Saturday, March 1, 2014

Cinetopia Golden Ticket: February 2014

As all good things must come to an end, so endeth my year of the Golden Ticket. It kind of ended with a whimper, but it started with one too, so I guess that’s fitting. My thanks to everyone who read my little diatribes about the movies I got to see for free over these past 12 months. I hope it was worth your time. I know I enjoyed it. I have some reflections and statistics (because I’m a huge dork) I wanna go over, but first, let’s recap my final month of movies:

Movie Seventy-three: That Awkward Moment – I have never watched an episode of “Sex & the City” (why would I?), but That Awkward Moment struck me as its single-male twenty-something counterpart. Or, at least, it’s aspiring to be. It’s a cute film and surprisingly funny in some parts, but it’s phony as all hell. I’m not suggesting that every guy’s dating exploits are similar to mine, but this was such a remote departure, it might as well have been a science fiction film. Here’s a scenario to illustrate exactly what I mean: (A) I don’t know any guys that use “self-tanner” lotion, (B) but if I did, I seriously doubt any of them would use it to jerk off, (C) but if they did, they certainly wouldn’t admit it to their friends, (D) but if they did, they certainly wouldn’t show their friends their orange dick, (E) and if they did, their friends wouldn’t sit there looking at it and making jokes for 30 seconds, (F) but if they did, the guy with orange dick wouldn’t just stand their naked and let them. This movie is fraught with bizarrely improbable scenarios like that. But, I’ll admit, sometimes they’re funny. On a side note, I find it interesting that Miles Teller has been a sort of measuring point in my Cinetopia movie-watching for the past year. The first movie I watched with my Golden Ticket was 21 & Over. The Spectacular Now was #40, marking the halfway point. And now, at the end of my year, there’s That Awkward Moment. Funny thing is, he’s played the exact same character in all three movies.

Movie Seventy-four: Labor Day – On the subject of unrealistic scenarios, here’s another one that didn’t seem very likely. An escaped fugitive hides out in the home of a single mother and they fall in love. The convict, in turn, becomes somewhat of a father figure to the teenage boy. This all happens over four days. Right. Believe it or not, I was willing to forgive the plot’s lack of credibility, because it works pretty well for the most part. There were certain sequences that felt pretty ambiguous and often unnecessary, but, all in all, by the end of the movie, with time running out and the climax approaching, I found myself rooting for the characters. Not so much because I cared about them, but because I was invested in the scenario. I knew very little about this film going in, but I was willing to watch it because there weren’t many movies worth seeing at the time and I’ve appreciated Jason Reitman’s previous work. Honestly, I’m kinda unsure of how I really felt about this film. If pressed to make a decision, I’d say I liked it. I don’t know if I’d watch it again, though, because I doubt it would stand up to the scrutiny.

Movie Seventy-five: The LEGO Movie – There are some things that shouldn’t be made into movies. Chief among these are such pop culture entertainment sources as board games, video games, toys, and most Saturday Night Live sketches. So, naturally I groaned and rolled my eyes when I heard they were making The LEGO Movie (another rule of thumb is that any film where the last word in the title is actually “Movie” should probably be steered clear of – The Muppet Movie being the exception that proves the rule). Then, when I saw the trailer, it immediately gained my respect by going with stop motion animation of actual LEGOs instead of the CGI-animated sequences seen in the LEGO video games that make the minifigs look like they’re made of tofu. Not only that, the trailer was actually funny, smart, charming and – I can hardly believe it – felt like anything but a shameless extended advertisement for LEGOs. It becomes immediately clear that this film was done as a profound labor of love and the filmmakers are so giddy about the very concept of LEGOs (particularly in how conducive they are to boundless imagination) that one can’t help but be swept away by it. I was also amazed by their ability to gain permission to use such a wide spectrum of trademarked icons. Everything from DC Comics to STAR WARS, from The Simpsons to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, from Shaquille O’Neal to Crazy Cat Lady, from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter (indeed, there’s a charming moment where Gandalf and Dumbledore stand next to each other lamenting about how people often confuse them). This movie is a pop culture fan’s wet dream. On acid. It’s an unbelievable and relentlessly unfettered feast for the eyes combining so many elements that it’s almost exhausting. It’s Toy Story meets “Calvin & Hobbes” meets Yellow Submarine meets 1984 meets South Park’s “Imaginationland” and something else meets something else entirely and so on and so forth. There really is no way to describe it except to say that it’s The LEGO Movie. And EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!

