Annual #4 - The Hollywood Strangler
Ray Dennis Steckler
1939 - 2009
2008 is the year I almost started to hate movies.
You may have noticed that updates to the Electric Theatre were few and far between this past year. There are a lot of reasons/excuses for this but the most honest one is that I saw fewer new movies in 2008 than any time since my parents could ground me. This time, however, it was by choice. For the first time since I don’t know when, the idea of going to the movies seemed less like a fun night out and more like a horrifying ordeal.
Part of the problem is the experience of actually going to the movies. I love seeing a movie with a packed, appreciative audience. I’m just beginning to wish that I could handpick my fellow audience members. I’m not even talking about the standard complaints of people talking loudly or bringing screaming infants into the theatre, although both of those irritants drive me up the wall. No, these days I have two big problems with heading to the local octoplex.
First off, cell phones. Blackberries. IPhones. Theatre owners should confiscate these little electronic soul-suckers at the door and if they really wanted to do you a favor, toss them into the nearest available wood-chipper. You’re almost guaranteed to hear at least one obnoxious ring-tone during your night at the movies. But asking people to switch them to silent isn’t enough. People still text message and futz around with their gizmos throughout the movie. Note to mobile addicts: your device emits a glow that in a darkened room is bright enough to land a jet by. Turn it off! If your attention-deficit-addled thumbs can’t go for two hours without tapping OMG LOL to all your Facebook and Twitter chums, you shouldn’t go to the movies in the first place.
Next, you know all those little numbers next to the title in the newspaper you consulted in order to figure out what movie to see? Those are the scheduled start times. Get there on time! Now I know that the actual start time for a movie can vary depending on the number of hateful Fanta commercials and trailers the theatre programs and a lot of people try to time it so they miss all those. Perfectly understandable, I’ve done it myself. But I see people wandering in five, ten minutes into the movie. Then they complain loudly that they can’t find a seat or try to find the rest of their group or stumble around using their obnoxious cell phone glow to light their way. Come on, folks. If your movie starts at 7:30 and you’re waiting in line for a ticket at 7:45, give it up.
Now, I live in Los Angeles where we’re lucky enough to have a few theatres whose patrons generally respect one another and the movie-going experience, like Arclight Hollywood and The Landmark. Unfortunately, you have to pay for the privilege of seeing a movie in a decent environment, sometimes north of 14 bucks a ticket. I have to want to see a movie really, really bad to shell out that kind of dough and in 2008, there was hardly anything that looked to be worth the investment.
I’m not suggesting there were no good movies released in 2008. I am saying they weren’t good enough. The year started off with one of the lengthiest dry spells of major releases I can remember. Between the January 18 release of Cloverfield and the release of Iron Man on May 2, there was virtually nothing in wide release that I was willing to sit through in a theatre. Just look at this list of movies that topped the box office charts: Meet The Spartans, Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best Of Both Worlds Concert Tour, Fool’s Gold, Jumper, Vantage Point, Semi-Pro, 10,000 BC, Horton Hears A Who, 21, Prom Night, The Forbidden Kingdom and Baby Mama. Now some of those movies may be OK but I don’t think too many people would argue that they were must-have theatrical experiences. Horton Hears A Who at least looked visually interesting but since I’m not 6 years old, I didn’t make it a priority.
As we entered the summer, things perked up slightly. But as I returned to the cinema, I realized that even the movies I enjoyed were fading from my memory almost as soon as my ass left the seat. By the end of the summer, I’d seen a couple movies that I really liked, a couple that I really didn’t, and a whole bunch that I barely remembered that I’d seen. Movies like Hellboy II and Pineapple Express weren’t bad movies by any definition. I had a good time while I was watching them but they had almost no lasting impact whatsoever.
I also began to grow increasingly tired of a disease that has infected theatrical distribution everywhere: New Release Syndrome. Movies don’t last in theatres anymore. I was pleased at the success of The Dark Knight and the fact that its record-breaking box office insured that everyone who had an interest in seeing it theatrically got the chance to do so. But that has become the exception, not the rule. These days, if you don’t get out and see a picture on its opening weekend, you’re pretty much out of luck. And heaven help you if you want to see an independent or foreign film. There were quite a few movies that I wanted to see but didn’t get the chance, including the documentaries Young@Heart, Man On Wire and Religulous, David Mamet’s Redbelt, Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Ed Harris’ Appaloosa and the Swedish vampire flick Let The Right One In. Unfortunately, by the time I was ready to see them, they were nowhere to be found, even in L.A. (In the case of Let The Right One In, I think it may still be haunting a theatre or two around town…but at this point, I’ve heard so much “you-gotta-see-it” hype about the movie, I’d prefer to wait and see it after everybody’s settled down.)
