Wednesday, February 18, 2009

When watching movies is work

I'm going on a mini vacation to Arizona starting tomorrow after work. It's the road trip my wife and I have been dying to take for awhile now, and after a number of other ideas were tossed around, it's actually the destination we first brain-stormed almost two years ago: Bisbee, Arizona, just miles from the Mexican border, where we'll be staying in a vintage trailer park full of vintage trailers. Please don't steal our stuff while we're gone.

Even though I'll be missing only two work days, I still always feel like I need to tie up loose ends before leaving on such a trip. It just so happens that most of them this time had to do with the movies, not the tech support trouble tickets, that were on my docket.

That's right, during the 40-hour period from Sunday afternoon to early this morning, I finished three very different movies that felt like chores for three very different reasons. No one ever said being a film critic was "thumbs up" 100% of the time.

Let's go chronologically:

1. The Big Red One: Reconstruction (1980/2004, Samuel Fuller). A movie released in two different years? I should probably explain. This is a World War II epic whose director hated the cut that the studio forced on him, and six years after he died, film critic and historian Richard Schickel decided to release a reconstructed version based on some newly discovered footage Fuller shot back in the late 1970s.

The Big Red One: Reconstruction was not something I would have ever known anything about, and it was only recently that I realized it's an update of an older film. My editors assigned it to me over a year ago because they were surprised it wasn't yet reviewed. Most of the films I review are ones I've requested, but the first list I ever received back in 2000, plus two more since then, have been films they asked me to review. I tend to take these more seriously because I know it's content they actually want, unlike some of the funny titles I throw their way that they approve anyway.

But this one eluded me for quite some time, as until recently it was listed as "Very Long Wait" on I realized my only shot to get my hands on it might be if my wife helped me out by loading it on her Netflix queue, so I gave this title to her among a list of others with indeterminate availability. As irony would have it, The Big Red One: Reconstruction freed up on Blockbuster at just the time it arrived in the mail through Netflix. That worked out anyway, because only the Netflix copy was watchable -- Blockbuster had sent me Disc 2, featuring only the DVD extras, contrary to their own email notifcation. This isn't the only time Blockbuster's dunces have sent me the wrong movie. I recently got the 2007 version of The Hitcher when I had requested the 1986 version (which actually isn't as good as the remake). But as usual, I'm digressing.

In order to properly judge the success of The Big Red One: Reconstruction, however, I first had to watch The Big Red One. While there may be some debate about whether you need to first read a novel to judge its film adaptation, it's pretty clear that a review of a re-released film has little worth if you haven't seen the original. So set about seeing it I did. I returned the useless disc of extras (and didn't even bother to report it as a problem), triggering the sending of the original version of The Big Red One, which I watched last weekend. And which I thought sucked. I instantly understood why Mr. Fuller was so bummed about their evisceration of his pet project.

So as you can imagine, it wasn't very appetizing knowing that The Big Red One: Reconstruction -- a full 45 minutes longer -- was awaiting me. Not only that, but I couldn't procrastinate on it, because my wife's Netflix plan allows the sending of a new movie only once you've returned the previous one. And no, I don't get paid more for watching two movies instead of one.

So I started slogging through it last Tuesday at the gym. And then Thursday at the gym. And then Saturday at the gym. This got me through the first hour and 20 minutes only. I finally finished the second half on Sunday afternoon, but that was in two sittings as well, since I slept for about 20 minutes in between. So if you're counting, that's five different distinct viewings to get through all 158 minutes of The Big Red One: Reconstruction.

Happily, I can report that at least this version was much better. The movie had a much smoother flow once the bridging scenes had been restored to the cut. And hey, if I'm going to exercise before work on machines with 20-minute time limits, I should expect that a two-hour-and-forty-minute movie is going to take me awhile.

2. Ten Canoes (2006, Rolf de Heer). This was another film for review, one that I'd requested. It's the first-ever film featuring only Aboriginal actors, and it captures the Aboriginal traditions in a way that both respects them and makes them narratively lively and absorbing.

So why was this one a chore? Well, I can say it was absorbing now that I've watched it. But before that, it felt like a daunting task. A daunting immersion into a totally foreign world. So daunting, in fact, that this was the third time I'd rented it from the library.

