Tag Archives: movies

‘Catching Fire’ Was Always Going to Be a Better Movie

Reviews of the Hunger Games sequel have been nothing short of rapturous when it comes to comparing the new film’s director (Francis Lawrence) to his predecessor (Gary Ross). Critics are crediting Lawrence with taking Suzanne Collins’ unwieldy second novel and turning it into a tight, suspense-filled thriller all the while judging the shaky cam snooze fest that (apparently) was the first movie.

While I will categorically agree that Catching Fire has surpassed the original movie in terms of cinematic scope and quality, I will say that there’s more going on than just a change in the man behind the camera. Although I’m not sad to see the shaky cam go — in fact when I watched the original last week, I actually got a little nauseous —  Ross didn’t do all that bad a job, given what he had to work with. And that’s really the crux of the issue here: with Catching Fire, Lawrence was definitely dealt a much better hand of cards. It was inevitably going to turn out into a better movie.

There’s No Way to Spin Kids Killing Kids 

Trying to keep the rating PG-13, the first film tripped all over itself to gloss over this important factoid, with shaky cam, a lack of blood and an emotional distance that leeched anything that might have been considered “stakes” out of it. By trying to smooth over the idea of kids killing kids, the first movie also sanitized the emotional import of a society in which kids are forced to kill kids. And this decision, whatever the motivation behind it, definitely hurt the movie.

The second time around, there are no kids in the arena. There’s no problem with a teenaged Katniss Everdeen taking out a forty-something hulking dude coming at her with a spear. Nothing particular of emotional import there. Just self-defense. And so Katniss can finally fight, a little blood can be shown, and she can be genuinely scared of these hulking monsters who are genuine threats to her and Peeta’s survival. And it’s no different than any superhero taking out the minions of the super villain.

Home Is Where the Backstory Is 

The Hunger Games had so much to cover in so little time there’s very little wasted on Katniss’s home town of District 12 besides some brief shaky cam shots of dirty children looking Appalachian. But just like JRR Tolkein made sure to introduce us to Hobbiton before he sent Frodo off to Mordor, Collins spends a lot of time in the first book introducing us to District 12. Unfortunately she does it in flashbacks that are hard to translate into the flow of an action film. So it’s not till Catching Fire that we really get to see what Katniss is fighting for. The film gets to spend nearly a whole hour of its time with Katniss’s friends and family, establishing relationships merely hinted at the first time around (Gale it’s nice to finally meet you!).

Love You J.Law, But I Can’t Read Your Mind

Almost as problematic as the whole children murdering each other thing is the fact that wide swaths of the first novel are first person narration without Katniss speaking to another living soul. And even when she’s talking to Peeta once they team up, she’s constantly reminding the reader that her relationship with him was an act for the cameras. In the first movie, for someone who’s never read the books, that subtext is almost entirely lost. Jennifer Lawrence does her level best at it, but it would help if she could talk.

Catching Fire has ample opportunity for the Girl on Fire to speak her mind. After spending a significant portion back in District 12 the book takes her back to the Capitol and the arena, but instead of sending her off in search of water and climbing trees, she is immediately thrust into an alliance full of relationships and dysfunction and all sorts of good stuff. Beyond actually getting at characterization, it’s simply more interesting to have her in a group and interacting with people than to have her tied up in a tree by herself.

The Clock is Cooler Than a Forest

The arena in the first novel is your pretty standard forest. Barring CGI fire and CGI dogs, there wasn’t much threat besides the other kids. Not so in the sequel. The arena itself is a much more hazardous place. Tidal waves, lightning, killer baboons, rain of blood. It’s not just more eventful, it’s more visual. A panning shot of the the clock jungle is just a better picture than a plain forest. Plus when there are threats that aren’t people, Katniss is allowed to fight and shoot with reckless abandon. Who cares how many rabbid monkeys she kills? At least they’re not kids.

Just Like Oreos, the Best Bit is in the Middle

Call it The Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers rule. Without being bogged down with lengthy exposition or a conclusion that ties everything up in a bow, the middle chapters of series have an undeniable advantage over the beginnings and endings. They get to just tell a story in an already established world without anything that even resembles an ending. In fact, the more of a cliffhanger, the better. More people will line up to buy tickets to the midnight showing of the last movie (or, er, the last two movies).