Movie Seventy-six: RoboCop – I remember when the first RoboCop came out back in 1987, I was less than a month away from turning 13 years old. Even then, despite being a pre-adolescent boy who was a big fan of both STAR WARS and Marvel Comics, I thought the movie looked dumb. However, it quickly became one of those R-rated films from the 80’s that was so overwrought with jaw-dropping violence and gore, that kids would brag about having seen it to the point where finally getting to watch it was like a rite of passage. And, once I saw it, I loved it. Not so much because it was about a cyborg cop or because stuff blowed up real good. It was the satire, the dark humor, and the cynical audacity of the whole thing that sold me on it. I loved it as a 13-year-old and I love it now. I even love RoboCop 2 (which I think is unfairly scorned and widely misunderstood). Since this new RoboCop has essentially excised pretty much everything that made the original so great (even the violence and gore are scaled back to a pathetic PG-13 caliber), my first impressions from the age of 12 are now right on the money. I do, however, feel obliged to point out that this remake is not the train wreck I was anticipating. It starts pretty weak, but does improve as it goes along. Plus, I admired the filmmakers’ efforts to not simply rehash the original, but try something different with the same basic concept. In fact, I almost wonder if they originally conceived a film meant to be its own entity but then realized it was similar enough to the original RoboCop, that they figured they might as well just call it RoboCop and hope people wouldn’t hate them for it.

Movie Seventy-seven: The Monuments MenGeorge Clooney has directed five films so far, all of which are based on true stories and, in some cases, have a historical context. You’d think he’d be better at this by now. There’s nothing wrong with The Monuments Men, but it’s such an interesting story, one would think the movie would be much more compelling than it actually is. The best thing it has to offer is seeing an eclectic mix of great actors playing off each other, but even that kind of leaves the viewer wanting. He could have cast the characters with virtual unknowns and the film wouldn’t have suffered much. In fact, it might’ve even been improved. The best performance probably comes from Bob Balaban who is especially good in a scene where, with beautifully understated finesse, he wrangles a confession out of a Nazi almost too easily. Too bad the rest of the film is unable to deliver many moments as great as that. It’s still pretty decent and there are most definitely worse films out there this time of year. But frankly, I’d rather watch a History Channel documentary about the Monuments Men than this movie.

Movie Seventy-eight: Raising Arizona – At this point, Cinetopia started to feel like my own viewing room. Having watched The Big Lebowski and Fight Club the previous month and the first two Alien movies months before that, the Golden Ticket allowed me the luxury of watching movies I’ve owned for years on the big screen for a change. It’s been a good time. It’s sad to have to give all that up (particularly because they’re showing The Goonies less than a week after my year is over). Anyway, it was interesting to see Raising Arizona (the Coen brothers’ second film) so soon after having watched Inside Llewyn Davis (their latest film). It seems slightly amateurish in comparison with their newer stuff, but it’s still wonderfully constructed and endlessly entertaining. Probably their goofiest movie, too (which is impressive considering they also made The Hudsucker Proxy and Burn After Reading). This is my favorite film from 1987 (year of the original RoboCop). It’s hard to believe this movie’s 27 years old. I may be wrong, but isn’t it also the first film to have Nicolas Cage acting batshit crazy (what has now become his calling card)?

