Has the Pandemic Ruined Our Taste in Movies?

Last week, my wife and I were in the mood for movie, but were having more trouble than usual deciding what to watch. After checking out a number of lackluster trailers, one particular film worked its way between my ears. I suggested that we give it a shot, fully aware that the movie, when it was released earlier this year, had been widely panned by critics.

I’m talking about… The Hunt.

Now, I’m not one of those people who subscribes to the notion that if a bunch of smarmy, stuffed-shirt critics don’t like a film, that means it’s probably pretty good. On the contrary. I’ve found that when there’s a consensus among critics that a movie is bad, it’s usually genuinely bad. Still, I felt like watching a cheesy, low-brow action flick, and I suspected my wife would be receptive, being that she’d voiced some interest in it the first time we saw it advertise on television. Truth be told, she tends to like stories themed around vengeance (which, I won’t lie, has always worried me a bit).

Anyway, some may recall that The Hunt was a pretty controversial film, long before it was ever released. The original title of the script was reportedly “Red State Vs. Blue State,” though Universal (the film’s distributor) denies it was ever the movie’s working title. Regardless, it would have been an apt name, as the plot revolves around a group of wealthy liberal elites paying to have red-state “deplorables” (yes, that word is actually used in the film) kidnapped and released in the middle of nowhere, where they are then literally hunted by the well-armed, well-prepared lefties (seemingly for sport, though that part of the story evolves).

Politics aside, we’ve seen this tale before. It’s been done many times over the years, from “The Most Dangerous Game” (the famous short story from Richard Connell in the 1920s) to some corny cinematic efforts in the mid-90’s, starring the likes of Ice-T and a mullet-sporting Jean-Claude Van Damme. (By the way, Van Damme’s “Hard Target,” which was director John Woo’s U.S. debut, is one of the most unintentionally hilarious action films ever made).

Back to The Hunt. The movie’s premise outraged many on the political right (including President Trump), who believed that Hollywood was disdainfully targeting them for their right-leaning views:

While much of Hollywood indeed has a well-documented anti-right bias, such criticism in regard to The Hunt never quite made sense to me, being that it was pretty clear, even from the early advertising, that “the deplorables” were the film’s good guys.

Still, the contentiousness loomed, and after real-life mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso in August of 2019 (a few weeks before The Hunt was to be released), Universal decided to shelve the gun-roaring movie to spare themselves additional backlash. It was eventually released in March of this year (again, to mostly bad reviews)… just as the health crisis was forcing theaters to shut down.

Talk about movie being caught in the crosshairs. *ba-dum-tshh*

But here’s the kicker… The Hunt, believe it or not, is actually a very entertaining film. At least, I found it to be. My wife did too. And we’re not exactly an easy audience.

Was the movie absurd? Yes. Was it gratuitously violent? Yes. Were there more plot holes than bullet holes? Maybe. But what I didn’t realize beforehand (which is made abundantly clear just seconds into the film) is that it’s wildly satirical, and at times even wades into the waters of pure slapstick.

While it doesn’t take itself particularly seriously, the satire (which is spread evenly across partisan lines) is actually quite a bit smarter (and more honest) than a lot of critics gave it credit for. Plus, the action scenes and comical dialogue keep you engaged.

All that said, I’m now going to abruptly turn this newsletter on its head by at least considering that my take on The Hunt is either completely wrong or fatally flawed due to what I’ll call pandemic fatigue.

You see, I’ve suspected something about myself over the past nine months: I think I might be far more charitable to new movies than I ever was prior to the health crisis. This could come from the fact that there simply haven’t been very many. Lots of anticipated (and not so anticipated) releases were put on hold when theaters began shutting down back in the spring (some of those theaters, unfortunately, for good).

A few (like The Hunt) were pushed to on-demand digital services, and given a higher price point to help make up for some of the lost revenue.

I’ve been watching a number of movies that fall into this category, and I don’t think it’s entirely out of some desperate need I have to be entertained. After all, there are still lots of television shows and older movies I could get around to, in order to fill that void (my family subscribes to multiple streaming services). Thus, I think it’s more than that. I think it’s, to some agree, about the desire to return to normalcy.

