Glass Half Empty: Movies that Almost Worked, 2011

I like to think of myself as an optimist, in my more lucid moments. At least culturally. My friend and indiscriminate grouch Dan Khan told me that he was having a hard time coming up with his ten best films of the year. When I met him earlier this year Aaron Katz seemed stunned that I was able to list 100 films I really enjoyed in 2010. I'm going to go ahead and admit that I watch more movies than are made in a given year, so perhaps I have a bit of an edge on everyone else, but I will give naysayers credit enough to say that there are as many missteps as successes in a calendar year. And that's a medium spanning defeat. Just look at this year's albums. I've spent hours now agonizingha over the records to include in my top 20 because so many of them are jam-packed with great moments, but so few of them are the kind of perfect record that I can listen to all the way through without skipping tracks. Look at Feist's Metals. She has found a beautiful new edge for her sound and two songs in, I was certain we were given a complete reinvention, full of jagged singalongs and stomping percussion, a more feral, alive sound. Then the watery keyboards, upright bass and noodling bells came in and I felt like we were right back where we started. The songs that weigh down her new album sound identical to those that kept her last two albums anchored. What's so infuriating is that one half of Metals is one of the best albums of the year and it's almost good enough to make up for the fact that the other half does positively nothing for me. Can I in good conscience include an album that only works half the time? Frankly I'd almost give it a spot for the song "Undiscovered First" alone. But that wouldn't be fair to Strange Mercy by St. Vincent, a record with ten times the risks taken and twice as much payoff. So I've decided to set aside a few films that, like the lovely Canadian chanteuse's latest opus of almost, kinda sorta worked and then, as Charlie Wilson put it, fucked up the end game. And I've asked the others to join in as well.

My Week With Marilyn: I don't care what anyone says, Michelle Williams is fan-fucking-tastic as Marilyn Monroe and Kenneth Branagh even better as Olivier. Other than that this film is entirely worthless and I hate it because it wastes those command performances. In my head I dreamt of a Lynchian detachment applied to a velvety look at the corrosive effects of fame. I got a bullshit nostalghia piece. So fuck the producers of this movie. Nic Winding Refn should have directed it. Then it would have been perfect. As it stands I have absolutely no idea why they made this movie or bothered getting all of the combined power of performances if they're going to hang the film on a gawky charisma vacuum who does nothing but stare and lie the whole film. I fucking hate this movie.

The Woman: If I had to pick one sequence that stood out as among the best of the year, I'd pick the wordless introduction to Lucky Mckee's bloody satire The Woman. We see images of the feral girl who'll make up the film' s backbone, killing wild animals, living in darkness, knowing only how to kill to live. For those moments, watching Polyanna McIntosh communicating a lifetime of conditioning without ever uttering a word, I was convinced I was watching one of the best horror films ever made. Then the terrible soundtrack kicks in and ruins the film. The Woman admittedly has more problems than that, but it's the biggest one of the lot by quite a fair margin. I was so devastated when the endless overbearing cock rock sucks the life out of scene after scene and turns this movie into a tonally confused mess. Sean Bridgers and McIntosh deliver some of the finest performances of the year but McKee keeps shooting himself in the foot by underplaying monstrousness and overplaying scenes that mean nothing at all. The too-strange editing of the ending scenes put the final nail in the film's coffin, and so rather than sharing company with the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist, it's one of the most maddening fiascos this year.

Vanishing on 7th Street: This year was not what I'd call a champagne year for horror, to once again give a shout out to St. Vincent. There were many I rather enjoyed despite a lack of ambition (at least where America's concerned) but some that just missed the mark. Vanishing on 7th Street promised a return of the mighty Brad Anderson, whose time spent working on TV (directing episodes of Fear Itself and Masters of Horror) had erased some of the sharpness he brought to The Machinist, Session 9 and Transsiberian. And alas, my fears were validated when Vanishing on 7th Street turned into a well-mounted episode of The Twilight Zone with none of Rod Serling's rug-pulling moralization. There's not much beyond a competence that's frankly outdone by each new episode of The Walking Dead. And frankly I want more from someone as talented as Anderson. Hayden Christensen as the film's ostensible hero didn't help much either.

