Barbara Lippert’s Critique

Remember Rocky, as delivered through the fog of age? As a promo for Turner Classic Movies, the boxing-picture redux featured a stiff-legged but spry Sly impersonator and an eightysomething Adrian in a fetching red beret, all underscored by rousing accordion music.

This senior-center takeoff of the Stallone spectacular was hilarious for its contrasts, like the tone-deaf renditions of such landmark kitsch lines as, “I want you, the Stallion.”

That cracked remake, which sounds kind of mean but was actually amazingly poignant—possibly better than the real thing—dramatically illustrated the tagline: “When every movie is a classic, it’s bound to have an effect.”

The commercial certainly had an effect—it won a bronze Lion at Cannes. It was followed by two more equally unexpected but delightful juxtapositions for TCM, also written and directed by Jim Jenkins: “The Dirty Dozen on Ice” and “Ben Hur,” as delivered by second and third graders. “Your eyes are filled with hate, Ben Hur,” the 7-year-old Centurion says to his galley slave. Then the kid coughs twice and totally steams up his glasses, leading one to ponder whether LensCrafters existed in ancient Rome.

This week, a new TCM ad breaks in cinemas and on spot cable, and it is similarly high-concept. Except this time the commercial is as visually unspectacular as it is verbally dense. Think the rapid-fire tat-a-tat-tat of The West Wing, or a FedEx script.

And think simple but brilliant, with a brash awareness of current commercial-movie failings. Say you are out at the movie theater, having waited on line to get tickets and then popcorn and then seats, and in the midst of sitting through the 20 minutes of overly loud commercials and cookie-cutter trailers, you come upon this Groundhog Day-like viewing experience:

Open on a couple standing at the ticket window of a dehumanizingly large, crowded, noisy Cineplex. “Two for Visually Stunning but Ultimately Pointless Sequel, please,” says the guy, a hapless everymoviegoer type. The window clerk, dressed in her unflattering white shirt and little black bowtie, tells him that Visually Stunning but Ultimately Pointless Sequel is sold out. “What’s wrong?” his wife asks. She hears the news, necessitating two more deadpan repetitions of the entire title.

“I would have expected that from Bloated-Budget Buddy Movie,” she says matter-of-factly. But she also knows what it took to get out and wants to make an evening of it, so she tries to be flexible. “What about Painfully Unfunny Comedy?” she asks. As repeated by the ticket clerk under the harsh fluorescent lighting, that too is sold out.

The clerk suggests Cop Goes Outside System to Avenge Death of His Murdered Partner, which is on two screens. “Yeah, but that doesn’t start for, like, an hour,” the husband says, looking up at the board. “If we’re gonna wait, we might as well try Star Pairing Totally Lacking in Chemistry or Action Hero Tries Madcap Comedy and Fails Miserably.” By this time, a fidgety loudmouth three or so people behind them in line has had enough. “Oh, come on!” he yells in frustration. “I’m going to miss Hack Drama Done by Hack Director Using Hack Script!”

The guy holding up the line yells back at him, inevitably repeating that movie title. The couple settles on Poorly Written Remake. But that, too, they are told, is sold out.

“Is there a late show?” the guy whimpers.

“Not every movie out there is a classic. But every movie in here is. Uncut and commercial free,” we hear, the tagline for TCM’s “The Essentials,” a Sunday-night series hosted by director Sydney Pollack that offers classics from Lawrence of Arabia to Bringing Up Baby. TCM owns almost 3,500 old movies, a collection that includes the pre-1948 Warner Brothers library and MGM films made before 1986.

The spot’s clarity about the formulaic sameness of most contemporary films is deadly. Especially as we head into summer-sequel season and away from the pre-Christmas period when most potential Oscar winners are released. Not surprisingly—because the truth hurts—one theater chain, National Cinema Network, may not run the ad.

Indeed, by cleverly pointing out how banal and overhyped most modern Cineplex pics are, TCM creates nostalgia for the greats of the silver screen that we have probably never seen.

There’s another version of the spot, which will run on TCM, that ends with the couple seated inside the dark theater, eating popcorn. They are watching a promo for a release called Really Bad Movie. He whispers to her, “That sounds like a really good movie.”

These days, what with everybody not only a critic but a budding screenwriter too, the youngish media-savvy moviegoing audiences will get this. It’s a real cerebral tickler for anyone who’s ever heard talk about “the industry.” And what better way to suggest that they move their reasonably fresh eyeballs over to TCM, and learn something, before they themselves end up in a rest home?