Archive for December 2009

Decade in Review – Random Awards

December 29, 2009

Having already covered the best and most overrated films of the decade, I’ll use my decade-ending post to offer a few specialty awards.  The specificity of these categories makes a long list of films a little unnecessary, although there were multiple contenders for some of them.  I’ll start with the most dubious award of all:

Worst Film of the Decade – Birth (2004)

This one almost went to Catwoman.  After all, any film that features Halle Berry in fetish gear and yet still bores me is a pretty retched movie.  But, in the end, Catwoman does boast that aforementioned fetish gear, while Birth just features Nicole Kidman molesting a child.  Add to that a ridiculous and completely implausible plot, some of the worst film music ever (seriously, it made me want to gouge out my ear-drums), bad acting, and bad directing and you have the worst film of the decade.  It was creepy when it was supposed to be moving, boring when it was supposed to be tense, and funny when it was supposed to be dramatic.  Awful.  Just awful.

Biggest Disappointment of the Decade – Spiderman 3 (2007)

Following a solid first movie and a genuinely excellent second installment of the franchise, it seemed that Spiderman 3 had all the makings of a spectacular ending to that rarest of breeds: a quality comic book movie trilogy.  Instead, the trilogy ended with a spectacular, Superman 3 sized turd.  The action sequences were completely incomprehensible and extremely, mind-numbingly long.  Meanwhile, the plot never cohered into a compelling story.  By the time Black-suit Spiderman/emo Peter Parker showed up I was ready for the whole affair to be over, but, alas, it went on for another hour and a half.  All of the actors looked bored out of their minds and who could blame them?  They should have walked off the set just like I should have left the theater.

Worst Repeat View of the Decade – Iron Man (2008)

I really liked this movie the first time I saw it.  So, when I got my first Blu-Ray player and thought about what movie would really benefit from the 1280p that I had just invested in, Iron Man jumped to mind.  But upon further review, something occurred to me: this movie focuses way too much on building super-suits.  First, Tony Stark makes a suit as a hostage in a terrorist camp.  Then he makes a suit in his lab and becomes Iron Man.  Then his nemesis, Dr. Evil Iron Man Suit Guy makes a suit.  Then they put on their suits and fight.  The superior acting and interesting special effects carried me through the film the first time, but the second time all this suit building added up to a giant bore.

Most Needlessly Overblown “Epic” of the Decade – King Kong (2005)

Fresh off the beautifully epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson apparently felt compelled to follow with another epic movie.  The problem was, his subject simply wasn’t epic.  The plot of King Kong is, in fact, disarmingly simple.  Not to be deterred, Jackson did everything he could to make the movie feel a lot bigger than it was.  During the excruciatingly long journey to Skull Island, Jackson used foreshadowing, dark music, wide camera shots, and tons of over-acting in a vain attempt to build tension and suspense.  The problem was, we all knew what was on that island: a giant ape.  And we all know what happens to that ape: he climbs the Empire State Building and gets killed by some airplanes.  It doesn’t take two and a half hours to tell that story.

Most Likely to Make Me Kill Myself – Dancer in the Dark (2000)

 

I left the interpretation of this category open – it could have been a film that made me want to kill myself due to its awfulness, due to its being disgusting, due to guilt, or whatever.  In the end, Dancer in the Dark was the runaway winner for just being a gut-wrenchingly depressing and emotionally brutal movie.  Watching this movie was like getting punched in the gut for two hours… by Bjork (in other words, I felt like that reporter in Thailand).  In the end, I think it’s a great movie, but I’m not sure that I’ll ever put myself through watching it again.

So far these awards have been pretty dark – so I’ll end the decade on a more positive note.  Here are a couple of more affirming categories:

Most Underrated Film of the Decade – King of Kong (2007)

When I ask people if they’ve seen this movie, far too many answer “no.”  Any documentary that can make its viewers actually care who holds the title of Donkey Kong Champion of the World is clearly the work of a rare and exceptional talent.  Seth Gordon pulls it off while always maintaining a sense of the absurdity of it all.  Not to mention, this movie introduces the world to one of the most intriguing villians – ne human beings – in all of film: Billy Mitchell.  The free Donkey Kong machine in the lobby was the icing on the cake.

