20 Years of Christmas Releases: Yuletide Top Fives

 

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The winter holidays are the most high-stakes season at the box-office. Whether a studio film has Academy aspirations or merely aims to cash in on the intense market for Christmas break entertainment, December is box-office gold. Supposedly, this is the time of the year when the most exciting movies are released. That could mean the next Best Picture or a highly anticipated new film from your favorite director. Or it could just mean an old fashioned good time at the movies, via a fun matinee break movie. Perhaps, most entertaining of all are the movies that studios believe have a shot at the Oscar race but end up backfiring in notorious box-office bomb fashion. On the eve of an especially good Christmas release year, I thought I’d take a trip through some of the ghosts of Christmas past, considering the last 20 years of Christmas releases via four categorical top 5 lists. For most, Christmas is a time of unfathomable merriness and cheer. For me, this is Christmas as I have known it for the last 20 years.

Christmas Crap

Usually these films consist of over-sentimental garbage aimed to exploit emotionally vulnerable moviegoers by smashing them over the head with reasons to cry. Unlike the Schindler’s Lists and Pianists of the Best Picture Christmas release (see below), the Christmas Crap film, if it isn’t a Best Picture disaster, is otherwise known as the intended feel-good flick of the season. Though plenty of turkeys have been released over the last 20 years, perhaps no era was as severe as the mid-late 90s. 1998 saw an especially terrible Christmas year with the releases of the three of Hollywood’s most revolting projectiles. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it was the first Christmas of the 1998 multiplex boom, which saw the birth of the first Silver Cities, Coliseums, and Colossuses ie. the big screen experience as we know it today. The 90s were a very celebrity-centric decade when it seemed largely presumed by Hollywood that so long as you had Tom Hanks falling in love with Meg Ryan or Kevin Kline, time and time again, everything was gonna be okay.

Michael (1996)

Michael reflects a period when Hollywood treated John Travolta like he was Jesus Christ. Having been resurrected two year’s prior by Pulp Fiction, the world was ready to embrace the former reject in any shape or form, though the form of preference seemed to be Travolta dancing with a dog. This particular dog-dangling, feel good, gag fest features living angel Travolta – giant wings and all – line dancing to Spirit in the Sky. This scene along with the bed-jumping Motown sacrilege of Stepmom marks a shameful era in Hollywood drivel.

The Postman (1997)

Not as much a feel good movie as it is a complete box office disaster. Until 1997, it was inconceivable that Kevin Costner could mess up his career any worse than he had with his Waterworld debacle. And yet amazingly he did it! He succeeded in outsucking one of the great cinematic botch jobs. Waterworld, and its succeeding post-apocolyptic foray into the world of snail mail, would make a great triple feature alongside Dances With Wolves. I’d call the event the WTF Happened Marathon.

Patch Adams (1998)

A shameless yank at the heartstrings in the guise of an annoying-as-hell Robin Williams comedy about a goofy asshole with verbal diarrhea who entertains dying children with his nonsensical, semi-psychotic rants. The studio’s belief that this is the type of movie the world wanted to see, and – my God – award accolades, is one of the great insults to the general public’s intelligence in a very insulting pop-culture landscape.

Stepmom (1998)

An excuse for Julia Roberts to go head to head with Susan Sarandon in the type of safe dramatic confrontations you find in parodies of Hollywood movies. Worst of all, Stepmom features a scene where all the characters jump up and down on a bed while joyously lip-syncing to Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. Un Chien Andalou comes to mind.

You’ve Got Mail (1998)

In many ways, YGM is a hilarious attempt to cash in on the still very young novelty that was the Internet in 1998. The plot revolves around Hanks and Ryan courting via online chat and email! Can you imagine a love story today strictly about getting your emails? This is Nora Ephron’s follow up to 96’s Michael debauch. While I sometimes want to like Ephron, it’s hard to forget a handful of films she made in the 90s that played like poisoning.

The Bucket List (2007)

10 years after winning a well-deserved oscar for As Good As It Gets, The Bucket List is sadly the movie where Jack Nicholson finally said ‘fuck it, I’m out’. It’s a terribly sad note to end on, given that Nicholson is really one of the finest actors of all time. This entry in the geezer film (a genre that is not always as terrible as it sounds ie. Grumpy Old Men, Gran Torino, etc.) sees Jack and Morgan Freeman acting out a set of ‘things to do before I die’ activities. If Nicholson, one of the century’s bravest actors, really wanted to act like he was young, he should’ve gone out with a script with some balls.

Most Fun

This category embodies the true spirit of the Christmas releases. While the Best Pictures or Favorite Movies are all well and good, the Christmas holidays are just as much about turning off your brain as anything else. None of these movies have anything to do with Christmas, nor have anything in common with one another, other than their release dates, but it was the feeling of the studios that for whatever reason, these films were not shituary releases, nor summer movies, but end of the year events. Indeed, as far as my own tastes are concerned, this grab bag consists of the most enjoyably light Xmas watches of the past 20 years.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

While I’m no champion of the superhero genre per say, I’m unashamed to pinpoint 1989’s Batman as the pivotal movie going experience of my life. That film did something deep psychologically to me, turning me onto cinema as a transcendent experience early in life. In the following years Batman: The Animated Series was the favorite TV show of all my young pals and myself. To this day, I maintain that this was for very good reason. It was dark and really quite well-written. Thus, the animated Batman’s big screen debut was a cause for celebration. This film, as well as the series, is perhaps most valuable for it’s alternate portrayal of The Joker, who along with Hitler, is surely among history’s most fascinating villains.

Grumpy/Grumpier Old Men (1993/1995)

Who can possibly resist the site of two geriatric men fighting with shovels? That the answer is no one is perhaps indicative of the heavy presence of angry-geezer films throughout the 90s, which consisted of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon just hating each other. In the saga of the Grumpy and the Old, they play men who are bitter, tired, and have got a real problem with one another. The reason for the grudge doesn’t much matter, it’s the grudge itself that is rich. One might call these golden knuckleheads the great nemeses of the decade.

Dracula, Dead and Loving It (1995)

I can’t say I remember this movie that well. And while ordinarily I’d be ecstatic to have the excuse to re watch it, at this point I’m too busy writing this article. I think I recall mild disappointment. My hopes were very high, as a Leslie Neilson movie in 1995 was an extremely exciting thing. It’s the first film following The Naked Gun trilogy, which is, by far, one of the funniest series of movies I have ever and will ever see. That Dracula didn’t resonate is proof enough that the film is an unworthy follow up so, instead, if you’re looking to laugh this Xmas, just stick to the trilogy. I’m gonna watch them all right now. This article can wait.

Beavis and Butthead Do America (1996)

One of the funniest movies of the 90s. Also significant because it marks the retirement of Judge’s MTV show. When MTV’s B&B was good, it was amazing, and the film brings the best of its’ A-game to the big screen in a cross country adventure with stops along the way from Hoover’s (God)Damn to the sluts of Las Vegas. It also offers a wonderful dose of Mr. Anderson, who in the upcoming months would be transformed into Hank Hill of the brilliant new Judge vehicle, King of the Hill.

