Thursday, August 13, 2020

Reserved Seating: Gripehouse 2020

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who saved our 2020 movie-related complaints for this column.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: This week we have a special edition of Reserved Seating with our annual column of movie-related complaining: the Gripehouse. We each have three complaints to discuss, so I’ll start first. My first complaint is Tenet. I’m so tired of Tenet. Christopher Nolan is treating his movie like it’s essential to the stability of not only the film industry, but also the United States of America. I’m tired of treating Tenet like it’s even close to being worth any person risking their health over. No movie is. I know people are bagging on Mulan (2020) premiering for $30 (plus a monthly Disney+ subscription fee) and saying it’s the death of movies, but guess what? I’ll gladly spend $30 to watch a new movie I want to see at home and know I’ll be safe the entire time I watch it. It’s not like I do that every day. And if $30 seems too much, I’ll wait (like I’m doing with The Secret: Dare to Dream, which is $20 but I don’t $20 want to see it). Tenet, however, is the movie cinephiles might literally be dying to see. I’m sensitive to the stability of the moviegoing industry. I would love nothing more than to go to a movie theater right now, but it’s not safe to be in an indoor theater with strangers for 2.5 hours.* I’ll deal. Christopher Nolan should be considerate enough of his customers to deal too. No one would give a shit if he moved Tenet to 2021. The only way Tenet is worth all this fuss is if you get the COVID-19 vaccine during the end credits. And Tenet is an annoying word to say out loud.

*Side gripe: I hate that movie theaters are like “Masks will be enforced…unless you’re in your seat and eating.” None of them have seen Outbreak, apparently.

Rob: Agreed. The sour air around Tenet has made me far less interested in seeing it. Nolan is a filmmaker I like, but his post-Inception movies have had diminishing returns that are inversely proportional to the Film Bro cult that has sprung up around him. I appreciate that every young cinephile needs a first “serious” filmmaker to embrace, but let’s get real. Global emergencies take precedent.
My first gripe concerns Sony Pictures, specifically the blockbuster development model that brought us recent movies like Men in Black: International, Charlie’s Angels (2019), Venom, the Jumanji sequels, Ghostbusters (2016), the Amazing Spider-Man series, etc. We have an eye-rolling shorthand when it comes to these movies that usually involves the phrase “Sony Gotta Sony.” What does that mean? It means a movie with a hyper-glossy (often tacky) aesthetic, an overstuffed script that manages to be both aggressively confusing and deeply boring, a big-name, overqualified actor in a supporting role that will invariably turn out to be the secret villain, and a general least-common-denominator approach to populist filmmaking that borders just on the edge of cynicism. I’ve given lukewarm passes to a couple of these movies (specifically Charlie’s Angels, which I maintain that Kristen Stewart and Elizabeth Banks save from being deeply awful), but my worry is that these will be the only kinds of non-Disney general audience films we get from major studios, especially as the post-COVID industry contracts. Sony/Columbia have made great movies, of course, but why is it that certain properties are funneled into the Sony Gotta Sony department? Even the successful ones seem to teach these guys all the wrong lessons.

Adam: I know studios often treat their tentpoles more as product than art, but Sony really makes it so you can see the seams. The most exciting part of a Sony production is usually the trailer. The box is shiny and aesthetically pleasing but it barely matters what’s inside. There are exceptions, occasionally, like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

My next gripe is one for the void because it’s no one’s fault, really. With 2020 studio releases primarily being moved off the calendar, what we’ve been left with since early March is a vast wilderness of small-budget films available for rental or exclusively through a specific streaming service. It kills a lot of the film conversation because there’s no home screen anymore. Mainstream movies provided a center position. You didn’t need to have seen Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to chat about it for a couple of minutes. You were IP and marketing aware enough to know what it is. This year, even the good movies have virtually no cultural footprint. My favorite movie of the year so far is Horse Girl. I can talk to you, Patrick, and about five other people about Horse Girl. If I told my family about Horse Girl, they would have no clue what I was talking about and wonder why I didn’t just watch Flicka. I know friends who would love Palm Springs, but they don’t have Hulu so there’s no conversation to be had there. And that’s just the really good movies! There’s such a lack of new headliners right now that I’m basically feasting on deep cuts that would have otherwise sat lonely on a Family Video shelf unwatched by me. Did I watch The Outpost? Yes. Was it good? Yes. Does anyone (even me) care? No. I watched it because I’m afraid to go outside and die of COVID-19. What has replaced studio movies as the common parlance is Netflix movies, which, unless it’s one of their Fall prestige releases are barely worth the effort of discussing. I still haven’t seen The Old Guard even though there was a podcast on it. I don’t want to talk about Extraction. Is there really any chance Project Power will be anything special? I’d kill for a Sony movie just to feel something again.
Rob: You and I have gone back and forth with this gripe for a while now, and that lack of a “home screen” is definitely one of our biggest concerns going forward as a popular culture. The internet has insulated us enough, as it is, but now we have an environment in which no one really has equal access to anything. Even choosing new releases to review has quickly become maddening: “Do I do another Hulu exclusive? What was the last Netflix movie I did? How many of our readers actually have Shudder?” Strange as it sounds, I really miss the cultural mainstream.