Lawrence (Francis, not Jennifer) undoubtedly brought a fresh take and a better eye to the series. He certainly brought fresh new faces to the franchise, and achieved near perfect casting when it came to Sam Claflin as Finnick and Jena Malone as Johanna. The manic arrogance Malone has and the twinkling bravado that Claflin brings to the table are exactly how the characters were portrayed in the book, and exactly what the movie needed. Characters almost as intriguing as Katniss to (maybe) root for. And yeah, it was really good to get rid of all that shaky cam. But really, Gary Ross didn’t do all that bad. And he did cast Jennifer Lawrence, and the internet shall be forever in his debt for that.

None of this is to say that Mockingjay is going to turn into a good movie. As has already been noted, there are some really big problems with that novel that are going to be hard to turn into an exciting film. So we’ll just have to wait and see what Francis Lawrence gives us.

BuzzFeed Got it Wrong About ‘The Heat’


Last night BuzzFeed published an article entitled “Why The Success of ‘The Heat’ Doesn’t Mean Anything to Hollywood.” In the article, the writer goes on a lengthy statistical roller coaster “proving” that the reason that Hollywood doesn’t make more “female-driven” movies is because really nobody goes to see them anyway. He also intermixes interviews with The Heat director Paul Feig and studio executive Terry Press, lamenting the harsh reality. The article asks, “can the cycle be broken?”

Well the first cycle that needs to break is the one where after every successful movie with female stars premieres, mainstream media posts articles like this. There are many, many problems with women and Hollywood, but the ideas that a) nobody wants to see a movie starring women, b) Hollywood won’t make female-driven movies because nobody sees them, and c) women only want to see movies starring women are all fallacies that need to die. Then maybe we can talk about the real problems.

“Movies with mostly male casts have on average better opening weekends and better total grosses”

There are many things wrong with BuzzFeed’s methodology in calculating the many charts that led to the above conclusion. First being their definitions of what constitutes a “male” or “female” driven movie. How is Bad Teacher not a female-driven movie? It was explicitly sold on the appeal of Cameron Diaz, and its main conflict was between her and another woman, the devious Ms. Squirrel (Lucy Punch). Just because there were also several male characters does not mean that Diaz was not the most significant aspect of the film. I agree that it’s hard to say exactly what a female-driven movie is when there are multiple leads intermixed with men and women, so I prefer to use the Bechdel Test plus common sense. So I agree that X-Men: First Class was more equal between the sexes but the Twilight Movies? They aren’t a standard bearer for feminism but they certainly are female-driven.

BuzzFeed’s stats are likewise limited only to summer movies, because apparently only those are the movies that matter. Except that’s complete crap. Let me draw your attention to another Melissa McCarthy starrer from this year, Identity Thief, which grossed $134.5 million domestically, higher than the “male-driven averages” in BuzzFeed’s charts for 2008, 2010, and 2011. How about the third highest-grossing film of 2012, The Hunger Games? It went on to take in nearly $700 million worldwide. Definitely female-driven. Definitely a huge success. Released in March.  I’d also remind you that the highest grossing film of all time, Avatar, while by no means female-driven, was released in December.


Also, while acknowledging that there are vastly more male-driven than female-driven films, the article does little in the way of explaining how that will affect the statistics. With a larger sample, the male-driven films have a greater chance for outliers screwing up the average (the article recognizes this for 2008’s outlier, The Dark Knight, but completely ignores it for The Avengers in 2012). How are female-driven movies supposed to compete when there is such a small sample?

Basically, the charts in the article are skewed. Women have a lot bigger box-office draw than BuzzFeed will admit. They’re just not looking at it from the right angle or with the right movies.

“Studios are reluctant to make female-centric movies because audiences are reluctant to race out to see female-centric movies”

The stats in the article are presented as data to prove why Hollywood is less likely to green light a female-driven film, but it ignores a huge metric that studio executives must factor when determining the success of a movie: its budget.

You know the saying about how the bigger they are the harder they fall? Well that goes double for movies. The biggest flops of the past two years, John CarterBattleshipAfter Earth, and perhaps soon White House Down, were all made even worse by their starting budgets. John Carter made $282 million worldwide (only $73 million in the United States) against a reported $250 million budget (these aren’t always accurate, studios will make them smaller publicly) not including the estimated $120 million in marketing costs. To put it simply: Disney lost a bundle on the film.

