By John Wildman | September 30, 2010

As the publicist for several film festivals, the responsibility falls on me to do something that I call “setting the table” for the films that fall under my watch. What that means is this: Before I send you, the filmgoer, into the theater to watch the movie I want to make sure you are properly prepared to enjoy that movie as much as you possibly can. If you’re going to be surprised, I want you to be surprised in a good way – with a cool story twist or a great scare or an ending you never saw coming, but you’ll want to turn right around and see again. What I don’t want is for you to have expectations of seeing one kind of movie and discover that you’ve sat your butt down for two hours in front of its polar opposite.

Because that is rarely, ever, in fact, never…good.

And here is the example I always give when explaining this concept: If you say, “John, I want to see a comedy tonight. What should I watch?” Well, I need to know exactly what you mean by “comedy.” Is your idea of funny fun time TALLEDEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY? Or are you a DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYNG AND LOVE THE BOMB person? Both are comedies. But different. And quite possibly if you REALLY love one, then you won’t REALLY love the other. So, I need to know that vital bit of info before I send you on your way.

And why is this so damned important?

Because, if you didn’t enjoy the film, if you had a miserable experience, then likely it wasn’t the film’s fault. It was your expectations that did you in. And that sucks for you, but it also sucks big time for the filmmaker. Because, you, having suffered through what you thought was going to be this great comedy will blame that last couple of hours on that filmmaker. Or maybe you’ll even walk out. And it didn’t have to be that way.

When I review films, I rarely tread into blatant “Is this bad or good?” territory, because I firmly believe in film beauty being in the eye of the beholder. (Except when you’re talking about something like SEX AND THE CITY 2. Then it’s just wrong and bad.) So, instead, I want to prepare my readers for the experience they’d likely be in for. Film critic and journalist Luke Y. Thompson does this thing sometimes where, following his critique, he’ll provide a 180-degree viewpoint on the film. As if he’s talking to someone that is really into or really not into the kind of film he’s just given the business to. He refuses to claim credit for the idea, but he executes it so well that I insist he own up to the goodness whenever I talk to him about it.

The second part of this column’s interminably long set up is my delineation between what I call “broccoli movies” and “popcorn movies.” I’m sure you’re way ahead of me, but for those that are not, it works this way:

Broccoli Movies are movies that are good for you. You SHOULD see them because they are exceptionally well-done, artistic, have a great message, are fine examples of a film legend’s work, were very influential for later beloved films and filmmakers, etc. And like broccoli they can be a chore to consume. In the worst case scenario, you might find them “yucky.”

Popcorn Movies are fun. They’re tasty. They aren’t good for you in the least, but who cares? They’re why we go to the movies in the first place, right? To entertain us? Anyone can do that math: Movies + Popcorn = A Perfectly Good Time.

So there is your short hand: Broccoli Movies vs. Popcorn Movies. And I am endlessly balancing my desire to see one while I sincerely appreciate the merits of the other. Which brings me to my experiences at the New York Film Festival this past weekend.

I made the trip to New York to do that thing I do for their Opening Night Gala of THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Meaning – run the red carpet. You’ve got a lot of moving parts and egos and stresses and things conspiring to make an event like that go to hell in a disorganized hand basket, so I agreed to be one more helping hand alongside the NYFF PR team to ensure that that part of the equation went well. And, it did. Movie stars arrived, press behaved, sponsors got some love and everyone made it into the theaters on time to see David Fincher’s ode to what obsesses us. (Which incidentally, isn’t Facebook, but rather – unrequited love, friendship and jealousy.) That one is good enough that I’m sure to see it again with my wife.

But since I was already there, it made sense to actually see some of the other films as well. And that’s where we get into broccoli territory. The films I happened to see before I jetted back to L.A. were Lee Chang-dong’s POETRY and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES. Plenty has been written about both of these films, especially the latter as it was the Cannes Palme d’Or winner this year. And they both are about as solidly in the broccoli department as they come. In fact, I’ll admit to arming myself with one of those 5-hour “keep you awake like you’ve mainlined pure caffeine radiated by that stuff that turned David Banner green” pep drinks. You know, just in case.

But I needn’t have as both films were filled with the right kind of surprises. Both exceeded as well as confounded expectations in just the right way. It was a reminder of why broccoli movies can be great – not just good. They challenge you in ways the popcorn film never could. Ironically, because the film fest had sold out the screening of LENNONNYC I had planned on seeing, I walked down the street and caught Mark Romanek’s NEVER LET ME GO, which turned out to be the Megaplex version of the broccoli movie.

Now, I want to be clear that while I hate cinematic stupidity or laziness, I fall squarely into the “prefer good ole’ popcorn movies” territory. I actually saw PIRANHA 3D twice. However, to be fair the second time was as part of a bachelor party with the film providing what a stripper would have. And if you’ve seen the film you’ll understand that it did that admirably. Over and over an over again. But the broccoli movies don’t HAVE to be a 2-plus hour punishment or sleep inducing sound machine. And that’s what really spoke to me about those three films. I’ll admit that I did start to fade a little during POETRY but man, did that film finish strong. And if you insist that character development is a cool-a*s robot turning into a car and then back again, then….well, actually you would be a lost cause. But anyone else… I think that you would find the story of an old Korean woman struggling with raising her grandson and dealing with the aftermath of a heinous crime he has committed just as she discovers she is suffering from the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease fascinating, disturbing and entrancing. Even though that logline I just wrote would scare the s**t out of any studio exec unless it was preceded by “Meryl Streep stars in the story of an old Korean woman…”

And UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES. That one is just special. The film is a fable about a tamarind and honey farmer named Uncle Boonmee who is slowly dying of kidney failure, and finds the ghosts of departed family members coming back to visit him. So, it’s weird. And funny. Unexpectedly funny. And fanciful and surreal. A friend was watching the film with me and afterwards he said he had noticed that I stopped taking notes about halfway through the film and wondered why. I told him that I would want people to come into the film with as few expectations on what exactly was going to happen as I could rightly give them yet still describe the movie. Because for me, that was the best thing. Rarely am I surprised by anything anymore. And this film did that.

So, yes Fantastic Fest had really fun karaoke with RZA and Elijah Wood and Nacho Vigalondo according to You Tube, and their film lineup by rights would draw me to it like moth to flame. However, the New York Film Festival served up legit surprises and revelations for me. And that makes for very tasty broccoli.

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  1. Andrew says:

    I love Broccoli Movies because they send that great message.

  2. justina walford says:

    “Meryl Streep stars in the story of an old Korean woman…” made me LOL.

  3. John Wildman says:

    ….but still, arguably, good for you…

  4. Mark Bell says:

    Eating a Todd Solondz broccoli would make me feel creepy…

  5. John Wildman says:

    Oh, Vanessa… Thou doth protest… While I have not seen the film, knowing what I do about it, THE INVENTION OF LYING is a straight up popcorn movie. It’s smart, definitely. But still popcorn. And there’s nothing wrong with that. A typical broccoli comedy would be one of the Alec Guinness Ealing Comedy classics like KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS or the original THE LADYKILLERS. A modern day broccoli comedy would be one of Todd Solondz films.

  6. John, I don’t think it has to be an “either-or” proposition. For example, THE INVENTION OF LYING was what I would call “brockorn.”

    What’s on your brockorn list?

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