Most Pleasant Surprise of the Decade – Burn After Reading (2008)

I’ve had so many issues with Coen Brothers movies that it was nice to finally feel like I was in on the joke.  Rather than the usual cleverness of Coen Brothers films – a cleverness that overwhelms their potential funninessBurn After Reading really went after the humor of the script, and all of the actors followed suit.  Any film that features a dildo chair and that can make me laugh at someone getting brutally murdered by a hacksaw is a film worth seeing.

And so ends the decade.  I’d feel a little sad except that I’m sure the studios are already hard at work on another decade of bad movies for us all to spend our money on.  When they do, I’ll be sure to point out their awfulness.

Happy New Year!

Decade in Review – 5 Best Films of the Aughts

December 28, 2009

Having just vented about the 10 most overrated films of the decade I will now attempt to actually say something positive for a change.  So here goes – my list of the 5 best films of the decade:

#5.  Hot Fuzz (2007)

In a decade full of smirks and chuckles, Hot Fuzz delivered genuine, deep, gasping-for-air laughter.  The beginning is admittedly a bit slow, although it is punctuated by perhaps the funniest single moment of the past ten years.  When the top of a steeple falls down on top of a reporter, not just killing him but obliterating the top half of his body (and yet the bottom half stumbles around a bit before keeling over) the result is so unexpectedly violent and hilarious that I laughed long after the scene had ended.  And then, of course, there are the film’s final forty or so minutes, which are so uproariously funny that my side ached by the time they were over.  Unlike so many comedies of the aughts, Hot Fuzz didn’t try to be clever.  Instead, it tried to be funny, at it succeeded at every turn.

#4.  The Dark Knight (2008)

In an era of crappy comic book movies, this film proved once and for all that the drivel we had come to expect from the genre is inexcusable rather than inevitable.  Heath Ledger’s Joker will go down as one of the iconic performances in film history and deservedly so.  Having said that, it’s too bad that his performance ended up garnering so much attention because it tended to obscure the fact that this film’s excellence went far beyond a single outstanding performance.  Despite entering a crowded and clichéd genre, The Dark Knight was surprising at every turn and every minute of its two-and-a-half hour running time felt both compelling and necessary.

#3.  Wall-E (2008)

In ten years Pixar did more for digital animation than Disney did for traditional animation in the entire 20th century (and that’s no slight to Disney).  Wall-E is Pixar’s crowning achievement.  The first thirty dialog-less minutes give us some of the most elegant filmmaking of the decade.  Sure, the second half feels a bit more like the usual Pixar blend of physical gags and tight storytelling, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Wall-E is such a flawlessly executed film, and is so full of genuine heart, that the keen social commentary lurking under the surface is just a welcome added bonus.

#2.  The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003)

So often directors seem to think that making a movie really long and filling it with special effects is all it takes to make something “epic.”  Fortunately, Peter Jackson remembered that story telling and character development are important, too.  As a result, every minute of the nine hours that this trilogy occupied the screen (and even the twelve hours of its extended DVD versions) felt like a gift.  This is one of the rare cases in which the movie was far better than the book on which it was based since Jackson managed to capture all of the magic of Tolkien’s imagination while replacing the woodenness of his prose with a visual style that was dynamic and compelling.

#1.  Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

It seems that everyone either loved or hated this movie.  I am firmly rooted in the “loved” category.  Everything in this film worked – the visuals, the music, the story-telling.  The narrative style was completely unique and yet easy to follow, and the story stayed true to Maurice Sendak’s book without feeling slavish or derivative. I saw it in the theaters twice and liked it even more the second time.  It’s dark.  It’s melancholy.  It’s moving.  It’s brilliant.

So there we have it – proof that I don’t hate every movie.  In my next post (the last one of this decade) I’ll give a few random awards in a “one-off” format.

Decade in Review – 10 Most Overrated Films of the Aughts

December 26, 2009

It’s that time of the year when all of the “Best/Worst of” lists start to appear and, of course, this year we get the “Best/Worst of the Decade” lists.  Usually, these appear in the format of “10 Best” and “5 Worst,” but, here at The Movie Hater’s Movie Blog I like to focus on my disdain, so I’m flipping it around.