On the other hand you have a small female-driven film like 2012’s Pitch Perfect. It made $113 million globally against a $17 million budget, and much smaller marketing budget driven by social media and advanced screenings. That’s a nice profit for Universal.pitch_perfect

The BuzzFeed article also mentions how women are less likely to go see a movie in its opening weekend which may or may not be true (the assertion of Press that “Women are more discerning, period, the end. That’s the truth. In everything” is so problematic I won’t get into it now). I’ll remind you that The Hunger Games opened to $152 million. But the real thing is, although a film’s opening weekend is very important, it is not the be-all end-all for everything.

Pitch Perfect was not an overnight success. It had a limited release (effectively dampening its opening-weekend potential), which was part of the marketing strategy. As a result, the film’s gross came in slowly, but it came in nonetheless. The film has been considered a huge success and a sequel has been greenlit. So clearly, Hollywood recognizes the appeal of a slowburner like Pitch Perfect or The Help (which made $211 million against a $25 million budget, but only made $26 million in its opening weekend). They just don’t recognize this nearly enough.

“Studios aren’t making enough good female-centric movies to attract attention away from the male-centric movies that are dominating the marketplace”

Back in the summer of 2012, I waited in line for a midnight showing of a film I eagerly anticipated. Why? Because the trailer looked brilliant, I loved the filmmakers and the source material, and as a bonus it had a great female character with awesome red hair. I am, of course, talking about The Avengers. Did you think I meant Brave just because I am a woman? Well guess what, I saw that one at midnight too. But I liked The Avengers better.

I’m a woman and I like a whole wide range of movies. Superhero, rom com, thriller, raunchy comedy, drama, musical, tear-jerker, you name it, I’ll see the movie if it looks good (other than horror but that’s mostly because I’m a terrible scaredy cat). The idea that women don’t like male-tentpole films is as offensive and false as the horrible fake geek girl stereotype is. Just look at the figures. Cinemascore reported that audiences of the zombie-apocalypse thriller, World War Z were 51% female in its opening weekend. Magician caper Now You See Me also had a 51% female audience in its first frame. The stats go on.


Nobody dragged me to The Avengers. I went because I wanted to see the Hulk smash. This year I saw Iron Man 3World War Z, Man of Steel, and a bunch more movies for men too. Because I think it’s fun when things go boom, just like the boys do. And just like many women do.

But it’s not just the action and adventure that can attract women to male-starring films. BuzzFeed’s article fails to account for the sexual appeal of male movie stars. Just like gratuitous shots of Megan Fox in Transformers undoubtedly brought young men to the film, so did gratuitous shots of an almost-nude Channing Tatum bring young women to see Magic Mike. That film made $167 million dollars globally against a $7 million budget. And it had a lot to do with moments like this. Superhero movies, likewise, have a swath of hunky gentlemen at their disposal as well. I’ll remind you of this moment in Thor.

This is by no way saying that the female/male disparity behind and in front of the camera is anywhere near okay. Because it is super not okay. It’s really, really, really not okay. We need more movies directed, shot, edited, acted, animated, etc, by women. But women can’t be boxed in as an audience group either, forever exiled to watch Safe Haven on an endless loop. It’s all part of the greater ongoing struggle for women. Happily this weekend I was able to go see a movie that passed the Bechdel test, was undoubtedly-female driven, was written by a woman, and starred two of my favorite actresses, and had a whole slew of explosions and f-bombs.

And I was not the only one who was excited. After reading many, many temperature related puns you can see that The Heat made $39.1 million this weekend, roasting/burning/setting fire to standard male-blockbuster White House Down, which only made $25 million. The Heat cost $43 million to make and White House Down cost $150 million. The Heat‘s audience was 65% female. So when given the choice between women blowing stuff up and men blowing stuff up, audiences (that’s all human beings, regardless of gender, White House Down was only 51% male) seem to have chosen the ladies.

So you’re wrong, BuzzFeed, The Heat‘s success means plenty, to me, to the general moviegoing public and yes, to Hollywood. It means that a) when Hollywood makes a great female-driven movie, women and men will show up, b) women like movies that star men and women that aren’t sappy rom coms, and c) Hollywood is running out of excuses for not putting more movies like The Heat into production. Don’t blame the audience, BuzzFeed, we’re telling Hollywood what we want. They’re just not listening.

