Saturday, December 13, 2008

Top Five Disappointments of 2008

Every year there is a slew of bad films. The latest entry in the Saw franchise. Whatever Seltzer and Friedberg cooked up just by watching trailers. The new Kirk Cameron movie. All guaranteed bad. But what about the movies that promise something more? That hook you and draw you in until you can't possibly do anything but love it... only to thoroughly shortchange you. Isn't it the worst feeling in the world to line up for a sequel to a movie you loved, or the new film from one of your favorite directors, only to walk out hating it? Well, I'm here to open those barely healed wounds and bleed my nerdy bile anew for the films that betrayed me this year (some spoilers):

5. Be Kind Rewind

You have now seen the only enjoyable moment of the film. You're welcome.

Granted, I didn't expect too much from this based on the premise (anyone remember the Blockbleester sketch from The Amanda Show?), and as much as I enjoy Jack Black (yeah, you heard me, go watch High Fidelity or Tropic Thunder if you don't agree) he and Mos Def didn't exactly sell me. But when I saw that Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep) was directing, I couldn't help but get excited. However, when I sat down to watch my rented DVD (yeah, I never did get excited enough to go to a theater for it), I was crushed: all the scenes from the trailer that made the movie look somewhat promising? Those clips were the only good parts of the goddamn movie. The rest was a clichéd story about saving the little store that no one likes because The Man wants to tear it down.

As much as I hate the retail giant system (I firmly believe that every Wal-Mart is a Hellmouth), sometimes old crap needs to be torn down. And then the FBI tries to bust the guys for copyright violation for making their own versions (even though I'm pretty sure parody is allowed in the Copyright Act of 1975), but relents when the whole town comes together to watch a film about a random jazzbo that Danny Glover won't shut up about. You know, because togetherness is so rare these days. The story doesn't allow Gondry to get up to his usual tricks, and he just costs through this. Here's hoping he rebounds nicely.

4. Quantum of Solace

"I'm saving the most elaborate torture for my agent."

I remember growing to loathe the Bond franchise right about the time I hit 16 (in 2005). Funny, considering that teenagers (or grown men who never aged mentally past 16) are Bond's primary audience. But I found his increasingly self-parodying, misogynistic formula tiring. Imagine my surprise then, when Casino Royale hit the scene. Mixing a liberal dash of Bourne into a back-to-basics Bond, it was an absolute blast that edged Bond in the direction of realism whilst still remaining a pure romp. It also gave us to date the only well-rounded female character of the series. Then came Quantum of Solace, which demonstrates the classic Hollwood sequels mantra "If it ain't broke, screw it up."

Whereas CR operated in a more realistic world and remained fun, Quantum decided to push things over the edge into the dreaded realm of "Paul Haggis' Real World. PHRW is a recent epidemic that has turned many a potentially fun and/or deep film into a exaggerated, self-aggrandizing dungheap that loves to scribble the words "GRITTY REALISM" all over the place without ever showing anything remotely realistic. It tries to take on real world issues (the environment, the shadiness of businesses), which is so un-Bond that even I, someone who has no love for the franchise, must call foul. Amalric tries his best, but in many ways he's too talented to be a Bond villain; if I want nuance I'll watch something besides the biggest man-child fantasy in cinematic history. Even Jonathan Pryce set aside his chops to drool and twirl his imaginary moustache over the prospects of controlling the media. The Bond here can't decide if he wants to be the fun old Bond of yore or Agent Serious Business, and the film never finds a footing because of it. Oh, and we won't even talk about the direction.

3. Miracle at St. Anna

Clockwise from left: Bashful, Dopey, Doc, Grumpy, and Asshat

To say that Spike Lee is a polarizing figure is like saying the sun is bright or orgasms feel good, but I think he's one of the most talented filmmakers of his generation. He (quite rightly) complained that there were no films being made about the contribution of blacks to the war effort in World War II by (quite wrongly) taking it out on Clint Eastwood. Then he puts his money where his big mouth is and made Miracle at St. Anna, which comes so close to being a great war movie (and the last thing in the world you'd think could be made by the maker of Crooklyn) that to see it play up every stereotype in the book AND add some ridiculous deus ex marble head that saves the day is just heartbreaking.

Race is a hard subject to get right on film and even Lee, who is the only person of the last 20 years to realistically portray, is uneven in his successes. But Miracle is an all new low; it stereotypes blacks, whites, Italians, Germans without ever examining and breaking down those stereotypes like Lee does in his best films. The flashback scene in the ice cream parlor is ridiculous: do you honestly think that a squad of black soldiers who drew their guns on a white American shopowner would not be immediately court-martialed and probably lynched? Miracle works neither as a war movie (because of that effing miracle head) nor a comment on race relations.

2. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

"I can only hope that this fridge can protect me from the seismic force of everyone's childhood shattering."

