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Has the Pandemic Ruined Our Taste in Movies?
A lowered cinematic bar in complicated times
Before I start things off, I should mention that I just re-read the headline above, and now feel compelled to clarify that the “taste” pun, in reference to COVID-19, was not at all intended. Now, onto today’s edition of the Daly Grind…
Last week, my wife Sarah 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 Sarah would be receptive, being that she’d voiced some interest in it the first time we saw it advertise on television. Truth be told, Sarah 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 (callback!), 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. I even took a grainy photo to prove it:
On second glance, that looks like it could have been taken of a standard television, but I assure you it wasn’t. To play things extra safe, Sarah 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. Sarah’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 (just so I won’t feel as weird).
My novel Safeguard is featured in this month’s "Mountain of Mysteries" edition of Colorado Country Life. The statewide magazine (which is great by the way) spotlights books from Colorado authors every November. It’s always fun to be included.
I had no idea what the Footloose lyric "I'm punching my card" meant until years later (when I got a real job); I honestly thought Kenny Loggins was talking about knuckle-punching his driver’s license or something. Also, it wasn’t until I saw the movie in college (again, years later) that I realized “Louise,” “Jack,” and “Mack” (who are mentioned prominently in the song) weren’t names of characters in the film. Who were they???
On a positive note, I did own a pair of “Sunday shoes” as a kid, so at least that part made sense.
Have you ever fallen in love with a really old song through a much newer movie or television show? One that immediately comes to mind for me is Unchained Melody (the 1965 cover by The Righteous Brothers). It was of course re-popularized in the 1990s (and introduced to my generation) through the movie, Ghost.
A few others were Nights in White Satin by the Moody Blues (from a little known Tom Berenger movie called Shattered), You Don’t Know Me by Ray Charles (from Groundhog’s Day), and Kansas’s classic, Dust in the Wind (from a particularly memorable episode of Highlander, the series).
It probably didn’t hurt that the imagery in the ad evoked endearing childhood innocence and adventure, but the merits of the song itself (the intimate, acoustic-folk sound and poetic lyrics) are what mainly resonated with.
To feel you all around me
And to take your hand
Along the sand
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind
Catch the Wind by Scottish singer, Donovan (one of those single-name artists), is one of those tunes I never get tired of. It was released in 1965 on his debut album, which I came across at an indoor flea market a while back. The record includes lots of other great songs with that distinctly vinyl sound that undeniably compliments Donovan’s work.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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Take care. And I’ll talk to you soon!