I’m blessed to have spent the past twelve years working for a company that firmly believes in allowing its employees too much vacation time. Each year I take one week off to spend with my family in the summer (cf. the ongoing “Road Trip” series) and one week in the fall to spend at home alone. While my son is in school and my wife is at work, during the daytime I have the house all to myself, as long as I don’t mind sharing the territory with our dog.
I’m also ridiculously blessed with a wife who doesn’t view my annual one-man one-week staycation as an opportunity to hit me with a dreaded “Honey-Do List” of five hundred different odd jobs that remain undone around the house. A friend at work complains that whenever he takes a staycation, his wife schedules enough activities for him that he spends all his so-called “time off” alternating between playing handyman and Mr. Mom. This is not a problem for me because my wife wants me to rest, in hopes that she’ll get to keep me around and alive for as many decades as possible. I wouldn’t call myself a workaholic, but I do have my frequent moments of appearing burnt out and frazzled. I’m told that relaxation makes a difference in my condition.
In most years, when I haven’t violated the premise and written myself a lengthy to-do list, my staycation usually takes the form of a week-long movie marathon. Like many American families, we suffer the first-world problem of buying more DVDs than we can possibly watch in a reasonable number of sittings. In an average week, when I’m burning the candle at both ends between my full-time day job (plus overtime) and my part-time non-paying night job (i.e., the blog), to say nothing of other activities and requirements of adult life, I’m lucky if I have time to sit still for three TV shows and a single movie. The high ratio of purchasing-to-watching means I have a never-ending stockpile of works on hand to ensure that I’ll never be bored inside my own home for the rest of my life.
The portion of the stockpile with the densest accumulation is comprised of things that no one in the house except me is interested in watching — movies and shows that have little chance of making the cut for Family Quality Time, a few of which I arguably shouldn’t be watching. Lately I’ve been actively curtailing my purchases in that subsection — partly for spiritual reasons, partly due to volume, and partly because watching things alone is a lot less enjoyable than viewing experiences that I can share with others around me. Anything in that subsection has to wait on the shelf and collect dust until I have extended time to myself and an inclination for solitude.
That’s where my annual one-man one-week staycation comes in handy. It’s one of my best opportunities to chip away at that particular viewing pile. Much of this week has been spent running errands around town, sleeping too much, and busying myself with the Internet and my part-time non-paying night job, which cruelly offers no paid vacation time. In between all of that, so far I’ve found time to watch six movies that I’d never seen before. I’m saving the DVD extras for another time, to fill small time slots between activities in future work weeks wherever possible.
Ranked below from best to worst, this week’s staycation feature presentations have been:
1. Broadcast News. Writer/director/producer James L. Brooks’ lamentation of the ever-growing superficiality of network TV news, and its increasingly money-minded fixation on entertainment value, is a tragic reminder of how little has improved since 1987. Amidst the anti-sheen commentary is a complicated love triangle between William Hurt’s shallow but skillful anchor-hunk, Albert Brooks’ sharp-minded but blindered nebbish, and Holly Hunter’s professional but bamboozled producer. I picked this up for the satire, but was surprised to discover that it cloaked a relationship film that I wished had been longer. Fortunately my copy is a Criterion Collection edition that includes additional scenes and an alternate ending among the extras, so eventually my wish for more will technically be granted.
2. The Town. The second film from writer/director Ben Affleck, making the most of the second phase of his career as he’s successfully moved beyond the grasp of super-stardom that placed him in several awful films in a row before he stepped back and took stock of his life. Affleck directs himself and an explosive Jeremy Renner as Charlestown bank robbers with a lifelong hometown-boy camaraderie, but slowly diverging opinions as to what they should be doing with their lives. Renner is perfectly happy to stay the course, but Affleck discovers new motivations to find a new direction for living. In that sense it’s practically a parable of Affleck’s own film career before segueing to directing. (If one reached too far, one could even insert an unfair observation about Renner standing in for Matt Damon in yet another context…)
3. Miller’s Crossing. The third big-screen collaboration between young Joel and Ethan Coen, this 1990 production about a 1920s gang war is mostly two hours of Albert Finney, Jon Polito, Marcia Gay Harden, and various other actors taking turns punching Gabriel Byrne in the face and stomach. In between the body blows, Byrne’s convoluted plan to establish long-term peace by escalating the war into a bloody free-for-all reminded me of Kid Loki’s recent efforts in Marvel’s Journey into Mystery series. The ambiguity of some characters’ actions was occasionally dissatisfying, but would evolve into a polished motif in later Coen Bros. films.