Scream 1 & 2 (1996/1997)

Both were released on Christmas. They were clever, self-reflective and given my age upon release, I remember them as quite scary. Over the years, the revitalized 80s Slasher genre Scream spawned – while rehashments like I Know What You Did Last Summer (great movie), Urban Legends, and Final Destination – would become a nuisance, but at first, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson were definitely onto something with this meta piece of genre-deconstructionism.

Oscar Movies

For film lovers, the autumn and winter seasons see the release of the year’s best films, which spend the first ¾ of the year garnering acclaim at festivals, and then open throughout last months of the year, as close to the Oscars as possible. In other words, the closer a film is released to the end of the year, the more memorable it will be to the academy come voting season. Thus the dramas released around this time reflect the material studios are counting on to win. There are two types of ‘for your consideration’ Christmas movies. I’ve broken this type of film into two categories, though really there are three – the third being the aforementioned best picture bomb (see Patch Adams, Stepmom…). But on the positive side of Oscar season there are two categories: First we have the For Your Consideration genre, which is typical Hollywood fare that predictably receives appropriate accolades. It’s an amusing contrast to the onslaught of Christmas cheer that occurs throughout December to see the release of heavy films with titles like Les Miserables and The Pianist Who Went To The Holocaust. This first list reflects the best of the classic Oscar dramas.

For Your Consideration

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)

Ah yes. On the eve of one of this Xmas’s most eagerly anticipated releases – The Wolf of Wall Street – it’s important to look back 20 years to Leonardo DiCaprio’s finest performance, which includes an unforgettable rendition of the beloved classic “Match in the Gas Tank, Boom, Boom”. Also famous for its trendsetting presentation of ‘The Moo-Moo’. The question of what specifically is in fact ‘eating’ Gilbert Grape is indeed one for the ages and probably one best left unposed. More to the point, would it have been too much to ask for a brief appearance, or perhaps ‘hello’, from dandy, Jessica Tandy? I think we all think not.

The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

For a Hole fan in 1996 the idea of Courtney Love playing a stripper in a movie about Hustler visionary Larry Flynt made the Milos Foreman drama a scandalous must-see. I believe I know a few unfortunate souls who saw it with their parents. But all the sizzling details aside, The People vs. Larry Flynt is a kickass movie featuring one of/if not Woody Harrelson’s best performance. Love fares well too. Her acting even borders on impressive when she applies her real-life histrionics to the not-dissimilar whorish love interest she portrays in the film. It was a genius bit of casting in one of the 90s best films. In a decade divided between those who could or could not handle the truth, The People vs. Larry Flynt may just be my favorite courtroom drama.

Titanic (1997)

And here we have a Leo performance of Titanic proportion – his performance in Titanic. The film’s reputation is clouded by haters, as Celine Dion can be difficult to defend, but I recall at the time the thick hype surrounding the release followed by the wave of month-long sold out shows, packed with people seeing it again and again. Motion picture events in which movie goers would return for multiple screenings were historically common practice, perhaps in large due to the slow evolution of home video convenience, but these days, you just don’t really see that anymore. Looking back Titanic now represents an end-of-an-era type phenomenon. 1997 was the last year before the multiplex invasion, and perhaps somehow, un-coincidentally, also reflects the waning days of Best Picture clout. To briefly put my own hype for the film leading up to its release in context, it’s important to consider what ‘the new James Cameron movie’ represented at that point. His two previous films were True Lies and Terminator 2, action epics that both took the genre to new levels of quality. Titanic had best picture smeared all over it but for all it’s over-the-top extravagance, I maintain my initial opinion, which is that if you forget that you’re not supposed to like it and allow yourself to get caught up in the story, Titanic is a damn fine movie.

As Good As It Gets (1997)

As far as the feel-good genre is concerned, if it has a king it is James L Brooks. The academy loves him for Terms of Endearment but the world loves him more for his contributions to the best years of The Simpsons. Simpsons fans have Brooks to thank, not only for his next-level sense of humor, but his leniency towards heartfelt endings. The writing staff would even refer to beautiful endings such as Bart Vs. Lisa at Hockey and Mother Simpson as ‘The Jimmy’. In As Good As It Gets we have 90s Jack Nicholson at his finest. He plays a politically incorrect OCD case who comes to care for a single-parent waitress (Helen Hunt) and his gay neighbor (Greg Kinnear). Features some great comedy and even better drama but above all it’s a wonderful vehicle for Jack to act crazy, as he’s so damn good at. Like in Cukoo’s Nest, this performance would land him a Best Actor award.

Traffic (2000), In The Bedroom (2001), The Wrestler (2008)

These three films, and I can surely think of more, sort of fall in the middle of the “For Your Consideration” category and the “Favorite Movie” category below. I include them in the Oscar list because I feel they all have more legitimate shots at Oscars than the films in the succeeding ‘favorites’ list. Though, I never actually believed any of these movies would take home Best Picture, though all three were nominated, they are close enough that the academy tends to award the films with misdirected minor accolades such as supporting acting and screenplay. In other words, these are the edgier Best Picture films that, while they contain high-drama and are loaded with Oscar-reel performances, never really had a shot, and serve to round out the Best Picture nominations and exhibit (false) range.

Favorite movies

So considering my stance that the movies that tend to win best picture are usually more conventional, it rarely if ever happens that the year’s best picture coincides with my actual favorite movie of the year. And so we arrive at the best category of the Christmas movie release: The Favorite Movie. Most of the best movies of the year are released from September to November, leaving only a handful of truly special ones to keep film buffs eager for Christmas. This year we are especially blessed to have a handful of films from this category being released in Christmas week, such as American Hustle and Wolf of Wall Street. But what makes Xmas ’13 an especially excellent year are the releases of Spike Jonzes’ Her and The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Like films from Wes Anderson and P.T. Anderson, both past veterans of the Xmas release, Jonze and the Coens’ new films are what anticipating Christmas releases are all about.

12 Monkeys (1995)

This is the first movie I ever saw 4 times in theaters. I didn’t know much about it going in on that snowy afternoon in 1995, nor had I any real notion I was about to undergo a transformative experience. Now almost 20 years later, I still remember being glued to my seat during the credits, trying to wrap my head around the surreal experience. With movies like Seven, The Game, The Usual Suspects, etc, the 90s seemed very heavy on twist endings. Though all aforementioned films are some of the best movies to come out of the decade, none blew my mind quite as thoroughly as Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. And so it is one of the true holy-shit movies of my lifetime. But even having sat through the film theatrically for a total of 8 hours, come 1998, I was no less prepared for Gilliam’s follow up: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas… speaking of holy-shit movies.

Jackie Brown (1997)

Jackie Brown is not necessarily my favorite film on this list, though I do love it dearly, but I must give it the title of my all-time favorite Christmas release. This is because I can honestly say I have never been as excited for a movie as I was Jackie Brown. In the 3 years since Pulp Fiction, Tarantino had escalated into the king of the 90s, spawning a slew of flashy copycat crime flicks. It was hard to imagine what the next Tarantino flick would look like. The teaser publicity provided some glimpses, with super cool individual character posters and a really weird but awesome teaser trailer showing multiple takes of Pam Grier saying ‘Jackie Brown’ into an apartment buzzer. Also given that Tarantino was doing an Elmore Leonard novel, an author he’d openly praised in interviews as having turned him on to lurid subject matter, the idea of a Tarantino take on Leonard was too good to be true. It’s one of his best films.