Let’s be Less Rotten: Thoughts on Spoilers


Author’s Note: In order to write this post I had to include spoilers, which is silly but true (and kind of why I wrote it). I redacted all spoilers. I’ve linked each redaction to something that tells you what plot point I’m referring to. Click at your own risk. The links are, by definition, SPOILERS

I’ve been thinking about spoilers a lot, recently.They’re everywhere. For people writing about entertainment (especially TV these days) it’s rough.Writers try to avoid spoiling people, but sometimes they fail. They add capitalized and bolded SPOILER ALERTS to articles and posts. They try to keep them out of the comments. I’ve seen recaps use a blackout system. I myself have recently discovered the art of [REDACTION].

But sometimes, I think, our collective fear of spoilers can be as harmful as the spoilers themselves. I think we could, perhaps, relax a little. If we change the way we approach spoilers, I think we all might feel a little better.

Spoilers suck and they are everywhere

Okay let’s start by agreeing that spoilers are the worst. They genuinely can take the fun out of entertainment. It might seem trivial, but for certain, some things should stay hidden. There is a certain joy (sometimes followed by unendurable sadness and/or anger) in being surprised by something. Weren’t you genuinely bowled over when (REDACTED) happened in Game of Thrones? Wasn’t it so perfect when they revealed [REDACTED] on Battlestar Galactica? Even for a sitcom like How I Met Your Mother, wasn’t [REDACTED] just crazy? Wouldn’t the experience of watching these shows be cheapened by knowing THE-BIG-THING-THAT-HAPPENED? Yeah it would.

But spoilers are just literally all over the place. I have a friend who, in one night, spoiled [REDACTED] from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and [REDACTED] from  A Song of Ice and Fire  (and consequently, Game of Thrones) for a group. It was an accident. But people still got spoiled. I’m guilty of this too. I tend to just irrationally believe that everyone has watched and read everything I have and only that. What was worse than [REDACTED] in Game of Thrones? [REDACTED] in Angel, or [REDACTED] in The Sopranos or worse still [REDACTED] in Buffy! I tend to accidentally lay land mines in conversations for my friends who don’t watch quite as much TV as I do (read: all my friends).

The internet is way, way worse. Unless you’re planning on avoiding social media and news outlets all together, you best watch your shows live. I mean, the reaction to episode 9 of this season’s Game of Thrones was so prevalent that before we were done reacting to the episode we started reacting to each other’s spoilers. And it’s not just social media. Don’t forget how an actor spoiled the world for Downton Abbey by [REDACTED].

So yeah, spoilers are awful and can be hard to avoid. I’m totally with you on that. But there are ways to make them suck less.

Rosebud is a sled, not a spoiler

I was spoiled for [REDACTED], [REDACTED], and [REDACTED] in Lost by virtue of having been alive while it was on the air, but not watching it until about a year ago. It sucked but it was unavoidable.

A problem I find in spoiler culture is that some moments from TV and film and books have become part of our larger culture, but they’re still taboo to talk about. I want to list things Harry PotterThe Sixth Sense, Twin Peaks and more right now, but I don’t want to spoil any of you. But at the same time, it’s been years.

So there’s got to be a statute of limitations on spoilers.

It can’t just be a number, because the significance of these plot points isn’t just a product of the date they became public. It’s cultural, like I said. Some shows’ plots are more well-known than others. And it’s different for tv than for say, movies or books, because TV by nature tends to have more spoiler opportunities. I feel like, at this point The Sixth Sense should be fair game. It premiered in 1999. But that same year had bits of the third and fourth seasons of Buffy, which are definitely not fair game.

So maybe we can’t make a hard and fast rule, but we can be more understanding. It’ll have to be based on a “feeling” but that’s all we’ve got. Examples: I won’t spoil the new JJ Abrams Star Trek movies, but The Wrath of Khan is on the table. I’ll stay away from 24 but not Friends. Psycho can be discussed but Bates Motel cannot. Are you with me? I hope so.

Regardless, I think we can all agree that Shakespeare’s statute has expired.