4. Last of the Wild Horses. This was actually a sixth-season episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the celebrated TV show that mocked a different bad film in every episode. The original feature was a so-so Western about…something. I’m not even sure now. All I remember is a cranky wheelchair-bound father being shot to death on his front porch in poorly conceived indignity. Mike Nelson and the ‘Bots defend themselves against the movie’s mediocrity with verbal slings and arrows. As a parody of the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror”, the host segments center around a transporter calamity that causes Mike Nelson and Tom Servo to swap places with their evil counterparts from another dimension. We know they’re evil because Evil Mike has a mustache and goatee, and Evil Servo wears a yellow sash. Meanwhile in the MST3K mirror universe, the good versions of Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank are forced to watch the first twenty minutes of the film, marking the only time those two entered the theater in the show’s history.
5. Sucker Punch. On the plus side, Zack Snyder’s girl-power action yarn is much less exploitative than I’d feared, even as reconfigured into a 127-minute Extended Edition. This alleviated some anticipated guilt, but didn’t make it a success. Emily Browning (Violet Baudelaire in A Series of Unfortunate Events) is a victimized teen consigned by her wicked stepfather to a mental asylum, which she reimagines to herself as a stylized brothel in which she’s trained to dance alongside fellow inmates Jamie Chung (Premium Rush), Disney’s Vanessa Hudgins, Abbie Cornish (the Robocop remake), and Jena Malone (Johanna in the upcoming Catching Fire). Rather than hire a choreographer to design a memorable Bunheads-style routine for Browning to master, Snyder instead has her delve one level deeper into her subconscious and symbolically represent each dance as a vapid, meaningless, expensive video game sequence. A rotating onslaught of giant artillery-wielding samurai, undead WWI German trench-dwellers, Lord of the Rings orcs, and sci-fi security robots each take turns destroying everything and meaning nothing. Some might find comfort in the movie’s message of The Power Is In You, but I was occasionally bored and ultimately bothered by the passing structural similarity to Pan’s Labyrinth, a more poetic and far superior film about a young girl escaping an oppressive environment through a secret entrance into a fantastical world.
6. Blow Out. Writer/director Brian DePalma’s 1981 take on the Hitchcockian wrong-place/wrong-time thriller sees post-Kotter John Travolta as a sound technician for grade-Z film productions caught in a conspiracy web when he records a fateful car accident with a high-profile victim and a telltale sound effect meant to go unheard. Robocop‘s Nancy Allen is surprising as a ditzy call girl with even worse timing that Travolta’s. Dennis Franz is suitable as a sleazy paparazzo who makes things even worse. John Lithgow cuts his teeth in what would be the first of many irredeemable psychos he would play throughout his career. I enjoyed the old-time scenes of Travolta editing and cutting recordings the old-fashioned way on reel-to-reel tapes, with all the constant rewinding and forwarding. Undercutting the suspense and making this difficult to recommend are the satirical pandering of the first five intentionally exploitative minutes, and the final thirty seconds of the film, in which an ostensibly tragic ending instead came off as out-of-character and revolting.
That’s what has passed for “relaxation” for me so far this week. I’ve exhausted my errands list, but I’ve no shortage of movies on deck. Assuming I don’t oversleep any more, I’ll see how the moods and options guide the rest of my staycation.
To Be Continued!