There are some movies that aren't very good, but it's acceptable because they are what you expect them to be (Adam Sandler movies, for example); they may not suit your personal taste, but you understand why they exist. Then there are movies that, for one reason or another, really, really bother you. This is a series of brief rants about movies that fit into the latter category for me. Most of the criticism regards questionable moral reasoning, but there are also critiques of quality and two objections to Academy Awards. There are a few spoilers, but the intent here is not to convince anyone to actually watch these movies; if anything, I would like to discourage it.
Adam's Rib (1949)
Directed by: George Cukor
The movie: Adam's Rib is a courtroom dramedy starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn as lawyers on opposite sides of an attempted murder case in which a wife has attempted to murder her husband in response to his infidelity. The movie was ranked #22 on the American Film Institute's 100 years...100 laughs list.
The problem: The accused wife in the story is obviously, extremely guilty. However, Katherine Hepburn's character is able to get her client out of an attempted murder conviction by arguing that there is a double standard regarding infidelity where it is far more acceptable for men than for women. While that is absolutely true (and to a certain extent is still true), that doesn't actually make premeditated revenge murder okay. Is social inequality a legitimate grounds for killing someone? It really only seems like grounds for a favorable divorce settlement, but somehow in the horribly convoluted plot of this movie an attempted murder case was manipulated into putting society on trial instead of an actual person. Spencer Tracy's character does make that very point in the falling action, but it happens far too late for the movie to be anything other than a ridiculous farce.
Alexandra's Project (2003)
Directed by: Rolf de Heer
The movie: Alexandra's Project is a suspense film in which a husband arrives home on his birthday to a trap set by his wife and is then informed, via videotape, that she hates him and has run off with their kids never to return.
The problem: The movie is infuriating on several fronts, including a string of ridiculous plot holes in which the husband defies all logic in his decisions. The real problem here is the wife's actions and motivations. She accuses the husband of objectifying her, a point blunted by the fact that she uses her sexuality to manipulate other men into helping with her revenge plot. More importantly, her accusations (which don't include adultery or abuse) come as a complete surprise to the husband who evidently had no idea how unhappy she was (he should have figured it out, but still), and her revenge plot is a ridiculous, vindictive overreaction to a marriage doomed primarily by a basic lack of communication that she was partially responsible for. If this movie was intended to present a feminist point of view, it fails horribly; the wife doesn't come off as a heroic victim, but as a vengeful, irrational monster, and any legitimate points that could have been made about traditional gender roles in marriages is lost to a script that was clearly written for shock value more than anything else. On the other hand, if the intent was to provide a paranoid and misleading attack on feminism through hyperbole, then this movie actually deserves far more hate than I already believe it does. Either way, this is really, really bad.
The Artist (2011)
Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius
The movie: The Artist is the silent, black and white dramedy that won Best Picture in 2012.
The problem: I'm not about to say that this is a horrible movie, just that it shouldn't have won Best Picture. Simply put, cinematography is more difficult when color has to be accounted for, and writing a script is more difficult when dialogue has to be memorable in the same way that the images on the screen are. All of the other movies nominated for Best Picture that year incorporated both color and sound, and The Artist did not. Silent films can be beautiful, elegant, and powerful, but for one to win Best Picture now it should be one of the best silent films ever made, and this simply was not. It doesn't have the striking imagery or power of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, F.W. Murnau's Faust, or Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; if anything, it attempts to elicit the type of down to earth pathos and humor present in Chaplin films like City Lights and Modern Times, but it isn't nearly as successful with either. The Artist won Best Picture in part because of the novelty of its format, but historically it isn't all that unique; there have been many films that have done it before, and that have done it better. With all of that being said, 2012 was not a strong year for movies, and there was no other Best Picture nominee that stood out as a favorite. Still, there were some great films that came out that year: Martha Marcy May Marlene garnered lots of attention from other awards programs, but was evidently too low profile for the Oscars, Warrior was as well made and had as much heart as any sports movie since Rocky, and speaking of pathos and humor, 50/50 dealt with cancer with ample amounts of both. Also, the last Lord of the Rings movie garnered some Oscar love; why not the last Harry Potter movie?
