Thursday, April 11, 2013

Movies We Like Now But Didn't Before

Don't worry. We came around eventually.

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.”

I concur.

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.
Erich: In the past few weeks, a lot of praise has been heaped on 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.
Doug: This is a cheat, but I'm going to say It's a Wonderful Life. When I was a kid, my family would gather 'round old "tubey" (our vintage Zenith television) every Christmas Eve and watch this film, sometimes twice in a row (thanks to the public domain, nearly every station aired it on Dec. 24 in the '80s, and, in Chicago at least, these broadcasts included a Spanish version and a [disgusting] colorized version [barf]). But, you see, NO seven-year-old child -- no matter how forward-thinking his or her parents are, or how erudite the tot may seem -- wants to watch a movie from 1946 about a funny-talking lovable failure losing his shit the night before Christmas. Heck, It's a Wonderful Life is barely even about Christmas! At least Miracle on 34th Street has Santa. And Jingle All the Way has jingling ... all the way! It's a Wonderful Life has ... a trollop named Violet Bick? A surly bartender named Nick? Clarence, a guardian angel? He's probably the most "festive" character, but he's still lacking reindeer and a big red suit. So every year, while my parents and older siblings settled on the sofa to watch the movie, I usually got ready for bed. Alone. Then I laid in bed, listening to the muffled sounds of "Buffalo Gals" echoing through the hallway to my bedroom. Then I tossed and turned. Then I thought about Christmas morning. Then my heart would race. Then I couldn't fall asleep. "Darn this movie," I cursed! "Darn it all to heck!" As far as I was concerned, It's a Wonderful Life was the reason Christmas wasn't coming sooner. Why would my family willingly delay the arrival of the best day of the year by watching some antiquated, scratchy (because public domain) BORING black-and-white movie? THEY'RE RUINING MY HOLIDAY! Then, something amazing happened. When I was a teenager, I actually sat down to watch -- nay, ABSORB -- the film with everyone else. And it was like a light turned on. What was once a chore now became a pleasure, even more so after observing my younger nieces and nephews experience the same emotions I felt 10 years earlier ("Why are we watching this again? Can't we open just ONE present? Why does Uncle Doug keep sticking his wet finger in our ears?"). And you know what? Now that a few of them are older, I'm watching THEM experience the same cycle I went through -- they're now watching it (quoting it, even), chuckling at the next generation of youngsters squirming at the perceived stodginess of the movie. In time, we've all come to realize that It's a Wonderful Life isn't so much about Christmas. It's about tradition, nostalgia, compassion, love and family. And that's why we STILL watch it every Christmas Eve.

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.
Erika: In 2001, a little movie came out called 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. :)


  1. Oh Erika, how I'm with you on the clunky Beautiful Mind. Oy.

    I think mine would have to be, of all things, Continental Divide. I think I first saw it when I was around 10 and I was bored stiff by this bunch of malarkey about a city paper columnist and some lady up in the mountains. When was Belushi going to start breaking bottles over his head?

    But watching it again when I was in my 20s? Lordy, what a good movie this is and really a candidate for JB's Unsung column. It's perhaps not a classic, but it's a damn fine little movie about self-discovery that doesn't descend into maudlin Eat, Pray Love territory.

  2. Has Doug seen any movies that aren't called "It's A Wonderful Life"?

    1. Says the person who keeps going back to Cool as Ice.

  3. I mentioned this awhile back I think but the easy pick for me is The Godfather - bored the HELL out of me the first time I saw it for some reason. Then maybe 5 years later I watched it again and was absolutely enthralled - loved every minute and have watched it a few times since.

    A Thin Red Line is another one for me too - seemed like such a slog when I watched it back in high school but then picked up the Criterion blu-ray a couple years ago and was blown away by how beautiful and thoughtful it is (and I like a movie that actually tells me to turn up the volume at the beginning - yes, sir!).

    Erika - this is inappropriately placed but I wanted to mention I watched Hoop Dreams when I was home sick on Monday - it was fantastic! I have no idea why I didn't watch this when it first came out - it was at the height of my interest in both basketball and inner-city Black culture so it should have been a no-brainer (maybe I wasn't that keen on documentaries back then?) but yeah, it was great and the 3 hours fly by - one of my new favourite docs for sure - thanks for reminding me it was out there!

    1. Dear Sol,
      I love you.

    2. Wow, first Heath tells me he loves me, now Erika. Hmmm, tough choice here, let me th-Erika! If both of our spouses should ever die in suspicious boating accidents (God forbid - wink, wink), I've got a Canadian Green Card up here with your name on it!