Magnolia (1999)

Magnolia is a movie I definitely did not see coming. Having already seen Boogie Nights about 5 times, I was a huge P.T. Anderson fan going in and didn’t mind having to trek downtown to the one theater playing its exclusive run. The reward was great as Magnolia proved to be a serious bang for your buck. Clocking in at 3 extremely entertaining hours, Magnolia takes the P.T. ensemble of Boogie Nights and stretches it to the furthest realms of his Altman influence, with an expansive, interwoven Carver-esque tale of parallel desperation and the breaking points that unite us all, etc. It was quick to be called pretentious by haters, and admittedly, given its grandiose emotional ambition, it has not aged well in certain circles. In the making-of the DVD doc, Julianne Moore herself says in many ways it’s a very naïve script but that’s also what makes it such an epic win. PTA, at 26, had the gall to write a big emotional opera and, lucky for us, he was able to obtain the power to pull it off with a fluid, distinct style that confirmed his status as a cinematic wunderkind.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) / Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

O Brother marks a significant entry into this list given the timely event of the Inside Llewyn Davis release, a film that plays like the second chapter in the Coens’ roots music saga. Having now seen ILD, I can say that both films reflect my favorite aspects of the Coens’ cannon. ILD is the yin to O Brother’s yang, especially given the contrasts in tone. O Brother starts somewhere around the beginning of the roots music story in the innocent age of Alan Lomax field recordings i.e. the birth of recorded music. Up until field recordings, the practice of songwriting and performing was an aural tradition, existing for those present at a ‘performance’ alone. The three cousin roots genres were blues, country, and folk, all raw methods of storytelling and expression for no other purpose than expression itself. Somewhere along the line, the performance aspect of the hard luck singer got criss-crossed with entertainment, muddling up the purpose and nature of the craft.

By the time of the early 60s ‘folk-revival’ – the world in which Inside Llewyn Davis exists on the verge of – civilization had advanced enough for music to be valued and judged as a commercial entity, making the genre prone to the likes of ‘careerists’ cashing in on the folk boom, not unlike how starlets cling to what happens to be in at this point of pop-culture. Ironically, at the time of the early 60s, the moment in pop culture was “folk” music, thus it became a genre contaminated with whitewash novelty songs that bastardized the ethos of real folk. And so it was a melancholy time for purists who withheld the traditional philosophy that music is meant for expression and not commodity. But since expression cannot exist without commodity, the singin’ and pickin’ rambler cannot survive without exploiting the thing that makes him pure. In other words: square folk is a little careerist and it’s a little sad, but it’s also where the money is.

But before these big ideas of exposure and monetization compromised the tradition, O Brother presents a simpler time in which education was a privilege and music was the expression of the uneducated ailing soul. This is what makes O Brother, in addition to one of my favorite period pieces, also one of the best platforms for the Coens’ sense of humor. Though I often feel in the minority, O Brother is one of funniest movies I’ve ever seen. Inside Llewyn Davis has it’s comedy as well, but more than any other Coen I’ve seen, it’s my favorite straight up drama, and one that takes on a subject of deep passion with simplistic wisdom and perfect storytelling. Inside Llewyn Davis is a Christmas miracle.

Brave Films, Boogie Nights: 2013’s Top 5 TIFF Memories

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There are few things more annually depressing to me than the final days of The Toronto International Film Festival. For almost 15 years, TIFF has provided me with the unthinkable incentive to actually anticipate the end of summer. The only problem is once the TIFF festivities come to a close, so too does the coveted season, leaving only memories to hold onto as Toronto summer fades into the decaying sunshine, before the yearly cycle can start anew. Fortunately, TIFF 2013 has made for an abundance of top-shelf memories for future nostalgia.

In truth, I would say this year has provided one of the best film festivals of recent years. There are many features of TIFF that make it amongst the most beloved fests out there, but for me, one of the key ingredients that sets it apart is its increasing emphasis on extra-special presentations. An example in recent years might be the Elgin premiere of Guy Maddin’s hyper-silent film Brand Upon the Brain! back in ‘06, which, with the help of live voice over narration, symphony scoring, and foley sound effects, certainly burned its way into my brain with flying colors. Quite an accomplishment for a B&W.

This year saw no shortage of special events. Some were so shockingly special that they simply must dominate the upper crust of this top 5-highlight list of TIFF ’13 by default. To put that plainly, if Spike Jonze drops into town for a 90 minute conversation with Kelly Reichardt, any other ticket would have to be pretty damn special to compete. But besides these super-special presentations, what of course matters most are the films themselves. As always, TIFF ’13 also provided a stellar lineup of films from established talent and new voices alike. Some films were so good that waiting until a second screening seemed unbearable. Roger Ebert always described TIFF as an extremely special festival and one incomparable to the other majors. There are many reasons for this, from the receptive audiences to the very special presentations to the burgeoning talent. I’ve always liked to think it also had to do with the city itself. TIFF is founded on the all-are-welcome principles of a public festival, and as a result, it has the film-goers of Toronto to thank for the passionate energy that drove it to thrive. In return, TIFF has given this city a wealth of art and culture, and after 30 years, continues to provide in generous doses. Consider the following highlight list the top 5 examples of why Torontonians should feel grateful to call TIFF our own.

5. Generally Stellar Lineup of New Films

One of the most enjoyable days in August is when word finally drops of the directors and films that’ll be passing through Toronto each year. Somehow the list always seems to go on and on. This year TIFF saw the likes of Bruce MacDonald, Errol Morris, Mayazaki, David Gordon Green, Alfonso Cuarón, and many more legends of cinema. As in every year, towards the end of the week it seemed I’d seen so many quality films in such a tight amount of time, my head was gaining weight. Each of the films in the following copout sub-genre are deserving of an entire review, but for the purpose of this list, I’ll mention some of the few films that cinephiles can look forward to upon their impending releases within the next few months. There was Jarmusch’s curious take on the vampire film. In keeping with Jarmusch’s pre-occupation, it’s delightfully fitting that his point of his interest lies in the age-old lead vampire’s taste in music. Being centuries old, Jarmusch’s vampires, suavely portrayed by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, have seen great musicians pass through their lifetimes, from Mozart to Screamin’ Jay to Jack White. But what happens when the reclusive rock-god vampire loses his thirst for life while his thirst for blood simultaneously escalates. The story is a meditation on rock and roll mortality and one told with style and well-placed moments of golden humour. It’s a delight to report that Only Lovers Left Alive is another win for Jarmusch.

Following the loose sequel to Hard Core Logo, Bruce MacDonald’s new film The Husband offered further proof that MacDonald has never stopped being an exciting filmmaker. In The Husband, MacDonald still finds fresh ways to take chances, from the film’s challenging and untraditionally suspenseful content to his unflinching directorial approach. Another nice thing about his films is that they often take place in recognizable Canadian locales. Location-wise, even more than Scott Pilgrim, The Husband is perhaps the most Toronto-based-film I’ve ever seen. It even includes a shopping trip to our city’s beloved and sadly endangered Honest Ed’s.