Attack the Block (2011)
Directed by: Joe Cornish
The movie: Attack the Block is a British alien invasion film focusing on an inner city gang fighting off the unwelcome visitors. The film was well received critically and is already considered a cult classic.
The problem: This movie created the need for a new rule of thumb for action movie directors: don't establish your primary protagonist as a horrible human being in the first five minutes. At the beginning of the movie, a young woman's car breaks down in an unfortunate location. She is cornered by the gang, and it is made clear that something horrible is about to happen to her when the aliens crash to earth. The gang's leader eventually comes around to like the young woman, but only after she has saved his life, which really shouldn't be a requirement for someone to behave with at least a degree of civility. In this case, the actor in question was John Boyega, who was so likeable as Finn in Star Wars: the Force Awakens. He was not quite so likeable in this movie.
Cape Fear (1962)
Directed by: J. Lee Thompson
The movie: Cape Fear is essentially a stalker film with a recently releases rapist (Robert Mitchum) hunting the prosecutor (Gregory Peck) that both caught him and had him convicted. It is #61 on AFI's list of greatest suspense movies.
The problem: In addition to the bad guy being a flat, purely evil character, Cape Fear is dependent on the good guy being a complete idiot and making the worst possible decision at every opportunity in order to keep the plot moving (also, were restraining orders somehow not a thing in the 1960's?). Cape Fear certainly isn't unique in that problem, but it is the most irritating case I have ever seen, and it's bizarrely well regarded given its glaring problems. Martin Scorcese remade this in the 90's and at least made the protagonist and antagonist more complex characters, although his version is also a step in the direction of torture porn and is hard to watch in its own right.
La Ceremonie (1995)
Directed by: Claude Chabrol
The movie: La Ceremonie is a French drama based on a real life incident from 1933.
The problem: In La Ceremonie, Sandrine Bonnaire plays a maid that, quite frankly, is treated completely fairly by the family that employs her. She really isn't abused in any way (I should point out that I'm super poor and I wouldn't have been offended by any of it). However, she is somehow convinced by Isabelle Hupert's character that they actually are mistreating her because they view her as inferior due to her social standing, and the film's climax features the pair slaughtering the completely normal family. I realize that the story is loosely based on an actual event, but what was the point of this movie supposed to be? Is it meant to imply that the poor are so jealous of the rich that we all secretly want to kill them? There is nothing enjoyable about this film as a viewing experience, and it certainly can't be considered didactic. I found this so distasteful that I couldn't watch anything else featuring either Sandrine Bonnaire or Isabelle Hupert for years, although Hupert eventually became unavoidable in French cinema.
The Cove (2009)
Directed by: Louie Psihoyos
The movie: The Cove is a documentary that explores the yearly slaughter of thousands of dolphins in a Japanese cove. It won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2010.
The problem: Documentaries are supposed to be honest, and in several ways this one isn't. I also wish that these slaughters didn't happen, but there is more reason behind them than that Japanese people are horrible human beings that love to kill cute and cuddly sea creatures for a small profit, which is really the only explanation the movie leaves its audience with. If you share the same food supply with another species, then eliminating that competition and adding it to your own food supply will in fact increase your food supply. This movie acts as though that idea is a lie or a rationalization, but it is completely logical, and would ultimately make food cheaper. There are also claims made about high mercury levels in the dolphin that, if true, likely would have resulted in mercury poisoning for tens of thousands of Japanese people; since that hasn't really happened, I have to believe those claims are less than honest as well. There is a thin line between documentary filmmaking and propaganda, and this film toes the line much more than it is credited for.
The movie: Daisies is a Czechoslovakian (supposedly) feminist dramedy that has become a cult classic of sorts.
