees obviously shows that the field is still pretty wide open.

nullMatt: I like The Tree of Life best of the Best Picture nominees, though I know opinion in this thread is mixed. It's the most unconventional of any nominated film, so much so that I am pleasantly surprised that it became a sort of event when it hit theaters. I think more films that experimental should be made at the Hollywood level. There are not too many directors holding down the fort for that kind of experience, not even Malick's fellow '70s movie brats Spielberg and Scorsese.

Aaron Aradillas: I would argue that in their own ways, both Hugo and Tintin are experimental films. I mean, if it wasn't for their directors, I seriously doubt a studio would've rolled the dice on 'em.

Sarah D. Bunting: Margin Call got a Best Original Screenplay nod. Shut up, Oscars. Barf.

Ali: I also second Sarah's barf. Ewww.

My feelings about Melissa McCarthy mirror Scott Tobias' thoughts on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I disliked Bridesmaids, but I despised her performance.

Aaron: I've yet to fully grasp the dislike for her performance. I know it exists, but I don't get it. I don't remember anyone being offended when Kevin Kline won for making a mockery of being a dumb, sexist man.

Nick Nolte is terrific in Warrior, but it is clearly a great performance of something he does well. He makes look effortless what Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton huff and puff and make look so tiring. Besides, Nolte did a better version of this in Affliction.

nullChristopher Plummer gives his career performance. There's no fat on it. Unlike The Insider, where he's a hoot, Plummer doesn't push it in Beginners, and that's why he leaves such an impression on those of us who love the movie. The way he embraces life at such a late date is funny, touching and ultimately quite sad. Ewan McGregor's character never acknowledges it, but he learns his father's final lessons and that's what leads to the movie's astonishingly hopeful and romantic ending. He is finally his father's son. Plummer's presence is felt in every scene. It be McGregor's story, but it's Plummer's film.

I'm a fan of Midnight in Paris, but Woody Allen's screenplay is not entirely original. It's kind of a variation on The Purple Rose of Cairo. Margin Call is a script written about how we're living right now. It trumps Mamet by not getting all tangled up in being clever with its verbal scenes.

Mara's my second choice in the Best Actress category, but Viola Davis is the only lead actress who literally has to create a character from scratch. The other performances all have something already existing that they're working off of.

Ali: I am not basing my dislike of McCarthy's performance on a curve. It was too easy, without any nuance and did not add anything to a film that definitely needed some sort of a breakout-star factor to make it less boring (and, you know, funny). So, I'd love to hear the case for her.

nullAaron: The beauty of McCarthy's performance is there isn't a trace of self-loathing or self-doubt that would probably get in a dozen other comedies with a character like hers. She is the most confident and aware person in the circle of Bridesmaids.

I'm willing to make a gentleman's bet that Meryl Streep will not win Best Actress. I think Viola Davis is going to "surprise" everyone and take it home.

Kevin B. Lee: If anything, Davis is the odd sober person surrounded by a carnival of sass, crass and crazy in The Help. Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain are like intrepid migrants from John Waters-land, while Davis anchors it in gravity and respectability ‒ she's the whipped cream atop the shit pie. I'm not sure whether she saves the movie or adds a layer of Oscar-mongering disingenuousness to what really should be an all-out camp farce. But her final scene standing up to Bryce Dallas Howard is a feat of acting gymnastics, going through a series of emotional states in lightning succession.

In contrast, The Iron Lady is pretty much all Meryl Streep (and everything that implies, good and bad). But it's an MVP performance; she actually made me like Margaret Thatcher for two hours.

Lisa Rosman: The Help is a tepid movie at best, offensive at worst, but as is so often the case, the performances far outstrip the film. Viola Davis never gives up an inch ‒ she may cater less as an actress than anyone else in Hollywood ‒ but so much goes on behind the eyes that she ignobles what could be a wretched role. And on that note, I love Rooney, but this is not the film for which she should win an Oscar. It's a one-trick-pony role and though she does it well, it doesn't have enough shades to win a golden naked man.

nullI hate hate hate hate the idea of McCarthy winning this. The role is not just unfunny; it's mean-spirited and she executes it more poorly than she's done anything else in her career. (Wherefore art thou, Sookie?) Nay, for me it's Janet McTeer, who does everything that Close herself fails to do in the otherwise craptacular and super outdated Albert Nobbs. It's a finely tuned performance that brings real pathos and humor and at least three dimensions to the kind of person that Hollywood always, always gets wrong.

