Sunday, February 21, 2010

Second chances

It's not every day that you felt sort of "meh" about a movie, and then later give it a second viewing. With all the choices out there for movies you haven't seen, never mind the movies you cherish but have seen only once, few of us budget the time to give a so-so movie a second chance.

So that's why receiving one of these movies as a gift really comes in handy.

For Christmas, my sister bought me Up and Inglourious Basterds. My wife had told her I was interested in adding to my DVD collection, which is true -- with the new asterisk that I may have to back off for awhile in anticipation of switching to BluRay. Whatever the format, though, I do want my collection to grow. I've mentioned in this space that for reasons of personal financial restraint, I no longer want to buy movies myself, but exclusively receive them as gifts. However, what I really mean is that I want a little person in my brain sending smoke signals to the giver, telling them exactly what I want -- I don't want them just blindly selecting movies they think I'll like, if they don't discuss film regularly with me and have a good sense of a) my tastes and b) what I already own. I'll risk saying this because my sister doesn't keep up with my blog: It's kind of like a grandmother who says "Oh, I hear little Johnny likes those newfangled action figures," and proceeds to buy you toys from whatever line of toys she thinks is popular, even if those aren't the toys you play with.

But I'm really being too critical, because my sister actually did a very good job. Objectively, she did an excellent job, in fact, as both Up and Inglourious Basterds ended up being nominated for best picture. But for me personally, it was only a 50% success rate, with Tarantino's movie the only one I was actually looking forward to inserting into the DVD player.

Until last night.

Last night was my wife's birthday. She was always on board with Up -- not 60% on board like I was, but most of the way to 100. So I magnanimously suggested that we watch it for her birthday, and she was excited by the idea.

I had my arms metaphorically crossed, though of course she saw nothing but smiles from me. It takes a heartless basterd indeed to openly oppose the wishes of one's wife on her birthday. But as the movie rolled along, I mentally uncrossed them -- not grudgingly, but willingly. And though it's still not in my top five Pixar movies -- which, you will agree, is acceptable, given the overall quality of Pixar -- I think it may have leapfrogged Ratatouille and Wall-E to take the seventh spot. (See here for my original Pixar rankings, posted the day after I saw Up, which, granted, didn't give it much time to stake its claim.)

Then again, that could be because I've given Ratatouille and Wall-E only one chance as well.

What troubles me about my initial impression of Up was not so much where I ranked it relative to other Pixar films. Pixar films are a top-notch breed, so even if you call something the ninth best Pixar film out of ten, you could still think it's a terrific movie. No, what troubles me is where I ranked it compared to other 2009 films. In fact, I ranked it #62 for the year -- out of 113 films. That means comfortably in the second half of films I saw this year. To give this mea culpa the full qualify of a confessional, in which I flagellate myself with all I've got, why don't we look at a nice little list of the inferior films that I ranked higher than Up, just under three short weeks ago. And keep in mind, I'm listing the funniest ones only:

Crank High Voltage

The Proposal

He's Just Not That Into You
Old Dogs

(Okay, kidding about that last one -- I did not actually see Old Dogs, and hope never to, for reasons stated here.)

Granted, those are all movies that I like more than I thought I would for one reason or another. But better than Up? In just a few short weeks, that seems like a very short-sighted decision.

And yet that's the power of a second viewing. My judgment about Up was based on how I really felt after one viewing: disappointed, relative to how I wanted to feel. But the second viewing theoretically eradicates the environmental factors that might have influenced you the first time around. When I first saw Up, there were two in particular that bothered me: 1) I was running late to meet my wife for the movie, so instead of the proper dinner we hoped to eat, we wolfed down a gyro from a street fair, and the rushed frustration of the scenario lingered with me; 2) The 3-D glasses happened to be really bothering me, especially since Up does not appear to have been designed to optimize 3-D (unlike, say, Monsters vs. Aliens or Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs). With neither of those factors in play last night, I was more free to concentrate on the story and appreciate the visuals, without expending mental energy on cursing the traffic, or wondering why the 3-D wasn't popping off the screen more than it was.

Of course, I still have concerns about the actual story. I still would have spent more time in the air before reaching Paradise Falls. I still would have spent less time with the characters carrying the house around like a balloon in the Thanksgiving day parade. I still think the talking dogs are a little silly, especially since the guy who invented the technology could have gone home and been heralded for that achievement instead of getting murderously obsessed with proving himself by locating a rare bird. And I still find that bird a little silly as well, though I was more charmed by Kevin this time around. But on my second viewing, I allowed myself to become more invested in the human characters than I was the first time, and more importantly, I was able to put the complaints listed above in their proper place: minor quibbles within an otherwise highly entertaining and aesthetically beautiful movie.

Up still would not have cracked my top 20 for 2009, but top 30 shouldn't have been a problem.

Up has also inspired me to wonder what other films I should give second chances. Writing about Gangs of New York yesterday made me think I needed to give this one another watch. At 168 minutes, that's a significantly tougher one. A History of Violence is another movie I hate that other people love.

And even though it could siphon off my other viewing priorities, it's exciting to have developed a new enthusiasm for giving movies second chances. It's all part of the fabric of being a film fan, a fabric that has been on a steady path toward greater dynamism for me. Once I was just interested in seeing as many new movies as I could. Then in the last couple years, I've placed a greater emphasis on re-watching movies I love, to deepen my familiarity with them. This, it would seem, is the next logical step.

And not only is Up getting a second chance, but I'm getting a second chance as well. A second chance at credibility, with you guys, my readers. I have the blog to thank for that. Actually, I have the blog to thank for needing the second chance in the first place, as it was here that I first said I rooted for James Cameron, and here that I first said Up came up short for me. With the benefit of time, I've now been able to repudiate both of these misinformed perspectives. It's like a newspaper printing a correction -- they are both now part of the official record, each adding to the total story.

Because that's part of being a film fan, too -- re-watching, reconsidering, making market corrections, changing your mind. Cinema is a living entity, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Even if it means I have to screw Up every once in awhile.

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