Saturday, December 24, 2011

2011 year-end wrap-up part II: The Overrated.

 This is the second of several year-end wrap essays detailing the year in film.  This time, we're dealing with 'overrated' films.  Here is the hardest one to write, merely because it's simply a list pointing out why ten films you all loved are actually either not-that-great or actually pretty terrible.  Most are what I would consider 'bad movies' that are being hailed elsewhere as greats, while a few are merely mediocre movies that are inexplicably being given a critical pass in most circles.  Again, if you've been reading me this year you'll probably be able to guess a few of these.  As always, these will be in alphabetical order. 

The Adventures of Tintin (review)
As I said the night I saw this picture, I cannot and will not begrudge anyone who enjoyed this Steven Spielberg/Peter Jackson action adventure film more than I.  And that still remains the case.  But despite the top-notch animation (I'm actually a fan of motion-capture technology) and one all-time great action sequence in the third act, the film suffers from a fatal lack of interesting characters.  Jamie Bell's Tintin is a blank slate onscreen, Daniel Craig's villain is relatively rote, and there are almost no colorful supporting characters to pick up the slack.  Andy Serkis's Captain Haddock is the only character with depth.  Truth be told, any film involving humans where the most entertaining character is a dog surely deserves a gentle knock for not bothering to develop the humans.  Perhaps I expected too much from two of the finest 'big' directors of my lifetime, but this is a relatively unengaging trifle that skates by on its technical merits and one absolutely superb set piece.  It lacks the old-school swing for the fences zeal of Jackson's truly awesome King Kong, or even Steven Spielberg's flawed-but-impressive War Horse.  If you enjoyed it as much as I wanted to, then you have not my scorn but my envy.

The Artist (review/essay)
The probable best picture winner is basically a 1920s-style silent film.  It offers no commentary on the art form nor insight about its time period.  It is one of several major films this season that deal with nostalgia and how we deal with the glory days of our would-be peak years.  Yet this picture, charming as it occasionally is, offers no wisdom or constructive commentary on its subject matter, and it exists as testament to the whole 'gosh, everything was better back in the day' nostalgia that is infecting mainstream entertainment at all levels of production.  Viewed apart from its (perhaps unintentional) implications of our current culture, it is a feather-light trifle of a picture, some that, had it been actually been produced in the time period when it takes place, would have been a solidly B-level (if that) silent picture.

Drive (review/essay/essay)
For better or worse, I became the poster child this year as 'critics who hate Drive'.  As I've written several times, the film is a relatively lousy action drama.  Only the supporting characters (Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston) and the paper-thin coating of 'cool' give it anything resembling a spark of life past the admittedly terrific opening scene.  Ironically, the refreshingly specific Jewishness of the two villains inspired the year's dumbest lawsuit, but I digress (as a Jew, I want more Jewish villains!). The two dull-as-dishwater leads (Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan) are supposed to be among the most romantic couples of the year, yet they have so little chemistry or even dialogue together that it's not unreasonable to presume that much of their courtship is in "Driver's" imagination.  It is yet another 'boy's adventure' where we are supposed to romanticize with a violent psychopath purely because he's handsome and has token feelings of lust for a pretty girl who happens to be in his midst.  It is not exciting, it is not romantic, and it is not artful enough to justify the absence of any other entertainment value.  It is, quite simply, a glorified straight-to-DVD thriller (complete with extended scenes of characters doing next to nothing in complete silence to pad out the running time) that somehow got hailed as the future of action cinema.  And if you take Albert Brook's expository monologue at face value,  Nicolas Winding Refn knows he's pranking the critics. 

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (review)
If the original Swedish film had not been subtitled and contained moments of somewhat sensational violence, it would have been correctly written off as a solid but unremarkable B-movie thriller with an interesting supporting character in Lisbeth Salander.  But, as Robert Rodriguez will tell you, subtitles do a funny thing to audiences, making them find art where only pulp exists and deeper meaning where only thriller mechanics can be found.  But this big-budget remake by David Fincher actually manages to diminish whatever appeal the original film (or the original book too, I suppose) had.  Drained of any real suspense and with much of the infamous violence toned down, the film comes off like a bloated and drained-of-all-life episode of Criminal Minds.  Rooney Mara is sensational as Lisbeth Salander, and the film is engaging whenever she is onscreen.  But she is truly a supporting player, with token story changes that make her feel even more at the service of her male companion that in the original.  Rooney Mara's performance is certainly worth watching, and the character is fun to watch (if not the pioneering feminist icon she has been held up as).  But the rest of the film is a drab and outright boring mystery thriller that fails to thrill and a mystery that, thanks to boneheaded casting choices, would have been solved by any television sleuth (Adrien Monk, Olivia Benson, David Rossi, Bobby Goren, etc) before the second commercial break.