Simply put, looking forward to new movies is part of our culture, as is seeing those movies as they were meant to be seen: inside a movie theater, on a large screen, among other moviegoers.

Sure, theater sales were already in gradual decline prior to the coronavirus (so I suppose the culture was slowly changing anyway). But I and countless others certainly weren’t ready for it all to come crashing down at once.

So yes, I long for the excitement of a new movie… more than I used to — one that depicts a story that falls well outside of the COVID-19 universe we’re currently living in. When I notice a title become available that looks interesting, I really want it to be good, not just for me, but even the hard-working filmmakers and actors who were envisioning a far grander reception. And it’s entirely possible that those hopes, to some extent, have clouded my better tastes.

For example, I found Bill & Ted Face the Music mildly amusing. I’m not saying it was good. It wasn’t. It was actually quite bad. In normal times, I would have walked out of the theater afterwards in a daze, mumbling “dude” and wondering how I could have been so stupid as to have bought a ticket to a flick that didn’t even look particularly funny on the commercials. Instead, I found myself chuckling a number of times, enjoying a little nostalgia for the original films, shrugging off the flat jokes (there were several), and ultimately deciding it was worth the cost.

Another example? I almost pre-ordered Tremors: Shrieker Island a few weeks ago, which is something I definitely wouldn’t have done at any other time in American history (despite absolutely loving the original film).

Other movies I’ve seen over the past months, I liked quite a bit… though I’m not sure I should have.

One was The Rental. The Vrbo thriller (you read that right) follows two young couples on a weekend vacation, where drugs, hanky-panky (I still prefer to use that term), a creepy property manager, and some guy running around in an “old man” mask cause all kinds of chaos.

Another was Unhinged, starring a large and in charge Russell Crowe as an unstable man who decides to make life hell for a single mother and her son after the mother honks at him at an intersection.

Okay, these synopses probably aren’t doing these films justice, but they were both quite good. Or were they? Can I be trusted on movie recommendations in 2020? I don’t know.

What I do know is that I saw Unhinged in an actual movie theater, a couple weeks after some screens re-opened across the nation. To play things extra safe, my wife and I went to the first showing of the day (so anything floating around in the air from the night before would have settled), on a Sunday (only a few other people were there), in the very back row (the nearest folks were five rows down from us), and wearing masks (required, and for good reason). Even with the restrictions, it was great to be back. We laughed, gasped, snarked, jumped in our seats, and all the rest.

Maybe the upbeat, deeply missed experience further biased my view of the film. It’s hard to say for sure, but yeah… it probably did.

However, as a man who values his cinematic taste, here’s where I have some hope… I did see a new release a few weeks ago — one that I really wanted to be good (mainly because I’m a big fan of the film’s director, Christopher Nolan). And yet, as it turned out, I thought it was rather terrible.

I’m talking about Tenet, which I saw with my son at the drive-in:

The only things I can say with complete certainty about the plot of Tenet is that it takes place in the not-so distant future, it has to do with time travel, the fate of the world is dependent on a CIA agent completing his mission, and there are a lot of weird time-warpy action scenes where people are fighting in backwards motion. The rest would merely be guess-work on my part, because it’s largely incomprehensible.

Let me be clear that I’m not one of those people who gets easily confused by time travel movies. My wife’s a different story (and she’s the first to admit it). In fact, she’s still wrapping her head around Kyle Reese being John Connor’s father. So, it was probably for the best that she didn’t come with us.

About an hour into Tenet, I wanted to leave, but it’s easier said than done when you’re parked at a drive-in theater, mid-show (especially after waiting a couple hours for the sun to go down). Plus, I considered the possibility that my son may have actually been enjoying the film. So, I instead found excuses to get out of the car, walk around, clear my head, and take artsy pictures of the projector beam:

While Tenet was two and half hours of my life that I’ll never have back (and it turned out that my son didn’t particularly care for it either), it at least gave me some confidence in my ability to still recognize a poor film.

Have you noticed a pandemic-based decline in your own movie tastes, or in perhaps another form of entertainment or art? If so, tell me about it in the comment section below (just so I won’t feel as weird).

