Before and After

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 1.18.28 PM

No – this is not one of those postings where you are going to hear about how I remade my body, my house or my mind in six weeks or less.  Though admittedly any of those could be worthy of a little freshening up, if not a total and complete reboot. Yet who but a few close contemporary frenemies has the money, dedication or time?  Well, the latter in that list is a total lie, isn’t it?  Yeah, it is.

It’s a lie because I found the time to spend what felt like 17 and a half hours of my life this weekend seeing the current #1 grossing movie in the world– Transformers 4: Age of Extinction – which in case you didn’t know has made a third of a billion dollars worldwide so far in mere weeks of release, a third of which came from just the US alone in a mere handful of days.  Relax, I didn’t contribute to any of the total – I went to a screening.  As if that will buy me those hours back.

I also found the time to see four other films in an attempt to not only cleanse my palette but to conduct my own very unscientific social experiment to answer this very unscientific question nagging at me: What has changed – the movies or me (nee) us?  Is it all just a giant misunderstanding of unfulfilled expectations or have Hollywood movie studios, led by the tent pole that is Transformers, alienated (get it?) us (nee) me, from the thrill of seeing the hot new movie on opening weekend or even beyond – forever?

is this over?

is this over?

This is the age of binge…everything.  Where there is no time like the present to indulge ourselves with whatever we want because, well, we can.  For instance, though we might be unable to take a week or two for the vacation of our dreams on the spur of the moment we can immediately stuff ourselves with pretty much any TV show we want that will take us there, or watch something online that will give us the vicarious thrill of being there.

That seems to be what the economically challenged (for most us) 2014s are about.  It used to be a very American thing to charge what we wanted on plastic or even quit our jobs and/or indulge, then worry about the results later.  I mean, look at the seventh season of Mad Men and tell me you don’t want to travel back to late 1960s Los Angeles?

Movies were invented for this very reason.  To help us get away and live in a world we could never be a part of were it not for Hollywood and the larger than life people and stories they brought to us.  I grew up that way, as did many of my friends, and it’s what made us want to become a part of the entertainment industry.  That, and the requisite dysfunctional childhoods that by today’s standards seem quite normal and, very certainly, typically American despite what films (and then television) showed us.  How’s that for irony?

My family portrait?

My family portrait?

Still, none of this was on my mind at all when it occurred to me this week that I hadn’t been out at a movie theatre to see a film other than Malefecent – which was a screening a friend took me to that I could have cared less about seeing so it doesn’t count – in about six weeks.   Well, two months if you count the two-week trip to Italy in May (Note:  That accounted for only heavenly bliss on an unearthly plane, hence the omission).  Yet I find time to binge watch TV and keep up with Orphan Black, The Rachel Maddow Show, Love It Or List It, Cold Case reruns and even the new season of The Next Food Network Star daily, weekly and, most certainly, religiously – in the summer – when most TV shows are on hiatus. Forget that I’m leaving out all the time reading, watching and posting mostly meaningless stuff on Facebook, Twitter and God knows where else (Note: This blog excused).

What’s happened?  Is it age or have the movies gotten as bad as the Academy Award hosting duties of Seth MacFarlane more than implied several years ago?

I guess the Chair didn't see A Million Ways to Die in the West!

I guess the Chair didn’t see A Million Ways to Die in the West!

Well, like a newly invigorated Oscar host (Note:  I have no suggestions of anyone better but perhaps, say, Nikke Finke, to re-invigorate them), I was determined to find out if the movies could once again hook me like a bad/good or good/bad TV show or even as effectively as the latest dumb feature/news story or Facebook posting.

Was everything awful I decided in advance about the current state of films the reason why I wasn’t leaving my house for my local multiplex?  Or would it merely take an attitude adjustment on my part – something my parents found more challenging than their own divorce to ever make happen – to cause the difference?

5 Movies/3 ½ Days.   Here is my report.

Thursday Night:

The Obvious Child

Not just Marcel the Shell

Potty mouth?

Expectations:  Some.  Good reviews of a very low budget film calling actress/comedian Jenny Slater the new Sarah Silverman by way of Woody Allen.  And besides, who can resist an original rom-com about…abortion!

Venue: Landmark Theatres, West L.A

Outcome:  Thoroughly enjoyable, touching and wickedly funny at parts.  It’s extremely low budget so don’t go in expecting much in the way of escape.  But it reminded me that despite all of my previous ranting escape is not what movies are entirely about – at least not for me.