Movie Seventy-nine: 3 Days to Kill – Having a remaining three days to kill on my Golden Ticket, I was in search of movies to squeeze in that I normally wouldn’t pay for and just hope they were worth watching. I found myself trying to decide between Pompeii 3-D or 3 Days to Kill. The former was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson who made the amazingly bad Alien vs. Predator, but also made Event Horizon, which was at least entertaining enough to sit through and had its moments. The latter was directed by McG who made the amazingly bad Charlie’s Angels movies, but also made Terminator 4, which was at least entertaining enough to sit through and had its moments, too. To decide which film to watch, I simply resorted to a battle of the trailers. Whichever ad sold me, that’d be the one I’d go see. Based on that flimsy litmus test, 3 Days to Kill seemed more accessible, personally. Now I wish I’d seen Pompeii 3-D. Although, it has definitely occurred to me that if I did, I’d in all likelihood be saying I wish I’d seen McG’s flick instead, because the grass is always greener, isn’t it? 3 Days to Kill is absolutely ridiculous, but not in the ways it should be. It actually starts off showing great potential. Amber Heard (seemingly sans make-up and acting coldly professional and convincingly agent-like) gets an assignment from her superiors and thus very succinctly establishes exposition. Then, the first time we see Kevin Costner’s character, he’s standing in room full of men he just killed. Sometimes it’s even more bad-ass to not show action scenes, know what I mean? An action scene follows soon after, though, which is fairly well-executed and shows us some cool stuff. I liked particularly how, when a bomb goes off unexpectedly, we hear muffled voices and a high-pitched ring illustrating Costner’s shell-shock. Anyway, after this sequence, the film increasingly makes less and less sense. Outside of the opening scene, everything about Amber Heard’s character is completely absurd. For some reason, every time she shows up, she’s wearing less clothes and more make-up with a different wig. I assume this is meant to keep her character in disguise, but if she’s not supposed to stand out, why is she wearing black “wet look” dresses that painfully push her cleavage almost up to her chin? I haven’t even gotten to the dopey subplot about Costner trying to make amends with his daughter and several other completely irrelevant additions stuck in here and there. Frankly, I don’t want to. Bad enough I saw this movie, why should I talk about it, too?

Movie Eighty: Non-Stop – Oh, what delicious irony that the last movie I watched with my Golden Ticket was entitled Non-Stop. Like 3 Days to Kill, here is a movie that defies all logic, but this one does it right. Liam Neeson plays a haunted air marshal who is tormented via text messages by a serial killer who threatens to murder a passenger every 20 minutes unless a ransom is paid. Unbelievable as this scenario is, the filmmakers manage to keep it interesting (there’s a great fist-fight in the airplane lavatory, for example) and, best of all, they don’t cheat. After a while, I was expecting (and dreading) a deus ex machina like the killer isn’t actually on the plane or that it was Liam Neeson’s split personality doing the killing or maybe even the whole thing was a training exercise. But, no. None of those things happen, and when they reveal who’s behind the whole thing, I was genuinely surprised without feeling duped. Indeed, I was kinda climbing the walls trying to figure out who it was. Also, when they reveal the why soon after the who, I thought it was a really compelling motive. This is a fun, non-ambitious suspense thriller that won’t force you to think too hard, but doesn’t assume you’re stupid, either. If nothing else, the film makes a pretty good case that having air marshals on flights is a really bad idea. Yes, the film has its holes and it’s not brilliant by any means, but it serves its purpose well and I had a really good time. If you can overlook that Liam Neeson’s character is pretty gullible, unreasonably hot-headed, and decides to give an impassioned speech when he knows a bomb is about to go off, you’ll probably have a good time, too.

So, my year at Cinetopia totaled eighty movies altogether. A nice round number (which is probably the only good thing that came out of seeing 3 Days to Kill). I’m a little sad it’s over, but not necessarily because they were free movies at a high-end theater; I actually got to know the place and the staff quite well. I’m saying goodbye to familiarity. Before my penultimate movie, the waiter came in to check and see if I wanted any food or drinks. I never learned this guy’s name (something I am now ashamed of), but I probably saw him more than any other Cinetopia employee. It was interesting this time because, for no discernable reason, he said, “Are you good, as usual?” I hope he didn’t think of me as a skinflint, but I rarely ordered food there. Not because it was kinda expensive (although it was), but because I don’t care to eat while watching movies. Not even popcorn.