The rest I am less adamant on. I love Malick but The Tree of Life is not legible in ways that actually matter to me. Scorsese should take Best Director for Hugo, but I can understand why others do not agree. Gary Oldman should, of course, take it; it's a terrific performance, and Tinker Tailor the Thief Cook should get Best Adapted Screenplay. I don't love any of the Best Picture nominees but think Moneyball comes closest to being what I want a big movie to be. And sorry for the barfers, but I love Margin Call for Best Original Screenplay.

Aaron: I'm for Brad Pitt. I think he gives a star turn and acting powerhouse at once. George Clooney is great (and I have no problem if he wins), but he was going deeper into a character he does best: the good-looking asshole who is brought up short by life.

nullThere is real mystery to Pitt's take on Billy Beane. He loves the game, but knows the game is changing. He knows he has to get wins in order to keep his job and is more than willing to modernize for that reason. But he also knows there is something you can't calculate about the game of baseball. The scenes of Pitt driving to work or sitting in the locker room show a man who is constantly trying to figure out the odds and knowing deep down that there are some things you can't figure out. Also, Pitt is a great subtle comic performer in the scenes where he's making deals or bossing around others in the room. Like Jesse Eisenberg, he is a natural when it comes to Aaron Sorkin's writing.

Kevin: I think Pitt's performance falls under the same school of acting I endorse. (Clooney, on the other hand, is on autopilot).

Aaron: Clooney's not on auto, but I'll leave it at that. I do know Pitt is happy as can be to be nominated in the same category as Gary Oldman. His death scene in Fight Club is inspired by Oldman. Pitt says on that film’s commentary, "No one dies like Gary!" It should also be noted that Pitt gets a slight advantage in that his work in both Moneyball and The Tree of Life show how wide a range he truly has.

Lisa: I actually agree Clooney's not on auto, but I disliked the conceit of the casting of that film immensely. (Alexander Payne loves to get notoriously charismatic actors to play schlubs; it underscores his misanthropic view of "average people.")

nullAli: I, too, am for Pitt, even though I liked Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Doo-Dah Doo-Dah more than any other American film this year. Goldman is magnificent as George Smiley, closer to John le Carré's vision than Alec Guinness' portrayal, and he explodes with understated pathos (paradoxically) the one time he shows his emotions (the incredible Soviet national anthem scene where he sees his wife having it on with Colin Firth).

That said, I have a problem with his voice and accent. He sounds like a constipated baboon trying to do an impression of Ian McKellen. It was but a minor quibble when I first saw the film, but after three times, it's just grating. (For what it's worth, Tom Hardy gives the best performance in that movie.)

As for Brad Pitt, first of all, his is an almost old-fashioned movie star performance. He's charming and cheeky and funny, and hella good looking. (Yes, I've just used "hella" ‒ I am a 14-year-old kid from 1998.) I have no idea who Beane is, so this is my estimation of the character as he is seen on the screen: as Aaron said, here is a person who decides to ride the waves of change. Pitt plays him as a nexus of frustration; he never made the big time, so he is trying to make up for that lost opportunity. He is clever, though. He knows that he is unable to see the forest for the trees (the final scene with Jonah Hill, the earlier conversation with his daughter, etc.), but that's what obsessive-compulsive people are like. They know what they're doing is irrational, but they have to keep doing it.

Also, the final shot shows him in full command of his face ‒ an incredibly important skill for a screen actor.

Matt: What about this Demián Bichir fellow? Nobody's really mentioned him as a contender….

Aaron: A Better Life is good, and he's really good, but not award-worthy, especially when you consider someone like, say, the criminally underrated Steve Carell or Kevin Spacey's triumphant return to good acting in Margin Call. If one is going to label his nomination the Indie Nod, I much prefer Michael Shannon. Take Shelter is far from perfect, but Shannon is amazing.

The biggest problem with A Better Life is the character of the 14-year-old son. The actor is pretty bad and the character, as written, is pretty thin. An old-school Mexican dad would not put up with half the shit this kid gives him. Compared to the father-son dynamic in A Bronx Tale, A Better Life comes up short.

nullCan I make my case for The Help one more time? If the best 9/11 movies are not explicitly about 9/11 (Zodiac, Munich), then why can't one of the best films about race today be a movie about recent history? The outcry from so-called open-minded liberals was telling in that just because the movie was supposedly playing it safe by telling a story we all can agree on that it wasn't also making people think about the here and now.