A Horrible Way To Die: Adam Wingard troubles me. He seems hellbent on taking up Joe Swanberg's time on projects that are beneath him. Their directorial collaboration, Autoerotic, felt like a Mad Magazine pastiche of Swanberg's best work and the fact that Swanberg acts more and more for Wingard makes me concerned that he won't keep making films at the alarming pace I've grown accustomed to. I'm already in a dry spell, for heaven's sakes. So I had hope that A Horrible Way To Die would be a revelation, but alas, moody lighting and a pervasive calm is not enough to set this apart from most serial killer films. Wingard's lighting initially seems different, but when he keeps shooting his bedroom scenes from behind christmas lights, I realized he hadn't put quite as much thought into it as I thought. But there's was one thing that saved it from being a total buzzkill. The ending. Now, in order to not spoil it for those who might seek out it's company on a lonely night, I'll say skip to Bellflower. For those who will never see it, I'll spell it out in bold. The whole movie we're lead to believe that the serial killer we keep seeing as he flees from prison to make his way back to his girlfriend is doing the opposite of what it initially seems he's up to. It's not much but it put a sliver of decency into a movie about creeps and killers and I walked away feeling happy enough.

Bellflower: Now, this one's on me, but I took my friend Lina to see this film only knowing the general outline of what it was about. And in the end it meant having an enlightening and pleasant discussion about gender roles, so I can't say it was a total wash, but it certainly felt that way as we were walking out. The first half of the movie is sort of like a pug in your lap, dumb, cute, lovable and beautifully ugly (I give director Evan Glodell and his crew credit for devising that wonderful camera). Watching two chubby dreamers with go-nowhere existences fall in love in a kind of dopey, sexy fashion in the front seat of a whiskey-poruing muscle car was, as Glodell's protagonist puts it, "nice". And then it devolves into a misogynistic slog. Whether or not Glodell believes in the horseshit his characters spout in the final orgy of blood and violence and misanthropy is irrelevant because I can't say I ever want to sit through it again and it left rather a bad taste in my mouth. I initially thought having a girl with an atypical body type and look was a ballsy choice on Glodell's part, but then he makes her a villain, outright, no shading, no glimmer of humanity. All of a sudden I felt like I was watching The Room. I wanted very badly to leave.

Road to Nowhere: Earlier this year I got the chance of a lifetime, something that many cinephiles might have killed for. I got to interview Monte Hellman. I love his westerns, his b-movies, I even love his shaggy late-period work. And he had a new film out that I got to ask him about firsthand. It was amazing and I'll never forget being able to talk to a legend, a man who was artistic soulmates with Warren Oates, a man who turned genres on their head. And as I'd already been excited for his latest, Road to Nowhere, this just lit a match in my soul. You know where this is going. I finally chased the fucking thing down, at a lovely little place called Indiescreen in Brooklyn, who always seem to have the films I'm looking for when no one else will play them for more than a week. Admittedly I missed a pretty crucial opening minute, but the problems with the film stem from its cinematography, not necessarily the narrative. Hellman shot the whole thing on the Canon 5D, which made it pretty, to be sure, but not like a proper feature. My issue is that I'd just come from Emerson College, where everything is shot on a 5D or 7D and Road to Nowhere doesn't look different enough from a student film. And worse still his lead actors weren't good enough to set themselves apart from the students I'd seen in films shot on the 5D (except Fabio Testi, who is cool as shit). In fact, on its face, the only things setting Road To Nowhere apart from some of the most awful student films I've ever seen were feature length and better-than-average production values. I couldn't help thinking that taking a twenty year break from directing actors was the kiss of death for this film, but then I watched Trapped Ashes. Hellman directed a beautiful short film as part of the omnibus film Trapped Ashes in 2006 that ranks among his best work. So I guess casting's pretty crucial, then. But there was one thing that I fucking love about it. There's a crucial scene, it's towards the end and it involves a lot of dead people. If, based on my glowing recommendation, you decide to see it, stop reading here, because I'm really going to spoil the shit out of this one. I've been made fun of before for filming everything I see (I filmed our arrival the Las Vegas Film Festival as we were being filmed) and so this had particular relevance for me. The director of the film within the film has just seen his girlfriend shot and killed. He's in shock and heartbroken and in ruin. What does he do? He picks up his camera and just films the room and all the bodies in it. That was a bit of a funhouse mirror moment. Christ I could so see myself in that scene it was frightening. That Hellman could still pull of a moment of true cinematic power like that means that waiting as long as I did and getting excited as I did wasn't entirely in vain and that maybe he still has another masterpiece up his sleeve.