If spoilers are bad, surprises have to be good

We all spend a lot of time trying to avoid spoilers and/or griping about how we’ve been spoiled. But then as soon as we see great plots, we start immediately noting how “we knew it all along.”

The best example of this that I can think of occurred during season six of the new Doctor Who. At the midseason finale, we finally discovered [REDACTED]. I personally thought it was a big deal. A pretty huge deal. If I recall correctly I had to get up off my bed where I was watching it and run around just to get my adrenaline out. 

But some decided to rain on my parade. “It was so obvious,” they’d say, or “I can’t believe you didn’t see that coming,” as if I am quite the idiot for being shocked by something that was designed to shock me. For the record this twist isn’t foreshadowed very much in the show. There are subtle hints. When you rewatch you’ll think to yourself, “oh, that’s what that was about.” But I really doubt very many people “totally knew that was going to happen.”

People talk about a twist or surprise or reveal afterwards with such negativity. And yeah, sometimes they are super disappointing, like [REDACTED], another instance from Doctor Who. But sometimes moments are so good and so genuinely surprising, they remind us why we hate spoilers in the first place. Trying to make yourself seem clever afterwards by claiming to have “called it” cheapens the surprise.

Follow the signs

I’m behind on Mad Men right now. And as a result, I’ve been steering clear of twitter Sundays at 9pm. I’ve been careful when looking on entertainment news sites. I scroll past anything I see with “Mad Men” or “Draper” in the headline. I’m keeping myself spoiler-free.

You can too! Yeah I get it, sometimes you just want to go on facebook without being accidentally spoiled. But be smart. If you’re a fan who’s missing an episode for some reason or who regularly watches the next day, stay off  dangerous sites until you’ve seen the episode. If you live on the West Coast wait to go on twitter until the episode airs for you. Talk about it with people who live there too. Don’t yell at the East coasters who tweeted to each other three hours ago. Be smart about it, and you won’t need to rage-tweet until you actually watch the episode and find out who died. Then you rage tweet at the show-runner.

It’s all about the journey

Above all we need to remember that spoilers are a fact of life in the internet age, and they’re not going away anytime soon. I’ve been spoiled for lots of shows. Lost, like I mentioned before but also, BuffyAngelMad MenThe SopranosPsychThe West Wing, How I Met Your Mother and probably a bunch more I can’t remember specifically. But I still love all of those shows. Yeah I knew that someone was going to die or a couple was going to get together or an identity was going to be revealed or any number of other plot points, but I still was enthralled watching all these things happen. I still got emotional and involved.

Having read A Song of Ice and Fire is arguably one giant Game of Thrones spoiler. But I still watch the show. Because knowing how it ends doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the ride on the way there.

So let’s be smart about spoilers. And then we can get back to what’s really important: watching way too much TV.

500 Movies #5: Who Watches?

Realizing that although I’d seen many, many movies in my life, I still hadn’t seen enough, I recently created a list of the 500 Best Movies I’ve Never Seen. As I attempt to watch them all, I will write about my experiences seeing classics (and some not-so-classics) for the first time. Warning: these are spoiler-ridden posts, as the films are all past their time in theaters (some, long, long past). If you haven’t seen the film I recommend you first see it and then read. If it’s on the list it’s probably worth seeing. 

5. Watchmen (2009) Zack Snyder 

A few weeks ago I found a copy of Watchmen, the graphic novel, in some old stuff. I decided to read it because, hey, I never had, I was bored, and I was trying to add comic books to my pop culture repertoire. It’s not that I didn’t like them, but as a young girl growing up in the midwest suburbia with no brothers, I never really came across them. I was really wowed by what I found in Watchmen. It had an intriguing story with amazing art. I was engrossed in the world it created. When I finished, I immediately added Zack Snyder’s adaptation to my watch-list, despite my vague recollections from 2009 that it had not been entirely successful.

My initial reaction to the film was that I was underwhelmed. Here was a story that on the unmoving page had lifted me off my feet at its climax and had set my heart pounding in its battles and cliffhangers. On the screen it was just…slow. In nearly every way. And it wasn’t just Snyder’s excessive use of slo-mo, but the pacing and the general feel of the film. Something that had been incredibly exciting in pictures and bubble text was in a lot of ways dull in full visualization.

