Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Good Flicks & Guilty Pleasures

There are all sorts of classifications for rating movies. Some reviewers use the basic, Very Good, Good, Fair, Poor or Bomb rating system. Others use stars from zero to five with a 1/2 a star as a way to further define a movie. Roger Ebert, who is my "go to guy" for movies, uses the "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" rating system. In other words he recommends you either go to the movie or don't go to a movie. Back when Gene Siskel and he hosted "Sneak Previews" on PBS you could just about guarantee that if they both gave a "thumbs up" to a movie that it was worth going to see and you were probably going to like it. If they split on their ratings of a movie then you were gambling on whether you were going to like it and if they both gave it a "thumbs down" then you got what you deserved when it turned out to be a pooch.

One of the many things I liked about the show was the prickly relationship the two articulate men had with each other. They seemed like guys who were very different but had a common bond in their love of the movies. Guys who wouldn't necessarily hang out in a bar together but would enjoy a conversation about John Ford or Orson Welles. They were similar in that they were both very smart, they both had quick, knowing wits and certain aspects of their individual personalities represented the "everyman" in their reviews. There were times when one of them got a little "high-minded" and the other would bring him back to earth with a sarcastic comment or a pointed look. It was funny to watch Roger as Gene talked about how a movie could have been better if the scriptwriter had done this or that or how another actor could have interpreted a character better than so and so. Finally Roger would say "Fine but that's not the movie we're reviewing; thumbs up or thumbs down?" You could see Gene's frustration at Roger's bluntness but invariably he would give a thumbs down because the movie didn't quite measure up to what he thought it could have been. After watching the two of them for years you learned to read between the lines when they gave a guarded thumbs up or thumbs down. Like maybe the hesitant thumbs up was because of a director's reputation (Scorsese) or the marginal thumbs down was because a movie was too violent (UNFORGIVEN).

If you only go to a movie because of the hunky, hottie star or the avant garde director then you have only yourself to blame if you end up going to a bad flick. As you no doubt have found out a name actor (George Clooney/THE GOOD GERMAN), a trendy actress (Sarah Jessica Parker/DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS?) or award winning director (Francis Ford Copolla/YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH) is no guarantee that the movie is going to be worth your time and money to see. If you are willing to go to a movie without doing your homework then good luck.

Hey, I "get" the thrill of sitting in a bustling theater with the anticipation of seeing a good flick thick in the air; people are chatting with excitement as they glance back toward the projection booth while the ushers are encouraging movie goers to move to the center of their rows to fill up the dwindling empty seats. Finally the lights go down and we all sit in the dark impatiently watching the Coke commercials and previews of coming attractions, many long minutes pass, you check your watch when finally the MGM Lion or the Columbia Lady appear on the screen. Then.... the movie unfolds in glorious truth. You smile, you laugh, you nod, you hold back the tears, you jerk in your seat and stifle a scream or....something starts to turn in your stomach and it's not the mealy microwaved hot dog. You swallow and look over at your companion who is already looking at you. You each grimace but turn your heads back to the screen, optimistic that what you have seen so far will get better; but it doesn't. You trade looks with your companion again and you shake your heads. You look at your watch then settle in for the inevitable.... a bad flick. You gambled and lost because you didn't do your research.

You know how it happens. It could have been that cool trailer on HG TV that showed the only scenes worth seeing, or maybe it was that quick blurb on the radio that revealed the only two funny lines in the whole movie or maybe it was that big ad on that cool website showing those two attractive lovebirds or it was that dreaded endorsement from that geeky guy who has that cubicle next to you at the office or that suspect "can't miss" thumbs up from the friend of a friend; yup they sucked you in...again! You have to realize that in these days with movie admission being in the double figures along with the high prices of popcorn, jujubes, milk duds, hot dogs and pop you have to be careful about your entertainment investments. Plus, now that automated and online ticket purchasing have been instituted full body scans are probably the next option to keep smuggled snacks at a minimum; that's a few more bucks out of your pocket.