So I’ll start with my “10 Worst” list.  Actually, this first list isn’t about the “10 Worst Films of the Decade” so much as the “10 Most Over-rated Films of the Decade.”  These are movies that achieved high levels of critical acclaim, box-office success, or Academy Award attention, but that didn’t deserve any of it.  I didn’t rank the films in order of their overall awfulness but, instead, ranked them by the gap between the level of adoration for the film and my level of derision.  So, while Slumdog Millionaire is a better movie than Transformers (though just barely), it still ranks #1 on my list because Transformers didn’t achieve quite the same widespread celebration that Slumdog did.

But enough with the explanations – here is the list:

#10.  The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005)

 

I had heard so much about this movie before I saw it that I couldn’t wait to join the “in” crowd who had seen and loved it.  Turns out, this was a mildly amusing comedy, not the groundbreaking, side-splitting romp that everyone made it out to be.  By the end, I just kept thinking, “okay, I get it, he’s forty and he hasn’t had sex – what else you got?”  The answer, unfortunately, was “not much.”

#9.  Transformers (2007)

Sure, critics were pretty harsh towards this movie and, for once, they got it right (although this one was kind of a no-brainer), but the box-office draw was astounding – and unexplainable.  This movie exemplifies two of the reasons I hate movies – I had very low expectations, and yet it still managed to disappoint.  I expected nothing more than cool scenes of giant robots fighting and transforming with a loose plot holding it together.  Instead, I saw frantic, unintelligible action scenes that didn’t make creative use of the robots ability to transform, and really no plot to speak of.  I left assuming that this movie would be a Van Helsing sized flop but instead it turned into one of the top grossing franchises of the decade.

#8.  Avatar (2009)

This one slipped in right under the wire – too bad for the aughts.  Avatar wanted so badly to be an imaginative epic that would change the way films were made.  Instead, it rehashed a bunch of racist stereotypes from the 18th century, wrapped them up in a CGI Smurf suit, put them through a bunch of clichéd blockbuster narratives, and took three hours to do it to boot.

#7.  Gladiator (2000)

The winner of the decade’s Award for Most Undeserving Academy Award goes to Gladiator.  The whole thing is just a cheap knockoff of Braveheart.  While Braveheart’s battle scenes succeeded in creating excitement through jarring depictions of war’s brutality, Gladiator tried to create excitement through choppy camera work and frantic editing.  While Breaveheart told a moving story of a man who channels his love of his wife into fighting for his country’s freedom, Gladiator used a screaming Russell Crowe to tell a clichéd story of a man seeking revenge.  I could have rented Braveheart, saved a trip to the theater, and had a better time.

#6.  Crash (2004)

This was easily the most heavy-handed, contrived, and poorly made film to ever win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  I have my theories about why it won, but, regardless, it was undeserving.  The plot lines were manipulative and yet completely predictable, the comments on race felt like they were coming from a college freshman who’s just seen Roots for the first time, and the editing felt like a chaffing two hours of filmic masturbation.

#5.  O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

I, of course, have my on-going issues with the Coen Brothers, but the bottom line here is that Homer told this story way better.  I can only assume that the legions of fans either never read the original, blindly allow the Coen Brothers to dictate to them what clever film-making is, and/or love bluegrass music.  None of those things applies to me, so I reacted to the movie with what it deserves – a great big “EH.”

#4. Pirates of the Caribbean – Trilogy (2003, 2006, 2007)

If you ever want to get trashed one afternoon, watch the first Pirates movie and take a drink every time there’s an underwater shot showing someone falling from a boat into the ocean.  If you ever don’t want to get trashed one afternoon, take a drink every time Pirates 2 takes a break from elaborate action sequences to actually offer some plot and/or character development.  If you want to watch Pirates 3 one afternoon, make sure you get trashed first.  How these movies became one of the biggest franchises of the decade, and how the first film even garnered critical acclaim, is beyond me.

#3.  Napolean Dynamite (2004)

Before I got around to seeing this movie I often heard its fans reciting various lines from the film and would inevitably think to myself, “I don’t understand why that’s funny but, I haven’t seen the film, so I’m not in on the joke.”  Then I saw the film.  I still don’t understand why it’s funny.  I chuckled briefly a couple of times, but that doesn’t even come close to warranting the kind of cultish devotion that this film ended up achieving.