Anyway, this was the first time he acknowledged that I was a familiar regular. He took it even further by asking me, “You’re that Golden Ticket winner, aren’t you?” I told him I was and he said he can remember me coming the theater back when I was clean-shaven (I currently have a very bushy beard for the winter, so that was a clear indicator to him as to how long I’d been coming to Cinetopia). At some point – maybe that very day – he must have gone back to the kitchen or box office and asked, “What’s with that guy who’s here a couple times a week to watch movies by himself in the 21+ section without ordering anything?” Funny to think of myself as some kind of Cinetopia pseudo-celebrity, like their analogous “Phantom of the Opera” or something.

I remember another waitperson I got to know a bit before that guy (and actually did get her name: Kayla). She was a bit more gregarious and actually asked me straight out fairly early on as to why I was there so often. After her I told her about being the Golden Ticket winner, she reacted as though I had just confirmed something she previously thought was just an urban legend. Every time since then, she’d always ask me what I’d seen lately and what I would recommend. I should have told her about this blog. The last time I saw her was in November when I went to see 12 Years a Slave. She was visibly pregnant then, which is probably why I never saw her after that. Too bad. I would like to have said goodbye.

Looking back on a year of free movies (and looking ahead to it being over), there’s actually a certain sense of relief. Like a kid in a candy store, I might have overdone it. The luxury of being able to see whatever I want, whenever I want has resulted in me being an even more scrutinous film-goer than I was before. I’m currently reading Roger Ebert’s autobiography and, referring to Werner Herzog, he ends one chapter by saying, “Artists like them bring meaning to my life, which has been devoted in such large part to films of worthlessness.” It’s true that great films are rare finds in a sea of bad films, but that just makes the good ones all the more worthwhile.

I shouldn’t lament that I swam through a sea of crap to find the exceptionally rare masterpiece, because that’s not true. I didn’t see every movie that came out (as Roger Ebert would have, if he was still alive). I was still able to scrutinize and I suppose it’s a great insult to the filmmakers whose films I declined to watch even for free. Quality of film notwithstanding, the truth is, a great many movies just didn’t appeal to me. There were, of course, the obvious stinkers I wasn’t even going to give the benefit of the doubt (like Scary Movie 5 and I, Frankenstein), but there were also a good many kids’ films I didn’t bother with either (like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 and Turbo) even though they might have been perfectly good flicks (for kids). There were even some big-budget blockbusters I passed on (like Ender’s Game and the second Hobbit film) just because I wasn’t into them.

On the flipside, there were lots of movies I expected to suck that were actually quite well done (like The Purge and Snitch) and I found myself really liking despite my cynical prejudices. Along those same lines were a few movies I knew almost nothing about going into and turned out to be very pleasant surprises as well (like The Place Beyond the Pines and Side Effects). Making the list of my top ten favorite films of 2013 is gonna be super hard.

With a nice round number of 80 films, it was easy to break it down statistically. I figure movies (like pretty much anything) generally can be separated into four categories of evaluation: What I loved, what I liked, what was so-so, and what I hated. In reviewing everything I saw at Cinetopia, 22.5% I loved, 37.5% I liked, 32.5% were so-so, and 7.5% I hated. Combining those figures into the thumbs-up/thumbs-down dichotomy means exactly 60% were good movies and 40% were bad, in my opinion. That’s a pretty decent ratio, especially given the movies I found reprehensible were such a small percentage of the total. Incidentally, if you wanna know which six movies made up that 7.5% so you can avoid such suckfests, they were The Conjuring, the Evil Dead remake, Olympus Has Fallen, Pain & Gain, White House Down, and the recently-seen 3 Days to Kill. Fuck those movies.

As for the best movies, that will be the subject of my next blog post, keeping up the annual tradition of compiling my favorites from each year. As I said, this will be a tough one to narrow down, but it will also probably be the most comprehensive list I’ve ever done. For now, though, I lower my head in solemn gratitude for Cinetopia allowing me to indulge their patronage for a year of free movies. Thank you. It was an experience.

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