Sure the movie was loyal. It was incredibly loyal (well except for one key plot point, but more on that later). The panels of the graphic novel seemed to just have been transplanted to film, and I think that was where the central flaw of it lies. Some things work better in one medium than another. One that jumps to mind is the funeral sequence for the Comedian. In the book and in the movie, it is interlaced with flashbacks from the attendees to moments they shared with Eddie Blake. In the graphic novel, this felt natural, as it often moved into the thoughts of the characters. In the movie, it seemed odd, and slowed the pace down to a great extent. It took over ten minutes in an already long film to get out of that graveyard. Yes the flashback sequences were important, but it was the wrong way to convey them.

One thing I did like was the opening credits sequence, an instance where Snyder deviated from the source material, not in content at all, but in delivery. He put the history of masked heros into a single montage, that conveyed the story of the world perfectly. It was slow, but it was meant to be slow. It was backstory that the audience needed to understand right away. And then they were ready for the film to take off, which it never did.

There was already a motion comic of Watchmen, I didn’t really need another, vastly more expensive one. I appreciate loyalty to such a revered text, but adaptation requires the filmmaker to think about the medium more than the material, something I don’t think Snyder did. I’m cautious about his superman adaptation, Man of Steel, out next summer. The first trailer is puzzling, and I don’t have a sense of the film at all. We’ll see.

Watchmen is now 465/716 movies on my flickchart. 

First Full Skyfall Trailer

Bond is back with 100% more blonde Bardem! (Try saying that 10 times fast). This trailer has everything one might expect: classic music, lots of explosions, fun new gadgets, evil villains, Judi Dench, scantily clad women, and lots of gunfire. It also gets bonus points for actually including part of the plot which the teasers leading up to this had left out. It loses points for that plot being “MI6 messed up again.” But oh well, you can’t have everything. Did I mention that Javier Bardem is blonde? And he’s the villain? Apparently, his natural coif is just too warm and fuzzy to be villainy. At least this blonde ‘do is better than this, at least, I think. I’m also pleasantly surprised by Ben Wishaw’s Q, who appears to be the first hipster in a Bond movie. There’s something too cute about him and Craig sharing the screen. But you can make your own judgments below. Skyfall is set for a November 9 release.

The Expectation Rises

This morning I was slightly appalled to see that Rotten Tomatoes, the movie review aggregator, had to shut down its comments on The Dark Knight Rises after response to negative reviews got out of control. Apparently, fans are so loyal to this film that they are spewing vitriol at reviewers who haven’t liked it, even though the fans haven’t seen it yet.

I am guilty of this kind of thinking myself. I am an avid fan of The Hunger Games books, and before the film adaptation opened I read review after review, exalting the positive and disdaining the negative. But rather than getting angry about the negative reviews, I rather became sad, as I started to think that the movie I had been waiting for over a year to see wasn’t going to be everything I had hoped. I tried very hard to manage my expectations. The film ended up exceeding my consciously-lowered expectations and I was happy. But it took a lot of effort on my part.

This reaction to negative reviews brings to light a problem with The Dark Knight Rises that I’ve been predicting for a long time. I feel that, no matter how good the movie is, it’s going to be disappointing. Nobody is going to be completely satisfied. For four years this movie has been built up, almost never being entirely out of the pop culture conversation. Expectations have been growing and growing until they literally exploded with these comments, which reportedly included significant profanity and threats against the reviewers. How can Rises possibly reach the heights to which fans have prematurely set it?

Perhaps a more relevant question than how can it meet expectations is how it got those expectations in the first place. It started with the release of The Dark Knight itself. The highest opening weekend gross (at the time). Heath Ledger’s incredible performance and the posthumous acclaim he was garnering. The Oscar Buzz. Then Oscar season rolled around and the general pop culture public was roiled to see that Knight had not been nominated for Best Picture. Heath Ledger won the Oscar. Soon after the Best Picture category was expanded to ten nominees instead of five. The Dark Knight Rises was announced. Inception was released to acclaim and box office success. It snagged a Best Picture nod. Famous faces were added to the Rises cast list. Shooting began. Photos were released. Some were grabbed by the paparazzi. First teaser. More photos released. First poster. First full trailer. Six minute prologue premieres.More trailers. More photos. More posters. More trailers. TV spots. Viral marketing.