The problem: Since when is anyone's idea of freedom being able to treat other people horribly? That's what the two main characters (who can't really be referred to as protagonists) do throughout this supposedly feminist film prior to being killed at the end. Their execution is certainly an overreaction, but there are several times throughout the movie where it becomes perfectly clear that these young women probably deserve to be in prison (ie not free, even in a free society), which is exactly what would happen to any men carrying out the same actions in most free societies. At no point are they made likeable in any way, so the conclusion evokes remarkably little sympathy. In many ways this seems like a less pretentious Godard film.
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
The movie: Elephant is an independent film that attempts to realistically portray a Columbine-like shooting. It received the Palme d'Or at Cannes.
The problem: This film is successful at presenting violence without glorifying it in any way, but why are the perpetrators homosexual? There is no reason to believe the Colombine shooters were gay, and there is no indication that the main characters in this film were picked on because of it, or even that anyone knew about it. If anything, their relationship should have been reason for them to want to live instead of dying following a massacre of people whose opinions should have never mattered that much to them to begin with. There were many factors that may have contributed to the Columbine shootings, but this fictional story throws sexuality into the mix for no good reason, and it's very difficult to interpret that as anything other than homophobic.
The Fountain (2006)
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
The movie: The Fountain is an art house film about a doctor working to save the life of his wife who is dying of cancer, which is interwoven with two metaphoric representations of the same story.
The problem: Thematically, The Fountain is about learning that death is a part of life and enjoying the time that we have with the people we love. It's a simple theme that could result in a perfectly thoughtful and enjoyable movie. Unfortunately, Darren Aronofsky established that theme through a barrage of remarkably heavy handed symbolism. In what was for some reason sold as a future timeline, at several points he uses the metaphysical symbolism of Hugh Jackman's character floating through space in a bubble and draining sap from the Tree of Knowledge while ignoring his dying wife's pleas to spend time with her. In another instance (and another version of the story), he drinks sap from the Tree of Life and quickly turns into dirt that flowers immediately sprout from because that is all a part of the circle of life. The dialogue is similarly heavy handed, and, used in conjunction with close ups of over the top performances that were likely more a choice of the director than the actors, makes Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz look absolutely ridiculous at times. Darren Aronofsky seems to have realized the problem and did a 180 in making the darkly realistic The Wrestler as a follow up, but The Fountain was an almost laughable mistake.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
The movie: This is a revised version of one of the greatest novels ever written made by a former music video director.
The problem: The Great Gatsby was a brilliant novel heavily criticizing the disillusionment created by the idea of rich and poor (it's also beautifully existential, which I outlined in a college paper that is available on a separate Hubpages network site and linked to below). All of that meaning is destroyed by the screenplay for this film, which reduces the story to a melodramatic romance doomed by circumstance. Most notably in Luhrman's version, Daisy Buchanan wants to be with Gatsby but is prevented from joining him by people that have power over her; her economic motivations (and his) are completely eliminated (fittingly, the green light at the end of the pier bears a remarkable resemblance to Green Lantern's bizarrely artificial, heavily criticized glow.)
It Happened One Night (1934)
Directed by: Frank Capra
The movie: It Happened One Night is a romantic comedy that won Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Screeplay, Actor, and Actress; it was the first movie to do so.
The problem: This movie is dated in a very unfortunate way; Clark Gable's character is openly and physically abusive towards Claudette Colbert's, and in a bizarre (but at least in this case fictional) very not funny Rihanna-Chris Brown way she falls in love with him anyway.
The Kids are All Right (2010)
Directed by: Lisa Chodenko
The movie: The Kids are All Right is a dramedy about two children with lesbian parents that reach out to their biological father. It was an Academy Award nominee for Best Picture and won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy.
The problem: First of all, of course the kids are all right. However, the couple in this movie is sort of The Odd Couple if the fights weren't funny; in this case, Julianne Moore's character is artistic instead of a slob, while Annette Benning's character is controlling and, frankly, kind of mean. They're also similar to the couple in a movie that very few people actually liked, The Story of Us: it was perfectly clear that those two people did not belong together. I can't help but think that the reason this couple stays together at the end of the movie is because they are lesbians and it would have been considered politically incorrect for them to break up. Gay people should have the same rights and freedoms as everyone else, and that should include the right to make a mistake. The end of this movie feels forced in a couple of different ways.