Race is the one truly unspoken-about issue in this country. When it is spoken about, it is in an obvious safe way. The Help is about the moment when an open discussion was needed in order for change to occur. What the movie also makes clear is that discussion needs to be ongoing. And that is simply not the case right now.

Just because the movie delivers its "message" in bawdy, emotional, mass-appeal entertainment doesn't make it unworthy of praise (or awards). The Help not only attempts to keep recent history fresh in our minds, but also old-fashioned awards-worthy entertainment alive as well.




Before we delve into HBO's Luck, I need to get some housekeeping out of the way. I wrote about it in a very general way for New York magazine, then asked to recap the first season for Vulture. Luck is a rare TV drama that benefits from wonky auteurist scrutiny, and that's how I'm going to approach it. I'm fascinated by series creator David Milch and have written extensively about his great western drama Deadwood for the Star-Ledger, The House Next Door, and Salon. I'm also an aficionado of the show's executive producer and pilot director, Michael Mann. In 2009 I wrote, edited, and narrated a series of video essays about Mann's film and TV work. As I recap each episode of Luck, I'll delve into Mann and Milch's creative histories and sensibilities. I might also break down scenes and sequences in detail and talk about why they succeed or fail. I'm not interested in the details of plot except as they relate to character and theme, and I tend to hop around in an episode's chronology rather than writing about events in a linear way.

One other thing you should know: HBO sent the whole first season of Luck to critics in December, so bear in mind that when you read my (and others') recaps, you're reading observations by people who already know how everything turns out. Beyond urging readers who might be on the fence about Luck to stick around through episode four, where things really start to come together, I'll try to avoid spoilers, and ask anybody out there who's seen future episodes to do the same. I plan to delete anything resembling a spoiler from the comments threads and ban anybody who makes a habit of posting them. Them's the rules.

And … we're off!

If you would like to read the rest of Matt's recap of Luck, click here.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play.



nullSpartacus is back with a new Spartacus. Both the new actor and the revamped series take some getting used to. For the most part, the reincarnation works, in large part because this cable franchise doesn't have a pedigree to sully. The latest edition, Spartacus: Vengeance, picks up where the original 2010 hit Spartacus: Blood and Sand left off, with the title character and his lusty band of former slaves afflicting their former Roman masters, and the Romans trying to contain the rebellion. Liam McIntyre takes over the title role, replacing Andy Whitfield, who died of cancer last year. Whitfield, whose sinewy torso and sweaty earnestness helped turn the original series into Starz's biggest ratings hit, was diagnosed with early-stage non-Hodgkin lymphoma after the first season wrapped. Starz delayed the second season to accommodate his treatment, then plugged the long hiatus with the six-episode prequel Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, which was pretty good for a period piece thrown together in a hurry. Production of the mothership show was supposed to resume after Whitfield was declared cancer-free, but the actor relapsed and died September 11 of last year. Starz approached McIntyre as a contingency; McIntyre says he had some contact with Whitfield near the end, though they never actually met, and took over with Whitfield's blessing.

This would be a tough situation for any performer, and I'm sure some fans will feel that the show can't or shouldn't continue with a different star no matter who he is. But I like McIntyre. He doesn't have Whitfield's odd sweetness and Joseph Gordon-Levitt eyes, and he has a somewhat more square, old-movie presence (except for the fussed-over eyebrows), but he's a good actor, and his Tom Cruise–like relentlessness suits the story.

If you would like to read the rest of Matt's piece, click here.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play.

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: The Fan-Made Star Wars Uncut Is the Greatest Viral Video Ever

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: The Fan-Made Star Wars Uncut Is the Greatest Viral Video Ever

nullStar Wars Uncut: Director's Cut, a full-length sweding of the original Star Wars made by hundreds of participants, might be the greatest viral video in the still-young history of the Internet. It's also the best argument I've seen for an overhaul of outmoded copyright laws which, if enforced to the entertainment industry's satisfaction, would make such works illegal and essentially un-viewable.

The project started out as a bit of a lark. In 2009, director Casey Pugh asked fans to re-create a fifteen-second piece of Lucas's 1977 Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope as a building block for a feature. To everyone's surprise, the result won an Emmy last summer in the still-young "interactive media" category. That accolade is surely one of the reasons why YouTube, which has been slammed by big media companies over unauthorized uploads and forced to adopt a "guilty until proven innocent" attitude toward infringement, is hosting all two hours and ten minutes of the project. Well, that and the fact that Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox, rapacious big media companies for the most part, have often adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward the Star Wars saga, a franchise that has somehow overcome its deficiencies as drama to become as much a part of everyday life as the lyrics to "Happy Birthday" (which, of course, is also copyrighted).

