Trying to think long-term in a short-term world

August 12, 2011

A summer getaway led me to miss the press screenings of “Cowboys & Aliens,” “The Change-Up” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” (I guess I don’t think of it as a vacation because I associate that word with paid time off, no longer an option.)

So I took myself and my wife to the movies last weekend to see the latter two (since the former seemed like such a lumbering dud just from the trailers).

As it happened, it was opening weekend for both films – but “Apes” sailed into the weekend with 80-plus percent positive rating from Rotten Tomatoes, while “Change-Up” could only manage a positive rating in the low 20s. Opposite ends of the spectrum, if you will.

And, as is often the case, I found both verdicts incomplete. “Rise” was fun, to be sure, with a self-assured and straightforward performance by James Franco. Yes, Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance as the rather tall chimp named Caesar is impressive; on the other hand, there’s never a moment when you’re not aware that you’re watching a computer-generated image. And isn’t that supposed to be the point – that it’s so photorealistic that you can’t see the seams? There are seams a’plenty in these visuals.

There are also huge plot holes, the key one being: Where did the seeming army of chimps and simians that suddenly take over San Francisco at the finale come from? How many chimps did they have at that foul monkey prison run by Brian Cox and the corporation where Franco worked? Maybe these genetically enhanced chimps were also given the power of splitting in two, like amoebas or earthworms.

“Apes” is fun – but the fact that it’s better than any “Apes” movie in years is not the same as being a terrific movie. It’s entertaining, but also too implausible and forced to let you get so caught up that you forget that it’s just a movie.

Similarly, as crude and inconsistent as it is, “The Change-Up” is still a movie that has enough big laughs to keep you watching. And it has a certain enjoyment factor in watching two pros like Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman not only exchange riffs but exchange personalities. Its reach for outrageous jokes often exceeds its grasp – but it’s not significantly worse than “Bad Teacher” or “Horrible Bosses.”

Yet that 20-plus-percent-positive rating seems to indicate that, having given a pass to the previous films – as well as the mildly overrated “Bridesmaids” – critics decided they couldn’t find something positive to say about “The Change-Up.” More of them found redeeming value in the meager “30 Minutes or Less.”

Anyway, this exercise reminded me why I think Rotten Tomatoes creates false equivalences and forces critics to reach for black-and-white conclusions on movies where there’s bound to be a lot of middle ground.

If you’re unfamiliar, Rotten Tomatoes is a movie (and other pop culture) aggregating website in which movie critics’ reviews are reduced to a blurb the length of a Twitter post and then abstracted even further into one of two ratings: Fresh or Rotten. (Full disclosure: I post my reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. I believe it’s called brand extension.)

But, in this era of grade inflation, the site confers an overall rating of Fresh on any movie that gets that particular thumbs-up from 60 percent of the critics surveyed. Sixty percent: As any current or former college student can tell you, that’s not even a D-. It’s a solid F.

So there’s that. And then there’s the Fresh/Rotten dichotomy – and the fact that, often, you’ll see one symbol and read a blurb that seems to indicate something else. As if the critic thought, well, I’m giving it a Rotten rating because it had flaws – but there were also things I liked about it. So I’ll split the difference.

Better that Rotten Tomatoes find a new mid-range rating, something between Fresh and Rotten, to allow for just a tad more nuance. Day-old? Leftovers? Overripe?

But there’s a bigger question, which is the one about the weekly coronation of winners and losers, which eventually is followed by the annual coronation and so forth. That whole weekly contest – whether for highest box-office gross of the weekend or the best reviews – is so typical of this instant-gratification society in which we find ourselves permanently stuck.

What’s hot now, what’s the sensation this weekend – that, unfortunately, is the fast-food state into which we’ve played ourselves. Critics might as well be gushing, “This is the best movie I’ve seen this week!” Because that’s as far as their perspective and context seems to go.

But short-term thinking is what has brought us to the state we are in today: financially, politically, socially. The quick fix and the momentary pleasure are all that seem to matter. It’s either Fresh or it’s Rotten. Next case. Move along.

It’s as though we’re consciously trying to create the future everyday, without a sense of what the past might have meant to what we’re doing now. As the Firesign Theater once said, “Welcome to the Future. It’s just starting now.”

And it won’t be here next week. It will be old news by then, when another instant hit is proclaimed. Fresh or Rotten? You decide.

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