Legally Blonde (2001)
Directed by: Robert Luketic
The movie: Legally Blonde is a comedy about a sorority girl that goes to law school and later presents a successful defense at a murder trial. It was a huge box office success and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy.
The problem: This is a movie about people being more than stereotypes, yet it concludes with a court case that is largely won through the use of a gay stereotype and a point about hair care ( a sorority girl stereotype). It's as though the plot and theme of this movie got into a fight and the plot eventually said "You're wrong theme, stereotypes are the bee's knees" (because, as everyone knows, plots are big fans of 1920's colloquial expressions).
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Directed by: Orson Welles
The movie: The Magnificent Ambersons is a period drama that was Orson Welles’ follow up to Citizen Kane, and it is often referred to as Welles’ other masterpiece.
The problem: The word comeuppance is used multiple times, and the plot of this movie, along with just about every other aspect of it, is about as subtle as that word would suggest. That’s really the entire story: a spoiled rich kid treats people horribly and eventually gets what he deserves. While it’s certainly possible to make a respectable movie with that plot line (The Social Network, perhaps), this one is obvious and heavy handed from beginning to end, and simply shouldn’t be considered a must see classic. In this case, it wasn’t all Welles’ fault; RKO pictures took control of the final cut of the film and essentially butchered it, including tacking on a happy ending of sorts. That being said, some of Welles’ other failures can’t be blamed on anyone else; Chimes at Midnight is a rambling mess that focuses almost entirely on his own odd performance, and if you want a cinematic definition of delusional narcissism, check out F is for Fake. The closest he came to another great movie might be Touch of Evil, a noir film with a cookie cutter plot that Welles did direct brilliantly. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a second masterpiece from Orson Welles, there really isn’t one.
Pierrot le Fou (1965)
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
The movie: Pierrot le Fou is a French crime drama about a man and his mistress on the run from gangsters. It was the French entry for Best Foreign Film for the Academy Awards.
The problem: Jean-Luc Godard was an innovative director during the early parts of his career in the 1960's, but for the most part the stories that he chose to tell were less than enthralling, the dialogue was often pretentious, and it it very rare for any characters to be admirable in any way. In this case, a pretentious narcissist of a main character waxes poetic about how sensitive and misunderstood he is and how he just doesn't fit into society, then uses that as an excuse to leave his family to be with an old girlfriend and generally treat other human beings horribly before being not so tragically killed. I'm not sure because its not at all believable, but it appears as though the main character is supposed to be an admirable bad boy in a James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause kind of way. It really, really doesn't work. There's a scene where the supposedly imposing main character apparently beats a mechanic into submission to get his way through the use of what can only be described as weak slaps. It is simply the least impressive beating I have ever seen on film; if there had been any realism in that scene, the mechanic would have absolutely destroyed the unlikeable antihero. My reaction to the end of a Jean-Luc Godard film is almost always remarkably similar to my reaction to the end of Gone with the Wind when Scarlett O'Hara gets rejected: if that could have just happened an hour (or, in the case of Gone with the Wind, three hours) earlier, I could have that time back to actually do something enjoyable.
Rang De Basanti (2006)
Directed by: Rakesh Omprakash Mehra
The movie: Rang De Basanti is a Bollywood drama that was extremely popular domestically in India and was that country's submission for Best Foreign Language Film to the Academy Awards. It was even influential to the political behavior of the country's young adults.