Hirokazu Kore-Eda, whose film I Wish was among the most moving experiences of TIFF ’11, was back in Toronto with his new masterpiece, Like Father, Like Son. Like all of his work, the film is a beautifully shot and genuinely written experience. Nobody Knows, Kore-Eda’s fascination with childhood perspectives is again at play, only now that the director is himself a father, the focus is shifted to the nature of parenting and cycles of family history. It’s no wonder the film won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year. Of this batch of returning talents, many of whom have grown into Mavericks, perhaps the film that impressed me the most was David Gordon Green’s Joe. With Green’s recent foray into comedy, Joe is somewhat of a return to form for the director, who revisits more personally local territory. The performances by Nicolas Cage and youngster, Tye Sheridan – who’s been lucky enough to appear in films by several Maverick directors of late – were among the year’s best. Even more impressive than the seasoned actors, young and old, were the amateurs who Green and his casting director plucked from the streets. Like the great Neorealists Rossellini, De Sica or even Henzell, Green feels like one of the last directors working with ordinary faces to achieve utmost realism. How some of these townies were able to pull off the performances they did is nothing short of astounding. Joe will certainly be high up on my year-end top 10.

4. Live Music at The Elgin

As mentioned earlier, back in 2006, Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon The Brain! utilized The Elgin Theater in a remarkable way. BUTB! and its unique premiere, turned the silent film experience on its head, in an explosion of style befitting Maddin’s ability to morph ancient cinema into an intensely surreal and expressionistically personal trip. In 2013, the example of this type of larger than life Elgin experience came with Godfrey Reggio’s Visitors. As if screening Reggio’s first film in 11 years wasn’t enough, the film was accompanied by a live score performed by the TSO and written by Philip Glass, who was in attendance. And as if this wasn’t already too good to be true, the whole thing was presented by Steven Soderbergh, who also conducted a wonderful Q&A between Reggio, Glass, and, editor Jon Kane, after the film screened.

As for the film itself, I can honestly say this was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had watching a movie in a long time. If you’ve seen Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, you know what type of film to expect, at least insofar as what not to expect, such as narrative or things to do with pop-structure. Viewers would be best advised to open their minds as wide as possible when taking in this film. It is an experience that somehow demands your attention while using only 70 cuts. With a film clocking in at 87 minutes, that’s 74 seconds per image. And the images are indeed captivating. As Reggio says in the Q&A, the film acts as a sort of moment of clarity, a pause in the hustle and bustle of this modern rush-hour life. The film presents a collection of beautifully photographed faces of all ages staring at you with expressions which each viewer will interpret differently, depending on where his/her head happens to be at during the screening. For this reason, I suspect Visitors will make for substantial multiple viewings.

One thing uniting the viewer with the film itself is the act of spectatorship. “The film looks back at you!” Reggio said in the Q&A. Though you could also imagine hearing these words blurted out of a bug-eyed art school kid with wild hair, in the case of Visitors, the mad director achieved his vision with blazing colours – within the black and white format no less. Some of the plethora of faces staring back at the viewer weren’t even human, as was the case with the film’s Triska, a female lowland gorilla. After the final shot of the film faded out and the credits began, my 2013 TIFF compatriot turned to me with a look as satisfied as my own and, and said, “Man, that ape was staring at you with look as if to say, ‘y’all just passin’ through’.” As for Soderbergh’s comment, whose only affiliation with the film seems to be his awe of it: “If, 500 years ago, monks could sit at a bench and make a movie, this is what it would look like.”

3. Programmers like Colin Geddes

Every walk of cinematic life is represented by TIFF’s 19 Programmes, each of which offer lineups brimming with visionary films from across the earth. Film are selected with deep thought by TIFF’s programme curators. These unsung heroes of the festival, responsible for the content itself, are all worthy cinepheliac zealots in their own fields, and can be counted on by audiences with similar thematic persuasions for their keen eye. For my money, nobody is programming cooler films than Colin Geddes. Normally I go nuts for Midnight Madness, but this year life made the task of staying awake in a dark theater at 1am a saddening struggle. I fought my crammed schedule, undergoing ungodly long days, but it caught up with me each night.

Fortunately, of the midnights I was able to catch, I was at my most alert for Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno. Throughout his career, Roth has contributed to the cult horror genre with love and insight. He takes horror tropes from the genre’s rich history, such as his pleasure in featuring the victims as privileged and entitled. His career-making premiere of Cabin Fever in ‘02 took a crew of American Apparel teens, dragging them through an ironic hell with a flesh-eating virus – not a good look. Then, back in ’05, Roth returned with his status-cementing Euro-nightmare, Hostel. As a little nod to the obnoxiousness of rich Americans cruising Europe, Roth himself makes a cameo appearance at an everything-goes bar, taking a slapstick splash of bongwater in his mouth like a jerk. That particular screening was an odd night for MM as it was held in the Varsity 8 as a one-off. It’s kind of funny that Roth holds the MM record for being the only directors I can think of to screen at 3 separate MM venues. But I digress.

In The Green Inferno, we have a batch of left-wing radical college students, who feel strongly about the issues without necessarily knowing the facts. They venture out on an anthropological journey to right international wrongs but get lost instead in a nefarious green jungle which they know nothing about. As most cult-horror fans knew to anticipate entering the theater, think Cannibal Holocaust meets The O.C. or maybe Saved By The Bell: The College Years. Or, if movies called Cannibal Holocaust are below your taste, think Fitzcarraldo and The Burden of Dreams meets, well, a movie called Cannibal Holocaust. In the Q&A it was revealed that the tribe who acted in The Green Inferno was first shown Cannibal Holocaust as a performance guide. Apparently, none of the hundreds of tribesmen knew what a movie was going into the screening. Now all they know of cinema is a movie called Cannibal Holocaust… and they loved it. How’s that for anthropology?!

Since the midnight hours proved difficult for me, it was my extreme pleasure to get my rocks off during the day with Colin’s older-sister Programme: Vanguard. Colin is only one voice in Vanguard team who showcase a variety of films. It’s here where the fests’ hidden gems are buried and I only wish I could have seen them all. Most regrettably, I was very sad to miss The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears – a Vanguard selection that looked just off the wall. Colin himself noted in an introduction for another film that Strange Colour was very close to being on the MM lineup. Despite that fail, I did manage to catch a few key titles in programme. One was the insidiously curious Borgman, a bizarre tale of class distinctions from the Netherlands, via one very gradual home invasion.

I also took my hat off to Blue Ruin, a very smart and original take on the revenge film. Given the modern film market, Blue Ruin’s creative team assumed they were making a VOD film. Instead they were shocked to receive an invitation to the Cannes Film Festival where a movie of such quality belongs. The director wrote the film for his good friend to play lead. Their mutual trust paid off in spades as the performance and direction were surprisingly excellent. PROXY is one of the best films I saw at TIFF this year. I suppose it’s a thriller but it’s one that exists on its own shocking terms. PROXY is a mystery unlike any other. It embodies everything I love about seeing films among TIFF audiences. The story surrounds two new mothers and the dangerous personality quirk that unites them . Joe Swanberg also appears in the cast with an impressively moving performance. But the real star, of this movie, chock full of talent, are the writer and director. You cannot guess where PROXY is going so you’d be best advised to not even try. PROXY is 10 steps ahead of the viewer at every turn. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to look at the stranger next to you and ask, “are you getting this?”