The sheer variety of storytelling modes showcased in Pugh's cut-rate epic is a show in itself. Star Wars Uncut includes countless examples of live-action "drama" (scare quotes mine), some of it staged on elaborately decorated sets, the rest performed in kitchens, rec rooms, living rooms, basements, and backyards. Some of the actors are surprisingly good; others are merely spirited. The movie also boasts cel animation, flash animation, Claymation, 3-D animation, old- and new-school video-game graphics, stop-motion-animated action figures and Lego characters and paper dolls, masked performers, and sock puppets.

If you would like to read the rest of Matt's article, click here at New York Magazine.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play.

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY Offers Only a Fleeting Sense of Relief for the West Memphis Three

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY Offers Only a Fleeting Sense of Relief for the West Memphis Three

nullBy Matt Zoller Seitz

Press Play contributor

By all rights, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (HBO, 9 p.m. Eastern) should feel more triumphant than it does. It is, after all, about the release of the West Memphis Three, men who were imprisoned — wrongly, it now seems — for murdering and mutilating three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, nearly two decades ago. When convicted killers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelly, Jr. were sentenced back in 1993, they were mere boys themselves, high school kids with pimply skin and uncertain voices.

Thanks in large part to the efforts of Free the West Memphis Three, a legal defense fund, the once seemingly impregnable case against them fell apart, exposed as circumstantial and shoddy and tainted by ineptitude and bureaucratic self-protection. When Berlinger and Sinofsky visited West Memphis in 1996's Paradise Lost, it was the story of a court case, pure and simple, and the filmmakers viewed it with an ominous and slightly clinical detachment. By the time they made their follow-up, 2000's Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, the trio were already starting to seem like victims of a witch hunt. When they're finally let go at the end of Paradise Lost 3 — the result of a bizarre plea-bargain arrangement that I'll get into shortly — there is a sense of relief and a surge of sentiment, but it's fleeting, and in the end it's eclipsed by a sense of emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion. Berlinger and Sinofsky titled this movie before the trio found out they were finally going free, but the word "Purgatory" still fits, because it encapsulates their predicament over the last eighteen years. The trio was condemned not just to rot in prison, but to wait for a resolution, an exoneration, that most people figured would never come.

To read the rest of the review at New York Magazine's Vulture web site, click here.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. 



[EDITOR’S NOTE: The inspiration for this piece, Deep Focus: Superman Returns – Angel of America, comes from a review Matt Zoller Seitz wrote for the New York Press in 2006 at the time of the film’s release. We have reprinted that piece below with this video essay as point of comparison.]


Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns is no masterpiece. The movie’s first act is hobbled by weird misjudgments (including a criminally underused Eva Marie Saint as Ma Kent), and it’s so choppy that it seems to have been edited with a meat axe. Kevin Spacey’s snidely campy performance as Lex Luthor unbalances the film’s otherwise sincere tone. It’s also so dependent upon our knowing what happened in 1978’s Superman: The Movie and its follow-up, Superman II, that at times it feels like a long-delayed sequel in which the principal cast has been replaced.
Yet these flaws don’t diminish the film’s impact. From the moment that its hero (Brandon Routh) returns to the sky to rescue Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) from a plummeting jet, Superman Returns flirts with greatness. Its greatness originates in its respect for Superman’s decency: Routh’s graceful incarnation of the character, and Singer’s decision to express the hero’s goodness in a cascade of iconic images as beautiful as Superman himself.

Superman (aka Jor El, aka Clark Kent) left earth years ago to revisit Krypton to see if there was anything left (there wasn’t). He returns to earth in a meteor that lands near his Smallville homestead—a mirror image of his arrival in Superman: The Movie, and a tipoff that we’re about to see a bubblegum epic about loss, renewal and the continuity of values. Singer expresses this continuity by reviving elements from the Reeve movies, including John Williams’ score, the designs of Krypton, the Daily Planet, the Fortress of Solitude, the Kent Farm and—most strikingly—the late Marlon Brando’s hambone performance, revived through archive footage.

nullLuthor’s out of prison (thanks to the absent hero’s failure to testify at his trial) and up to his old tricks, scheming around Metropolis with his thug henchmen, his wiseass gal pal (Parker Posey) and two yippy but vicious little dogs. In Superman’s absence, Lois Lane (Bosworth, swapping stoic warmth for Margot Kidder’s abrasive ’70s kookiness) won a Pulitzer for an editorial about why the world doesn’t need him, and then settled down with Daily Planet colleague Richard White (James Marsden), nephew of publisher, Perry White (a brusque yet warm performance by Frank Langella).