      Seriously though, such an interesting mix of hope and inspiration (for and from the kids) on the one hand, and the ugliness of both where they come from and the insane amount of pressure put on them to succeed from all over (selves, parents, teachers, coaches, recruiters) on the other - it certainly evokes a wide spectrum of emotions - I've been recommending it to everyone!

    3. And you are Canadian?!?! YES!!!

  4. That one's easy for me: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I really disliked that movie when it came out, and thought it was just depressing and weird overall. I didn't connect with it at all. I also think I was still used to funny/zany Jim Carrey at the time, and that's not what you get here.

    But I just wasn't in the right state of mind.

    Now, after some life experiences, I watch it and realize that it's a tragically beautiful movie with great direction and an excellent dramatic Jim Carrey performance. It's an amazing movie.

    Erika, your story about Cinderella Man makes me realize that I haven't seen that movie since it was in theaters, I think. I don't believe I cared for it at the time, either. Perhaps I should revisit it. I could use a good inspiring story. I love that you guys often seem to give me incentives to revisit with new perspectives the movies that you discuss!

    1. Thanks, John! I wish more people were opened minded about revisiting films. Although I guess the people who would never be interested in that aren't hanging around with us on this site anyway. All the readers (and writers!) are so nice.

    2. Erika-

      I can't take the credit for using Cinderella Man in class, because I first got the idea from you! However, I wlll say, F-heads, that Erika is totally right when she says the kiddoes do really like the movie.

  5. A recent one for me is Casablanca. I'd watched it in 2002 on the recommendation of a friend and thought that it was less than the sum of its parts. It had witty dialgogue and good performances but didn't quite enage me on the whole.

    I bought it in a 4-pack last year and gave it another shot at Christmas. I was really floored by how much I enjoyed it on this viewing. I just don't know how I missed it before.

  6. I have come around to a lot of movies over the years where initially I probably just did not get them. One that comes to mind is M Nights's "Signs".

    When I saw it in the theater I was kind of let down by it. I did not outright dislike it per se, I was just underwhelmed. I think I went in expecting something very different, I suppose coming off of Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.

    On subsequent viewings however it grew on me, I think I came to understand it better and see what it was doing. Now I really like how deliberate, personal and tender it seems to be.

  7. The first film that comes to mind for me is Jackie Brown. On first viewing it left me cold and wasn’t at all what I expected going into it. I didn’t catch it again for several years and then one day I spotted it was on TV and gave it another go. This time I got onboard with it much more but still wasn’t a huge fan.

    Then a few more years went by and I gave it another chance, this time it all clicked for me and I came away having found so much more to enjoy than previously, the relationship between Jackie and Max Cherry, which Patrick mentioned in his excellent piece a few days ago, being one of major parts that resonated with me so much more on this occasion.

    Now I’d say it’s my favourite Tarantino film and one I catch a couple of times a year.

  8. should watch the 2nd and 3rd Matrix again as well. You will come around on those just like you did on the first one.

    1. Haha. I actually don't hate the second Matrix movie. There's some cool scenes in in it but overall it's just ok. The third one (which I'm writing about a bit in next week's column) fascinates me but not in a good way. It's a case study for what an action series that kills off most of the heroes looks like.

  9. My best example would be Starship Troopers. The first time I saw it was on a Blockbuster VCR tape rental back in either 98 or 99. My stupid younger self (early 20’s) went in expecting an action-packed sci-fi movie in the vein of Aliens & was so disappointed by it. I thought the cast was horrible (Doogie Howser, the dude who stole Kelly from Zack on Saved by the Bell, Gary Busey’s talentless son as soldiers?) & the political stuff (“Do you want to know more?”) just went over my head. I only liked the bug action scenes & hated everything else about it.

    About a few years ago, I picked up the Blu Ray for cheap & could finally get all the World War II propaganda references, the fascism, & the young attractive cast was perfect for those roles. I even now considered it Paul Verhoeven’s best movie (Yes, even better than RoboCop).

    A close second is John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. It was the same disappointment I had for Starship Troopers with my younger self was expecting a hardcore sequel to Escape from New York & couldn’t get the over-the-top comedic tone of it. Sometime in the early 00’s, I saw it several times on the premium channels & I was finally digging the comedy & Carpenter spoofing the big blockbuster genre of the 90’s. I also appreciated how gutsy that ending was. If I'm channel surfing & L.A is on, I’m not changing the channel til it's over.