Tuesday, July 14, 2015

NINJA STUFF: Too Many Movies

Do you love movies, Esteemed Reader? I know it's long been fashionable for literary types (and you're here, so I'm assuming you at least like books) to hold television and movies in disdain. And this is natural. They are direct competitors to novels, as are video games and any number of other entertainments that eat up the hours consumers might otherwise spend reading.

But this is a first-world problem if there ever was one and I say it's a wonderful time to be alive that we have so many entertainments available to enjoy in moderation. It's the "in moderation" part I sometimes struggle with, whether its the new Hugh Howey I'm reading instead of writing or all 12 episodes of Netflix's Daredevil that demand to be watched the same weekend they're released (it's the Breaking Bad of superhero shows and not to be missed).

However, this year I may have lost my taste for most movie-going. A family member gave me a corporate card allowing me two free tickets per day at a theater located conveniently halfway between my home and my day job. I work a modified schedule to allow me to write (more books coming soon) and take care of Little Ninja, so I keep strange hours and am often out the door past when my family is asleep and just in time for the late show.

It's been the perfect storm allowing me to watch more new release movies this year than I have in the last 7 years combined. Some parents have famously taught their children not to smoke by forcing them to smoke a full pack (a dubious method at best), and I feel I may have inadvertently done something similar to myself with movies. The year is only half done, but I have already over-indulged and I need a break.

Don't get me wrong. I love movies and I'll see more. The few seconds of Han Solo and Chewbacca together again at the end of that The Force Awakens trailer awoke in me a deep-rooted childhood need to see that movie as soon as possible. And the second Batman V. Superman trailer is the finest 3 minutes and 39 seconds of film I've seen all year and it made my heart swell up and explode and I may never again witness something that so fulfills my child's dream of what a movie might one day dare to be. In fact, let's enjoy it together:

I'm savoring that trailer because I've learned that when it comes to big summer movies, more often than not the trailer and the anticipation are the best part. I'm old enough to remember losing my stuff over the trailers for The Phantom Menace only to reach the cinema and realize that despite the hype, it was just a Star Wars movie (and probably the worst of the existing six). I can't remember ever being more amped for a flick than sitting in the theater watching the opening credits of Superman Returns with its soaring John Williams score and its title cards coming out of the screen from space the way they did when I was a toddler. The movie that followed could've never lived up to the movie in my imagination.

When I walk into a theater, the smell of popcorn hits me full in the face from the fans blowing it there like the bait of a trap. It's intoxicating and enticing, the olfactory equivalent of the siren's song. At the beginning of this year, I didn't have the will to walk past that counter without a little something. The popcorn itself is divine through the top layer, greedily finished during the previews and usually shared with a friend. The middle layer is eaten automatically as the movie either casts the spell of story or at the very least, blows something up real good. The bottom layer is left and usually tossed out with the bag (didn't over-indulge if I didn't eat the bottom), but a sampling reveals a cold packing material substance unfit for human consumption, though very salty and still technically edible.

Soda and I have mostly parted ways since All Together Now, but I took pride in drinking bottled water and ignoring the candy. Popcorn is a relatively healthy treat, or rather it is when I eat it at home, but that's because I make it rather than a corporation focused solely on maximizing profit and unconcerned with the long-term effects of routinely selling consumers buckets of sugar water to drink along with their tubs of lard.

In a way, it's my fault. It's true, there are no calorie counts or ingredients listings at the concession counter. But being a responsible American means being aware that at any given time you're surrounded by companies happy to poison you for your money. Our obesity epidemic is not some abstract crisis we couldn't have seen coming, but the natural and predictable response to surrounding Americans by poison and engineering a diet designed to suck away their cash through addiction and murder them after first making them miserable for years.

Weight and diet are the subject of another post, but Mrs. Ninja and I have been consciously eating healthier since having a kid and this issue of popcorn struck home for me. Again, it's partly my fault for being so trusting and, less innocent, I didn't want to know as I like popcorn, but I did some research and learned that a large popcorn without butter at this particular theater chain (no names or links as I don't want my card canceled before Star Wars) has the same calorie count as a large pizza from a popular chain (I also don't want to be sued). If you're thinking you'll just do the medium popcorn instead of the large, the jokes on you because the bag is taller than the wider tub and the content is exactly the same minus the free refill (better re-size the seats again and make the Yoda T-shirts in 5XL by the time Episode 9 hits).
I learned this little nugget months ago and have seen several movies since, but now I smuggle grapes in with me, not because I wouldn't pay for a reasonable snack to help compensate for the free ticket, but because I don't trust anything they're serving. I can't be expected to spend my days constantly researching to what degree the theater is trying to poison me, so I have to avoid all their food, including their bottled water, which has sugar in it.

