Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Movies of 2011, day three: disappointments

As I worked through my aforementioned list of films I'd been curious about watching, there were a few films which didn't live up to my expectations. For a film to be disappointing, I have to have held some belief at the outset that the personal recommendations, glowing reviews and/or familiar stars & directors were going to turn out something I'd find interesting, perhaps even outstanding. So, here's the films I watched in 2011 which I didn't really take to; I wouldn't call them bad, but I don't imagine I'll grant them a second chance.

I only recently began watching films by Martin Scorcese and I'm finding his filmography to be hit-or-miss, though I've never out-and-out disliked his movies. Gangs of New York is a good example of what I mean by "miss." I never connected to the historical setting, the characters or the conflict, so the lengthy running time surely didn't endear me either.

I passed up a chance to see Hero in the theatres during its original release so that a friend could use the free tickets I'd been given. I felt a minor regret at giving away the tickets, but now having seen the film for myself... no more regrets. I have a lot of time for good martial arts movies, but I just can't stand wire stunts, which is where this film goes to at every fight scene. The film was otherwise inoffensive.

I've mentioned before how westerns are one of the film genres I'm trying to make myself appreciate, so I tracked down one of the supposed greats: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. However, I never took to this film, in spite of a few scenes I did enjoy. It's very long and languid and I found it a struggle to stay invested in the slow-moving story.

Mission to Moscow is an odd footnote in film history, being a pro-USSR film made at the behest of FDR to help US citizens accept the Russians as their allies in World War II. In terms of fostering good relations between two peoples, it's a laudable goal. However, the execution in this film is simply terrible. By creating such a Hollywood-ized depiction of the USSR (and not Hollywood in the same way the earlier film Ninotchka played the USSR for laughs), it does a real disservice to history and to the then-current suffering in the Soviet Union when it was released. It essentially reduces purges into "people getting what they deserve" and repeatedly bending over backwards to claim the USSR isn't as bad as people claim, while the bad reports must all be propaganda. Don't believe their propaganda, believe ours! It's a pity to see Walter Huston - such a great actor - in this movie.

I saw the Towering Inferno despite having heard it was a big, dumb, loud disaster movie because I was curious to see what Paul Newman and Steve McQueen achieved in the picture. Answer: not enough to make up for Irwin Allen's excesses.

On the flight back from Angola last summer, I gave Megamind a chance; it's a story about a super villain who suffers an identity crisis when his nemesis is seemingly killed. As a time-killer, this was a great picture - there was no point at which I was bored of this movie. On the other hand, it was supposed to be a comedy... and there was no point at which I was amused by this movie.

Knight and Day comes so close to working. In retrospect, the trailer was the best part, but it used up all the really great moments. The concept of a violent anti-hero appearing in the midst of a romantic comedy is a terrific one - but the movie doesn't take any chances with the idea; all the creativity was used up in the film's pitch.

I blogged before about Star Trek. As I said then: it's a decent time-killer, if you don't think of it as Star Trek.

I had seen part of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on television before and didn't think much of it, but after noticing it on Netflix I decided to give it a chance. I was curious about the immense cast, containing dozens of great comedians (not counting Milton Berle). The end result is that my first impression hadn't changed - this movie is too much of a broad, slapstick farce for my tastes.

I had barely heard of Extract, but it turned up on Netflix too; given how much I enjoyed Mike Judge's films Office Space and Idiocracy, I hoped I'd found another brilliant film which snuck beneath the radar. well, not so much. The characters and premise are fine, but there's something really lacking in the execution of this film.

Speaking of a fine premise, Capricorn One has a great one: during the faked first manned mission to Mars, the flight crew are declared dead and must run for their lives. That sounds like a great picture, but the movie is actually about a reporter trying to uncover the secret of the faked mission, not the desperate struggle of the astronauts to stay alive and tell the world the truth. Pity.

Having seen most of John Carpenter's films recently, I decided to try Prince of Darkness, even though it's reputation isn't stellar. Seeing so many familiar Carpenter actors (quite a few from Big Trouble in Little China) and opening with what seemed to be a science fiction-style take on horror movie tropes, this movie never came together for me; the nature of the threat seems so unclear and contradictory... like, Satan was an alien? But the supernatural exists anyway? And if the antichrist is creating a body for itself out of a vat of goo, why does it wind up possessing someone else's body instead?

I'm somewhat intrigued by the years when the Walt Disney company was in decline, the era when Don Bluth created a rival studio, the movies had inferior animation and struggled at the box office until Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg turned the company around... so, Waking Sleeping Beauty seemed like it would be an interesting documentary of that era, even though it was produced by Disney themselves. However, by the end of the film I realized what I'd seen was simply a celebration of Katzenberg and nothing more. It opens by describing the state of Disney in the early 80s, it ends with the release of the Lion King and Katzenberg quitting. No mention is made of how Disney fared without Katzenberg (answer: just fine) or how Katzenberg fared without Disney (answer: just fine), nor whatever happened to Eisner (answer: outlasted Katzenberg by a decade), not even the fates of the other Disney films Katzenberg had put into production when he left. The filmmaker/narrator also has a sense of protectiveness about Disney (hurtfully describing Bluth as "kicking us when we were down") which interferes with objectivity. This film is just a love letter to Katzenberg's years at Disney; it assumes you're already one of the fawning faithful.

I keep saying I like Christopher Nolan films, but I guess what I mean to say is "I like his Batman pictures." Memento was worth watching once; the Prestige is the only movie I've ever taken out of my personal movie library (Reefer Madness and Star Trek 5 remain in). Inception developed a strong reputation in 2010 so I felt open to it, but ultimately, the fact that it's about characters in a dream world did a lot to diffuse the supposed tension of the story; it's all dreams within dreams and if reality is a dream... why am I bothering?

A clip of All That Jazz in Martin Scorcese's Journey Through... special really caught my attention; a musical director at death's door whose personal issues are brought to life as a muscical? That sounds like a great picture! Sadly, that's actually the plot of about 15 minutes near the end of the movie; leading up to that, there's a repellant, unlikeable protagonist who made me seriously grapple with the delayed pleasure of reaching the musical portion versus the immediate pleasure of not watching him on film any longer.

I'd also long known how Scorcese loved Duel in the Sun, David O. Selznick's attempt to out-Gone With the Wind Gone With the Wind via an epic western of two brothers whose different values turn them into enemies, especially as they both love the same woman. I do like a lot of the film's visuals, but Gregory Peck's villainous brother is so instantly unlikable (the most likeable thing about him is that he's played by Gregory Peck) that it's hard to get through 2.5 hours of him being villainous before his comeuppance. I wish it had been a little more subtle, but there I go, looking for subtlety in a Selznick picture...

Scorcese also presented a clip of Some Came Running, showing a gunman chasing two people through a carnival. It was a tense scene with unusual filming angles and instantly caught my attention. However, I never actually looked to see what Some Came Running was, assuming from the clip that it was a thriller. It's actually about 2 hours of Frank Sinatra being a self-loathing writer with the carnival scene arriving at the climax. I guess I should have done a little research here.

Finally, Pan's Labyrinth which is a lot like director Guillermo del Toro's Devil's Backbone, only with a big CGI budget, wider public acceptance and a downbeat ending. Personally, I'll stick to the Devil's Backbone; the child protagonist is so incapable of achieving any goals or of making anything better for herself or others that the entire experience rubbed me the wrong way. The children in the Devil's Backbone were similarly ill-equipped for the dangers they found themselves placed in, but at least they didn't exacerbate the situation.

Tomorrow: the movies I really didn't like.

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