The problem: It's very easy to criticize Bollywood films, primarily because they can swing from heavy handed melodrama to low brow comedy to (at times completely unrelated) musical numbers in a relatively short period of time, which is at the very least bad storytelling. This film doesn't suffer from those broad swings in tone; it is consistently dark throughout, although the musical numbers still effectively neutralize the suspension of disbelief. In this case, there is a problem with moral reasoning. The main characters learn about ancestors that suffered through true oppression, and somehow equate that with their countries defense minister buying cheap parts for airplanes that led to a crash that killed a friend. Those two crimes are not even close to the same thing; the latter is certainly grounds for impeachment and possibly criminal prosecution, but it is hardly grounds for assassination. You'll never guess how the movie ends.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
Directed by: Stanley Donen
The movie: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a musical romantic comedy that was nominated for Best Picture. It was based (I kid you not) on the ancient Roman story of The Rape of the Sabine Women.
The problem: The plot for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is that seven brothers that live out in the middle of nowhere decide that, for largely misogynistic reasons, they need wives. Their solution is to go into town, abduct several women, and take them home to become their "brides." In a shocking twist for a 1950's musical, the movie has a happy ending. The story is a male rape fantasy: just take what you want, and no will eventually mean yes. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was disturbingly popular among young women when I was in high school, and it really, really shouldn't be.
The Seventh Continent (1989)
Directed by: Michael Haneke
The movie: The Seventh Continent is a drama about an Austrian family so disillusioned by the more mundane aspects of modern life that they commit group suicide. This was Michael Haneke’s first feature film, and was somehow Austria’s submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.
The problem: There are certainly films that end with suicide where you can understand how that makes sense for that particular character. This is not one of those films. First of all, why would anyone, director and fictional characters included, choose to focus their attention on the repetitive aspects of life that most of us complete as an afterthought? More importantly, at no point does anyone attempt to change their life in any way: they simply give up. Also, before the family shuffles off this mortal coil, they sit down to a large meal and then watch a musical performance on television, which should be a clear indication that there were at least two aspects of modern life that they did enjoy. Finally, the parents take their daughter along with them, never giving her a chance to explore and potentially find her own happiness in the world. Haneke has made some thought provoking work (check out The Piano Teacher), but this one required someone that is definitely out of the cave to present a view of the world from within one that has no exit, and that doesn’t make sense.
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Directed by: John Madden
The movie: Shakespeare in Love is the period romantic comedy that won the 1999 Oscar for Best Picture.
The problem: Shakespeare in Love is what happened when someone deconstructed Romeo and Juliette and threw in a bunch of jokes built around dramatic irony and the fact that men used to play all of the roles in theatrical performances. It won Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan. Gwyneth Paltrow also won Best Actress for a role that required remarkably little emotional range. Cate Blanchette had been the favorite for her performance in Elizabeth, and it was also the year Meryl Streep gave an amazing performance (my favorite of hers) as a cancer stricken mother in One True Thing.
This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006)
Directed by: Kirby Dick
The movie: This Film is Not Yet Rated is a documentary film criticizing the current MPAA ratings system and the effects of an NC-17 rating.
The problem: This Film is Not Yet Rated consistently compares an NC-17 rating (formerly an X rating) to censorship, which it absolutely is not. It does make it difficult to find theatres willing to show the movie outside of large cities, but there was always home video (at least by the time this movie was made). People that have lived in totalitarian states (or read 1984) know that censorship is when no one is allowed to watch, listen, or read something, usually in an attempt to suppress an idea or fact, and this only prevents people under the age of seventeen from seeing it in theatres. I have seen several movies with NC-17 ratings and am able to comment on them, so they can't really be censored all that much. Also, children don't have full rights under the law in this country to begin with (they can't vote, enter the military, get married, drive a car, purchase cigarettes, or live on their own), so it shouldn't be surprising that they would be restricted from seeing some movies as well. What the NC-17 rating really does is limit the potential profitability of these movies, but the makers of this film can't possibly believe that these movies would have been extremely profitable had it not been for the current ratings system. Even if that were the case, this film completely mischaracterizes the concept of censorship and in some ways diminishes its reality in other parts of the world. The film also made the less than humanitarian decision to release specific information about the normal, non industry individuals that were part of the MPAA Board in 2005, something that was completely unnecessary to making the movie's points (their demographic information could have been presented without giving their actual names).
