Monday, February 13, 2012

The Disappointments of 2011

As I've lamented before, writing a "Worst Of" list for any given year is kind of a futile effort. Unless you're Armond White, chances are that the exact same films that showed up on the rest of the Internet's list would show up on yours too. Anyone who understands the concept of a number can look at Jack and Jill's 3% on Rottentomatoes and reasonably infer that the movie sucks dick. Thus, I prefer to use this space to address the year's cinematic offerings that fell unexpectedly short for me. Sure, I watched some shit, but I honestly doubt you care why I thought Season of the Witch was a terrible movie. As with any opinion, there is a heavy dose of subjectivity at play here, so feel free to tell me how much I suck in the comments or whatever.

These are presented in what I suppose is a relative order of disappointment.

10) Shark Night 3D
This is legitimately one of the most boring movies I've ever seen. Look at the picture! The goddamn actors can't even find it in themselves to look interested in what's happening. I mean, people rarely expect much from PG-13 horror anymore - gems like Drag Me to Hell and the Paranormal Activity franchise are more or less outliers when you look at all their exsanguinated counterparts - but this absolutely scrapes the bottom of the barrel. Weak gore, bad writing, unimaginative set pieces and the most poorly-motivated killer in recent memory can't even place the film in "so bad it's good territory;" Shark Night 3D is simply inept at being inept. What a tortured (and torturous!) existence.

9) The Rite
Okay, okay, this one's my fault for actually expecting something from a PG-13 horror release (surprise!) in the middle of January. I guess I saw Anthony Hopkins and hoped that, just maybe, there would be some faint redemptive glimmer here. Then I realized that lately he has starred in, not to mention directed, plenty of shit, and all of a sudden The Rite went from a dull brained and utterly wasteful opportunity at faith-based horror to yet another sign of a highly celebrated actor's slow creep toward oblivion. The premise, centered around a young seminary student slowly losing his faith and tasked with the exorcism of Hopkins' highly celebrated Italian priest, seems like it would offer some sliver of potential until you snap out of it and remember that The Exorcist dealt with the same thing FORTY YEARS AGO. In fact, just about all this film has to offer, be it girls spitting up funny things or possessed men swearing (though I've gotta say that "your mother sucks cocks in hell" is a lot more intimidating than "kissy-lips") was done first and better by the grandpappy of all exorcism flicks. So basically this movie shouldn't exist.

8) Rubber
Rubber essentially critique-proofs itself, so I hardly see any point in talking about it, except that I found it joyless and cynical and impossible to appreciate on almost any level. Its one-step-ahead-of-you treatment of the relationship between cinema and spectatorship, and how we fundamentally understand it, isn't particularly clever. It's essentially working at the same intellectual level as an elementary schooler who asks you "why?" over and over again just to troll you. The depth of its confrontations is not limitless, as is impossible to do in a movie like this, but it shields itself in just about every way from trying to be understood, and its metaphorical punishment of those who try to "solve" it feels more like bullying. The wheelchair-bound character, that painfully obvious stand-in for the educated viewer, is more or less derided through the course of the entire film. If you're not on board with how this movie operates, then clearly you fall in the category of filmgoer who just isn't meant to understand its incisive observational ability. Questioning Rubber means that you become the guy in the wheelchair, simple as that.

The problem is that, viewed through a critical lens, this isn't a particularly clever or unique idea at all. Funny Games sustained a very similar premise with immensely more subtlety, and though I was by no means a fan of Funny Games, this film significantly increased my appreciation of its approach. Adaptation, Synecdoche New York, The Limits of Control - anything that explores the societal roles of art and metafiction, really - all have something to offer. All Rubber seems to say is "people think this way when they watch movies." And yet the very act of viewing Rubber through this same critical lens seems to prove its shallow point. Because I have the ability to say that this movie is not clever or unique, I in turn empower its anti-critical stance. Why try to give something reason when it doesn't need it? Why be that guy in the wheelchair, the one who actively resists surrendering to a stupid movie? It is quite the double-edged sword that Rubber plays with, and even though it knows it, I'm not going to let a movie tell me the right or wrong way to watch a film. I don't appreciate being told that thinking critically about what's being put in front of me is somehow opposed to enjoying it. Rubber is as far as can be from a story told straight, and that's probably the most interesting thing about it, aside from its admittedly effective bait-and-switch marketing. In the end, though, I thought it was an incredibly self-congratulatory exercise in demonstrating the vacuity of media and viewership, where I felt persecuted no matter how I approached the film.

7) Limitless
This is a movie about a pill that makes you immeasurably intelligent. To summarize the problem with this in admittedly harsh terms, the screenwriters were obviously not. It isn't entirely their fault, as director Neil Burger cheapens their work further by making pretty gnarly aesthetic decisions like representing "inspiration" as "golden letters plummeting through the sky," but the amount of illogical behavior on the part of a character whose IQ is supposedly in the thousands disqualifies the movie from believability right out of the gate. Limitless could be worse - it's pretty hilarious at times, with the highlight of the film being a truly bizarre ice skate assault - but the plot holes are infuriating and the characters lifeless.