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in The Daly Grind, a free (mostly non-political) weekly subscription newsletter from John Daly.

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My Favorite Movies

It seems that every time I write anything about movies, I can count on hearing from readers who boast about not having seen one since “Birth of a Nation.” I can certainly empathize with those who don’t want to waste their time and money watching movies based on comic books and have no desire to help enrich or promote the careers of people like Alec Baldwin, Susan Sarandon, George Clooney, Sean Penn, Morgan Freeman, Jamie Foxx, Tim Robbins, Steven Spielberg and Jane Fonda.

But I hate to think that people are depriving themselves of either art or entertainment because of their politics. Heaven knows nobody has more contempt for the Hollywood hypocrites who talk up socialism while cashing humongous checks and parrot Obama’s demands that the rich pay higher taxes while employing high-priced CPAs and every tax dodge under the sun to ensure they pay the bare minimum.

That being said, even since the days of silent films there have been any number of terrific movies I think everyone should see.

My sole criteria in selecting the movies on my list is that I have seen them all several times over a period of years and have continued to enjoy them.

I list them not in order of preference, but simply by decade:

The 30s (and a few from the late 20s):
Dinner at Eight, City Lights, Gay Divorcee, It Happened One Night, Alice Adams, The Gold Rush, Top Hat, 39 Steps, My Man Godfrey, Swing Time, Make Way for Tomorrow, Carefree, Destry Rides Again, The Wizard of Oz, Bachelor Mother, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. (Note: Of these 17 movies, four starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and one starred Ginger Rogers and David Niven.)

The 40s:
My Favorite Wife, The Shop Around the Corner, The Thief of Bagdad, The Devil and Miss Jones, Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve, This Gun for Hire, Palm Beach Story, Woman of the Year, The Major and the Minor, The Glass Key, Casablanca, Shadow of a Doubt, The More the Merrier, Meet Me in St. Louis, Double Indemnity, Hail the Conquering Hero, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Laura, Mildred Pierce, The Best Years of Our Lives, It’s a Wonderful Life, Stairway to Heaven, Great Expectations, The Farmer’s Daughter, Force of Evil, I Remember Mama, Red River, A Foreign Affair, Apartment for Peggy. (Note: Of the 32 movies, four were written and directed by Preston Sturges.)

The 50s:
All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, The African Queen, People Will Talk, The Quiet Man, High Noon, Shane, On the Waterfront, 7 Brides for 7 Brothers, Marty, Ladykillers, Sweet Smell of Success, Desk Set, North x Northwest, Some Like It Hot. (Note: Of the 48 movies of the 40s and 50s, six were directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, and a seventh was co-written by him.)

The 60s:
School for Scoundrels, The Apartment, Hustler, Charade, My Fair Lady, The Pumpkin Eater, The World of Henry Orient, 36 Hours, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, Alfie, Divorce American Style, Two for the Road, Support Your Local Sheriff. (Note: Although I never regarded myself as a fan of westerns, I can’t help noticing that of the 76 movies listed so far, five are westerns.)

The 70s:
A New Leaf, The Godfather, The Heartbreak Kid, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, The Goodbye Girl, House Calls, Time After Time, Breaking Away, La Cage aux Folles, The In-Laws. (Note: Clearly not my favorite decade. Of the 10 movies, two starred Walter Matthau and two starred Richard Dreyfuss.)

The 80s:
Diner, A Christmas Story, The Natural, Broadway Danny Rose, All of Me, Witness, Murphy’s Romance, Lost in America, Hannah and Her Sisters, Hoosiers, Roxanne, The Princess Bride, Moonstruck, The Untouchables, Lethal Weapon, Midnight Run, Naked Gun, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Die Hard, Crossing Delancey, Field of Dreams, The Tall Guy. (For me, it was a decade of firsts, including the first and last Woody Allen movies I ever liked and the first sports movie to make the list; in fact, there were three of them.)

