The Pop of King

Do Movies Matter (Part 2)

Stephen King on why you shouldn't trust EW critics. The Pop of King says that sometimes the hype isn't all its cracked up to be

Stephen King
Image credit: PHOTOGRAPH BY AMY GUIP

Stephen King on why you shouldn't trust EW critics

It's said that in the '60s, when Francis Ford Coppola was but a lad, he found himself working on one of Roger Corman's pictures. According to legend, Coppola convinced Corman, a low-budget junkie, to let him make his own film on the side using Corman's equipment and crew. The film Coppola then made (in nine days) was ''Dementia 13.'' For mood, atmosphere, and plain old gut-churning horror, ''13'' makes ''Psycho'' and ''Night of the Living Dead'' look tame. ''Dementia 13'' is a movie that matters.

Many years later, Coppola spent at least a thousand times what he spent on ''Dementia 13'' to make the last of the ''Godfather'' movies. The film is opulent, incoherent, and boring. ''The Godfather Part III'' is a movie that doesn't matter.

The difference? One has heart, soul, and the crazy enthusiasm of youth. The other is the work of a talented man who has either used all his talent up or is saving what's left for another day.

For a long time, I lost the distinction between movies that matter and movies that don't, which suggested a scary possibility: that movies in general had ceased to matter, at least to me. The possibility was scary because I've loved the cinema my whole life, and I hated the idea that I might be losing that love.

Then, in the course of a single week, I saw one movie that definitely mattered -- maybe the best movie I've seen in the last 30 years -- and one that didn't; one that was, in fact, pretty blah.

The blah movie was ''Kill Bill.'' You probably saw some good reviews of it, possibly even in this magazine. Steve says don't you believe it. Steve says you should remember that movie critics see movies free. Also, they don't have to pay the babysitter or spring 10 bucks for the parking. They're thus apt to rhapsodize over narcissistic stuff like ''Kill Bill,'' which announces itself as Quentin Tarantino's Fourth Film, ain't we la-di-da.

''Kill Bill'' isn't a benchmark of awfulness like ''Mars Attacks!'' or ''Mommie Dearest''; it's just dully full of itself. Uma Thurman tries hard, and she's the best thing in the movie, but in the end she's stuck playing a woman who's a label instead of a human being: She is, God save us, the Bride.

The violence is choreographed like an Esther Williams swim routine. When the Bride dispatches at least 70 kung-fu goons in one scene, blood spurts from amputated limbs, often in pretty spirals. And the movie's litany of in-jokes is so tiresome.

There's not even an ending you can hang your hat on; we're just told to stay tuned for more -- more karate kicks and throws, more falsetto birdy-sounding battle cries. It's certainly well made, and the story garners some of our interest as it goes along, but dull is still dull, isn't it? All I'm doing here is trying to focus the feelings of vague dissatisfaction you're apt to experience leaving this movie, the sense that you came to be entertained and instead found yourself warming your hands at the bonfire of Quentin Tarantino's vanities.

''Mystic River,'' on the other hand, hones our interest the old-fashioned way: by building character and telling an actual story. It begins in the mid-'70s, when three boys (Sean, Dave, and Jimmy) are approached by two men pretending to be cops. Determining Dave to be the easiest to separate from his playmates, the ''cops'' put him in the back of their car and drive him away. For four days Dave is sexually abused by these human wolves. He finally escapes...except no one really escapes such treatment, and Clint Eastwood (who directed) and Dennis Lehane (who wrote the book) both know it.

We jump ahead 25 years, to the day before Jimmy's teenage daughter is found murdered. What follows is a heart-wrenching tragedy culminating in the murder of an innocent man. With its razor-sharp script and strong performances (most of the kudos have gone to Sean Penn, but this is Kevin Bacon's best acting job), the movie is an absolute joy. You're never wondering if you should have gotten the small popcorn instead of the medium; you're never checking your watch. You're totally absorbed.

In ''Mystic River'' there are three murders instead of hundreds, and Eastwood shoots the one we see so it's mostly in shadows. There are no kung-fu death dances; the violence is ugly rather than beautiful and romantic.

Again, ''Kill Bill'' isn't a bad movie; it's just a tepid one. Ten years from now, you'll be hard put to remember what it was about or who was in it. ''Mystic River,'' on the other hand, will burn itself into your memory. Twenty years from now, you'll be able to recall Sean Penn's terrible cries of grief when he realizes his daughter is dead.

Maybe the point is this: The movies that matter (and the books, and the music) call out to us in their own voices -- voices that are sometimes low but always compelling. Movies are the highest popular art of our times, and art has the ability to change lives. That means that some movies matter, and the best matter a lot. Every time I go, I go with the highest of high hopes, my ticket money in one hand and my heart in the other. Most times the movie turns out to be a stinker, but sometimes you find a real classic like ''The Way of the Gun,'' ''Billy Elliot,'' or ''Mystic River.'' When that happens, I can steal this year's World Series slogan and put it to even better use: I live for this.

Originally posted Nov 19, 2003 Published in issue #739 Nov 28, 2003 Order article reprints
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