#2.  The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

As I’ve said before, Wes Anderson puts me in mind of a line from the Simpsons: “the whole thing smacks of effort.”  Anderson’s audacity as a filmmaker works when his characters follow suit (as in Rushmore and Fantastic Mr. Fox), but the painstaking earnestness of his style just felt jarringly out of whack with the detached, morose insincerity that drives the narrative of the this film and its characters.

#1.  Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Sometimes it feels like I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t like this movie.  Sure, the kids were cute and their Dickensian struggle was charming, but then they grew into bad actors with no chemistry.  Meanwhile the central contrivance of the whole film (the game show) was, well, contrived.  The best thing I can say about the film is that it makes abject poverty cute.  How that translates into an Academy Award for Best Picture is beyond me.

So that’s that.  In my next post, I’ll try to enter the unfamiliar territory of positivity by giving my five favorite films of the decade.

Up in the Air – Review

December 22, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

And Up in the Air is no exception.

One thing that plagues this film is actually not the movie’s fault.  It was while watching this movie that I realized that George Clooney has joined the short list of elite cinema icons who are always immediately larger than their roles.  Like Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep before him, Clooney has now achieved a level of fame that makes it impossible to ever quite achieve the suspension of disbelief necessary to see him as his character rather than as George Clooney.  It’s not his fault – his performance was the lone bright spot in a movie otherwise filled with lackluster performances.  But Clooney has achieved that rarified status of being a star who simply transcends any one film.

I became painfully aware of this during Up in the Air in large part because almost everything else about the movie is so forgettable.

The plot is pretty typical romance fare.  Clooney (his character’s name is irrelevant) lives a lonely life flying around firing people for a living.  He spends so much time “up in the air” that the notion of settling down is unthinkable to him.  Unthinkable, that is, until the dual force of an intriguing woman and a young up-and-comer who wants to conduct business via the internet threatens the lifestyle that he’s used to.  So, he has to start reevaluating things.  It doesn’t help that the young up-and-comer, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), travels with him for a bit to help her learn the business and she, of course, questions his lifestyle at every turn.  At the same time, frequent encounters with his new-found love interest, Alex (Vera Farminga), start to put some new ideas into his head.

Based on that premise, I’m sure most movie-goers can figure out how the next hour and a half unfolds.  At first he’s frustrated about having Natalie tagging along and wants to keep his relationship with Alex purely physical.  As time wears on he comes to form a bond with both women, and cracks start to appear in his emotional armor until, of course, we come to find out that he’s really a big, sensitive, Hugh Grant of a man.

Meanwhile, the film references our country’s current economic troubles in an effort to appear topical.  There were some potentially interesting ideas there for the taking: the ethics of a business that actually booms due to economic collapse or the irony of Clooney making a living out of firing obsolete employees only to then become obsolete himself, for instance.   But instead of going into these issues, we get a predictable story and weak attempts at humor, like when Clooney thinks the flight attendant is asking if he wants “the cancer,” but is actually asking if he wants “the can, sir,” or the moment when he turns the size of his frequent flier account into a euphemism for his penis.  Even as the film seems to beg for an investigation of some of the complexities that arise, the first nine tenths of the movie adamantly refuse to go beyond its laughably predictable surface.

But then, the movie takes an interesting turn.  I won’t say exactly what happens, but I will say that the final fifteen minutes or so were not at all what I was expecting.  They take the romance/date movie genre and turn it on its head – there were still some really predictable aspects to how everything unfolds, but overall it took me by surprise.

Unfortunately, the surprise just wasn’t enough to warrant the previous hour and a half of cliches.  If the director hadn’t held back, if he’d just let on that this film was a deconstruction of the romance genre right from the start, and played with that concept throughout, I might have been interested.  But he didn’t.  Instead, he wasted the film’s potential on over-worn plot devices and bad jokes, while saving all of the film’s interest until the end, at which point it was too late.  In fact, had it not been for Clooney’s undeniable charisma, I might not have even stuck around to see the final twists and turns.  In the end, I did stick around, and the final few scenes were worth the fifteen minutes or so that they were on the screen.  They weren’t, though, even close to being worth the hour and thirty four minutes that I had to invest to get there.

Avatar – Review

December 19, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

After watching Avatar, I’ve come to hate the form even more – it’s that bad.  This film is so invested in its own originality and grandeur that its complete lack of originality and grandeur become the only epic elements of what is supposed to be an epic film.

