There was a wonderful routine in the Bozell family when I was 11 years old. Every Saturday afternoon my mother would load her undiapered-aged brood, maybe six of us back then, into the station wagon for an outing to the local movie theater. What a delight. John Wayne and the westerns. Dean Jones and anything Disney. Gone With the Wind, How the West Was Won, Doctor Zhivago.
On any given Saturday afternoon, Hollywood laid out the red carpet for families, beckoned us in, serving us some popcorn and a soda, inviting us to lose ourselves, for a couple of hours, to the world of wonder and imagination.
But that was forty years ago, another era. All that sparkle is gone today.
Last Saturday afternoon we were alone, my little boy Reid and I, and the idea hit to bring my 11-year-old to the movies, our own father-son outing. What to see? I pondered, opening the paper for the theater listings. Here is what Hollywood, circa 2008, has to offer.
First, a gratingly long list of mediocre R-rated movies:
"Blindness" (rated R) Completely hopeless film about people catching an infectious disease of blindness and getting rounded up in a mental asylum.
"Quarantine" (R) Completely hopeless film about a TV news crew getting trapped in a Centers for Disease Control quarantine of a building where everybody catches a version of rabies and dies. (What is this, a trend?)
"Burn After Reading"(R) A dippy personal trainer gets caught up in a government plot, doesn't know what he's doing, and gets shot in the face, and so much for Brad Pitt.
"Body of Lies" (R) Leonardo di Caprio pretends to be a rugged CIA agent and we're lectured again about the moral rot of American foreign policy manipulators.
"Righteous Kill" (R): Serial killer takes out violent felons who've fallen through the cracks of the justice system. Nothing more than a ripoff from that perverted TV show "Dexter."
"Miracle at St. Anna" (R) Spike Lee tries to make a war movie without any wacko claims about the federal government blowing up levees in New Orleans.
"How to Lose Friends and Alienate People" (R) British satire of celebrity journalism, complete with a pig urinating on a woman at the British version of the Oscars. Ha. Ha.
"Religulous" (rated R). Who'd give two nickels to Bill Maher to watch him rant against God?
"Appaloosa" is a Western that I might enjoy on my own, but it's an R.
Then there's the PG-13 gunk to consider:
"Flash of Genius" (PG-13): Son, let's see a whole movie about the inventor of intermittent windshield wipers. I think I'd skip that even on a rainy day.
"Lakeview Terrace" (PG-13): Samuel L. Jackson plays a psychotic next-door neighbor-slash-cop threatening an interracial couple after he sees them having sex through the windows.
"Nights in Rodanthe" (PG-13): Richard Gere and Diane Lane in a sappy, adulterous, beachside soap opera, and I'd rather gargle Drano than watch that.
"The Duchess" (PG-13): a British costume drama about an unhappy arranged marriage. Interest level for an 11-year-old boy? Zero.
"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" (PG-13): Teenage indie-music nightlife hipster movie. Pass.
"Eagle Eye" (PG-13): This action thriller might have appealed to us, until critics suggested you'd need a full-frontal lobotomy to enjoy it.
In the PG category, we were left with "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" (if you're into diamond-clad talking mini-pooches), "The Express" (a "true" story with a completely fictitious scene of racist epithets at a West Virginia football game in Morgantown in 1959), and "Fireproof," which is an admirable independent Christian movie about a fireman gaining faith and saving his marriage, but that plot is of negative appeal for the average pre-teen boy.
The was almost one - one - possibility, "City of Ember," until I read reviews that thoroughly panned it. A movie dominated by "unclear mythology and sci-fi gibberish" just isn't worth an outing.
What in the world is the problem with Hollywood? Is it just incapable of producing a good, healthy, enjoyable movie for youngsters? I'm not asking for something on the level of The Sound of Music.
But on second thought - why not? Hollywood has the talent. It has creative geniuses, both as writers and directors. It has extraordinary actors. Don't any of them have children? And if so, aren't they just as perplexed, and saddened that this once-great industry can no longer produce magic?