It always bugged the crap out of me that films liked Knocked Up dismissed the idea of a young women these days getting an abortion as something out of hand and just, well, not a real serious option.  Even Juno, which certainly presented a convincing portrait of why a teenager would not choose to terminate a pregnancy, never quite convinced me of its heroine’s decision.

Does that hamburger phone have a direct connection to reality?

Does that hamburger phone have a direct connection to reality?

Oh, of course no woman enjoys having an abortion or even making the decision to do so.  But it’s a choice MANY choose and will continue to choose whether the people who call themselves right-to-life (Note: Meaning those who are pro choice are anti-life?) like it or not.  So why hasn’t it been addressed in any movie in any real way since what seems like the 1970s.

The above is for far greater minds than myself to address.  What The Obvious Child does so brilliantly is not make abortion an issue but tell the story of a young female comic in her twenties making choices as she tries to understand both herself and love.  Yeah, there’s a cute guy involved – isn’t there always?  And it’s funny.  And it rings true.  If this were two decades or ago and it was possible for more than one or two really small films per year to break through into the zeitgeist, we all would’ve gone to it sooner.  But it’s not and this is the new movie-going normal.  If you’re interested you have to look around and make the effort.  If it’s your kind of film and makes a bit of money, it might be easier to spot the next time.

Friday Night:

Ida

The gray lady

The gray lady

Expectations:  Promising but a bit like medicine that I realize will be good for me in the end.

Venue: Writer’s Guild Theatre, Beverly Hills, CA

Outcome: Haunting, provocative and thoughtful.  It makes you think and impresses you with simplicity without ever trying to.  It also makes an extremely convincing case for artistic brevity and international cinema – two items that shouldn’t ever need to be reinforced but will, unfortunately seem to always have to be.

If I’m not the audience for a black and white Polish language film set in 1962 about two strong Jewish women with echoes of the Holocaust, then who is?  So why did I only go to see Ida because a good friend recommended it to me in particular, and then only because it was screening at the Writer’s Guild Theatre at a convenient time (Note: Which still technically counts as leaving your house)?  Lazy and complacent, that’s why.

Is this all it takes?

Is this all it takes?

All films are irrefutably artistic in some form because each and every one of them is an example of the art form.  But is there good art and bad art, high art and low art?  Who knows?  The only thing I’m sure of is that at 83 minutes Ida’s director, Pawel Pawlikowski, a former documentarian, has made a true work of art.

The film is the definition of spare in the best possible ways.  Imagine Ingmar Bergman making an Italian neo-Realist film by way of Mike Leigh and Terrence Malick and you might begin to get a picture.  Or perhaps it is none of those and simply – uh – original.

At it’s core this is a coming-of-age film about a woman who is about to be a nun and then learns she is Jewish.  It’s about family, history, love and what impact one chooses to make on the world and how.  And why.  It is also about the past and probably leaves more questions than it answers.  But the questions it leaves us with are more than enough to chew on for an entire evening afterwards with friends or perhaps even a date who is interested in something more than, well, your ________________.  Yeah, movies used to be about the latter, too.  Not all, because who would really want that?  Just a few of them.  Ida is one of those few.  It is what it is AND deserves to be seen.

Saturday Afternoon:

Transformers 4: Age of Extinction

Bumblebee-Transformers-4-Age-Of-Extinction_1399883699

Good grief.

Expectations:  None.  Like zero.  Zilch.  Nada.

Venue: Linwood Dunn Theatre, Hollywood, CA

Outcome:  My expectations were met – and then some.

This film is such a great example of what major movie studios are about today.  Therefore criticizing it is a bit like complaining that eating at McDonalds or even In ‘n Out Burger isn’t as good as enjoying the burgers they serve at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut or Thomas Keller’s Bouchon.  Or even at that favorite local greasy spoon you’ve been sneaking out to for years and years.

Hungry?

Hungry?

This is a movie that is not made for me or perhaps you.  The best thing about it is that it doesn’t take itself totally seriously, though you wish the jokes were better or even good.  It tries to be meta in some moments –like when it has an old movie proprietor complain in the first act that movies got ruined when they started doing those lousy sequels (Note: Not totally exact quote but you get the idea). And eventually it simply stops trying to do even that in favor of blowing things up, melting them down and throwing as much product placement at you (do people still drink Bud Lights?) as possible.

Full confession:  I have never seen any Transformers movie all the way through – rephrase that – I have never seen more than 20-25 minutes of any Transformers movie before this one though I’ve tried to if for no other reason than to understand what’s going on in movie land.  Of my attempts, some of them were from the beginning, other times it started in the second act, and at least once I think I forced myself to watch an ending – hoping that if it worked I might be motivated enough to track back and get the full Transformers movie going experience.