To begin with, the script is just awful.  If the worst lines that George Lucas ever wrote were to mate with the worst lines that Michael Bay ever wrote, the Avatar script would be their love-child.  It’s not quite Catwoman bad, but when that’s the best thing you can say for the writing then something’s seriously wrong.

The premise of the film is that humanity has discovered a planet rich in a valuable substance called “unobtainium.”  No, you didn’t read that wrong.  It’s called “unobtainium.”  The only trouble is that the natives, who are apparently one third cat, one third American Indian caricature, and one third giant Smurf, don’t want to let the humans mine for “unobtainium” (seriously, that really is its name – you can’t make this stuff up… unless you’re James Cameron) because doing so would ruin their sacred lands, especially their giant tree/home/temple.  Hoping (sort of) to get the natives to move to the next tree over through diplomacy rather than military force, the corporation sends a paraplegic ex-marine, Jake, into their midst in the form of an Avatar – a kind of biological machine that Jake operates through psychic remote-control – that looks like one of the natives.  Jake, though, quickly realizes that he’s on the wrong side of the conflict and eventually wants to protect the noble savages from the imperialistic company that hired him.

As you might have guessed by now, the film itself is nothing more than an avatar of sorts for the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of European settlers (although the film ocassionally mixes its metaphors with thinly-veiled references to Africa and Iraq).  And this is where the film starts to fall apart.  As a critique of imperialism the movie is incredibly simplistic, heavy-handed, and insulting to both its audience and its subject matter.

Cameron roots his depiction of the natives in just about every condescending, racist 18th century stereotype of the “noble savage” that he can find.  They are extremely devoted to their tribes, but suspicious of outsiders.  They have elaborate and physically dangerous rituals to mark the passage of young males into adulthood.  And, of course they’re deeply attuned to nature.  Literally.  The natives can actually plug their pony-tails into native species to form a kind of mind-meld.  No, I’m not kidding.  Rather than allowing any sort of cultural complexity in the native civilization, Cameron simply sets them up as a group of wise but simple primitives and, in doing so, demonstrates just how primitive the movie’s racial politics are.

Perhaps wanting to be fair, Cameron grounds his depictions of humans in equally simplistic sets of stereotypes.  The colony basically consists of three distinct groups.  First, there are the corporation’s representatives who worship the bottom line with as much devotion as the natives show for the trees.  Then there are the military types who only pause in their incessant blood-lust long enough to question each others’ manhood (except, of course, for the lone military woman, who realizes the error of her ways and joins the natives).  And, finally, there are the glorious scientists whose beneficent desire for knowledge eventually causes them to join the natives’ cause.  So, corporation/military = the bad guys, scientists/natives = the good guys.  It really is that simple.  Though Jake initially attempts to inhabit all three of these of groups, he eventually joins the scientists and commits himself to rescuing the natives.  Oh, and he mates with Pocahontas (or whatever the Chieftain’s daughter’s name happens to be).

The film’s investment in stereotype is, needless to say, a huge problem, and undermines any pseudo-progressive statements that the film might be trying to make.  But they also undermine the nuts and bolts of the film itself.  The film is, after all, supposed to be a sprawling three-hour-long “epic” full of originality and imagination.  But the stereotypes at its core are anything but original and imaginative so the film ends up feeling mired in a sense of tedious familiarity.

For instance, at one point Pocahontas (or whatever her name is) teaches Jake the ways of her people.  We’ve all seen this story before – he starts out clumsy, eventually learns to swing through the forest with ease, proves himself by mounting a wild beast, then makes out with Poca-what’s-her-name.  That’s it.  Sure, the “horses” have six legs and nostrils in their necks, the trees glow, and the native girl is blue, but ultimately this entire sequence could have been covered in a two-minute montage of familiar tropes.  Instead Cameron turns it into an hour-long repetition of old ideas hiding beneath new CGI techniques.

And so the movie goes.  Over and over again the film uses cutting-edge technology to rehash tired narratives and to put new skins on all-too-familiar stock characters.  The battle sequences are loud and full of giant explosions, but ultimately follow traditional patterns (bad guys attack, good guys retaliate and seem to be doing well, bad guys re-retaliate and all seems lost, some unexpected aid arrives and turns the tide culminating in a one-on-one showdown between the hero and antagonist).  Cameron could have told this entire story in about an hour (heck, I’ve basically told it in less than a thousand words).  Instead, he spreads it out over three of the most tedious hours that I’ve ever had to spend in a theater.

