Check movie expectations at the door


We have often espoused that great films provide us with the three E’s: they entertain us, they emotionally move us ( laugh, cry, frighten, anger) and they educate us to things we’ve never seen. Today let’s add a fourth E to the equation: expectations.

We go to movies with expectations based on the film genre (comedy, drama, action, romance), the cast or director and the reviews. In “old days” the reviews usually meant the Coming Attractions or a syndicated column from a film critic in your local newspaper or a magazine. Since the 1950s television ads have provided us with information and today there are countless reviews on the internet and previews on YouTube. You can learn as much or as little as you want before watching a film!

We thought we would each discuss a film that exceeded our expectations and a film that failed to meet our expectations.

Take One

Not to brag, but I consider myself a competent filmgoer. Both of us have spent the better part of our lives watching, discussing, and proclaiming the gospel of films that are completely out of the public consciousness. What could be more exciting than a film that’s proclaimed a “dense puzzle of anxiety, paranoia, and espionage?” Imagine my utter shock upon exiting Cleveland’s Cedar Lee Theater after watching “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (2011) with absolutely no idea what I’d just watched.

This reserved and illegible adaptation of John le Carré’s bestseller solves its own puzzle by never engaging its audience. We’re merely trapped watching a filmmaker show us how controlling he can be. I wish I could tell you what the film is about, but it would be me regurgitating the Wikipedia summation. My filmgoing companions could only surmise “so… they were ALL the spy?” That’s the best summary you’ll get. It’s been 13 years and I’ve often wondered if my friends and I were just dumber than all of the critics that revered the film. I was extremely pleased to find in my research that the director bombed out of Hollywood with his next film and has faded into obscurity.

Occasionally a contemporary film comes along that fits our topic so presciently, that we have to engage. That was the case a few weeks ago when I walked out of Alex Garland’s “Civil War” (2024), a movie that I was loath to see based on the humdrum clickbait marketing campaign. To my surprise, the film itself bears no resemblance to the CGI soldiers perched atop the Statue of Liberty or the misleading money shot of D.C. under siege. Rather, the film is an up-close-and-personal look at journalism and courage in the face of war, and the harrowing job reporters and photographers do every day.

Garland has faced torrents of criticism for not explaining what has led the U.S. to such a violent conflict (the film is nonpartisan), but I am among the half who believe that the origins of the conflict are less crucial than the reality of the violence, and the extreme degradation of human life that follows. Can you imagine the county parks of Ohio being sites for mass executions with countrymen shoveling lime over hundreds of buried bodies? Or snipers perched atop villages in Pennsylvania? Or a full-on militarized assault on the White House using our most deadly technology? By showing these moments in graphic detail, Garland isn’t focusing on why a civil war on U.S. soil is imminent or inevitable, he is illustrating that war takes place in the home of someone and it is equally frightening for the residents of Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan, or Myanmar, to name a few of the armed conflicts happening as you read this article.

Take Two

When I discovered that acclaimed black filmmaker, John Singleton, was going to direct a film based on the infamous Rosewood massacre I was excited to see the final product. For one week in January 1923 a white mob descended on the small town of Rosewood, Florida pillaging the black population and burning the town to the ground. The “official” death toll listed 6 villagers dead, but survivors estimated the death toll between 27 – 150. The reason for the large discrepancy – the survivors took a vow of silence and kept it for 71 years! It was not till 1994 that the public was told what had happened in Rosewood.

Singleton was the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for his groundbreaking film “Boyz n the Hood” (1991). To my disbelief “Rosewood” (1997) was not a historically accurate portrayal of what took place, the film’s central character was a fictional “gunslinger” Mr. Mann, played by Ving Rhames, who mowed down dozens of racist rednecks while saving hundreds of townsfolk. Unfortunately, in real life there was no Mr. Mann to come to the rescue. The film is now buried in obscurity much like the massacre itself which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year with nary a word written or the movie re-released.

In 1977 when it was announced that Oscar winning director William Friedkin renowned for “The French Connection” (1971) and “The Exorcist” (1973) was filming a remake of the 1953 French action thriller “The Wages of Fear” I had low expectations for the film’s success. And I was right! “Sorcerer” opened to negative reviews and dismal box office receipts. Upon viewing the film, I discovered a masterpiece that today is considered one of the finest films of the 1970s.

The story centers on four notorious international criminals (unknown to each other) hiding from the authorities in a small backwater village in South America. They are hired to transport 6 cases of volatile nitroglycerin over 200 miles of mountainous and jungle roads in two dilapidated trucks. They face armed bandits, unmovable obstacles, treacherous roads and a decaying wooden suspension bridge over a raging river during a typhoon-like downpour. (That 20 minute segment is worth the price of admission.) The cast includes Roy Scheider, French superstar Bruno Cremer, Spanish legend Francisco Rabel and versatile Arabic actor Amidou. I left the theater in awe of Friedkin’s re-imaging of the 1953 classic and his ability to entertain, educate and emotionally move this moviegoer.

All films are available on Amazon Prime and YouTube except “Civil War” which is currently in theaters.

(This column is written jointly by a baby boomer, Denny Parish, and a millennial, Carson Parish, who also happen to be father and son.)

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