Hanna (review)
Joe Wright earned my ire by trashing Sucker Punch while promoting HIS ass-kicking female action picture, which is both bad form and fraudulent since the theoretical prurient appeal of watching Saorise Ronan (in top form, as always) ruthlessly dispatching foes pretty much proves one of the big points Snyder was trying to make.  There is much to admire in this pulpy and often brutal re-imagining of Little Red Riding Hood, including a single-take action sequence involving Eric Banna and Cate Blanchett reminding me why she was my #1 celebrity crush in high school (yes, she's terrific, but that goes without saying at this point).  But the film is so detached and cold that there is no real viewer investment in any of the major characters and the film comes off as a pure exercise in style.  If anything, you'll feel bad for the many innocents who get slaughtered as young Ronan's Hanna 
makes her way across Europe to track down Blanchett.  Moreover, the film often feels hollow and empty behind the stylish visuals, making it almost as junky as the b-movie action pictures that Wright is clearly trying to upstage.

The Ides of March
This film is a classic case of 'telling instead of showing', as the entire film hinges on the idea that Ryan Golsing's high-level political operative is a master of the game and a wide-eyed innocent, neither of which are on display in this half-hearted political drama.  There is no more political insight in this George Clooney-helmed picture that can be found in a mediocre episode of The West Wing, and the overriding narrative becomes a sexed-up and dumbed-down variation on Primary Colors.  Whatever insights Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman bring to the table (oh what a film it would be if they were the main characters...), the second half degenerates into a moronic 'Uh oh, the hot girl is going to wreck everything!' melodrama that has as much relevance to today's political climate as The Lion King.  Oh, and this is the second major film this year where Marissa Tomei's primary purpose is to be humiliated for attempting to act like an adult in a sea of overgrown children (the other one is... spoiler alert, on a different list).

Like Crazy
This film is a classic example of how alleged independent cinema is often treated differently than mainstream cinema of a similar nature.  This romantic drama, told in a not-entirely linear narrative, deals with the ups and downs of a young couple (Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin) and theoretically highlighted the ickier, more complicated parts of a long term relationship.  But the execution feels so much like a standard indie romantic drama that it threatens to tip into self-parody (there is another film this year that fell headfirst into that pool, but that's a later list).  Purely on the strength of a decent performance, a British accent, and the idea that critics often fall over themselves to praise any attractive young woman who comes out of the indie scene, Felicity Jones is now 'the next big thing'.  I hope she lives up to the hype and I am a fan of Yelchin (he stole The Beaver from Mel Gibson earlier this year), but this film offers little in the way of insight.  If this film had been a wide release with a major star at its center (say, the neither better nor worse One Day with Anne Hathaway), it wouldn't have gotten a second glance or would have been eviscerated.  It's not a horrible film, and it's certainly not an evil or hateful picture, but it's a shining example of how independent cinema is often graded on a curve compared to similar genre entries that happen to be studio pictures.

 Midnight In Paris
Yes, the 20 minutes or so set in 1920s Paris were charming, fun, and offer a helping on insight.  Corey Stoll gives a break-out turn as Hemingway just as Law and Order: Los Angeles (where his character was affectionately referred to as 'Thumb') was cashing-in.  But the surrounding picture is exactly the sort of badly-written and generically contrived romantic comedy that would have been crucified if it starred Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Aniston.  Woody Allen writes Owen Wilson's would-be in-laws as simplistic cartoons, using their conservative political views as cheap fodder for alleged comedy (Kurt Fuller played this role to far funnier and richer effect on the unjustly cancelled Better With You).  Rachel McAdams is forced to play the simplistically villainous 'wrong woman' and Michael Sheen's character is mocked and condemned for being proud of his obvious intelligence.  Owen Wilson tries his best to wring sympathy out of a character who's biggest problem is the possibility that he might have to take script-doctor gigs to make extra money.  His ridiculous whining about a situation that he could easily fix is an epic drama of pointless self-pity (free tip - when you're rich and have no dependents, it's that much easier to indulge most of your pursuits).  The film eventually has more to say about nostalgia for theoretical perfection than the likes of The Artist.  But pretty much all of the substance and entertainment value is crammed into one specific portion of the film, leaving the rest to wither like the one-note romantic comedy-that makes romantic comedies look bad- it is.  Just like Home Alone (the popularity of which hinged mostly on the climactic Wet Bandit stand-off), the charms of the 1920s segments cannot make up for an almost painfully trite shell which surrounds it.