My next gripe is related to yours, but it’s going to be an unpopular one: I’d like to hear a little less bitching about movie theaters being closed. To be clear, I understand if you work for a theater and your income is affected. I understand if your theater is a cultural landmark under threat of extinction. I understand if you go to the movies for therapeutic, mental health, and socialization reasons. My specific gripe is with those who have been expressing a Nolan-esque entitlement to a theatrical presentation, as if their Very Important Entertainment would be sullied by home viewing. Look, I know that I’m a homebody. I honestly do not care if I ever sit in a theater ever again. But from a critical perspective, I also believe the artistic benefit of theatrical exhibition to be negligible. A quality movie should work without 3D. A quality movie should work without Dolby Atmos or IMAX. As much as I’d hate for my boy David Lynch to hear me say this, a quality movie should work on your phone. Going to the movies can be fun (and formative for budding movie lovers), don’t get me wrong, but we need to stop pretending that we don’t do the majority of our movie viewing at home and enjoy those experiences just fine. We need to stop fetishizing the wrong things.
Adam: I watched my first movie ever on my phone over the weekend - Johnny Suede - and somehow watching it that way in bed at 3am made the movie really work for me. I also watched An American Pickle on my laptop because HBO Max isn’t available on my Roku streaming device. In other words, I’m getting decidedly less precious about where or how I see a movie and I agree that a good movie will work in a variety of different formats. I don’t begrudge people their love of going to a movie theatre, but when I hear someone say, “eating popcorn and seeing it on a big screen with a full audience,” I just think how little I probably have in common with that person despite us both loving movies. I’m starting to notice how much going to a movie theater for me was about it being that it was where the new movie was and not the theatrical experience. If you asked me that ten years ago (in my prime repertory theatre days) I would have felt differently, but now even those are about movies as events instead of the event being the movie. I don’t need a drink-along or rowdy screening. In fact, those added elements will ensure I don’t go.

My final gripe is me as a movie person. I used to be beautiful, adventurously exploring the filmographies of different actors and directors and always curious about discovering some off-kilter movie that grabbed my eye based on its cover art. Now I mostly watch movies I’m writing about or new releases with little energy left to explore. Much of this has to do with having less free time than I did back in my Blockbuster Video or college days, but I need to make a better effort of following my muse when it comes to discovering movies. There’s so much input these days between film sites, podcasts, curated streaming services, etc., that I rarely feel like I came to a movie decision on my own. How do I fix this? I think it’s just watching a movie and then going down the rabbit hole. For example, I’m going to watch Pacific Heights this week. If I like it, why not figure out what part of the movie I responded to the most and make that my next movie selection. Should it be more Michael Keaton? Another John Schlesinger movie? Another movie set in San Francisco? By the 10th movie I watch, I might be on something completely unrelated. I think I spend too much time now taking recommendations and building queues of what to watch when instead I should just watch what feels right in the moment.

Rob: I’ve gone back and forth on this one. In our childhoods, everything is new and exploration is almost a necessity. In my early film writing and teaching days, I felt a strong urge to rush through the canon to establish myself as an authority. I’ve cooled down a little since then, doing less homework and letting my moods guide me. Less to prove, I guess. Then quarantine happened, and I was back in homework mode. I’m in a nice middle ground, right now, watching new stuff to write about while making sure to revisit old favorites or movies from the last few years that I’ve loved but had only seen that once. I feel your pain, though. You’ll find your mojo again!

My last gripe is with the Miami Marlins. They know what they did.

Adam: There are a lot of teams in the league acting too cavalier about this current situation. My White Sox keep getting injured, too, so I’m almost rooting for the season to end just so they can heal and be ready for 2021. How are the Phillies doing?

Rob: Okay, considering all our stops and starts. We called up our big pitching prospect Spencer Howard yesterday. He showed some good stuff and didn’t get clobbered too badly. I’m with you, though. Just call 2020 a wash and start fresh next year. After we extend J.T. Realmuto, of course. #SignHim

Adam: Yeah, I’m taking little pleasure in the season this year. It feels...reckless and hard to enjoy. What are we talking about next week?

Rob: Our All Pacino series returns with 2011’s Jack and Jill. No, I’m not kidding. Until next time...

Adam: These seats are reserved.


  1. The “Home Screen” thesis is brilliant

  2. I agree that The Old Guard just sounds like a chore - and shouldn't any story about immortal warriors be a series? But then, The Umbrella Academy is a series, and that's a hard Nope on just about its name alone (while everything else I've heard backs that reaction up). And Extraction was a few very impressive action sequences without an actual movie around it.

    In terms of the theatrical experience, I do think a projected image bouncing off a screen, as opposed to a TV/computer/phone monitor blasting light directly into your eyeballs, is crucial. But, for around $1K, one can get an HD projector, screen, pair of Bose speakers, and thus get something very close to being in a theater. You'll miss the chuckles and gasps of a general audience, but you can take restroom breaks, no one will talk or vape, and you don't have to endure 25 minutes of previews.

  3. Rob, as a fellow homebody who couldn't care less if he ever sets foot in a theater again, I hear you on the fetishization of the theater going experience. We've somehow elevated going to the theater to some sort of religious experience where the movie itself is almost incidental. I want to see new movies as soon as I can, and if I can do that at home so much the better. I don't begrudge people who love the theater, but I hope they don't lose sight of the fact they're there to see the movie, not the theater, especially if you're going now when it's completely unsafe