But we were discussing movies. I love movies. They're fun. Sometimes turning your brain off and watching something big and dumb is the perfect way to spend two hours. And once in a while, I see something I truly love. Birdman blew my mind and immediately joined my top ten favorites of all time. It Follows was an extraordinary horror film that kept me and the audience on edge its entire running time. And though I'm going to say some disparaging things about it, I really did love Jurassic World.

I've listed 3 films I'm glad to have seen this year and I'll even mention that I found Spy to be very funny. There are approximately 700 films released in the US each year and 699 of them aren't Birdman. Obviously, I can't see every movie released (does anyone? And if so, why?). I've seen the majority of the big ones though and confirmed my suspicion that most big-budget movies are cinematic tubs of popcorn. They're mass produced garbage engineered to draw you in and make you feel like you've eaten, though there's little nutritional value and too much will rot your brain the same way popcorn rots your body.

For example, one of the big movies I most looked forward to was Avengers: Age of Ultron, and I can't say it was a bad movie, even if all the action looked like a video game. It was, however, a hollow experience. None of the characters had discernible arcs (though Hawkeye tried, God love him), even the very interesting but ultimately under-utilized Ultron. At no point was I concerned our heroes wouldn't triumph and nothing of substance was discussed metaphorically or otherwise. The whole thing felt like a toy commercial and seemed to spend a third of its running time setting up endless sequels rather than telling a coherent narrative.

I'm not complaining (much). Iron Man fought Hulk and stuff blowed up real good and it was all in glorious 3D. If I'd paid for a ticket, I would've got my money's worth. The problem, as I've said, is that I've watched too many movies and need a break (think I'll skip Fantastic 4 and catch them on the next reboot). Another problem is that I'm too old to be the target audience, though I could've fooled the ticket stand showing up as I so often do in a Batman T-shirt:)

I've also discovered Lionel Shriver this summer and at some point I'm going to write her a love letter for how much her books have given me. I started with an audiobook of We Need To Talk About Kevin, which moved me to tears in the middle of mowing my lawn, then I devoured Big Brother, and I can't get enough of The Post-Birthday World. Finding her novels in the midst of the summer movie season is like discovering vegetables and proper food when I've been sub-existing on doughnuts.

The audiobook for We Need To Talk About Kevin was over 16 hours, so I spent considerably more time with Shriver's characters, who were allowed the luxury of nuance and who were, in many ways, incredibly unlikable (partly because they don't have to double as Happy Meal toys). I feel like if I met Big Brother's Pandora and Edison, I would want to hug them and tell them I understand. In the complete unified vision of a single author I can get close enough to characters for empathy and be told a story I haven't heard before that could potentially have a sad, but meaningful ending because a major studio's entire fiscal year isn't dependent on giving the audience what they seem to want.

At no point during her novels have characters had to wear designer clothes with the labels showing or consume conspicuous products available at a store near you. Edison and Pandora don't have one off conversations to set up the origins of Black Panther (coming soon!) or allow two secondary characters to feud long enough to bridge to next summer's Civil War as well as Avengers 3-14. We Need To Talk About Kevin is terrifying and violent in places, but most of the book is characters interacting realistically without stopping every 10 minutes for obligatory action set pieces because it's a story for adults capable of paying attention without being pandered to.

I'm looking forward to Batman V. Superman even though I already know the full plot from that trailer (spoiler: they're going to become Super Friends). And I'm well aware that occasionally a blockbuster movie can transcend and become something more meaningful such as The Dark Knight, or the less heralded Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which had the courage to satire America so savagely and brilliantly I could scarcely believe such wit had been applied to a superhero movie. Once in a while, moviegoers get a real meal at the cinema, and it's that experience that keeps us going back hoping to find more. But most of the time, it's eye candy like Terminator Genesis, which made no sense and was of little consequence, but had Arnold fighting Arnold and was loud and fun and blew stuff up real good.

Too much of a good thing is bad. Part of being an adult means putting healthier things in your body than nonstop junk food and putting healthier stories in your brain than mindless entertainment we all know deep down isn't good for us. It's okay to indulge every so often (come on Daredevil, season 2!), but let's call it what it is. And if you find yourself watching Iron Man 3 for the fourth time, I promise you've grocked its fullness, and maybe you should consider turning it off and reading a book (you can totally still wear a Batman T-shirt while you do it).

That's the end of the post, but I have some spoiler-ry thoughts on Jurassic World I want to share below and I'm not going to write a whole separate post about movies on my blog about books.

