Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan has impeccable taste, and he knows his movies. When so many other critics hated Batman v Superman for all the wrong reasons, Turan recognized the darkness was the film's greatest asset and gave it a rare positive review. Back in late 1997, when critics were quick to give Titanic's problematic script a pass in favor of the sweeping technical achievements, Turan went straight for the jugular, making director James Cameron mad in the process. "What really brings on the tears is Cameron's insistence that writing this kind of movie is within his abilities," Turan wrote. "Not only isn't it, it isn't even close."
Born in Brooklyn in the 1940s to observant Jewish parents, Turan graduated from Columbia University's School of Journalism and has been writing for the LA Times since 1991. Besides that, he's a regular contributor to NPR's "Morning Edition" and lectures in the master's writing program at the University of Southern California.
Turan will be in Missoula to introduce a screening of the 1974 noir classic Chinatown this Thursday, June 30, at the Roxy and will appear at Fact & Fiction Tuesday, July 5, to discuss his latest book, Not to be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites from a Lifetime of Film. I spoke with Turan over email about movies, Missoula and other critics.
You'll be introducing Chinatown at the Roxy Theater as part of its Essential Cinema film series. What makes this film so special and relevant 30-plus years later? Why should film fans want to come see it on the big screen again or for the first time?
Kenneth Turan: There's a lot that makes Chinatown relevant today. Its themes of personal amorality, civic corruption and the fight over water rights certainly still ring true, but people should see it mainly because it's a flat-out great film, completely involving dramatically with great writing by Robert Towne, great directing by Roman Polanski and great acting across the board. And seeing anything on a big screen is always the preferred choice as far as I'm concerned.
Your book features a carefully curated list of your favorite films over several decades, the bulk of which come from the '40s, '50s and '60s. What do older films have to teach us about films today and why are they worth revisiting?
KT: I really believe older films are every bit as entertaining as what's coming out today. I don't pound the drum for them because I think they're good for people, I do it because I think audiences will really enjoy them if they give them a chance. People who do, especially on a big screen, are invariably happy they did.
What are some films you've seen this year you think people shouldn't miss?
KT: There are a couple of films out right now—or about to be—that are terrific. A small film from New Zealand, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which debuted at Sundance, is a tremendous amount of fun. And the new multi-hour O.J. Simpson documentary (O.J.: Made In America) is really a knockout—smart, incisive and completely involving.
Terrible recent films to avoid at all costs?
KT: At this point in my life, I try very hard not to see truly terrible films, so I really have nothing to steer people away from.
What's the role of a film critic in popular society and where do you see film criticism going in the future? There's a lot of talk about how new school critics are largely unschooled in formal journalism and film theory; I wonder how you see that affecting the landscape on the whole.
KT: I think the role of a critic is twofold: to provide an entertaining piece of writing and to serve as a kind of guide for the perplexed, to help people decide what to see and understand what they've seen. Critics exist because readers remain interested in either one or both of those functions. Where critics come from is less important than how well they can do the job.
What other critics do you admire and read regularly?
KT: I admire and read regularly Manohla Dargis at The New York Times and Peter Bradshaw of Britain's The Guardian.
I've been a big fan of movies since I was a very little kid and I've been writing reviews for about five years. I haven't lost my enthusiasm for movies yet; I still feel grateful and excited every time I get assigned a film, no matter what it is, but I sometimes worry about an impending fatigue down the line. How have you been able to maintain enthusiasm for the medium over such a long career? Do you ever feel like you've already seen everything before?
KT: I also worry about maintaining my enthusiasm for the medium, but I find that whenever I see a good new film—like the ones I mentioned earlier—I get revved up all over again. It's the good work that keeps me going, while I find I have less and less patience for stuff that doesn't work for me.
Who are some of your favorite filmmakers working today?
KT: Filmmakers that come immediately to mind are Christopher Nolan and Jeff Nichols in the U.S., Hirokazu Kore-eda in Japan and Joseph Cedar in Israel.
What film genres do you like the least?
KT: I just can't deal with horror movies or torture porn. Never see either if I can help it.
Have you ever been to Missoula? What if any associations do you have with our cute mountain town?
KT: I have been to Missoula numerous times. My wife grew up there and has Montana roots extending to a great-great-grandfather who homesteaded in the Sweet Grass Hills north of Shelby. We come back every chance we get.
Kenneth Turan introduces a screening of Chinatown at the Roxy Thu., June 30, at 7 PM, and presents his book Not to be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites from a Lifetime of Film at Fact & Fiction Tue., July 5, at 7 PM.