The 90s:
Green Card, Quigley Down Under, Cinema Paradiso, Beauty and the Beast, Silence of the Lambs, Dead Again, Defending Your Life, My Cousin Vinny, Enchanted April, Housesitter, Peter’s Friends, Groundhog Day, Falling Down, The Remains of the Day, The Fugitive, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Nobody’s Fool, Sense and Sensibility, A Family Thing, Fargo, Swingers, Sliding Doors, An Ideal Husband, Galaxy Quest, Election, Mumford. (Note: As I look at my list, I realize that for me, this was the decade of the English, thanks mainly to its introducing me to Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Hugh Laurie, John Hannah, Michael Kitchen and Rowan Atkinson.)

The 21st century:
The Dish, About a Boy, Chicago, The Upside of Anger, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Matador, The Lives of Others, Thank You for Smoking, Taken, The Blind Side, Bridesmaids, The King’s Speech, The Artist. (Note: Pretty skimpy pickings for 13 years.)

Unless I’ve miscounted, there are 149 movies on my list. Not a lot when you realize they represent about 85 years of moviemaking. Some people will notice that my plebian taste generally runs to comedies. Others will notice that although most people think 1939 was the greatest year for movies, my personal favorite was 1946, because that was the year of “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Stairway to Heaven,” which sometimes goes by the title of “A Matter of Life and Death.”

But I suspect that the thing that will leave the greatest number of movie aficionados flummoxed will be the absence of “Gone with the Wind,” “The Searchers,” “Ben-Hur,” “The Sound of Music,” “Grand Illusion,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Mrs. Miniver,” “Rebecca,” “Hamlet,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “A Man for All Seasons,” “Last Year at Marienbad,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Deliverance,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Coming Home,” “Good Fellas,” “Out of Africa,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Platoon,” “Titanic,” “La Dolce Vita,” “Amadeus” and “Raging Bull.”

They were all distinguished, award-winning productions, and the one thing they all had in common was that I could barely sit through them even once. The mere thought of having to sit through any of these snooze fests a second time makes my teeth ache.

©2013 Burt Prelutsky. Comments? Write BurtPrelutsky@aol.com.




You Can Like Movies and Still Hate Jane Fonda

Those of us who are conservatives tend to be dismissive of the popular arts. We say, and with good reason I’d argue, that music has been going downhill since the days when composers and lyricists named Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Berlin, Loesser, Rodgers, Hammerstein, Hart, Mercer and Fields, were writing the songs; people named Astaire, Rogers, Kelly and O’Connor, were dancing to them; and folks named Crosby, Sinatra, Fitzgerald and Stafford, were singing them.

I would also contend that TV has never matched the days when Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, Playhouse 90, Studio One, and Philco Playhouse provided top-notch comedy and drama on a weekly basis. I would add that things have only gotten worse ever since Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour was dug up from the cemetery where old TV shows are buried, re-named American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance and, for all I know, So You Think You Can Play the Zither, and been expanded to fill several hours over several days of the week.

Where I draw the line is when we get to the movies. Perhaps it’s because so many actors, writers and directors, have shown themselves to be idiots, propagandizing for the likes of Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Roman Polanski, and donating millions to Obama’s re-election campaign, that conservatives are so contemptuous of Hollywood. I would also assume that Hollywood’s approach to producing movies, which generally consists of churning out sequels, basing dumb movies on dumb comic books and re-making good movies badly, has turned off nearly everyone who isn’t a 14-year-old in mind, if no longer in body.

The problem is that too many people have concluded that there’s nothing worth seeing simply because so much of it is a total waste of time and money. That makes about as much sense as assuming that every politician is stupid and corrupt simply because so many of them are.

While it’s true that they’re not making as many good movies in any single year as they did in, say, 1939 or 1940, there have been, on average, two movies every year going back to 1990 that are as good as any movies ever made.

While it’s true that a few of them were foreign language and eleven of them were English, most of them were made here in America.

Because I realize that taste in movies is every bit as subjective as taste in food, I don’t expect anyone to feel the same way I do about the following movies. But I do think it’s fair to say that if you haven’t seen at least half of them, you really aren’t in any position to bloviate about how terrible motion pictures are these days.