Some films were so good that the wait until a second screening seemed unbearable. This is especially true of the madcap hitchhiker cartoon, Asphalt Watches. I knew I was going to see this film the second I saw the stills. Unable to make heads or tails of the images on the website, I grabbed a ticket immediately. At first, the crude-by-design animation and surreal, bizarre dialogue was overwhelming to digest. The audience was laughing but you could tell most people there hadn’t the slightest notion why. Gradually, this Dali-esque road trip bromance, reveals itself to be richer and richer with each passing scene. The film is a genius interpretation of the filmmakers own 8-day hitchhiking trip to Toronto, told by portraying the ordinary people who picked up the two hitcher/artisan, as represented by their animated qualities. The trip, which only lasted 8 days, took almost 8 years to complete. This type of dedication always makes for favourite movies. It dares to ask the tough questions like “What do children want?” the film’s answer: “GARBAGE!!” Asphalt Watches would win best first Canadian feature. I consider that a victory for independent filmmaking. Especially since the audience reception at the small Scotiabank theater, though mostly positive, saw a plethora of ’how do I respond to this film’ reactions? I must say these uncomfortable responses only enhanced the experience. Given that audibly mixed response of that screening, I can’t help but wonder how it would’ve played at MM. It is my feeling that Asphalt Watches would’ve killed at The Ryerson.

2. In Conversation

The In Conversation series has always been my favorite feature of TIFF. Over the years it has taken on many incarnations from the early Dialogues: Talking With Pictures program, where I’ve seen Kevin Smith introduce Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. One of my longtime favourite things to do while killing time in bookstores is pursuing TIFF programme books from the 90s and gawk at nights I’d have killed to attend. One such example from the mid-90s was when Gena Rowlands introduced the perfect A Woman Under the Influence. The first time I flipped to that page I felt a familiar feeling of being robbed. Around 15 years after that screening, to Toronto’s extreme good fortune, The TIFF Bell Lightbox opened, making TIFF-style programming a yearlong event. In doing so, what was Dialogues became ‘In Conversation’ – a format which scrapped the ‘influence-driven screening approach, and turned it into a broader in-conversation-with style that didn’t lose discussion time to the film screenings themselves. When the Lightbox began hosting retrospective screenings with year-round guests, I was shocked at my good fortune when TIFF held a similar screening during the recent Cassavettes retrospective in the off season. That Rowlands was to appear as a special guest was nothing short of a TIFF blessing.

This year provided me with one of my all-time favorite In Conversations to date. After years of seeing favourite directors come through Toronto, one of my all time heroes, Spike Jonze, has never premiered a film at TIFF. While that can still be said, at least in 2013, Jonze stopped by TIFF’s In Conversation With program to discuss his not-quite-ready to premiere film Her, which stars Joaquin Phoenix and is set for release this winter. What was so especially cool about In Conversation With Jonze was that it was conducted by Kelly Reichardt, whose Night Moves, was among my favorite films to screen at TIFF – and one followed by an amusingly weak Q&A spun into gold by Reichardt, Eisenberg, and Fanning. Reichardt is a down to earth director out of Portland. I’m a fan big fan of all her minimalist films. I especially enjoyed attending a screening of Wendy and Lucy – a favorite of TIFF ’08.

Reichardt and Spike were almost equally bare-bones in the best way possible. The two friends laughed with each other through their mutual uncertainty of how to conduct the event. Clips from Her were screened. And might I say, in this day and age, with so much weight bestowed on the medium of Television (to think it was once a format where actors went to die), it’s refreshing to anticipate a film as much as I do Her – (Her and Inside Llewyn Davis – my hype for these films reminds me of a time when the release of a new and exciting film seemed to mean exponentially more to people). Under ordinary circumstances I’d never spoil as much of Her for myself as I had to, but what I saw just makes me want to see the damn thing even more. Sure enough, there is a new Spike film around the corner. By the looks of things, if you still have a DVD (Blu-Ray) shelf on your wall, in due time, Her will soon be amongst the most beloved films in your collection. As for this presentation’s audience Q&A, a nice example was when a typical question that began with “Er, in this stage of your ‘hic’ career-“ was answered with Reichardt’s telling Spike, “Hey, I think that guy just called you old…”

1. Jason Reitman’s Live Read Series

TIFF favorite, Jason Reitman first brought his live read series to Toronto last year with a live reading of the American Beauty screenplay. There’s only one reason I wasn’t in the house for that American Beauty reading – and I should add that AB is a film dear to TIFF’s heart, as it won the audience award upon its premiere in ’99 – was because I didn’t know about it. That my sound cocky or something, but had that screening not been kept a secret, there is simply no way I would’ve missed it. This year they cut Toronto cinephiles some slack and made it an official ticket in the 13 lineup. I further applaud TIFF for not allowing it to be selectable in the advance purchase window, offering it only in the general public onsale. It is only right for a presentation this special to be offered in a lottery scenario. Sadly it is too often the case that TIFF’s hottest tickets are the ones swept up by those with patron-circle privileges (not that rewards for donors or gold visa members aren’t a necessary bolt in the machinery) before the general audience has a shot. Money doesn’t always deserve the right to the highest quality of ‘entertainment’.

That said, the Live Read series was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in my entire life. It didn’t hurt that the screenplay was one of my nearest and dearest films, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. The film, conceived by a 17-year-old PTA and shot when he was only 26, is one of the reasons I love movies. As Jason Reitman himself said upon first taking the Ryerson stage to introduce his insane cast, that when he first saw the film at a mall test screening (probably around early ‘97 when he was 20), the film “blew his fucking mind”. When it finally came out on video in early ‘98, I remember walking 45 minutes to Videoflicks at 13-years-old. Like Reitman, it blew my fucking mind in ways I couldn’t begin to digest or understand. And yet on many levels I understood the film as a lesson in empathy and humanity, and one of the great PTA themes, forgiveness (even in the context of “adult”-entertainment). Whatever it was I just saw, I knew it meant a lot to me, as it did to a great many wide-eyed, mind-blown youngsters.

One of the very special treats of Reitman’s Live Read is being able to see a collective favorite movie read by an alternate cast, who are themselves great fans of the material – and on professional levels probably wish they were affiliated or at least included in Anderson’s Mercury Theater. So on the one hand you’re rejoicing alongside celebrities as collective fans of the material. On the other, Live Read offers the rare experience to see what these words might’ve sounded like had casting decisions gone in other directions, or perhaps if it were filmed in another decade. The cast of Reitman’s Live Read was stacked. There was Josh Brolin as Jack Horner, Olivia Wilde as Amber, Jesse Eisenberg as Dirk and other appearances by the likes of Jason Sudeikis, Scott Thompson, Dane Cook, and perhaps most tickling, Dakota Fanning as Roller Girl. The cast did an admirable job in delivering the heaven-sent lines, seeming to enjoy the writing just as much as the audience, for the most part. Olivia Wilde – to her credit, did a powerful reading as Dirk Diggler’s mom in the “I’m a gonna be a big shining star, you’ll see” suburban runaway scene, brought tears to the eye – though that was in large part due to Eisenberg as Dirk and PTA having simply written a perfect scene, which in the film contains the finest performance of Mark Wahlburg’s career.

