Posted tagged ‘Coen Brothers’

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!

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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.

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.

A Serious Man – Review

November 18, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

Yet, I was nervous about seeing this film.  What if I liked it?  After all, following years of not understanding what on earth everyone saw in films like The Big Lebowski and Fargo, I actually liked No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading.  So, what if I liked A Serious Man?  What would I do if, so early in my blog’s history, I wrecked its premise by posting as many positive reviews as negative?  Perhaps more importantly, how would I cope on a personal level with the notion that my levels of general disdain might be waning?

Well, crisis averted.  I am thrilled to say that this movie is excrement.

The story is quite simple.  A middle-aged Jewish professor of Physics is dealing with an assortment of various ills.  He has a difficult student who is trying bribe him.  He has a sad-sack brother living with him who keeps hogging the bathroom.  His wife is in love with another man and wants a divorce.  His son is getting chased home from school by a bully who is trying to collect $20 for the pot he sold to him.  In order to cope he tries to see his Rabbi. There are some other things too, I guess.  I don’t know.  I’m bored just writing about it.

To be fair, the Coen Brothers do once again demonstrate their uncanny ability to capture a highly original aesthetic, both visually and in narrative form.  Unfortunately, they have, once again, captured an aesthetic that doesn’t interest me in the least.  More than anything, they seemed to want to capture the frustrating mundane-ness of the protagonist’s life, even in crisis.  And they succeeded.  Unfortunately, that just meant that the film was frustrating and mundane.  Nothing much really happened.  It wasn’t clear what really even could happen.  And I wasn’t sure why I should care.  Everything just felt suffocatingly blah.  Again, I think that was kind of the point.  Again, I’m not interested – I’m not sure that an accurate representation of blah-ness is anything that film-makers should even try to achieve.

Throughout, there were bits of what I guess were supposed to be funny moments, most of them revolving around various aspects of Jewish culture.  So, naturally, my first assumption was that I didn’t get it because I’m not Jewish.  But that explanation doesn’t work.  With the possible exception of African American culture, I could argue that Jewish culture is part of the very foundation of U.S. comedy.  Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Ben Stiller, Woody Allen, I could go on and on with examples of recent comedy stemming from Jewish culture that is simply hilarious.

But instead of making me laugh, this movie just bored me.  I have a terrible habit of falling asleep for about twenty or so minutes during a movie, and sometimes it can be quite frustrating.  But while watching this movie I was thrilled with the brief respite – rather than sit up and try to force myself to wake up I leaned back in my chair, got comfortable, and tried to ride my fatigue as far as it would carry me.  When I woke up I wasn’t disappointed to have missed part of the movie, but was instead disappointed that I hadn’t missed more.

Perhaps I wasn’t able to sleep as much as I wanted to because I was so excited to know that the world makes sense again: my opinion of the Coen Brothers doesn’t have to undergo the radical change that I feared, my distaste for movies is still in full gear, and my capacity for disdain is as healthy as ever.  Maybe in my next post I’ll explain why The Big Lebowski is an over-rated pile of dung as my way of thanking the Coen Brothers for all that they’ve done for me.