I can't help you in the chow department but if people do their homework they have a better shot at improving their movie going experience. One of those resources for checking out movies before you blow it again is a website called rottentomatoes.com. Their niche is to compile reviews from noted, established or "accepted" reviewers who have met a standard. Rottentomatoes gives individual reviews a numerical rating e.g. 25%, 60% or 90% then combines it with all the other reviews into a single numeric rating. A rating of 60% or higher is given a FRESH rating, signified by a plump red tomato and a rating of 59% or lower is given a ROTTEN rating, signified by a splattered green tomato. Along with their ratings the website provides trailers, industry insider stuff and other movie info. Check it out. Anyway it's cool because the key to it is you can check out the individual reviews and focus in on a particular reviewer (like Roger Ebert, Cole Smithey, James Berardinelli or Rossiter Drake) that you like, respect or hate. They have another feature which I haven't checked out yet that can compare what you like to individual reviewers. As an example you might find a reviewer you agree with 80% of the time so you would respect their rating as opposed to someone you agree with 40% of the time. This would be akin to you being at the movie and critiquing it without actually being there; like your own personal remote reviewer.

Be careful though because a high rating can also mean disaster. It means that a bunch of "experts" who spend a lot of their work and free time eating mealy popcorn and sitting in the dark think they have a greater understanding than the average viewer of movies and the movie industry. They may have met a star or two or a director or a gaffer or a best boy (you know all those people who get credited at the end of the movie as you are heading for your car) or they may have taken a film study class online or have ten pages written of a screenplay. Sometimes these folks get a little too serious about the whole movie going experience.

This is where the average movie goer struggles with the difference between critically acclaimed movies that have received rave reviews from all the "name" reviewers but when viewed in the cold dark light of a movie theater they come up short. Is it because we, the average viewer, just aren't sophisticated enough to intuit the subtle shades of meaning in a French movie with sub-titles or understand the affected dialogue between the sophisticated co-stars (Ralph Fiennes & Keira Knightley/THE DUCHESS) or appreciate the retro black and white color definition that accentuates the moody atmosphere (another French movie with sub-titles), or celebrate the incredibly talented actor who can cry on cue not once, not twice but three times (Sean Penn/MYSTIC PIZZA)?

There is a difference between what is "critically acclaimed" and what is entertaining. Do people go to movies to be lectured with a boring point of view or to have some unsubtle political message jammed down their throat or do they go to get away from real life and laugh at stupid stuff or be scared witless or to be breathlessly inspired or to be eye poppingly excited? I think most people go to movies to escape for two hours and to be transported to a world they will never visit or experience. People don't want to leave a movie theater depressed or confused or sad; they want to be entertained. I "get" the thing about messages and craft etc. but that's for the pros not the typical movie fan.

You want to know what my definition of a great "flick" is? It's a movie that you like so much that you can't wait to tell someone, anyone about, it's a movie that you will pay to see again within a couple of days of viewing it for the first time, then you will by the DVD the following day, you will drop everything on a sunny summer day and watch it on cable to the hooting scorn of your wife and daughters and you will buy the soundtrack for it even if it was performed by Vanilla Ice or an American Idol drop out.

And finally there is that movie classification invented by Siskel and Ebert to cover that unique movie that seems to connect with you on a level that is hard to describe. This is called the Guilty Pleasure and once or twice a year Roger and Gene would devote their entire program to movies they liked but had a sliver of guilt attached to that opinion. (Roger/THE TALL GUY & Gene/BLIND FURY) This is a movie that no matter how guilty you feel about liking it there is nothing you can do to hide that affection. For whatever it's attraction; it's trashiness, it's "off the wall" humor", it's cool star or unbelievable villain; you just like it and tough for anyone else because this is your baby! It doesn't have to be on your all time top twenty or even on your favorites list and in certain company you might not volunteer your affection for it so you keep it to yourself; your treasured Guilty Pleasure.

Here's five of my guilty pleasures you probably will never find on anybody's top fifty list, what are yours? 1.VANISHING POINT 2. LIFEFORCE 3.THE HIDDEN 4. GOIN' SOUTH 5. MIAMI BLUES

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