Alongside the brilliant minds of, Spike Jonze, Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Payne, the early years of PTA represent a bygone era when film, like in the late 60s/early 70s, felt new and exciting. It was an onslaught of voices that demonstrated the places cinema could go if only allowed in the right hands. Every once in awhile a window of time opens up in which groundbreaking art is able to sneak into the limelight. It only takes the wisdom of a few to push the world into the next level. This specific generation of cinematic voices of the ‘90’s-early-00’s is the reason I am passionate about film. Like most modern film-lovers, I was hooked-in as a kid by the blockbuster, but once I mentally came of age, I became aware of ways expressionistic filmmakers were pushing the medium into a holy realm of the visceral cinematic experience. I became aware of themes far older than myself and the ability of others to package them into powerful 2-hour massages.

Boogie Nights was such a movie to me and even simply hearing the words read – action and all – was enough to pull me into the world of PTA. I picture a kid in his early 20s typing away at a computer, on fire with passion, empathy, and profound ability. Visions like Anderson’s are the reason for this top-5 list. Films like Boogie Nights, which had its premiere at TIFF, spell out the joy of film festivals like the one Toronto is fortunate enough to host annually. Ever since my own first mind blowing TIFF experience – Sweet & Lowdown at Roy Thomson Hall back in ’99 – the festival has offered me early glimpses into an exciting future.

Fifteen years have now passed since my first TIFF screening in ‘98. First time directors of that year are now considered Mavericks… But, enough mourning the passage of time. Yes, TIFF is gone for this year. So is summer. But if you need help getting through the change of season, see you at the Lightbox.

On Demand for the Theatrical Experience

 

canyons

 

“Straight to video” used to be a very dirty term for movies that are made without the intention or the success of obtaining a theatrical run. If the movie aspired to nothing more than to make small money from its meager budget, it would come in the form of a 3rd rate action/horror flick or exploitative, low-brow Pauly Shore vehicle. Or perhaps a straight-to-video movie could be an accident; a movie believed to be of quality by all involved, only to be sorely mistaken when no studio is willing to distribute a director’s labor of love. Regardless of why these movies went straight to video, what they had in common is that they had no place on the highly coveted big screen. Since then, the business of releasing movies has shifted so dramatically that to fault a movie for not obtaining a theatrical release would be asinine. While many viewers still covet the theatrical experience as the way films are supposed to be experienced, the modern market is so strongly weighted towards convenience that we’ve come to live in a time where home video arguably reigns supreme. Whether or not this is true, and such a premise can only exist for the sake of argument, it is my feeling that the big screen is no longer a coveted entity.

Allow me to provide a brief history of home video to demonstrate how far things have come since the golden age of the silver screen. Before home video was created in the early eighties, when a film was released, it would enjoy theatrical engagements that could last from months to years. The theater was your only source to experience the medium of cinema. Things began to change with the invention of television which offered occasional second chances to see theatrical movies in your home on a small cube device (slicing the intended widescreen at the wings into a form once known as ‘standard’), highly censored and compromised for advertising purposes. Then everything changed with the once unthinkable invention of video rentals. The concept that, for a day, you could take home a movie for 24 hours – and get this – watch it as many times as you wanted before returning it the next day, was nothing short of the revolutionary birth of cinematic availability. It was an exciting time when Blockbuster Video, a dinosaur of today, was a wonder house of possibility. A video store was like the ultimate dream dealer.

On the other hand, the advent of film accessibility meant a manipulation to the intended cinematic experience, as it had existed for well over 50 years. Firstly, watching a movie at home meant modifying the widescreen format to your 4:3 television screen. Then, there was the disruption resulting from the freedom to discuss the movie freely during the screening. Perhaps worst of all, VCR’s offered the ability to pause a film, dividing it into whatever increments the viewer saw fit. While I do see the convenience value of these enhancements towards comfort, it’s not hard to see why some skeptics considered them a major step in the devolution of the cinematic experience. Take, for example, one of the most successful, and long-lasting theatrical releases of the 70s and 80s, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. How can you translate what that film meant to a theatrical audience to the home viewing environment. It’s an extreme example but significant in that it reflects how removing films from their theatrical realm can alter the experience. There is something strangely wonderful about watching a movie in a dark room full of strangers with nothing in common other than the experience unfolding before you. In this sense, going to a film is almost like the great unifier. The shared immersion carries a profound effect, which, in conjunction with the blackness of the room, acts to throw away the film-goers reality allowing them to surrender to the dream-like images being projected on the large screen hovering above. 

Today it’s unthinkable that every movie that has ever existed  shouldn’t be immediately available in some form or another, but for the better part of 20 years the system went that after a movie experienced its theatrical run (its length determined by the film’s box-office success), the movie would become available for home consumption. If the film was a bomb, you may wait 5-8 months before being able to rent the movie. But if it was something like ‘93’s Jurassic Park, you’d have to wait well into ’94 to find it on your Major Video store’s shelf. Should you have the unfortunate fate of being a collector, you’d still be in for another yearlong wait before you’d get the opportunity to pay $23.99 to own a full screen VHS movie. The only ones not waiting a year to buy VHS tapes were the video stores, who paid roughly $110 for the movie, to be earned back in rental revenue before eventually landing on the previously viewed shelf to die. 

Forlorn VHS collectors found salvation in the late ‘90s. With the advent of the DVD came the ultimate home video revolution. DVD offered widescreen format, special features, and best of all, immediate availability to own. The DVD boom lasted well into the ‘00s until gradually, the download age swept through, leaving three decades of video stores to die of neglect, one by one, until even the mighty Blockbuster Video took its fall. Today the digital world has completely swallowed practical media in both film and music. Like invisible music contained within an ipod device, downloading movies via your home theater cable box, or on your computer, either through itunes or illegal means, is the modern means of home video.  You may virtually watch anything you want almost whenever you want it, whether it is an obscure film from 50 years ago or a brand new movie that has yet to even see its theatrical release. Naturally, this free-for-all era of free media has had a tremendous impact on the way films are currently distributed. Whereas historically theatrical release and home video were two completely separate animals, often separated by an entire year, with immediate access to new releases in a home environment, the theatrical experience began losing out to convenience and, movie studios were forced to address both markets simultaneously. Many studios didn’t even bother releasing some of their more independent acquisitions theatrically. In the last decade we’ve seen more and more theatre-worthy releases make their debuts in living rooms. Big budget films with A-list stars began appearing amidst the sea of titles provided by TMN On Demand leaving movie-goers baffled that they haven’t even heard of the movie in the first place. Home video, or perhaps, convenient viewing, has become a focal environment for the release of many great films. Thus, the notion of the straight-to-video movie is no longer derogatory. A studio bypassing a film’s theatrical run is no longer the mark of an unworthy film. Of course, the sheer output of movies today is a huge factor in the ratio of theatrical to video releases, but I can’t help but think it’s also reflective of an increasingly apathetic audience.