The 44, in alphabetical order:
A Family Thing
About a Boy
An Ideal Husband
The Artist
Babe
The Blind Side
Chicago
Cinema Paradiso
Defending Your Life
The Dish
Election
Enchanted April
Falling Down
Fargo
The Firm
Four Weddings and A Funeral
The Fugitive
Galaxy Quest
Gran Torino
Green Card
Groundhog Day
Housesitter
The King’s Speech
L.A. Confidential
Lives of Others
Lost in America
Love, Actually
The Matador
My Cousin Vinny
Nanny McPhee
Nobody’s Fool
Peter’s Friends
The Queen
Remains of the Day
Secrets and Lies
Sense and Sensibility
Shattered Glass
Shrek
Sliding Doors
Swingers
Taken
Thank You for Smoking
Toy Story
The Upside of Anger

As I said, you may not enjoy these movies as much as I did. I merely wanted to go on record to say that, in my opinion, the silver screen is not quite as tarnished as some people, generally those who never see any movies, insist it is.

©2012 Burt Prelutsky. Write to BurtPrelutsky@aol.com.



Sex, Lies and the Movies

One of the reasons that movies today are so devoid of compelling characters and engrossing plots is that the folks who make them are, more often than not, too young and too isolated from humanity. That’s not to say that writers and directors in their 20s and 30s can’t be talented, but, as a rule, what they have are a passel of petty grievances (the studios, their agents, the deals, other people’s success, etc.); what they lack is wisdom. They simply haven’t lived long enough or suffered enough major losses — friends, parents, spouses, children — to have developed a grown-up’s philosophy.

Perhaps that also helps to explain why nearly all of them are liberals. When all that one hears all day long is left-wing claptrap — and especially when future employment demands acquiescence to the prevailing tenets — it’s easy to understand the half-baked inanities these wienies so arrogantly espouse. They speak of tolerance as if it’s something they copyrighted, but they despise everyone who isn’t in lockstep with them. Although they make their living with words, when it comes to debating the opposition, they rely on a mantra of “racist,” “fascist,” “bigot” and “homophobe.”

This isolation from large segments of the population, relying strictly on other members of the industry for one’s social and intellectual life, might also explain why even major stars subscribe to the blathering of someone like Barack Obama, who carries on very much like a movie star.
It occurred to me that even without make-up, stars don’t seem to age at the same rate as the rest of us. It’s not all thanks to Botox and plastic surgery, hairpieces and stomach stapling. When you’re a movie star, as rich as Midas, as pampered as Madame Pompadour, you are spared all the day-to-day travails that wear down the rest of us. Stars have drivers, managers, secretaries, gofers and nannies, to take care of all their needs — everything from picking up his dry cleaning to raising the kids.

A tragedy in a star’s life is getting a smaller trailer than the female lead. A hardship in that world is having to get up early in the morning so that some guy who had to wake up even earlier can chauffeur him to the studio, where someone else will dress him and apply his makeup, so that a third person can then guide him safely around the scenery and tell him how to say his lines.

Except that he may have less time for golf and vacations, it’s a lot like being the president. One main difference is that the star has to pay for his own bodyguards, while the rest of us have to pay for the president’s.

Living that sort of privileged life, even Methuselah, on his deathbed, wouldn’t have looked a day over 450.

Warren Beatty once said that at some point in his life, every man should experience being a motion picture star. His message was that such fortunate individuals never have to pursue women because women pursue them. He’s right, of course. The odd thing is that movie stars don’t have to look like young Mr. Beatty or Brad Pitt to be chick magnets. I have known a lot of actors, a great many of whom looked more like me than they did like George Clooney, but even they had to beat off women with a stick; although, truth be told, they generally left the stick in the closet or out in the tool shed.

It took me a long time to figure out the attraction. I finally decided that women spend a good deal of their time fantasizing and, so, when they are with a professional actor, it seems only natural to fantasize they are co-starring in a movie, even if it’s X-rated.

I suspect that an additional bonus is that any guilt they might otherwise have experienced over having sex with a perfect, or perhaps I should say, an imperfect stranger, is easily dispelled by the notion that it was only a movie after all, and that, like every ditsy actress who’s ever done a tacky nude scene, she, too, was merely doing it for her art!

©2010 Burt Prelutsky
Write to: BurtPrelutsky@aol.com.
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