She also has a moody, asthmatic son (Tristan Lake Leabu) whose existence puts a period at the end of a relationship, which Superman and Lois would rather treat as an ellipse. The tension between Lois, Richard and Clark/Superman forms the film’s bittersweet core; she loves him but just can’t be with him. Superman and Lois’ nighttime slow dance in the skies of Metropolis is richer than the similar scene in 1978’s Superman because of its acknowledgment of unrealized dreams. In scene after scene,  implicitly asks what it might feel like to be Superman and to live in a world that has the Man of Steel in it. Routh articulates the first part of that equation with sweet precision. Though he lacks Reeve’s sunbeam warmth, he compensates with a soft-spoken, Boy Scout melancholy that’s unique among superhero performances.

Singer backs Routh by deftly illustrating Superman’s casual mastery of his own powers. When a frazzled Lois leaves the Daily Planet newsroom and takes an elevator to the roof to smoke a cigarette, Clark’s X-ray vision allows him to peer through walls and elevator doors and observe every step in her short journey. Then he joins her on the roof as Superman, slyly announcing his presence by blowing out her flame from afar.

nullWhere most comic book movies are paradoxically inclined to make their points verbally—bulldozing heaps of raw data in our faces, a la The Matrix movies, Batman Begins and Singer’s own X-Men films — Superman Returns is conceived as a visionary spectacle, a series of mythic tableaus that brazenly liken Superman to Mercury, Jesus, Atlas and Prometheus. It’s a sensory—at times sensuous—experience, modeled not just on great comic book art, but on the crème-de-la-crème of machine-age spectacles: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (Warning, that segue means possible spoilers ahead.)

A slow Kubrickian pull-out from Krypton diminishes Superman’s homeworld against a boiling sun, and then obliterates it like a shotgunned chandelier. When Luthor experiments with pilfered kryptonite to produce a new crystal continent, the miniature prototype punches up through a model train diorama like the scale model of Devil’s Tower in Richard Dreyfuss’ rec room. The film’s powerful, often intensely violent final act—in which Superman tries to thwart Luthor’s plan, falls into a devastating trap, only to endure a Passion of the Christ-style beatdown and a plunge into the sea—climaxes with a biblically awesome panorama of a Texas-sized landmass ascending heavenward like the mother ship going home.

Singer never stops being amazed at the very idea that a man could fly. Yet, he treats his protagonist as an adult man who pays a price for his goodness. He is physically almost invulnerable, but he is not omnipotent: He can’t be everywhere at once, and he doesn’t always want to be.

The film’s most haunting scene finds Superman floating above the earth, eavesdropping on layers of conversation, then becoming overwhelmed and shutting them all out. He could be a two-fisted cousin of the angels from Wings of Desire. He feels guilt over needing not to be needed, if only for an instant. He’s an extraordinary ordinary man—the better angel of our nature.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. Ken Cancelosi is a writer and photographer living in Dallas, Texas.

SLIDE SHOW: Movies for a desert island

SLIDE SHOW: Movies for a desert island


You don’t need much of a setup for this one: It’s a Desert Island List of visual media that I’d like to have with me if I were shipwrecked.

Here are the rules:

1. This list is composed solely of motion pictures and TV shows. Music, books, paintings and other media are not included. It is assumed that you’ll have an indestructible DVD player with a solar-recharging power source, so let’s not get bogged down in refrigerator logic, mm’kay?

2. You can list 10 feature films, one short and a single, self-contained season of a TV series.

3. NO CHEATING. Every slot on the list must be claimed by a self-contained unit of media. You can put all 15 hours of Berlin Alexanderplatz on the list because it’s considered one long film (or if you saw it in Germany, a TV miniseries), but you can’t put The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II in the same slot because “it counts as one long film” (it doesn’t!). You can’t put 10 seasons of I Love Lucy on their, either, or "Twin Peaks up through the part in Season 2 where we finally find out who killed Laura Palmer.” Part of the fun of this exercise is figuring out what you think you can watch over and over, and what you can live without. Stick to the parameters, otherwise we’ll have human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, and mass hysteria.

I’ve listed my short film pick and my TV season first, followed by a list of 10 theatrical features in alphabetical order. Please add your own picks to the Letters section; I want to see what you’d put in your suitcase.

You can view Matt's final slide show here at Salon.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play.