By the end of the year, I had grown tired and frustrated by being either disappointed in the movies I had seen or thwarted in my attempts to see the movies I didn’t. I felt sure that I’d missed out on some great stuff and looked forward to some surprises once the critics started to release their top ten lists. But evidently, only ten good movies were released last year because all of these lists have been virtually identical. There’s mild disagreement over whether Iron Man or The Dark Knight is the superior superhero blockbuster and if Speed Racer deserves to be on the best or worst list but that’s about it.
So why should I bother to come up with my own top ten list this year? By my own admission, I haven’t seen nearly enough movies. Of the movies that are collecting the most kudos, I’d most like to see Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky and the animated Waltz With Bashir. Milk looks fine, I guess, but having seen the Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, I don’t know how much more I’m going to get out of seeing it dramatized. Frost/Nixon looks kind of interesting but not compelling enough to get me to race to the theatre. As for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, sorry Fincher fans but I have absolutely no interest in seeing it whatsoever. Maybe I’ll come to regret that decision but I think it looks interminably tedious. I will probably end up seeing most if not all of these movies in the next few weeks and I’ll review them here as it happens.
Bearing all that in mind, you may be wondering just what, if anything, I did like in 2008. Well, lists are fun and traditional, so here’s my attempt. But what to call it? There aren’t ten titles on there and considering how many films passed me by, I can hardly get away with calling it the Best Movies of 2008. My lukewarm feelings toward many of them means I’m not comfortable dubbing them my Favorite Movies of 2008 either. Hmmm…well then, how about this?
The Handful of 2008 Movies I Didn't Mind So Much
Apart from these first few entries, these are in no particular order. By far the best movie I saw in 2008 was Wall-E, hands down. It’s visually breathtaking, funny, touching and smart. I left the theatre feeling as though I’d seen a one-of-a-kind classic. I was also impressed by Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. If this is indeed Eastwood’s farewell to acting, I can’t imagine a better, more fitting swan song. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was very, very good, despite the fact that I still feel parts of it just don’t work.
From here on, there’s a big drop-off in the enthusiasm I feel for these movies. I enjoyed them but don’t feel entirely passionate about them. For instance, Joel & Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading was amusing and fun but didn’t have any of the can’t-stop-laughing moments I’ve come to expect from Coen comedies. Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire has great moments (not to mention a killer soundtrack) but I never fully connected with it emotionally. Mickey Rourke’s performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is easily worth the price of admission but the movie didn’t really offer any surprises, which is not something I can say about any of Aronofsky’s other movies. Iron Man was a top-notch superhero blockbuster which, considering what most superhero movies are like, is kind of like being the smartest kid in the remedial reading class. And as for Speed Racer, I dug the Wachowskis' candy-colored live-action cartoon. At least I remember seeing it, which is more than I can say for a lot of other ’08 movies.
It would hardly be an Electric Theatre Annual without a trip to the Hell Plaza Octoplex, now would it? “But Dr. Jahnke,” I hear you begin to protest, “How can you in good conscience declare the worst movies of the year without having seen them?” Good point. Of the movies I did see, the worst was Indiana Jones and the Movie of the Empty Skull. But as painful an experience as that was, I’m willing to concede it probably wasn’t the very worst movie actually released in 2008. Happily, most of the truly awful dreck announced itself with such swaggering authority that no thinking person actually has to see them to know they’re garbage. So with that, let’s look at…
2008 AT THE HELL PLAZA OCTOPLEX
The lousy movies of 2008 can essentially be broken down into a few major subcategories. And no, I have not seen most of these movies I’ll be making fun of. Nor do I intend to unless offered a great big pile of cash. If you write and try to defend any of these movies to me, you’re wasting your time. Should I happen to see these and be proven wrong, I will of course immediately post a retraction. However, if I turn out to be correct, I reserve the right to immediately post an "I told ya so".