Source Code (review)
It seems almost petty to pick on this ambitious bit of science fiction, as Duncan Jones surely meant no ill intent in its construction and it's an honest attempt to create an original science-fiction thriller.  But once you get past the first reel, which sets up the Quantum Leap/Seven Days-ish premise, the rest of the film is a giant waiting game, as we watch the same eight minutes or so over and over again, knowing that nothing of major consequence is going to happen until the last reel.  While I'm not sure there was any way around that problem, the film also loses major points for basically inventing new rules right at the last minute for a relatively unearned (and arguably kinda-creepy) 'happy ending'.  I will gladly await whatever Jones follows this up with, but Source Code has fine performances in service of a hamstrung narrative and a giant cheat of an ending. 

Super 8 (review)
The film was supposed to be 'the great original picture that saved us from a summer of mediocrity'.  Problem is, the summer started out quite strong and J.J. Abrams's Super 8 wasn't all that good.  Fashioned as an homage to Steven Spielberg, the film comes off as someone else doing a spin on the prototypical Steven Spielberg film that never actually existed.  Sure Spielberg directed ET and produced The Goonies, but he was also producing (directing?) Poltergeist and directing Empire of the Sun and The Colorful Purple during that same period.  But the film itself, powered by a hazy glow of alleged nostalgia, fails both as a character drama and as a supernatural thriller.  The supporting kids aren't developed in the least, the film pulls out an unseen dead mother purely for cheap emotion, and the lone female character (Elle Fanning) spends the entire film as merely the romantic object and the entire third act as a damsel in distress (even The Goonies had two females, one of which was not the least bit romanticized).  And the film absolutely falls apart in the third act with a dramatic arc that makes no sense as it's clearly the lead's father (Kyle Chandler) who is emotionally wrecked by Mrs. Lamb's death, not his son.  This was a film with no other purpose than to mimic the template of a handful of 80s would-be classics (I'm not the world's biggest fan of The Goonies) purely as a technical exercise.  This isn't the work of Steven Spielberg, it's the work of Señor Spielbergo.

And that's a wrap.  Now have your say, which I'm sure will have many of you calling me an idiot and/or a bully, which is the price one pays for doing an 'overrated' list in the first place (good - lots of traffic  bad - lots of name calling).  Next up, the 'Good films you missed', which is a list of ten good or great films that slipped under the radar.  And yes, I do enjoy highlighting the good movies far more than highlighting the whiffs, but everything has its place.

Scott Mendelson       


FilmLover82 said...

You say, "Now have your say, which I'm sure will have many of you calling me an idiot and/or a bully, which is the price one pays for doing an 'overrated' list in the first place." Then may I suggest you just not do it? The notion of underrated/overrated is utterly ridiculous in a world of subjective appreciation of art. So... keep it up!

Nathan Donarum said...

So your underrated list celebrates mediocrity and your overrated list are almost universally-celebrated and loved? Hmm...

Leslie Byron Pitt said...

My problem with lists like this are statements like " Here is the hardest one to write, merely because it's simply a list pointing out why ten films you all loved are actually either not-that-great or actually pretty terrible." That's not saying that you disagree, it's saying that everyone else is wrong. In fact it comes off as quite snarky. I agree that I didn't gain the same enjoyment out some of those films like Tintin or Super 8 but the people who found something out of them aren't wrong with their opinion.

I dig your blog a lot (esp your numbers game with the box office), but every so often, you seem to consider people as "wrong" or "idiots" (relating to tweets and entries a few months back) as they don't fall in line with your opinion. Really jarring on a blog I enjoy reading.

That said. Merry Christmas!

Leslie Byron Pitt said...

Also "Saorise Ronan's inherent sexiness" in Hanna? WOW! We really did look at it from different viewpoints!

FilmLover82 said...

Saoirse Ronan is a child. This is disgusting.

Scott Mendelson said...

Not that it matters in the context of this conversation, but she's 17. I looked it up and she'll be nationally 'of age' in about four months.

Hector said...

Outside of Like Crazy, I enjoyed every film on this list. In fact, it has 3 of my top 5 films of the year on it. Now if you'd listed Tree of Life then we'd be in total agreement.

Scott Mendelson said...

Yeah, I probably should reword that before this gets posted at Huff Post or the like. A) I was referring to the theoretical idea that attractive women engaging in action may in fact be inherently titillating. That's something I may discuss in more detail in a later essay regarding the allegedly 'unsexualized' Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo B) That film, for better or worse, does subtly deal with the idea of this particular Red Riding Hood coming into her own as a woman as opposed to an animal-like killing machine, a process that does involve her embracing her own natural attractiveness, which is why I called foul on Wright for his Sucker Punch comments. C) Objectively speaking, Ronan is an attractive young woman. There is no shame or embarrassment that should come from admitting that. It doesn't negate the fact that she is among the most promising young actresses of her generation to also acknowledge that she is also the product of good genes.

