Thursday, April 11, 2013
Movies We Like Now But Didn't Before
JB: Frequently, as I get older I find that really great movies take me longer and longer to process. If the movie is GREAT GREAT, a real masterpiece, it spins my head around and throws me from the theater, gasping.
I first saw Synecdoche, New York at Ebertfest (RIP Roger Ebert) and right after the screening, I did not know what to make of it. It took several weeks of excessive rumination (and two more viewings on cable) before I could recognize it for the film that it is. Synecdoche, New York has more trenchant things to say about life and art (and says them in more bold and unique ways) than probably any other film I have ever seen. Ebert called it the “film of the decade.”
Heath Holland: A movie like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has a reputation that can be daunting. It's the product of a partnership between two beloved actors, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and it has a very high profile among several genres of film: westerns, dramas, and comedies. I just saw it for the first time about a year ago, and the experience was definitely lackluster. First, I was not expecting the lighthearted tone of the film, or the way that the film seemed to be in on some sort of joke that I was not. Second, Burt Bacharach does NOT seem like an obvious choice for the soundtrack to a western. Plus, I'd just come off a pretty intense western phase were I was soaking up as many of the films in that genre that I could, and I'd seen buckets of bullets and blood. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is different from all that, though, and given some time and distance from it, as well as appropriate expectations, it's a great movie. It's about a friendship set in the West. It's not a gritty movie; it's a soft and sweet one. Newman and Redford give effortless performances as only the greatest of actors can, and tell a story that isn't epic in scale, but more true to life. Given a choice between Leone's West and this one, this is the one I'd want to live in.
Jurassic Park, and rightfully so. It's a well-constructed, imaginative thrill ride with special effects that hold up amazingly well. Back in 1993, I'd read and loved the book and couldn't wait to see it. I soaked up every detail I could about the movie, mostly in the form of small, grainy set photos in TIME magazine in the school library. I couldn't have been more psyched to see it opening day with my dad and sisters. I stood in line. I watched it. I had fun. Yet I couldn't shake the feeling that, fun or no, it just wasn't as good as the book. 20 years later, I don't remember anything from the book that's not in the movie. At the time, though, it was fresh in my mind and every bit of streamlining felt like a gaping plot hole. To be fair, I was 15 and I'm not sure I'd seen a new movie based on a book I loved. Also to be fair, I liked the movie. Heck, I saw it twice more in the theater. I even bought a fake Jurassic Park ID card, stuck on the worst school photo ever taken of me, and carried it in my wallet for longer than I'm willing to admit. But that first, mildly disappointing experience stuck with me for a long time, up until I got the Jurassic Park trilogy on Blu-ray a few years back and decided to give it another chance. I went in expecting to have nostalgic fun with a middle-tier Spielberg romp, but came out finally, FINALLY, seeing Jurassic Park for the great film it is. It's one thing to revisit as an adult a movie you hated as a kid. Kids have terrible taste in movies. It's tougher to want to reevaluate a movie that you liked, just not as much as it deserves. There are too many movies I still haven't seen to spend time going back to movies I saw a bunch as kid. How many great films like Jurassic Park have I unfairly dismissed as "only okay"? And how many will I never bother to revisit? It's a scary thought. Not Velociraptor scary, but it's close.
Adam Riske: I didn't get The Matrix the first time I saw it. I thought the whole movie was going to be like the last third, and was not prepared for the headiness of the first two acts. So I sat there kind of pissed, because frankly I didn't prepare myself to think. Then Go came out. Then The Mummy. Then The Phantom Menace, and I wrote off The Matrix as a movie that failed because it should have been more straightforward. I shouldn't have to do all this work to enjoy it. I watched it again at the $1 theater (I miss those - I think I'll write about it sometime), but this time was prepared to pay attention. I am so happy that I did, because the groundwork laid in the first two-thirds is pretty accessible and interesting as a narrative. The best part is that the action stuff I liked in the climax was even more gripping because I cared about the characters and knew the stakes. I had been burned on so many tentpole movies with no ideas whatsoever that I missed the boat on one of the few that did.
Patrick: Easy answer? Avatar. But that's well-worn road at this point. Besides, I've got a bunch of them: Waterworld, Full Metal Jacket, 2 Fast 2 Furious (one of these things is not like the others). But as someone who seconds ago earned mad credibility by admitting to liking 2 Fast 2 Furious, I'll go on record as saying that I wasn't crazy about The Thin Red Line when I saw it back in '98. Maybe it was because it was released the same year as Saving Private Ryan, and I was expecting a similar take on WWII. Maybe it's because I don't think I had ever seen a Terrence Malick movie at that point (maybe Badlands, but I can't be sure). Whatever the reason, the movie felt slow and ponderous and pretentious. Many years went by before I revisited the movie on Blu-ray, and another viewing proved the movie to be beautiful and haunting, less interested in recounting the experience of war (like Private Ryan) than in exploring the universal question of WHY DO WE DO THIS? So why the reversal? I don't think I was mature or patient enough for The Thin Red Line the first time I saw it. The movie didn't change; I did. Now it's one of my favorite Terrence Malick movies and one of my favorite movies on the subject of war. I just needed to grow up.
A Beautiful Mind. I wasn't crazy about it. At all. Yet it seemed that EVERYONE else was. And by everyone else, I mean the Academy, who gifted it with many nominations and a few major wins. I was annoyed. So years later (2005), when Ron Howard again directed Russell Crowe in a film based on a true story, I was pretty uninspired. But I went into Cinderella Man with an open mind, since I do love movies based on real stories and am a sucker for a good underdog or comeback story. I liked it just fine. Exactly like that. It was FINE. I could not see past some of the corny and/or simplistic dialogue or cartoonish Great Depression scenes.
Here we are in 2013, and the corny dialogue is now appropriate comic relief, and the numerous Depression-era "reveals" are heartbreaking and moving, not cartoonish. I love this movie. I love the swelling music, I love the boxing scenes, and I love the character of James J. Braddock, the Bulldog of Bergen. What was I thinking in 2005? Maybe I was subconsciously still annoyed with A Beautiful Mind. Really, Cinderella Man could use a little subtlety in some scenes -- the script likes to spell things out for the viewer. And in case the viewer does not get it, the script spells things out AGAIN. But the reason I've really come around on this film is that I now see it through the eyes of young people. I've been using it for the past couple years as a part of a literature unit based on To Kill a Mockingbird (thanks for the suggestion, Mark Ahn!). My 14 and 15-year old students watch the film and then discuss, analyze, and write about it. None of them have ever seen it, and by the end, they are cheering, crying, and writing the best papers they've written all year. The film inspires them to work hard, to be honest, and simply, to never give up. They also write extensively about the moral character of James Braddock and the lessons he teaches; many write that they have never known a man like Braddock and that they were inspired by the relationship between James Braddock and his wife, Mae. Their reactions make this film feel more important than it probably is.
And let's face it: when I saw this movie the first time, I did not have kids yet. Now I have two, and I'm a total sap. I'm okay with that. :)