And on and on and on. Not to mention the simple fact that The Dark Knight, to many fans, surpassed Batman Begins by far, and so the logical expectation is that The Dark Knight Rises will do the same. It’s just too much for one film to live up to.

I actually missed a lot of The Dark Knight pandemonium. I was studying abroad in London when it premiered in the US and it didn’t premier in the UK until after I had left. By the time I got home all of my friends had seen it already. I ended up seeing it alone several weeks after it had opened. I liked it, I did, but I suffered from the expectations problem. It was only natural. I watched from across the pond as the film swept the US, and heard accounts from my friends with phrases like  “it completely blew my mind,””life-changing,” and “the best movie ever.” I read articles and reviews about it and saw it break box office records. So by the time I saw it I really was expecting the “best movie ever.” It wasn’t. Maybe that’s blasphemous to some of you, but it’s not my favorite movie nor the best movie ever in my opinion. I did really like it. Heath Ledger completely blew me away. I thought Aaron Eckhart was also incredible. I always love effects and big fight scenes. I was surprised by the psychological and political undertones of the movie. But I was also very underwhelmed.

I have, in my mind, an idea of what “the best movie ever” would be. I imagine it would have much of what was in Knight. Great actors, great performances, great story, great effects, great pacing, great music, etc etc etc. But it also has to have something else. Some kind of x factor that punches you in the gut while your watching it and does leave you changed when you walk out of the theater. It doesn’t have to be emotional. It just has to stick with you. I felt that with a few movies I’ve seen in the past few years. Million Dollar Baby. Brokeback Mountain. Slumdog Millionaire. The Avengers. 

The Avengers is a good comparison for The Dark Knight Rises. It also a highly anticipated comic-book adaptation preempted by multiple movies. Although none of the Marvel films leading up to The Avengers came even close to the impact of Knight, they did do very well in their own right, and the two Iron Man movies greatly exceeded expectations. But the sheer amount of build up for The Avengers was also incredibly huge, with the simple truth that no movie like it had ever been made. It also had similar marketing campaigns that involved leaking select photos, teasers, and posters, to build up to the premier. And it worked. The Avengers has since become the third highest grossing film of all time.

But the thing that is different about The Avengers I think, is that everyone who went to see it and everyone who wrote about it had, in the back of their minds, the idea that The Avengers could fail, and fail miserably. Six superheroes, one movie. Five lead up films. No one had ever done anything like that before. It could have crashed and burned. The story could have been nonsensical to people who hadn’t seen the original five films. The personalities of the different superheroes could have clashed. It could have ended up as Iron Man 3, with Robert Downey, Jr. stealing scenes. It could have just been bad.

And so when the movie bypassed all of these potential problems and went above and beyond expectations, the world responded in kind. And that’s really what it’s about. Expectations. So much about how we enjoy things is based on the context in which they are experienced. Think about a bad time you had at the movies. A movie you wanted to see because it looked good in the trailer, and then it disappointed you. Maybe you went with a group of friends and they were talkative and distracting. Maybe other people in the theater were obnoxious. Maybe you wore uncomfortable pants, or the popcorn sucked, or you had to use the bathroom for two thirds of the movie or the projector glitched or the sound was off or any other number of things. We can’t deny that context is incredibly important. It’s part of the reason I didn’t like The Dark Knight quite as much as everyone else. Maybe if I had seen it earlier with a group of excited friends I would have felt the same as they did. But I saw it alone, weeks late, and so I didn’t have anyone to chatter with excitedly about my favorite parts. I instead had only to dwell on my disappointment in the car ride home alone.

On the other hand, I truly loved Batman Begins. Based on the expectations game, I was inclined to like it. The only previous Batman movie I had ever seen was the disastrous Batman and Robin, nipples on the Batsuit and all. I knew nothing about movie other than that it was about Batman. I saw it with my family, a movie-loving group that loves to dissect films in the car ride home and for days after.  I didn’t particularly like superhero movies then. All in all I had very low expectations and excellent context. Batman Begins turned into one of the films that changed my mind about superheroes. I really loved everything about it. The background into Bruce Wayne’s training and travels. Cillian Murphy’s really scary Scarecrow. The climactic fight on the train. The whole dark feeling of the movie. The way that Gotham felt like it desperately needed a superhero, and how Bruce Wayne filled that role. I definitely felt that x factor when I walked out of the theater. It was just so much better than I thought it would be. And I loved it for surprising me like that.