See, I made an effort

See, I made an effort

I used to be a movie critic so it doesn’t take a lot for me to be perversely curious about films.  In fact, sometimes I will purposely force myself to sit through something I’m unlikely to enjoy in the hopes that it will be so bad that I will actually be entertained.  I sort of felt that way about Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor until it lost me when the gleam from the spanking new desks in the 1940s military offices it was seeking to portray were so shiny that they began reflecting off the screen into my eyeglasses and gave me a headache.

Mr. Bay still clearly loves golden time lighting and shimmery new/old stuff.  But rather than give me something truly god-awful he’s basically made a movie that at the end of the day is merely repetitious, corny and dull.  The effects are fine, the robots or whatever you call them feel generic and somewhere along the way Mark Wahlberg, who turned in fine recent performances in movies like The Fighter and Lone Survivor, not to mention Boogie Nights, got Bay-ized into oblivion here.  He’s truly hideous in the movie but you try to make those lines work and then get back to me.

My favorite moment was during the act three action in China (Note: Why we are in China is a mystery, except it must have something to do with international financing).  At one point, a requisite Steve Jobs type character, who is stuck lugging what amounts to a mini nuclear bomb in what reads like like an elongated violin case, balks at a group of old ladies preventing him from passing and bellows:  How do you say get the fuck out of the way in Chinese?

Oh hey, I'm in this movie!

Oh hey, I’m in this movie!

This line does not simply please me so because it is uttered by Stanley Tucci, who plays the Job type and is part of my real life extended family.  It makes me happy because it’s exactly the kind of thing I’d like to say to Michael Bay – in English – but unfortunately will never get to do so.  Unless, well, I just did.  (Note: In which case, be forewarned if I happen to fall upon any tragically sudden accident).

Saturday Night:

The Lego Movie

more than just shiny plastic?

more than just shiny plastic?

Expectations:  High, high, high.  Everyone seems to think it’s awesome!!

Venue: My upstairs TV room big screen with a brand new DVD since it’s not playing at a theatre and I waited too long to see one of the best-reviewed movies of the year.

Outcome: I don’t get it.  And I didn’t like it.  What gives???

I sooo don’t get the appeal here.  Don’t hate me.  Okay, hate me if you must – I’m not changing my mind.  I can’t help but believe that the hype here is because of diminished expectations for wit and inventiveness during the first half of 2014 and  this simply happened to pass for something that could fill in the drought.

In case you were wondering, I’m a big fan of the Toy Story movies, really enjoyed Despicable Me and sang along to both Happy Feet and Frozen.  Oh, and I loved Ratatouille, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast  – if it counts for anything.

OK.. this too!

OK.. this too!

Fine, I’m done apologizing because I don’t have to.  I barely laughed through any of this and thought the characters especially simplistic and poorly drawn – in every way that implies.  And let’s talk about its ultimate theme – the reinforcement of the patriarchy.  Yes, I’m going there.  There’s a twist at the end of the second act that felt totally unnecessary and seemed determined to make something that up to that point was just sort of silly suddenly become a family movie with a message.

There is nothing wrong with a first act showing an average young worker drone Lego guy singing an original ditty called Everything Is Awesome as the film proceeds to show us how his assembly line life is anything but.  Yet somehow, as he Forest Gump’s his way into…well, I don’t want to give it away…the song replays and asks us to believe everything is indeed awesome because….uh….oh, what’s the difference?  It was about as simplistic and mundane as one expects a Lego movie everyone seems to love NOT to be.  And I got to watch it at home eating dessert.  Hmm, maybe this means I should leave the house.

I would like to attribute by extreme dislike to all that time I spent earlier in the day on Transformers 4.  Or maybe it was a case of inflated expectations – knowing full well everything I had read and heard about this experience indicated it was 100 minutes of unadulterated little pleasures.

Well, that’ll teach me to look forward to anything or to think even for one second I am still a kid at heart.  Bah, humbug.  Though this is exactly the kind of film I also would NOT have liked when I was 10 years old.  I was the kid who much preferred Mary Poppins.  And didn’t play with Legos.  Yeah, that could be it.  But I’d still take Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke over Will Ferrell and some animated pieces of plastic any day – because they were truly awesome.

Sunday Afternoon:

Jersey Boys

Got you under my skin

Got you under my skin

Expectations:  Middling – middlebrow.