Scattershot Parodies of Recent Pop Culture
Here is how I assume the screenplays for Meet The Spartans and Disaster Movie were cobbled together. The filmmakers sat down with construction paper, safety scissors, glue sticks and the last six months of Entertainment Weekly. They cut and paste together a collage of neat pictures and voila, a screenplay is born! I would suggest that movies like this be left to the creators of the original Airplane! But considering that David Zucker also produced Superhero Movie and wrote and directed An American Carol, perhaps the genre should just be taken out back and put down.
One hopes that with the release of One Missed Call, The Eye and Shutter, Hollywood is almost out of Asian horror movies that they can redo. Unfortunately, that means they’ll be starting on slasher movies from the 80s next and Prom Night is only one of the first of a presumably long, tedious list. But hey, it wasn’t just horror that got badly remade last year. As if actresses don’t have enough trouble finding good roles, Diane English’s version of the 1939 classic The Women probably made it that much harder for a female-driven movie to get off the ground.
Movies Aimed At Tweenage Girls
OK, so none of these movies are aimed at me and that’s fine. But stuff like Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus, College Road
Trip, Step Up 2 The Streets and High School Musical 3 aren’t even movies, they’re Disney Channel specials that escaped to theatres. Has any adult sat through even one of them? Parents, for all you know these movies could be teaching your kids how to prepare for the upcoming Tween Revolution. When the uprising comes, blame Miley Cyrus. And for tween girls who grew up (at least physically), Mamma Mia! proved that Celebrity Karaoke: The Movie is just as painful an idea as you probably thought it would be.
Movies About Dogs
If I wasn’t already inclined to be a cat person, these movies would have made me seriously reconsider. The only animal more irritating and obnoxious than the Chihuahua is the poodle, so I suppose I should be grateful that we only had to suffer through Beverly Hills Chihuahua and not Malibu Poodle…so far. “Aw come on, Dr. Jahnke. Marley & Me is heartwarming and cute!” No, it’s manipulative treacle and rabid packs of wild Marleys couldn’t chase me to see it. But I’ll admit I’m more likely to see either of those than the biggest mutt of the year, Paris Hilton in The Hottie & The Nottie. Oh, snap!
Movies From People Who Need To Stop Believing Their Own Press
I have actually seen a couple movies in this category and am likely to see more simply out of morbid curiosity. Will Smith’s likeability was seriously called into question this year, first with Hancock, a movie that starts off innocuously enough but is so derailed by its logic-free climax that it destroys whatever good will you may have had for it. But that was nothing compared to Seven Pounds (of jellyfish), a movie so arrogantly sure of Will Smith’s ability to draw a crowd that it couldn’t even be bothered to explain what it’s all about. Meanwhile, Al Pacino, who has been running on fumes for years now, sputtered out entirely with 88 Minutes, then decided to drag Robert De Niro down with him with Righteous Kill. Both of these guys need to stop working with directors who believe they’re the greatest actors of their generation and find someone who’ll challenge them again. I don’t know what Mike Myers needs to do, though. He’s always seemed a lot more amused by his own jokes than I have been and The Love Guru took that smugness to new heights. It’s not just movie stars who need a reality check, though. Maybe the best thing that M. Night Shyamalan can do right now is stop writing his own original screenplays. I didn’t think it was statistically possible to make a movie worse than Lady In The Water until The Happening happened. Finally, a curse on Robert Rodriguez for making Frank Miller believe he was a filmmaker. Miller’s comic book work has been subpar for awhile now anyway but now he’s branching out into making bad movies like The Spirit, too. Great, now he’s got two art forms that he can suck at.
This one deserves a category all its own. When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I thought it had to be a joke. Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson as bickering, married treasure hunters whose relationship gets rekindled during a quest for lost booty? This is the kind of high-concept crap that would be a fake movie within a movie about the industry. No, I haven’t seen it and can promise you with 100% certainty that I never will. If I’m on a plane that it’s being shown on, I will stick a pillow over my head to avoid it. If I’m at someone’s house and it comes on TV, I will say goodbye and head home even if I have to walk hundreds of miles in subzero weather. I will watch every movie I have listed above in one marathon sitting before I sit through two minutes of this. It represents everything I hate about movies and then some. It is the anti-Jahnke. Fear it.
That’ll do it for my mercy killing of 2008 at the movies. The Electric Theatre will appear more frequently in 2009 and yes, I’ll be more open-minded about giving movies a fair shake this year (although any year that threatens both a sequel to Transformers and a G.I. Joe movie doesn’t exactly fill me with anticipation). So until next time, have a better one.