OK, I knew it was going to suck. As heavily involved as Lucas was to the creative process (as opposed to just letting him add the explosions in in post-production), it couldn't have possibly been great. What I didn't know is that it was going to completely destroy one of the most iconic action heroes in film history. Look, I'm not stupid; I know damn well that Spielberg would never kill the character, but when you watch Raiders you fear for Indy. Here, well we all know about the fridge. That fridge scene almost made me leave the theater. Action films must contain a certain amount of suspense; yes, the hero will live 99.9999999999% of the time, but you need to make us feel for at least a moment that he or she could snuff it. When Harrison Ford just sort of stumbles out of his bomb shelter-to-go there's no reason to stay tuned.

But it gets worse. Cate Blanchett and John Hurt, two magnificent actors, are forcced into these one-note roles that are excruciating in their blandness while Shia LaBeouf, a fun enough up-and-comer with a pretty good wit about him, has nothing to do. And of course, there's the aliens. In a way, it makes sense, but only if you think about it from the point of view of an emotionally stunted grown up who still has train sets and still puts little action figures on the rails and runs them over. In other words, it's great if you're George Lucas.

And the number one biggest letdown of the year for me waaaassss:

1. Cloverfield

"I heard you liek Mudkips."

I know, a lot of people love it. And it's certainly not the worst film on my list (Indy 4, remember?), but I believed in this. For months I was caught up in the JJ Abrams hype and I'm not big on the man. Sure, out of the few episodes I've seen I liked Alias, and Mission Impossible III was the only good installment of the franchise (mainly thanks to Phillip Seymour Hoffman), but Abrams strikes me as the sort of person more concerned with getting people excited than delivering on the promises he makes. But that didn't matter, cause this was going to be great. Even when my friends got sick of the hype, I was there waving the Clovy flag. I popped into the theater the Saturday after it came out and...I hated it.

Not only was it achingly predictable, not only was it completely devoid of tension, but the characters were completely unrealistic. I could maybe buy a dude running into Ground Zero while it's still being torn up to save his not-girlfriend who he slept with once and suddenly he like, totally loves her, but there is no way on God's green Earth that his friends would follow him. Even as they drop one by one, they stick by their dumbass frat boy buddy because someone has to carry the camera. And that's the downfall of these first-person stories; why would I believe that someone would continue to carry a camera (and keep holding the thing up) while he's running from a monster and its weird killer lice. Yeah, I don't care that he keeps saying he's filming so "the people can know what happened;" you don't shove a camera in your friend's face or sit across from him and zoom into his face to see the tears as he mourns the death of a loved one to document a monster rampage. And when they do find his special lady friend, she has sustained an injury that would surely kill her, only for her to get up and, with the power of love, run just as fast as the uninjured people. It's insane.

I can hear the Cloverfans now: "Well, eccuuuuuussse meeeee, Mr. Hard-to-Please. I'm sorry that you had to suspend disbelief for a MONSTER movie." Yes, it is a monster movie, but that does not excuse the filmmakers from the responsibility of making your human characters act like actual humans. They are cookie-cutter yuppie trash who have no real personalities to win us over. Hud is the guy who cracks unfunny jokes, Rob is so focused on saving Beth that he stops only to squirt a few tears for the friends and family he loses along the way before they all suck it up and keep going for no reason, and Marlena is the person who knows none of them and tags along, and I won't go any further into that for my own sanity. The monster is ridiculous too; again, I know it's a monster film, but why would you make a creature that has lived in the seas for thousands of years a creature clearly designed to live on land (and it's NOT an alien. If you think it is you're not enough of a fan to read what Abrams has to say on it)? Ultimately Drew Goddard's weak script ensures that you want the characters to be offed, but you can't root for the monster either because it's a background figure. This rivals Spider-Man 3 as the biggest cinematic letdown of my life (the prequels are excluded from the competition).

Well, there you have it: the five films that stuck with me far more than the cream of the crap. I was let down by a few other movies this year, but none came close to the disappointment I had with these.


  1. I don't think I hated Cloverfield as much as you did but I think anybody can tell by watching it that it's flawed. I don't know if you know about one of those famous french mags ranking it as like the third best of 2008...? When i read that piece of trivia on IMDb it made me rethink a lot about what i remembered from the movie and how i could have been wrong or that the french were just being polemical about it.

    Were they on 'post 9/11 allegory in film' watch or something, you know, with their critical binoculars ready to pounce and proclaim any film with some semblance or allusion to american politics in the aughts as salient.

    anyway, i would prob give cloverfield 3/5. you hit the nail though with indy. i hate the number four as well. they should have left it at 'last crusade' on three which is a beautiful number lol.

    will you reply to this or is it too old?

    thanks anyway. really like reading ur blog.

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