Upstream Color (2013)
Director: Shane Carruth
The movie: Upstream Color is an independent film that follows the developing relationship of a couple that meets due to a shared traumatic experience in which the were, in separate events, taken advantage of through the use of a fictional drug. Their story is intercut with, and symbolically linked to, the complex life cycle of the organism used to create the drug, which among other things involves time as a parasite to pigs. This garnered Independent Spirit nominations for Best Director and Editing.
The problem: The movie is visually beautiful at times, and the story is packed with meaning that can be interpreted in multiple ways. However, the rather involved plot just described is told almost completely without dialogue. Again, that can make for a beautiful and elegant film as it did for many silent movies and increasingly for modern independent films as well, but when the plot itself is as abstract and complex as this one it can make the story almost impossible to follow. It is quite simply horrible, pretentious storytelling composed of indulgent, slow developing imagery created with little regard to communicating with the audience.
White God (2014)
Directed by: Kornel Mundruczo
The movie: White God, which has a horribly misleading title, is a Hungarian drama about a little girl that is forced to give up her dog when she moves to a crowded inner city, and the subsequent violent rebellion of dogs that her dog then leads. This was Hungary's submission for Best Foreign Language Film.
The problem: White God ends up making contradictory points; the dogs in the story have certainly been mistreated in being cast off by their owners, but earlier in the story it is made abundantly clear that dogs, particularly large dogs, have no place in inner cities where people are practically living on top of each other and the dogs both become a major disturbance and cannot possibly have the freedom they need to be happy. If anything, the dogs should be leaving town towards freedom, not going further into it, while the owners, who are often victims of circumstance themselves, are punished enough by losing their companions. The attacks also leave the dogs seeming vicious and mean, which seems counterproductive to what is intended to be an animal rights story. While I understand that the writer thought the final image of the dogs and the little girl in the street would be a powerful one, the implication seems to be that people in cities should make accommodations for pets that they simply don't have the means to provide, and that doesn't make sense.
Wild Tales (2014)
Directed by: Damian Szifron
The movie: Wild Tales is a Spanish dark comic collection of six revenge tales; it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
The problem: The stories have no redeeming value and essentially glorify the worst aspects of human behavior by sensationalizing them. If you actually enjoyed watching this for some reason, please let me know why; I did think the first story was kind of funny, but for the most part this was incredibly difficult to watch.
And some more recent bonus material...
Directed by: Nacho Vigalondo
The movie: Colossal is an abstract drama in which an alcoholic, played by Anne Hathaway, returns to her hometown after losing her job and boyfriend. She then discovers that her destructive behavior is now manifesting itself in the form of a very real, very large monster appearing in Seoul, Korea. The film was largely ignored at the box office, but widely embraced by critics.
The problem: The monster scenario is at first a metaphor for how self destructive behavior can impact others, but eventually expands to include a robot and becomes about a controlling, abusive relationship between Hathaway's character and the antagonist, played by Jason Sudeikis; however, the main character is responsible for remarkably similar behavior to that of the antagonist. Hathaway's character had in some ways been abusive towards her ex-boyfriend, but at the end of the film she's dismissive of him for doing exactly the same thing that she is about to do- removing the poisonous person from his life. At no time does she appear to develop any sense of personal responsibility. She also implies that the antagonist should feel small because he's lived in a small town and held the same job for his entire life, which is both condescending and dismissive towards a huge percentage of the population, and, again, her character never reflects on why she's an alcoholic and hates herself too. This is a movie built around an interesting metaphor and features strong performances by Hathaway and Sudeikis, but the writer seems to have a broken moral compass and be blind to irony.
Ced Yong from Asia on March 25, 2016:
You're spot on about Elephant. The gay suggestive scenes threw in plenty of unnecessary and irrelevant suggestions about the actual shooting. None of which helps true understanding of it.