I’m sure that The Dark Knight Rises will do well this weekend. I’m sure lots of people will like it. But I’m also sure a great many will be disappointed. It’s just the way expectations work. We can either be hyper-aware of it, in the way I treated my Hunger Games viewing experience, which requires conscious effort, or we can roll with it and let our expectations guide our reactions. It just depends on how you like to see your movies. If you’re like me,  you may be more likely to choose the former. But, validly, we can’t always control how we feel. Sometimes, we just love or hate something.

Personally, I’m cautiously excited for Rises. I’m seeing it midnight Thursday, so you can expect my take Friday morning. I’ll try to keep my expectations out of it.

500 Movies #1: The Pulpiest of Fiction

Realizing that although I’d seen many, many movies in my life, I still hadn’t seen enough, I recently created a list of the 500 Best Movies I’ve Never Seen. As I attempt to watch them all, I will write about my experiences seeing classics (and some not-so-classics) for the first time. Warning: these are spoiler-ridden posts, as the films are all past their time in theaters (some, long, long past). If you haven’t seen the film I recommend you first see it and then read. If it’s on the list it’s probably worth seeing. 

1. Pulp Fiction (1994) Quentin Tarantino 

Pulp Fiction. Even its name connotes some type of importance, classicism. Everyone I talk to about film tells me that I have to have to see Pulp Fiction. It’s groundbreaking. It’s life-changing. It’s the best movie of the past 25 years. It’s just plain awesome.

Before I sat down to watch the movie, I had no idea what Pulp Fiction was about. I knew that Samuel L. Jackson was in it, that it was a Tarantino film, that it involved guns and drugs and a pop tart, but I didn’t know what the story was. So when I sat down to watch it with my roommate, herself a cinema studies major, I asked her, quite plainly, “so, what’s it about?” “A lot of things,” she replied, deepening my confusion. I sighed and decided to just get on with it and watch the movie.

I don’t know if “watched” is the right word to describe my experience with the movie. “Absorb” might be better. I didn’t watch it. I sat back and let the sounds and images flood over me. In essence, Pulp Fiction is about four intertwining stories and how and why they intertwine. I’d watched it, so I knew what it was about, but did I really know what it was about? Probably not.

Quickly I learned that the root of Pulp Fiction is not necessarily in the “fiction” itself, but in the overall feeling the film gives you. The story can be a little hard to follow when you don’t know how all the puzzle pieces fit together. But the story didn’t matter all that much. The overall pastiche of images and clips and sounds and characters and blood was the important part of the movie. I don’t particularly know if the idea of Uma Thurman and John Travolta doing the twist is particularly profound but the image of the two of them is resonating. They’re drunk. They’re high. They’re in a nostalgia 50s restaurant. They’re attracted to each other and they shouldn’t be. And they’re doing the twist, of all things. Two people who never looked so out of place and yet fit in so well. It might have been my favorite part of the movie.

To me, what makes a movie great is its ability to continue to amaze on multiple viewings. Without even doing so, I knew that Pulp Fiction was going to be one of those movies.One of my favorite things to do is to re-watch a movie or tv show. It’s probably the English major in me but I feel like there is so much to be gleaned from any one piece of art (and yes, I think both movies and tv are art, get over it) than you can get in an initial exposure to it. Whenever I write a paper about a book I read the book at least twice. There’s always something new to find. I’ve seen every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at least three or four times, but each time I go through the series again I find something new. And so as I sat in my living room and watched a couple argue the virtues of robbing restaurants, I knew there was something I was missing. And I was dying to find out what it was.

Is it the best movie of the last 25 years? I don’t know, I haven’t seen enough movies to judge that yet. But it was good. Damn it was good. I don’t usually like this kind of film. I abhor graphic violence, not out of any moral qualms but simply because I’m incredibly squeamish. I also usually like character driven movies with a protagonist I care about, rather than a smattering of smaller characters with questionable ethics. But there’s something about the pastiche that works so well here. When you see that Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta are in the diner being robbed, there’s something almost poetic about it. The audience gets to smile at a private joke while Tim Roth has a gun pointed at his head. And so I really can’t wait to watch it again. I want to see what I missed.

Pulp Fiction is now 107/708 movies on my Flick Chart