In the last month, two films have been released simultaneously in theaters and on demand that have struck me as especially indicative of how far things have come. They are Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives and Paul Schrader’s The Canyons. While neither film has succeeded critically, they are nevertheless films that I have been eagerly anticipating for months. Refn’s last film, Drive, is as good as anything you can hope to see on the big screen. The Canyons is an independently produced passion collaboration between heavyweight writer/director Paul Schrader and writer, Bret Easton Ellis. Schrader is engrained in cinema history. With credits like Taxi Driver (screenplay), HardcoreAmerican Gigolo, et al, Schrader is an auteur with a wide-ranging filmography. Ellis is the author of Less Than ZeroRules of AttractionAmerican Psycho… His adaptations have made for widely beloved cinematic experiences. I could not wait for the theatrical release of these two films.  

And then over the last few weeks they were both released simultaneously in theaters and on demand. For reasons pertaining to convenience, when I found myself with some time one night, I could not help but throw on the unfathomably available Only God Forgives. A few afternoons later, I found myself with some more time – just enough to squeeze in a movie. With great shame, I chucked my immense desire to see The Canyons on the big screen in favor of immediacy, and watched a film to which I’d been so looking forward, with the midday sun shining through the window. I was immersed in the film, despite the daylight, but couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something very wrong. Although I sold out my theatrical values, at least the rental period was 48 hours and I was able to watch the film a second time – a sort of throw back to the early thrills of renting. I should add that these two films were equally available for free download prior to their first theatrical showtime of the day, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of treating movies I couldn’t wait to see (one of which was a Kickstarter passion project) with such low esteem. Paying the On Demand fee was the least I could do.

Only God Forgives and The Canyons have quite a bit in common with one another. They both exist in morally bankrupt universes, they both consist of tersely spoken characters, they’re both stylistically driven, both films are receiving negative attention on account of the fact they’re bold and unafraid to take chances, and most relevant to this discussion, as far as I’m concerned, both films are pieces of legitimate auteur driven cinema and thus deserve to be experienced on a big screen, in a state conducive to immersion. Whether or not you agree that these are two great films – and I’d be hard-pressed to find people who agree that they are – is beside the point. What’s relevant is that both films are rich in tone, and to casually drop in and out of either, or divide it into increments, is both a disservice to the filmmakers, and a means to cheat yourself out of a film’s intended effect. Imagine splitting a David Lynch film into 5 parts. Or watching something likeMulholland Drive on “your fucking phone” as Lynch famously condemned. I recognize that watching a film on your TV screen, or even computer screen, is not quite as absurd as watching a film on your phone, but it speaks to the increasing acceptability of the casual watching experience when film simply isn’t a casual medium. At its best, film engages both your ethereal consciousness and, in the case of directors like Lynch, or even Refn – whose Only God Forgives is more than a little Lynchian – engages your subconscious. Viewers of today, who value convenience over the film experience itself, will watch a movie on their small screens without regard for a darkened atmosphere, and having watched the images, will believe they have fairly experienced a film. Given the underwhelming nature of the modern viewing atmosphere, it’s no wonder that film is losing its cachet.  

It’s also no wonder that filmmakers like David Lynch are losing their desire to play to the modern audience. In a recent Hollywood Reporter interview, Lynch expressed his dwindling enthusiasm to contribute to an increasingly disposable medium. I think part of the reason ideas haven’t come in is that the world of cinema is changing so drastically, and in a weird way, feature films I think have become cheap. Everything is kind of throwaway. It’s experienced and then forgotten. It goes really fast. And you have to do those things you are just in love with.” Lynch’s quote, speaks more to the volume problem in film distribution today, in which auteur driven films become lost in the sea of generic imitations of overused formulas. Theatrically, movies don’t stick out in a multiplex that screens 30 movies. On TMN’s On Demand they don’t even have posters. It’s not hard to understand why it’s now considered okay to watch a movie on your phone when the bar for what a movie is has been set so low and continues to plummet. The real tragedy is that legitimate films are getting sucked into the shuffle and suffering from spreading disinterest in keeping the movie on a pedestal.

The Canyons screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis also recently discussed his thoughts on the decline of interest in cinema in an interview conducted by the A.V. Club. Basically, film and serious, auteur-driven movies… no one’s interested. I experienced the disconnect really powerfully for the first time this year. I do go to movies, and I still have that habit from when I was young: I want to drive to the theater, and I want the movie to control me. I don’t want to sit in my bedroom able to control the movie, and turn it off whenever I want.” It’s fitting that Ellis’ The Canyons takes place in a sort of modern Hollywood dystopia, where all the players in the dream factory have long since cared about the dream itself. Though this theme takes a back seat to a story more focused on power and privilege, the opening and closing credits set the landscape tone of the film, framing it within a photo collage of abandoned movie theaters. These images of barren auditoriums, with rusting projection booths and littered film reels on the dusty grounds, are some of the most tragic architectural photographs I’ve ever seen. Mega multiplexes have replaced the old way of movie-going, and it’s undeniable that the experience of going to the movies has dramatically changed. The vibe of the average movie house compared to the class of Hollywood’s past is like a gaudy carnival. With tacky colours, and designs that serve to overwhelm the attendee, movie theaters of today closer resemble an amusement park than anything suggesting cinema as a meaningful past time. Theaters boast of ultimate experiences in picture, sound and 3D as a way to compete with the increasingly popular home video method of experiencing movies.  The message here seems to be that movies no longer sell themselves.

I found myself extremely depressed, watching the ghost-theater slideshow closing credits of The Canyons on my television set in broad daylight. In addition to mourning the loss of an extinct way of life, the images also point to a death of the collective experience of watching films. The last image features a dilapidated theater with an apparent hole in the ceiling, causing a large ray of sunlight to infiltrate what is meant to be a dark room.

Glancing at the ray of sunlight coming through my own living room window, I shuddered in sorrow, realizing that I have officially become part of the problem.

– The Silly Serpent

Unrestricted Content: A Nostalgic Look at Censorship

 

MPAA

 

Is there such thing as a restricted movie anymore? I know that there is still an MPAA that rates movies as G, PG, PG-13, R (or the seldom used NC-17) and that it has done so since 1968 when the new system abolished the dated Hays code. But what I’m less clear about is whether or not the restricted rating has any remaining clout whatsoever as far as kids under 18 are concerned. In an age when any upcoming release, deemed PG or Restricted, will become equally available to any party with remote interest just weeks after a movie’s release date, are rating systems even relevant anymore? The fact is, to which almost any movie fan born before the ‘90s can attest, the MPAA branding of a new dark (thus cool) movie used to matter. It used to matter a great deal. Today it seems like the restricted rating and all its formerly oppressive connotations, as I knew it as a 14-year-old, has vanished.

While it may seem odd that I’m so concerned with what a 14-year-old should be allowed to see – I am no parent after all – it is only because in a strange way I feel sorry for a generation that can access whatever adult intended content they want whenever they want. But why feel sorry for a generation that essentially is living my 14-year-old dream? I should really be happy for kids today who are now able to see almost any film, no matter how vile the subject matter with minimal hassle. The only problem is, how can I be happy for a generation of kids who don’t know how to be happy for themselves? It’s interesting to consider, if as a kid I was able to see whatever lurid movie I so desperately desired, what would have become of my desire?