Sure, in the meantime, there are some impressive visuals.  Things glow, and whiz across the screen, and explode and stuff.  There are lots of colors and there’s lots of noise, too.  Sigourney Weaver’s performance is good, and most of the others are passable.  But none of this adds up to “epic.”  In fact, after a three hour movie and a large bottle of water the only epic experience I had at the theater involved a long trip to the bathroom when the movie was finally over.  And the time I spent in front of that urinal was far more satisfying than anything I saw on screen.

Fantastic Mr. Fox – Review

December 12, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

That being said, I actually quite enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox.  I’m not sure that it’s as “groundbreaking” as some are claiming, but in the end I came away happy to have seen it.  After watching Disney butcher such Dr. Seuss classics as How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Cat in the Hat, and Horton Hears a Who, it’s great to see two successful film adaptations of “children’s” literature in one year (the other, of course, being Spike Jonze’s brilliant adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are).

That I liked Fantastic Mr. Fox was surprising because my track record with Wes Anderson is almost as bad as my track record with the Coen Brothers.  I liked (didn’t love, but liked) Rushmore, didn’t like The Royal Tenenbaums, and absolutely detested A Life Aquatic – seriously, it was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.

One of the problems I have with Wes Anderson films is his insistence on and obsession with style.  It’s not that I mind stylized film making, but style alone isn’t enough to make me enjoy a film.  For Anderson, though, it seems that style is the top priority – that the characters and the narrative are there only as an excuse to execute a specific visual style.  I find this tedious and uninteresting because, as a Simpsons character whose name I don’t know once said: “the whole thing smacks of effort.”

But that effort worked in Fantastic Mr. Fox, in large part because it uses stop-motion animation – a technique that already wears its effort on its sleeve.  As a viewer, the slight jerkiness of the motion on screen acts as a constant reminder of the artificiality of what we’re seeing – something that a stylish director like Anderson takes full advantage of.  In fact, one of the strengths of the film is the way that Anderson manages to match form to content.

After all, one of the liberties that the film takes with Dahl’s book is to use Mr. Fox’s plight to comment on the increasing artificiality of our world.  At one point, Mr. Fox tears into his dinner with all of the recklessness and fervor of a wild animal (which, of course, he is).  His motions are so fast that the stop-motion animation can’t keep up – the artificiality of the film-making is unable to contain the wildness of Mr. Fox.  But as the story progresses (warning – a few mild spoilers follow), Mr. Fox starts to realize the negative consequences of his wildness and his eventual ability to outwit his nemeses, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean stems from his gradual assimilation into their comfortable, civilized (but less exciting) world.  While this brings with it a palpable sense of loss, Fox’s dance with his family at the end – a dance that seems in perfect step with the 12 frames-per-second of the animation – reflects his acceptance of his new lifestyle and, at the same time, justifies the explicit stylization that bogs down most of Anderson’s other films.

All of this being said, the film is far from perfect.  As I already mentioned, Anderson does take some substantial liberties with his source material on both a narrative and thematic level.  While that isn’t an inherently bad thing, sometimes the deviations felt less original than the parts that followed the book more closely.

The second half of the film begins to rely less on Dahl’s brilliant storytelling and more on some of the conventions of contemporary animation, especially in its raucous final action sequence. By entering into these conventions, Anderson is placing himself in competition with other, more experienced animation teams, especially Pixar – a company that has found a formula for fast paced final action sequences that eludes Anderson.  Instead of a tight blending of action and story, a lot of the last half of Mr. Fox made me feel as though I was watching a kid who had lost track of the story he was trying to tell and was instead just having fun with his toys.  There’s a certain joy to be had in this, but it still weakened the overall impact of what starts off as a very original and compelling re-interpretation of a very original and compelling book.

The result is a film that is never boring (and I’m easily bored), and, at times, is deeply interesting.  Some Roald Dahl fans will hate it for the liberties it takes (after all, the film’s grudging endorsement of modern civilization is almost directly contrary to Dahl’s celebration of Mr. Fox’s refusal to be tamed), but others (like myself) will admire the way Anderson’s version of the story engages the spirit of Dahl’s overall literary daring even if he doesn’t stick to the spirit of this particular book.  In its best moments, Fantastic Mr. Fox shows us that stop-motion animation can do things that computer animation simply cannot, but at others it made me painfully aware of stop-motion’s limitations in the digital age.