I discovered this when I was cleaning out the car on Sunday in prepration for this road trip. It had obviously been awhile since I'd done a proper cleaning, as I found two different receipts for library rentals, both of which featured Ten Canoes as one of the three titles you're allowed to rent on any given visit. One from August and one from December. I'd picked up Ten Canoes a third time last Thursday, really intending to watch it this time. But it was late Sunday afternoon, I already knew how the rest of my day was going to play out, and frankly, I knew my schedule would be pretty busy before leaving on this trip. (In fact, the only reason I'm writing this now is because I'm at work and all my bosses have gone home). And the videos were due back before the library opened on Tuesday, after a rental period that had already been elongated by the library's normal Sunday closure and its Monday closure for Presidents' Day. The fact that my wife, a native Australian, has already seen it tended to further disincentivize my viewing.

Well, it seemed like too much of an indignity to this little movie to force myself into an eventual fourth rental. So I carved out the time Monday evening to watch it, even though the DVR was already stacked with shows, which would need to be cleaned off to make way for the ones that would record while we're away.

I was distracted a handful of times by the needs of the evening, but made it through just before 9, right as a delayed dinner was coming out of the oven. And damn glad I did -- it's a fine piece of filmmaking, and not the least bit alienating. One thing that's good about films like this and like Apocalypto -- which is similar in ways, but very different in others -- is that in addition to all the exotic culture they show us, they also remind us how similar all human beings are. As it turns out, the Aboriginals make fart and dick jokes just like we do.

3. The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A Veggietales Movie (2008, Mike Nawrocki). On this one I have only myself to blame. When I saw the billboards for this movie a year ago, I thought it seemed ridiculous. Yeah, I know I'm not the target audience for Veggietales. But the unwieldy title of this movie seemed to be a particularly artless spoof of the recently completed Pirates of the Caribbean series. I fixated on the idea that it wasn't even a good parallel with Pirates of the Caribbean in terms of the naming structure. In which of these titles -- Curse of the Black Pearl, Dead Man's Chest, and At World's End -- is what the pirates actually do even hinted at? In one of those moments where I've started writing my review early -- in this case, a year early -- I planned to request this movie to review when it became available on DVD.

So I rented it from the store two Sundays ago. Blockbuster is pretty good about in-store returns now that they've tacked on a week's grace period to all their return dates. With this system, even the hot new releases won't cost you anything until you've had them out for nine days. With older releases, like Veggietales, you get more than two weeks to return them without penalty.

However, by Monday night, I realized that if I didn't get that movie watched before the trip, I'd be perilously close to late fees by the time we returned. (Plus, our immediate viewing priority upon returning will be the Oscars). The only thing worse than watching this Veggietales movie -- aren't these vegetables supposed to be Christian vegetables or something? -- would be getting charged a fee to either watch it or not watch it.

So at the ridiculous hour of 12:46 a.m. last night, I put it in the DVD player. It's slightly less ridiculous when you consider that I don't report to work until 9:30 on Tuesdays, but still, it's ridiculous. And I had one of those experiences that I'm sure some of you have had before, when you're fighting the return deadline of a movie and you absolutely can't fall asleep while watching it. Of course, this only makes you more likely to fall asleep.

Which I did. Several times. But like a good soldier, I kept on watching. I'd watch for five minutes, then take a nap, then watch another five minutes. I got through about the first 20 minutes by 2 a.m. this way. But then I had to pack it in for what was left of a full night's sleep. I woke up at 7:30 to watch the last hour, and am proud to say, made it to the finish line.

And what do you know? Pleasant suprise #3 out of 3. No, I'm not about to tell you that The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything is high art, or anything even close to that. But I will say it's not quite as baby as I thought it would be, not nearly as Christian as I thought it would be (I noticed nary a sign), and on a good day, it can be characterized as cute. On a bad day, at least it's inoffensive.

I've earned my vacation, wouldn't you say?

And sorry for my long-windedness. You probably won't get another update on The Audient until next Monday, so I've got to get everything out now. I guess I should have told you earlier to break this up over multiple sittings.

After all, I happen to know all about that kind of thing.


Daddy Geek Boy said...

I think it's pretty clear that watching the first two colored your viewing of the last one.

When I saw it directly after "Coyote Ugly" even "Hollow Man" seemed good.

Vancetastic said...

Bite your tongue. Hollow Man could not be good under any circumstances. "Let's go back for that guy!" "Okay, we went back for that guy! What now?" "He's dead! Let's leave!"

Paul said...

I actually watched The Big Red One on HBO frequently growing up. What other WWII movie has a scene where the soldiers help deliver a baby in a tank? Or a shootout with retards in an insane asylum? Good stuff!