Action movies in general this year have been mostly fumbled (with one obvious scorpion-jacket-clad exception). Not train-wrecks but certainly not the crisp, intelligent stomp fests we’ve been spoiled by over the years. Ever since The Bourne Identity we’ve begun expecting a little more of our action movies. Slowly, over time this expectation has turned into a trend leading us to a decade of really solid dramas for the thinking man who also wants to see people’s limbs get wrenched in awful ways. With Casino Royale breathing new and frightening life into the Bond series, Iron Man making the theater safe for nerds and laymen alike, and Taken just kicking all the ass ever, action movies have really turned over a new blood-speckled leaf. So here we are in 2011 and I was pumped for a whole host of action movies that looked brilliant. And at the end of the day most of them just barely missed the mark.

Source Code: This one’s easy. Everything that is wrong with this movie happened all at once right at the end, leaving a really nasty taste in my mouth when it was over. See, this movie had a really killer premise. Time travel and consciousness were called into question, Jake Gyllenhaal did that thing he does where he gets all wide eyed and manic, and at the end it turned into one man’s very honest, very touching quest to be allowed to die with dignity. I really loved this movie’s way of adjusting time to generate emotion and they pulled this off so perfectly… and then ruined it by having him live. I’m not one of those guys who think that happy endings are for sellouts, it’s just that you have to earn your happy ending. If all your character wants to do is live and be happy, then sure give that to your audience, they’ll love you for it. But the point of this movie was that he wanted to die. He didn’t want his body to be used as a tool for someone else’s well being…so he took someone else’s body and used it for his well being.

Thor: Thor had so many good ideas and frankly, not enough time. But that didn’t bug me the most. My buddy Kenny B managed to get so much mileage from the little scenes he got that in the end I felt all the emotional beats I was supposed to and everything was OK. Where this movie really dropped the ball was the actual action scenes. Say what you will about Captain America (and I will, shortly) it had killer fight scenes. Fast, creative, brutal, sometimes funny. Rag-dolling Nazi’s that gave the Combine from Half Life 2 a run for their money. But Thor’s action was slow and awkward. It wasn’t over the top comic book fun, but neither was it fast paced shaky cam brutality. It was just uninspired. I wasn’t really surprised, I mean, Branagh isn’t an action guru, and his great work with Hemsworth and Skarsgård made up for it, for the most part. I just really wish I’d been more pumped about Thor punching people than I was.

Captain America: I can’t help but lump Thor and Captain America together in my mind. Not only did they come out so close together, but they were so obviously aware of all the ways the other film didn’t work, and seemed to try to counter balance each other. Which was nice, and not nice. Like I’ve already stated, this movie was a ton of fun to just watch. I loved all the Nazi tossing and explosion jumping. But the ball that was this films strongest emotional beat was not only dropped, it then landed in a worm hole where it would drop forever (yeah, so my metaphors are getting a little loose, it’s late). The movie ends with a nice scene where Rogers talks on the phone with his British girl friend about a date they will have as he is plummeting towards certain doom. Then he wakes up seventy years later and when asked if he’s ok. He says “I had a date.” The girl looked about thirty when he saw her last so seventy years later, odds are she’s crazy dead now. Thus, this is a totally crushing last line. But the moment doesn’t feel crushing. Nothing about the framing or setting implies a sense of loss or regret. And the moment is given mere seconds before being stamped out by bold patriotic music over WW2 propaganda images. If you think this is a relatively minor complaint, given that it’s only the last 3 or so seconds of a two hour film, you misunderstand. This is a HUGE fucking complaint. Not only did it ruin the ending but when I thought back it all sort of unraveled like a ball of smelly yarn. Every profound emotional beat dealing with loss and death was rushed and trampled on a by a sea of explosions and pie eating (there was no actual pie eating). And it wasn’t as though the downer moments were badly acted or badly written. I just felt as though the director was standing around checking his watch on the days they shot those scenes wondering when he could get back to flinging more Nazis out of airplanes.