Most strikingly, though, the film demonstrates that Anderson’s investment in style doesn’t have to overwhelm the other aspects of his film-making.  Maybe if it had been in stop-motion animation, The Royal Tenenbaums would have been more interesting.  I’m not sure anything could save A Life Aquatic.

Why The Big Lebowski is an Over-rated Pile of Dung

December 11, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

Also, I am aware that The Big Lebowski has a large and passionate following, and that this post might put me in danger of physical mob violence (or would if mobs of people actually read my blog – needless to say, I’ll sleep easy tonight).  As such, I decided to re-watch the movie just to make sure that I wasn’t missing something the first time I saw it.

I wasn’t.

In fact, rather than finding anything new I actually found something entirely and disappointingly familiar.  Lebowski is, when all is said and done, a stoner movie.  Nothing more, nothing less.  I don’t think I realized this the first time I watched it because it’s a stoner movie hidden underneath a pretty thick veneer of faux-wittiness and clever (not the same as funny) film-making.  But in the end, this is simply a stoner movie.

As such, it suffers from the same flawed premise that hinders most stoner movies: while it is often inherently funny to be high, it isn’t inherently funny to be around someone who’s high – in fact, it’s often incredibly dull and/or frustrating.

Now, I realize that there is actually not a lot of pot smoking going on in Lebowski (the White Russians get a lot more camera time), but Lebowski (or “The Dude”) himself is clearly a typical burn-out: he likes to drink/get high, he’s a dead-beat, he’s harmless, he finds everything a little bewildering, and he’d get along with everyone else a lot better if they’d just be as chill as he is.  So, yes, he’s a burn-out.  And, no, that isn’t funny.

I also realize that the rest of the characters don’t fit the burn-out mold.  In fact, they are really anti-burn-outs; characters who are so un-“chill” that their manic intensity (whether it be about bowling, artistic pretensions, or Vietnam) stands in stark contrast to The Dude’s complete lack of ambition.  Their humor lies in their being foils to The Dude and what he represents.  As a result, the film simply wastes their potential for humor since they are meant to highlight the inherent funniness of The Dude – a funniness that isn’t there.

Take, for instance, one of the film’s most beloved characters.  I’ll be the first to admit that the notion of a brightly dressed pedophile who calls himself “The Jesus” and takes his bowling way too seriously is ripe with comedic potential.  In fact, just writing that last sentence made me chuckle.  But, ultimately, the film doesn’t do much more with this notion than my sentence did.  Instead, it uses The Jesus and the absurd passion he has for crushing his bowling opponents to further highlight Lebowki’s nonchalance.  In other words, The Jesus only exists to make us more aware of The Dude as a burn-out.

Which isn’t funny.

And this was, repeatedly, the problem I had with the movie – the humor of each character was dependent on that character’s interaction with The Dude and the The Dude just wasn’t interesting or original enough to bear that burden.

This was even true of the movie’s visual style.  As I’ve said before, the Coen brothers have a special talent for capturing unusual aesthetics and finding beauty in what we would normally consider the mundane.  In Lebowski that aesthetic centers around the bowling alley and I will be the first to admit that this is probably the most beautiful (and yet still genuine) depiction of a bowling alley I’ve ever seen.

But the question remains: why should I care about a representation of a bowling alley?  Again, the answer is the The Dude.  The film’s striking (no pun intended) representation of the bowling alley highlights Lebowski’s desire to be left alone to waste his life rolling a ball at some pins.  Once again, I don’t find that inherently funny and so, once again, the film wastes its own potential on a flawed central character.

I do want to be clear about one thing, though.  I don’t think the failure of The Dude is in any way a comment on Jeff Bridges’ performance, which was outstanding.  In fact, all of the performance were outstanding.  As were so many other aspects of the film.  Everything was well done and cleverly (again, clever and funny aren’t the same thing) put together.  But, in the end, all that this effort accomplished was to very effectively convey what it’s like to be around a burn-out.  Unfortunately, that means that the film left me a little bored, a little frustrated, and intensely aware of wasted potential.