Venue:  Writer’s Guild Theatre, Beverly Hills, CA

OutcomeCouldn’t Take My Eyes Off Of It – see that’s a riff on a Frankie Valli tune and this is a biopic about him and the popular mega platinum singing group The Four Seasons in the 1960s.  Oh, never mind.

This film was so much fun – especially the first hour and 20 minutes.  So what if it then has the issue of almost every show business bio ever made.  And that issue is that once the uber talents become famous their personal demons – be it money, drugs, thug life, romance or family – are never as interesting as the purity of their exciting rise to the top with their newly discovered uber abilities.

None of this matters here because you get to listen to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ never-ending list of hits in an old-fashioned styled film whose pacing, cinematography and editing seem to exactly fit the time it’s portraying.  And unlike other movie musicals these days – say, uh, Nine or Chicago – it’s so nice to hear the songs sung by actors who are really singers as opposed to movie stars that can sort of get by without croaking out the words (Noteworthy example: Catherine Zeta-Jones – and yeah, I do know she won the Oscar – I still had to cover my ears at a few key moments in her “singing”).

Gurllll

Gurllll

Let it be said I had zero expectations for Jersey Boys going in.  I’d never seen the show and LOATHE movies where actors talk to the camera doing onscreen narration.  However, JB not only does all of the aforementioned but has multiple characters doing it multiple times.  Yet even that doesn’t matter because there is a certain suspension of belief in a musical set in the 1950s and 60s that allows you to get away with a lot more than that conceit.

Which begs the question of how an ultra liberal Chair like me watches a Clint Eastwood directed film without thinking about his infamous Chair performance at the Republican convention several years ago.  Well, I don’t think about it because I’m charmed by the film – it’s as simple as that.  Plus, I assume that people who are 30 plus years older than I am and grew up in a very different world are bound to differ with me politically.

Okay, and also it’s Clint.  Anyone who survives 50 plus years as an actor-director-producer in Hollywood and continues to consistently make more films than not that are worth seeing deserves our attention.  Because NO ONE else has.   Or is likely to.  Unless Warren Beatty decides to emerge soon from wherever he is or Robert Redford has a directing comeback 10 years from now.

OK you too.

OK you too.

Until then, leave the house to go see Jersey Boys.  Or leave the house and go see any movie you wouldn’t ordinarily go to anymore.  There’s a chance you might be surprised – and in a good way.  It just takes a little effort from us – and the filmmakers.

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10 thoughts on “Before and After

  1. Maybe it was because I DID play with legos for hours and hours as a kid, or maybe it was because I was in a dark place and needed something bright and colorful and frenetic to bring me out. The Lego Movie pushed all the right buttons for me, but then again, I already told you that in person, adding to your heightened expectations. I heard JB was terrible, but I’ll have to give it a chance since you enjoyed it. (I’ve never seen the show, either.)

  2. It seems to be all about expectations – to some degree. Though that doesn’t account for everything.

  3. In the end, it’s all really about choosing. Like, choosing to do anything, choosing entertainment is a matter of taste, education, taste, the path you’re on, education, your tolerance for the mediocre, education, having time to devote/waste or, having the resources that you can so easily spend $30-40 for a movie and popcorn, these days. Screenings are another matter entirely.

    I used to go to the movies several times a week. I tried to see everything. I was “in the business” after all and felt it was an obligation. “LOVED it”, “HATED it”……”That was the WORST ever!!” and, just comparing notes with friends in very bitchy ways was an entertainment itself. We were all very good at that. I had something at stake in those days. As life changed, so did this “need” to see movies.

    As we are tsunami’d to distraction these days with more and MORE “material” if I may use that term, movies, tv movies, cable movies (and series), music videos, blahblahblah, the necessity of becoming vigilant in the process of selecting what to submit our (poor, battered, over-stimulated) brains to is essential if not a matter of survival.

    Like reading a book and putting it down after fifty pages if I don’t connect with it, I will actually turn off a movie and, well, read something I DO connect with or go for a walk. An outing to the cinema and all that implies, requires an investment that is not so easily regained. You don’t get your time OR money back. On top of that is the abundance of totally unaware A’holes who populate the theaters, talking, texting, kicking the back of your seat and other annoyances. I choose very carefully which movies I will see in a theater these days.

    Quite often these days, I actually ask myself if I’m even enjoying something, is it enriching in any way, will I be able to sleep afterwards, have I learned anything, discovered anything or, did I even like it! This process is kind of involved if you value what you chose to “put into” the computer that is your brain, remembering that we can’t “trash” extraneous data. It’s there to stay.

