The Tarnished Silver Screen

Burt Prelutsky

1/28/2008 12:01:00 AM - Burt Prelutsky

Some years ago, I was a movie reviewer. I started out at UCLA, reviewing for the Daily Bruin, and then moved on to be the first critic for Los Angeles magazine. All told, I stuck it out for about a dozen years.

I was always struck by the fact that my readers would insist that I never liked movies, even after I’d just written a rave about, say, “The Apartment” or “Some Like It Hot.” The fact of the matter is that pans are simply more memorable than raves. For instance, I have friends who still recall after 40 years that in summing up “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” a god-awful Dick Van Dyke vehicle, I wrote that it started off with a bang, but ended up chitty.

I finally had my fill when every other movie seemed to be a bad comedy starring Jerry Lewis or some piece of tripe directed by a 25-year-old shmoe who figured that all he had to do was stick the camera behind a fern to be mistaken for the next Hitchcock or Billy Wilder.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that, all in all, I had had it pretty good. But it took seeing a rash of movies recently to drive that point home. At least back then, the inflated egos of the director and the star didn’t make it inevitable that every movie would run well over two hours.

As a rule, I don’t go out to see more than 10 or 12 movies a year, whereas in my reviewing days I’d easily see that many in a month. This past year was fairly typical until, like all the other members of the WGA, I received a slew of DVDs from the studios looking to garner writing awards.

Now, understand they’re not sending us the usual assembly line dreck that they’ve been letting loose since last January. These are their treasures, the movies that are likely to be Oscar contenders, God help us.

To be fair, I had seen some decent movies in theaters. I had seen “American Gangster,” which was okay, although it is not close to being in a class with “The Godfather,” as the ads would have had us believe. I did enjoy “Lars and the Real Girl,” although I can understand why some people didn’t. I thought it was funny, and I thought “Enchanted” was charming. From what I’ve seen, movies that are funny or charming are in dismally short supply.

This brings us to the DVDs. To begin with, the only one I totally enjoyed was “Juno,” which I found to be funny and charming. I’d be perfectly happy if it made a clean sweep of the Oscars, although, speaking as a betting man, I suspect it won’t win any.

I’m not sure if the French film, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” was really any good. It might be that my expectations of a movie about a stroke victim who’s lost the ability to speak were so low that the mere fact I could hang on to the end made it seem better than it was.

I thought “No Country for Old Men” was simply god-awful. Because the Coen brothers, who manage to give new meaning to self-indulgent, have concocted a movie that is extremely violent and totally pointless, the critics have labeled it a modern masterpiece. Movie critics, nearly without exception, are as gullible as the O.J. jury.

These same critics also gave multiple thumbs-up to “There Will Be Blood.” This is another very long, violent movie that also makes no sense at all. My idea of Hell is having to sit through this and “No Country for Old Men” on a double bill. Everyone is talking up Daniel Day-Lewis, the star of “There Will Be Blood,” for an Academy Award. I find that a little odd because throughout the entire movie he sounds exactly like John Huston in “Chinatown.” Maybe the point of this homage was that whether a man’s insatiable greed is for water or oil, he will inevitably wind up with the exact same voice.

Another problem I had with the movie is that it’s extremely dark. I don’t mean its subject matter, I mean its lack of illumination. It’s one thing when the action, such as it is, takes place below ground level, but even after the villain is very rich and living in a mansion, it appears that he can’t afford anything but 20 watt bulbs.

Frankly, I wasn’t expecting much from “Sweeney Todd,” not being a fan of director Tim Burton or star Johnny Depp. What I did expect -- especially in a musical -- is that I’d be able to understand the dialogue and the lyrics. The truth is, after wasting 20 minutes trying to figure out what the heck Depp and Helena Bonham Carter were saying and singing, I simply threw in the towel. My wife, who stuck it through to the end, reports that every five minutes or so somebody got his throat cut.

For what it’s worth, two friends of mine who have been active in motion pictures, claimed the reason I couldn’t figure out what was being said was because the sound mixing was so bad. That doesn’t surprise me. Tim Burton is so concerned about the way his movies look that he pays scant attention to anything else. However, I think that this time around he had a hand in the hair styling, as both Mr. Depp and Ms. Carter wore theirs the same odd way that Mr. Burton wears his.

That brings us to “The Kite Runner,” which, unlike most of the others, had something to say about actual human beings. The only drawback was that it had a tedious second act and, so, it seemed to take a terribly long time saying it.

Some years ago, my wife, who goes to many more movies than I do, observed that scenes taking place in public restrooms had become commonplace. That struck me as highly unlikely, but I soon discovered that she was right. At one point, in fact, I saw four or five movies in a row and each one of them had a conversation or a fist fight taking place in a men’s room. I don’t know in what parallel universe these movie makers dwell, but not only have I never seen a fist fight in a bathroom, but I’ve rarely heard two words spoken in such places.

For my part, what I’ve been noticing is that a fair number of movies have adopted the rape of males as a plot device. Whereas I don’t recall its ever being employed during the first 25 years or so that I was seeing movies, I have now come across it in “Deliverance,” “Prince of Tides,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Mystic River” and now “The Kite Runner.” That doesn’t include “Brokeback Mountain,” where sodomy was the order of the day, but at least it was consensual.

To tell you the truth, I find myself longing for the good old days when every movie didn’t last close to three hours and a guy could be humiliated and still keep his pants on.