Growing up in Canada during the ‘90s, my personal MPAA equivalent, The Ontario Review Board, was even stricter than in the States. If a movie was given an “R” rating it meant that there were to be no kids in that theater without exception. To my extreme envy, the American government did offer such an exception, rightfully championing the role of the parent as the one who should be responsible for choosing what their kids could or could not see without the oppressive hand of the government censoring content. In other words, if your parents or older siblings were cool enough, with adult supervision (someone who could presumably put all the things you’ve seen into context), you could basically see all the pivotal restricted movies. Being Canadian, you’d be lucky to have a parent willing to take you to the new darker-than-usual John Woo film while on an American vacation. In America it seemed all good, at least as long as nudity wasn’t involved. North America has always been especially squeamish with things having to do with sex and nudity, and nowhere was this more prevalent than in the confusing priorities of the MPAA. I’ll always consider Jessie Spano’s Showgirls as the quintessential NC-17-rated film. Longstanding complaints often directed at the MPAA concern its views that brutal violence is more appropriate than the female body.

Interestingly, when the Hays code was replaced in the ‘70s, the modern perspective on the subject seemed to be that the world was essentially divided into two groups: those who were over the age of 18 and those who were younger. What was appropriate for an 18 year old was far less so for someone of 17. And what was okay viewing for a 17 year old was just as well for a 10 year. If, like me, you ever found yourself wondering why kids movies of the ‘80s were so much darker and more haunting than those of today, my personal feeling is that it somehow boils down to studio attempts to appeal to such a wide age demographic simultaneously. A person undergoes more drastic changes in this 8-year time span than they usually ever will again in their lives. How do you appeal to both ends of the formative years?

For over 15 years, this over/under-18 distinction dictated what kids were exposed to but in 1984 that all came to a crashing halt with Spielberg’s first Indiana Jones sequel, The Temple of Doom. Given that Raiders of the Lost Ark was such a colossal success, Temple of Doom was one of the most anticipated movies of the sequel-heavy decade. And like the extremely frightening Raiders, it was rated PG. What nobody expected was for Spielberg to follow his widely beloved adventure with a significantly darker chapter in the archaeological saga. Everyone took their age 7+ kids to the voodoo-laden tale of ancient evil that saw Indy temporarily turn evil and hit a small boy named Short Round. A generation of kids was utterly traumatized by the horrifying images contained within. Parents felt betrayed by the seemingly friendly blockbuster that left their kids awake at night. So angry was the response that the government was forced to step in and create the PG-13 rating. I was one of those kids and yet growing up, Indy 2 was always my favorite of the trilogy. Even though the film caused so much pain and upset, I suppose I was learning that there’s an exciting quality about that which you’re most afraid. And so, like every other pre-teen around me, I grew to love subjects in movies I’d probably be better off avoiding.

Once you grow into your teenage years, with experience comes an evolving taste for content that over time, gradually surpasses the material provided by movies rated PG-13; or Ontario’s Adult Accompaniment (AA), which was essentially the same thing except Ontario drew the line at 14 years old, allowing in slightly edgier movies as a small condolence for not allowing parents the right to accompany kinds into R rated theaters. As far as kids seeing Restricted movies went, legally, a kid would have to wait until they were 18 with zero exception, despite the fact that most R rated movies released, such as the entire horror genre, are prominently geared towards 15 to 17 year-old boys. And since being a teenager is very much about discovering how truly bizarre the world is, to be disallowed to taste that forbidden fruit was unacceptable.

Given that the ratings board had so much power over my entertainment, the release of the Thursday paper could be a pretty suspenseful event. For it would not be till the day before a film’s release, and sometimes not till the release date itself, that you would find out whether it was given an AA rating , which would allow you to see the highly coveted film without stress, or an R rating which would pose an often insurmountable conflict. Whenever a trailer would come out offering an upcoming look at a movie of seemingly endless awesomeness, the looming devastation of the R was always hovering amidst the release.

Then Friday would come and sometimes – enough times to warrant this as a topic of teenage consternation – it would happen; a movie like American Psycho or Fight Club, movies with trailers suggesting mind-blowing awesomeness with suggestive hints at depravity, would get branded with the dreaded Ontario R rating. And with the R came a set of hoops that you and your accomplices would have to jump through to make the experience happen for you. Overcoming these required obstacles in order to earn that exciting light at the end of the tunnel provided kids with a sense of adventurous purpose – a deeply important mission. Because if you failed to see movies like Scream, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Boogie Nights in theaters, given the state of home-video in the mid-‘90s, it would be a dreadfully long turnaround before you’d be able to watch the modified full screen version on your tiny television cube. So if you really cared about movies, given that home video was light years away from today’s home theatre viewing experience, the stakes involved in attempting to catch good movies on proper big screens were astronomically high.

As a result, successfully sneaking into an R rated film – seldom an easy feat – and earning the wonderfully twisted cinematic experiences waiting at the other end of the tunnel, provided some of the most rewarding experiences of my youth. We became experts on the subject of approach. A successful sneak-in was like a true work of art and similarly to the greatest of heist movies, the more challenging the job, the better the narrative. Drive-in movie theaters were still in abundance and should you be traveling with an elder, drive-ins were the easiest gig out there. Your run-of-the-mill mall theater posed more complicated challenges like getting past the squeaky-voiced teen guarding the auditorium entrance door. Being able to outsmart the geek would require stealth, calculated timing, and actual blueprints.

Eventually the time did come when I turned 18 and suddenly overnight, an entire world of adult-intended material was immediately accessible. Not much longer after my 18th birthday, the Ontario Ratings Board would re-evaluate its rating system to address all the issues which made my teenage years a constant battle. Much like the invention of the PG-13 bridged a gap between two very distinct demographics, Ontario’s new 18a rating provided the bridge between AA and truly restricted material. And yet while I really could’ve used that bridge growing up, the excitement of my countless sneaks, for better or worse, provided some of my most action packed days.

I think most people born before the ‘90s had similar experiences with forbidden films growing up and it is my suggestion that these experiences served to put the restricted movie on a much-needed pedestal. Going beyond the sneak-in fun factor, when I think about the state of censorship today, I find myself nostalgic for a time when a new horror movie was something to look forward to, or at least consider special. So many movies are released today via so many means it’s a wonder any one title feels special anymore. I can’t speak for the youth of today – though feel free to consider this a non-pedophilic call to 14-year old boys to come forward with their feelings on the matter, if there is even a matter for them to speak of – but it’s my suspicion that an enthusiastic appetite for adult-geared material once existed that has dissolved in the modern age of fully accessible entertainment. I’m not saying that kids don’t like watching crazy shit anymore – there will always be a teenage market for crazy shit – it’s just that if there is still such thing as “Restricted” what the hell does that even mean or do?

With modern channels like HBO or Netflix providing commonplace content as gory as anything I was forbidden to see for years, has the practice of hiding things from our youth died completely? Is it even possible to conceal dark entertainment anymore? Or to put it another way, has society lightened up or given up? And what of the generation raised on exposure to any random movie at any age? Is it healthy to take violence for granted the way kids watching Game of Thrones surely must or does all this over-exposure help in the fight to differentiate fiction from reality? I couldn’t begin to speak to these questions. Perhaps I could if I were a teacher, parent or pedophile, but I am simply a preservationist fan of curiously morbid movies and the tradition of looking forward to them. I mourn for the R-rated cachet. – The Silly Serpent