    I was watching “The Sunday Morning Show” this morning. They did a feature called “The Changing Face of the American Mall”. They posit that they, the malls, are closing at an alarming rate, predicting that fully half of those in existence today will be closed within the next twenty or so years. That is unless they become more experiential and involving, people having such frighteningly large online shopping opportunities these days. Did you know there is an app that will tell you where you can get “what you are seeing in a store” cheaper, while you are IN the store?

    I spent an illuminating evening recently at a city planning meeting for the City of Mill Valley, where I live. The presentation was for modifications to celebrity chef, Tyler Florence’s store. For the past three years it has been a retail operation. The utterly brilliant young (not to mention remarkably attractive) attorney who presented the pitch said “people don’t come into retail stores to buy anymore, experience is the new retail”. I was stunned as were most of the people there.

    I think these two worlds, those of entertainment and retail, share the element of experience. Many theaters now have amenities that surpass the movies they show. You can buy virtually anything online without ever leaving your house. So, if the theater is better than the movie and you don’t have to go out to buy clothes, what are you going to do with any of it? Is any of it meaningful or worth it?? Time will tell.

    In the meantime, I’m polishing my personal app for discerning and discriminating. I have some time left and, I have some space left in my brain, if not my heart. I’m going to be even more careful about what I put into them.

    • Well said. I think the ideas of stores being experiential rather than solely for retail purchase is an interest paradigm shift. I will sometimes go into a store where I don’t plan to buy anything but yet will be surprised by the quality of uniqueness of the merchandise and wind up buying something. On the other hand, with chain store clothing stores, you need to go in at least once every so often to see how their sizing fits you and then you can order on line. Similar for other types of stores, where you can measure the quality of the merchandise once and thereafter order online. But that’s just me. Others will take the chance and send stuff back if they don’t like it. Where movies fit into this is beyond me. You can’t get back your time from a lousy movie, though you can get your money back usually if you leave within the first 20 minutes, which really isn’t enough to judge. I’m not terribly interested in what they’re selling other than movies but am moved to go to a theatre with great quality projection that’s clean – and doesn’t allow patrons to aimlessly talk and text. Yes, Ive called the ushers to eject or talk to people doing so. And it also happens at Guild screenings surprisingly enough – where people do know better but will do it anyway. There is no escape from rude behavior sometimes but at least you can choose how to deal with it!

      • It fits by virtue of the fact that they are both experiential and consumer based with a rapidly changing “spending” public. No biggee

  4. Steven you know me. I love movies. Which is why — when I read your report — I almost want to cry. Because we are being served up such absolute shit from all tiers across the movie industry. Indies are dead (though I hold out hope for Richard Linklater and Woody Allen.) Studios only want to play the game of serving up $200-million dollar sugary desserts with the franchise potential to earn quintuple (or more.) Foreign films are dull (except for you, lunatic South Korea.) All the good storytelling talent has gone to episodic tele-narrative. I would love to go to the moves and see a surprise — a “Raiders of The Lost Ark” or a “Blade Runner” or a “Tootsie” or “Amadeus” — any unqualified adult shameless entertainment. We are being served up a very thin soup — a complete collapse of creativity across the board. I struggle to think of what was the last bold vision I saw in the cinema, if it was “Pulp Fiction” that’s a long time ago…

    • I feel your pain and love the movies as much as you do. This prompts me to periodically right about the mostly creative bankruptcy on the part of the Hollywood studios. Business model, vertical integration, blah, blah, blah is what you get back. Times have changed – but the very nature of time is that it does change – somehow the first 70 years of movies thrived creatively. Yet today there seems to be no creative or moral responsibility of those running the system to put out quality product – though they would argue that their responsibility is to shareholders and making money. Or they would callowly argue the creative value for a handful of their slate each year – knowing full well in their heart of hearts that most of the films are sadly lacking. This might be a bigger problem on where our society is going as a whole. If corporations are, indeed, people – well we know for the most part the majority of them have lousy taste. I try to focus on the small group of movies Im drawn to each year as well as the serialized cable series – the new frontier of the indie/meaningful film – told in a 12 hour season rather than in 2-2 and a half hours.

  5. Studying away in LA helped me appreciate movies more, and going to screenings reminded me why enjoy seeing movies in a theater.

    For me, going to the theater is a chance to escape from the real world and eat one of my favorite foods (popcorn). It is one of the few times I turn my phone off for a few hours. I’ve found that you can buy bulk movie tickets to the major chains online or at warehouse stores for about $7 or $8 a ticket.

    • So true – it’s the great escape, even when what you’re seeing isn’t the greatest. And there are online discounts galore for EVERYTHING. It’s getting people out of their pods…

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