X-Men: First Class: There’s a special place in my heart for Patrick Stewart so I was skeptical of a non-Stewart X-Men. That’s not so say that I don’t have a place in my heart for Macavoy. I do. It’s just smaller and not as well furnished as Stewart's place. But McAvoy did not disappoint! He didn’t shine like Fassbender or flounder like that blue kid, but he did not disappoint. The problem was in the story. Or stories. There were too many of them, and they didn’t seem to notice all the other stories that were also happening. One thing Thor and Captain America had to their advantage was they had one, possibly two plots going on that they had to work with. X-Men had, let’s see, crazy holocaust survivor revenge quest (best plot, by the way), CIA working with new mutant division, coming of age/accepting who you are story, Cuban missile crisis, various personal arcs of people learning to control their power, and then the staple plot line of persecution and the paths to peace. This myriad plot lines combined with the dozens of characters and drop-of-the-hat allegiance switches made for a convoluted-as-fuck ending. And while I didn’t really dislike any of the plot lines I just felt that none of them were done a favor by having to get squeezed in with all the others. Also, that blonde girl from Mad Men cannot act to save her life.

Mr. Danvers
Jane Eyre is a successful adaptation, but the film missed some subtle (and not-so-subtle) moments from Charlotte Brontë's novel that I was excited for. For the record, I believe adaptations of books should stand on their own and not be chastised for making changes or cutting from the source. Different mediums have different styles. However, I'd hope that when someone has the chance to film a classic scary scene in literature (i.e. The one where the protagonist wakes up to find a crazy lady dressed in her wedding gown watching her sleep) they would use it. At times, I felt the film was afraid of allowing the source to speak for fear of camp. Personally, I think a woman in a house with cackling coming from an indeterminate source is screaming for screentime. Also, Mr. Rochester has very clear deformations at the end of the book. He doesn't look like a hipster in the country. Again, I understand artistic choices. But, he's missing a part of his arm and one of his eyes. That's right: A hook and an eyepatch and Mr. Rochester looks like a pirate. I wanted a sexy pirate! And, making his deformations less severe lessens the beauty of Jane's acceptance and understanding. But, on the whole, I LOVE THIS MOVIE!!

Fox Johnson
Sarah's Key came from the novel of the same title. The problem is that it seems to have been adapted too faithfully. The "A" story of the film is incredibly engaging. Kristin Scott Thomas plays a journalist who is investigating the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup where French police in German-occupied Paris in 1942 rounded up thirteen thousand Jewish emigres to be sent to Auschwitz. The film often switches to the perspective of Sarah, a girl who was rounded up but managed to escape and her journey back to Paris to find her forgotten little brother. The scenes following Sarah are incredibly powerful and truly succeed at illustrating the power of the human spirit.
The problem is very little of the information provided about Sarah's past is actually earned by Scott-Thomas' character Julia. All of Sarah's story just sort of spills itself all over the screen and luckily for the audience it comes at all the right times. Julia's plot is actually incredibly boring but I get the feeling it wouldn't be as bad if I were reading it rather than watching it. She deals with a husband and children from his previous marriage. She herself is having difficulty bearing children and the film seems to think that Julia's complication is more interesting and important than the mystery of Sarah and her titular key. It works in a story thats allowed to be three to five hundred pages long but for a two hour film it just becomes needless fluff.
In accordance with the theme of these articles Sarah's Key quite literally is broken in half by quality. The first half of the film, though occasionally meandering, flows very well. The audience learns Sarah's story and it's all accomplished very well. The problem is that the main mystery of Sarah's story (the location of her brother) is solved at almost exactly the halfway point of the film. Then the audience is forced to sit through another hour of more or less useless extrapolation. Sure a little more is told about where Sarah went after finding her brother but it all seems sort of needless since the point of Julia's intended article was to find out what happened to these two people and SPOILER ALERT by the time she actually comes upon her answer the two Jewish siblings are both dead.

Sarah's Key was definitely one of those films that I rewrote on my ride home from the theater. It sets up a ton of great looking plot arcs in the first half but fails to deliver on more or less all of them. The real shame is that it's far from a lost cause. There's quality and beauty in the filmmaking and Kristin Scott-Thomas is brilliant as always.

Sean Van Deuren
The Ides of March fits this description perfectly for me. Dropped. The. Fucking. Ball. With the whole intern plot. . .