6) Red State
Fun fact: Red State was my first Kevin Smith movie, and if I didn't know better, it would probably be my last. It has a few scattered merits, with its strongest being a combination of a surprisingly effective ensemble structure combined with a great cast, but their best efforts amount to absolutely nothing in the face of their movie's crippling verbosity. Smith was clearly allowed a high degree of creative control in putting this unctuous anti-fundie rant together, and though I admire his choice in targets, I can't help but wonder who exactly he's going to reach with this. Viewers seduced in by guns and babes are going to be KO'd early on by an excruciating ten-minute sermon that a more able filmmaker could have summarized in thirty seconds, and they're unlikely to be stirred by his awkwardly staged action sequences. Reasonably aware liberals won't take anything they don't already know about Midwestern cults away from this experience. Anyone else will probably just find this to be overly contrived and reaching for meaning, their worst suspicions about the stale writing confirmed by poor John Goodman's laughably awful ~*~dramatic final monologue~*~. I mean, get a load of this:

FBI Dude: Really. Why did you shine the direct? (code for doing something drastic and policey, whatever) 
John Goodman: ... ... My grandma...on my mother's side...she had these two dogs, true blood hounds. Both came up the same litter, she kept them and gave the rest away to the neighbors. They both knew each other since they had shit in their eyes, neither got treated better than the other...gentlest dogs you’d ever care to meet. Thanksgiving of my ninth year these two old dogs are trailing me around because they know the score. I'm an animal lover who never finishes his supper. So right before I get up from the table, I toss these two old-timers a turkey leg attached to a hunk of cartilage, and it was like they had never met. They went at each other so furiously, all tooth and claw and jugular, they forgot anything they ever had in common, and scrapped like that discard decided between their standing and dying. People just do the strangest things when they believe they're entitled. But they do even stranger things when they just plain believe.
I mean, good fucking Christ, really? Kevin was on some serious Intro to Screenwriting shit when he put this together. Tedious, unnatural, unnecessary, tonally inappropriate, and in desperate need of editing, this little minute-long theme dump personifies everything that's wrong with Red State. Much like the insane religious folk it vilifies, it's a piece of trash pretending to be important.

5) The Muppets
Yes, I'm already aware that I'm literally the only person in the world that didn't like this movie, so you can just stop reading and write me off as a grumpy asshole if you want. But man, is this thing self-congratulatory or what? Oh please, Muppets, save us from the likes of our inane 21st century programming! We can tell you're speaking to our generation because of your glut of wacky meta humor, and we're sorry we ever doubted your not-at-all-based-on-predatory-nostalgia coolness. Hopefully you can show us more montages of happy ethnically diverse families tuning in and gleefully throwing money at your Very Special Telethon. We know you're trying to raise a few bucks to fight off those evil land-grabbing capitalists in just the right amount of time; the only thing more noble than your incredibly original goal (only the freshest for these hip cats!) is the fact that Papa Disney bankrolled your spiffy new movie to the tune of a cool forty-five million dollars, but only with the purest of intentions, of course. I simply can't imagine that Disney would cash in on a beloved childhood franchise to throw some money in the coffers every once in a while. Seriously, the charms of The Muppets fade to nothingness with just a tiny amount of perspective. Its narrative thrust is that everyone forgot that The Muppets were cool so we should all give them money. And I mean, maybe this would have read a little less cynically if it wasn't constantly giving itself a felt blowjob or rubbing it in our faces with television shows like "Punch Teacher" how stupid we all are now. It's a pretty savvy treatment of the way franchises decay in our collective conscious, to be sure, but I think that makes it all the more pernicious.

4) Thor
I talk a lot of trash about Thor. Maybe it's not all entirely fair, and I won't deny that the movie looks good and has a few solid fight scenes, but at the same had an $150 million dollar budget. Of course it was going to look good. I just find it frustrating that all of this money and creative talent is getting coupled to something so cheesy (hey Earth woman, let's fall in love, I know it's only been two days) and predictable (what do you mean, Loki is evil?!) and stale (the government took Kat Dennings' iPod! Will the wackiness never cease?). And hey, I'm not an idiot. I know why these movies get churned out formula-style like they do - it's an approach that turns a profit. Realizing that most people don't like to think about movies is a depressing truth to face, but it isn't exactly an original one. But then you see things like The Dark Knight, X-Men First Class, or any of the Harry Potter movies, and you realize that formula doesn't all have to be that simple. Thor bore the brunt of my frustrations in 2011, and it's not entirely its fault. It could easily have been worse. I'm just burned out on Marvel's soulless factory-line filmmaking, and I can only hope that the superhero genre is truly on its way out the door as it seems to be.

3) Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
R-rated horror is perpetually hanging on to box-office viability by a thread. Remakes and torture porn have been the only entries in the subgenre that have been making major profits, and even the most venerable of reboots can't seem to sustain any more than two movies lately. Rob Zombie's Halloween remakes petered out fiscally after the second, and despite their modest successes the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street reboots were curiously abandoned as well. Finally, many of the old-guard franchises like Saw, Final Destination and Scream have been turning their lowest numbers ever. All this in mind, making an R-rated horror film is a huge risk in this commercial landscape, especially one that isn't a pre-established property. The underrated Orphan took a swing at it and failed; undeterred, Splice fell on the sword the year after, followed finally by Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. Far less than its MPAA rating, however (one that is frankly unjustified), this film is scuttled by the fact that it just isn't very good. It looks gorgeous, and it's clear why graphic artist-cum-director Troy Nixey landed the job, but on nearly every other front the film totally falls apart. The script is the absolute worst offender; repetitive and sloppy, it strands its characters with illogical behavior and inscrutable motivations. Young actress Bailee Madison's excellent performance has to work overtime to compensate for Katie Holmes, who must have some major dirt on some studio exec somewhere to keep getting roles. Worst of all, however, the film simply gives up on being scary halfway through. It manages to ride a wave of atmospheric fear all the way to about forty-five minutes in, where it lands its one truly earned scare; the rest are poorly-timed sound cues and ridiculous CGI demons.

Guillermo del Toro should have taken the wheel on this one.

2) The Adjustment Bureau
This movie is ridiculous on so many different levels, but the fact that The Adjustment Bureau takes itself so seriously makes its insanities seem especially egregious. To summarize: angels who control fate aren't going to let Matt Damon love Emily Blunt because fuck you, that's why. Choosing to ignore the fact that angels have decided that he should be the President and Emily Blunt has to marry some less attractive guy (this is clearly the most important part of any woman's fate, determining whether or not she will be with you), Matt Damon steals one of their hats, which allows him to teleport through the city by taking doors, but only on rainy days because the angels can't chase him through water. Hijinks ensue. All of this nonsense could have been fun, but the rules of the game are tossed out as afterthoughts, as if this star-crossed romance was the most important thing to happen in the history of cinema and all of the stupid bullshit about hats and angels was simply a means to a thematic end. That end, of course, is Love Conquers All, even cryptic theological string-pullers who apparently have absolutely no other way of bending fate to make Matt Damon their political pawn. What we are meant to take from The Adjustment Bureau is that if two beautiful, well-off white people love each other, then nothing can stand in their way. Not even God. Wait, what?

1) The Adventures of Tintin
I love Tintin. I have for a very, very long time. I realize that leaves me in an even less stable position to grouse about the manipulative qualities of nostalgia in The Muppets, but I think this movie has it pretty bad too. Herge's comics were a little pulpy and not incredibly sophisticated, but he shot from the hip a surprising amount of times: gun murders, drug smuggling plots, suicide, hallucinogenic trips, and a vast range of international intrigue combined with real-world political allegory made the series surprisingly mature for what was meant to be aimed at children.

In the loosest sense of the phrase, this movie is the Tintin that I grew up with. But then there's that curious anti-alcohol subplot running through the film, demonizing Captain Haddock for one of his defining traits. Then there's Haddock burping into a gas tank to refuel a sputtering plane. Jokes about cow udders. The queasy portmanteau of stories, the use of at least one character who had no place being in this arc (and whose purpose in the story is as awkward as her inclusion might suggest it would be), the dull music, the uncanny valley visual style, a strange feint at giving Tintin some sort of self-deprecating personality that has no impact on the film at all. Nothing I was watching felt right to me. I realize that most of my disappointments are personal, and the film can probably just be appreciated as an above-average children's action picture that happens to be exhaustively overactive. Some of the set pieces are stunning, and Spielberg obviously got to where he is for a reason, but I can't shake the pervasive sensation that this movie was bowdlerized to give it some kind of shot in the American market. It flopped, of course, which is hardly relevant because the rest of the world has always loved Tintin more than we have so it made about 300 million dollars elsewhere. So then I'm left with this feeling of great personal doubt. Maybe, in tandem with how I felt about The Muppets, I've grown overly cynical and I should learn to appreciate the fact that movies are necessarily compromised in order to reach an audience. But maybe I should stick to my guns and not renege on what I know I value in a film. And the fact that the site for this disturbing internal debate is something that brought me so much joy over the course of my life is disappointing, indeed.

Other Bummers:

The Help: Okay, this has its heart in the right place and is actually pretty sweet at times, so it gets a pass from me. But my God, Tate Taylor couldn't direct a scene that wasn't three people sitting around a table if his life depended on it. Also, did this have to be 150 minutes long? Major overkill.

Final Destination 5: No reason in particular. I can totally understand why people like these movies. They just aren't for me. Sorry.

The Ward: John Carpenter's first film in a decade and he turns out this? Not actively awful like Survival of the Dead or anything, but come on.

I Saw the Devil: Implausible, messy, poorly-plotted. Great soundtrack and plenty of energy, and the action's pretty good, but it leaves an unsatisfying aftertaste.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Not awful or anything, but inexplicably overpraised. It's about a half-step up from Thor as far as paint-by-numbers filmmaking goes. Monkeys are cool, though.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Looks great, tons of atmosphere, personality out the ass, excellent acting...but who the fuck plotted it? It makes almost no sense. Confounding matters still is that the characters are so short on, well, character that they are essentially just a gallery of stuffy British playing pieces. Tomas Alfredsson really dropped the ball on this one.

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