I saw Jurassic World with Adam Smith, my best friend since the third grade and the illustrator of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees. It was a special night for us because 22 years before when we were the target audience, we begged his mom to take us to Jurassic Park and it remains one of my favorite memories. We sat near the front and checked each other often to see how scared we were and he's never let me forget I screamed when the T-Rex ate the lawyer:)

We went to Jurassic World hoping to recapture some of that magic and weren't disappointed. Old man Ninja says "The dinosaurs looked more real back in my day when the actors worked with puppets rather than tennis balls on sticks." Even though the dinos were less convincing, the many tributes to the original, the super awesome chase scenes, and the dino fights made us boys again, and we could pretend both that the dinos were real and that B.D Wong can act:)

The thing about getting free tickets is everyone wants to go to the movies with you, so I've seen Jurassic World three times (the most I've seen any movie this year, even for free). During my second viewing I noticed there were people in the movie as well as dinosaurs and they said stuff. One isn't supposed to overthink a movie about a dinosaur theme park, but by my third viewing I was watching with a more critical eye--can't help it.

So I noticed things like gee, Chris Pratt's character looks like he eats only the food of the gods and spends all day at the gym, but on screen he enjoys Coca-Cola with the label facing the camera, so it's probably not actually soda in that bottle. Or that Dr. Wu seems to be included in the movie only so  he can steal all the DNA research and set up the sequels. And I know they have to show the T-Rex's interest in flares early to set up the finale, but if park workers have to put a flare out every-time they feed him a goat, how will he find food once he's in the wild again?

And what the heck kind of female lead is Bryce Dallas Howard's Clair Dearing? Again, Jurassic World brought the dinosaurs, so we're square, and arguing about how realistic the plot is is ludicrous. Still, this stuff matters. Most of the characters in the movie are men and the marketing is aimed largely at boys. There are four main female characters: the clueless assistant who dies the worst death in the flick, the mom who cries a lot and doesn't go to the park, the tech operator who has a boyfriend and won't give the funny guy a break, and Clair Dearing, who has the movie's main character arc--too bad it's offensive to women everywhere.

To be fair, I believe she's meant to be a doppelganger to Alan Grant's character arc in the original film. You'll remember Alan Grant loved Ellie Slater, but didn't want to have kids, putting their relationship at stake. After rescuing two really lucky kids from dinos and trees, he discovers his inner-dad and agrees to have children. Too bad Ellie Slater apparently married somebody else in JP3, which is fine F-you to the audience.

Clair Dearing is the high-powered, no-nonsense business woman who apparently runs Jurassic World, despite never seeming to know anything about how the park works or how the dinosaurs behave. She doesn't even know her own nephews (she's worse than Hitler)! She's got power and responsibility, sure, but she doesn't have children, so how can she be a real woman? Chris Pratt's character swills not-Coke (not with those pearly white teeth) and flat out tells her she needs to get laid. Also, despite literally working in a jungle, Clair only owns impractical stripper heals because, ya know, ladies love to look good for their raptor-taming, Coke-posing boyfriends. 

As the park inevitably falls apart, we discover that Clair is apparently really bad at her job. There's no way she's not getting fired. But it's okay because through her adventure she discovers all she really needs is a strong tough man to tell her what's what. At the moment when Clair is sitting in a van while said man handles his business and her nephews exclaim "your boyfriend's a bad***!" and she smiles like a fawning teenager, my stomach rolled over.  Notice how her high-powered business suit gradually becomes a tight little outfit showing lots of cleavage to signify this change from ice-queen businesswoman to warm mother, a woman's true place. Naturally the credits roll just as she and Chris Never-Drank-More-Than-A-Can-Of-Coke-In-His-Life Pratt make out, planning to make lots of babies.

I say there should be one more scene in that movie, a flash forward to three years later to a pill-popping, wine-guzzling housewife Clair trapped in Chris Pratt's trailer with two kids while he's out with his raptor buddies. Think she's still all gooey-eyed, or does she maybe, sometimes miss being a CEO? And more important, is she still wearing stripper heels, or has she descended to sweat pants and tennis shoes (say it ain't so)? 

Probably I'm overthinking things. It is, after all, just a dinosaur movie and a pretty good one. Still, it had the biggest opening of all time and until Star Wars arrives, it appears to be the box office champion of 2015. A lot of children, boys and girls, saw that movie and many of them will see it over and over again at home. Aside from "don't be fat while hiding from an Indominous Rex, because if you are, you deserve to get chomped" and "drink lots and lots of Coke if you want to look like Chris Pratt," what lessons did they learn? 

1 comment:

  1. Oh how I wish you could bring your own food into the movie theater without feeling like your committing a crime! The last movie I saw was Inside Out, which my kiddo and I enjoyed. Nice post.


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