Also, Incendies. Didn't really drop the ball, but also was really close to being great in a lot of different ways that it didn't fulfill completely.


Noah said...

Not really related to the post, but for some reason it got me thinking...

Hugo was a really good movie, but while I was watching it I couldn't help but imagine what it would be like if the characters acted like real people. Scorsese creates such an amazing world... what would it be like if you put some Swanberg characters into that world?

Also, I always get a little sad when filmmakers create these amazing worlds and then just zip from plot point to plot point. I loved how Cold Weather took the time to kind of stop and reflect on the place. With both Hugo and Tintin, I wished the characters would just pause for a minute and take in the view.

Spirited Away got it right. There's this one scene where the story just halts and we get a scene of two of the characters sitting on a ledge and eating lunch and looking out at the horizon. Classical cinema values narrative momentum over everything else, but for me that scene makes the movie. It opens everything up. Suddenly, you're actually there-- it's not just a set piece.

I feel like Mulholland Drive kind of did that too. There's this one scene toward the end, right at the crux of narrative momentum, where all of a sudden the two women go for a walk at night. The scene doesn't really serve any purpose but it's devastating.

There's this scene in Lars von Trier's Europa where the protagonist jumps off a train and lands in the grass. As he's lying there he looks up at the stars in the sky. Then he gets up and the story resumes. That one moment offers this tantalizing glimpse at this whole strange world, but then it's back to the narrative. I remember wishing I could see more of that world.

David Lynch once said that the most important part of a film isn't plot, or characterization-- it's place. I think I agree.

Scøut said...


I can't help but agreeing with you, 100%. The excuse I will give to Hugo being a storybook is because it's based on one. Plus, it's a children's movie and kids wouldn't have understood Joe Swanberg suddenly leaping up from the void. It needed a broad audience, so while I get that in reference to something world-based, in the case of Hugo, it's key to remember who he was making it for. Plus Marty paints in broad strokes these days. Which I have to admit I like when he's in his History of Film mode (Aviator, Shutter Island, Hugo). I like him small (Age of Innocence, Taxi Driver) but I think he feels at home in big worlds. Hearing him talk about Val Lewton and Michael Powell and then seeing that come to life in his big world films is...well, it's the reason I love movies. It's watching love turn into something big and beautiful that wasn't there before. I mentioned to Tucker that there's a line in Moneyball where Brad Pitt's baseball manager says, rhetorically, How can you not romanticize the game? Well that's actually true of film, because film is fucking Magic. Baseball is a bunch of guys killing time. Film is recording the very AIR AROUND US FOR ALL OF ETERNITY. We can replicate our very dreams! So, I forgive Marty's aversion to splicing in realism where there's only spectacular fiction. But your point is very well taken. I would love to make a big, monster-filled epic where people are constantly looking around and trying to make sense of just the landscapes and the mere existence of the things around them because they are different from what we normals know. I think you're absolutely right that such a realistic response would make for one hell of a goddamn movie. But at the same time I get why kids like Spielberg and Scorsese are a little reluctant to grow up.

Noah said...

I'm trying to think of movies that have actually done this right. Spirited Away, definitely. Kontroll too--Nimrod Antal really takes a moment to stand back and look at this strange noir world he's created. Other than that, I'm not sure... I think Monsters tried to do it, but I didn't really like that movie.

Maybe Ghost in the Shell. I actually only made it through half of that movie since I really don't like anime, but there's this one point in the middle of the movie where all of a sudden everything stops and we get this extended montage of post-apocalyptic scenery. It's really haunting and completely out of place (in a good way).

My family's house has this print hanging in the den. It's one of Dore's illustrations of Dante's Inferno. It's always struck me as really poetic somehow-- you have this wild story set in Hell of all places, but then it stops and we see these two characters just kind of gazing at the world, taking it in.

Actually, probably the best example of this in a film is Akira Kurosawa's Dreams. I don't know if it counts since it's a series of short films, but I love how he gives us this series of nightmares about demons in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and then the final chapter is just a peaceful portrait of a little woodland village. It's not exactly the same idea, but it gives you a chance to breathe.

Maybe this will be my christmas break screenwriting project....

Scøut said...

A worthy goal, I think.