Scott Mendelson said...

I make a point to discuss the underrated films, mainly as a way of pointing out that few movies are all bad and/or the 'masterpiece/crap' critical scale often leaves interesting-but-flawed pictures looking like abject failures. It also gives me a chance to highlight certain films that I believe where either misunderstood or written off based more on preconceived notions than the actual film itself. As for my overrated list, they are simply films that I believe were wrongly held up as artistic triumphs, but not so horrible that they deserved a place on the year's-worst list. You're right on one thing... it is subjective.

Scott Mendelson said...

I actually agree with you, I was merely being somewhat tongue-in-cheek about the theoretical need for an 'overrated' list in the first place. I wrote it because I wanted to, and because it gave me a chance to explain to a wider audience (year-end stuff gets read far more than most individual reviews) why I disliked certain films that the majority seemed to enjoy. But yes, by default, an 'overrated' list ends up being a list of films that lots of other people loved, with me subjectively explaining why I think they are wrong and/or why the film didn't work for me. First of all, I'm as prone to occasional bouts of snarkiness as any other blogger. Second of all, I would hope at this stage that I wouldn't have to state that these essays are merely my opinion and/or prefix 'I believe' to each sentence that offers a critical judgement. That a critique of a given film merely is my opinion should be a given. That said. Merry Christmas to you as well.

Jon Sprouse said...

Not to belabor the point, but I for one look forward to the overrated/underrated and best/worst lists each year, precisely because they are subjective. It is the subjectivity of artistic opinions that can open your eyes to a new perspective on a particular piece. Besides, what fun is a film critic whose opinions agree with yours 100% of the time... I think that a good critic (relative to a specific person) overlaps enough to point you to films that you will surely like, but diverges enough to point you to films that you wouldn't otherwise see.

Callum Luscott said...

Just a quick note, i really enjoyed the list, even if i disagree with some, such as Super 8 and Hanna, but in the Midnight in Paris section you say that it is Michael Shannon in the role of the obnoxious friend, when it is is actually Michael Sheen. Merry Christmas :)

Cole said...

I think you misunderstood Midnight in Paris. Owen Wilson's charachter is beholden to the past much the same way he is beholden to the art forms of the past. He is obsessed with becoming what went before him. His notions of the past are recieved wisdom earned from having read the writers and or appreciated the painters in question. It is a facinating study on the idea of nostelgia. The fact that the book he is writing is set in a nostelgia shop reinforces that point. It is a fanciful idea that Allen has explored before without coming to a resolution. By the way it is an absolute goldmine for Lit or Art History majors.

Cole said...

You do realize that Like Crazy is meant to be an anti-romance. It is not meant to point to recieved ideas that there is only one person for us, and that we are meant to be together. The film is actually a medetation on the transience of love.

Scott Mendelson said...

Gah!! I will fix that right now. Thank you. Freudian slip, I suppose, since Shannon will be appearing on a later list (hint - I think he should win the Oscar this year).

Janusz said...

I agree. As long as she's had her first blood there's nothing wrong. If she's old enough to bed she's old enough to wed am I right?

Scott Mendelson said...

I agree with you up to a point. As I said, I rather enjoyed the 1920s segments, I just found the rest of the film to be borderline terrible.

Scott Mendelson said...

That's a bit much...

Nihilus13 said...

This year really sucked for movies in general, I didn't bother to see most of the movies on this list.
Thanks for saving me some time and money.
Happy holidays.

obthavariable said...

Other than the two I've already seen, these are all on my "wanna-see" list. Some because I expect I'll actually like them but they could disappoint, and some because I want to be in on the shoveling and burial of those which I saw their "overrated-ness" from the first trailer (coughDrivecough...and F-you, Joe Wright!).

I agree completely on "The Ides of March." I was left baffled and my mouth wide as I saw it progress into that "hot girl will ruin everything" territory. I love looking at Evan Rachel Wood, and am so appreciative that Clooney had the camera gaze and loom on her in long takes as much as he did with Ryan, but seriously, did he have to cast her in a role that would come down to that??!! This ERW fan was definitely not a happy camper, but most of all, this prestige-art film fan was kind of infuriated.

I will not be able to wrap my head around the fact that you don't see "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" with as much appreciation, or give it as much credit, as I thought you would. I completely disagree on polar-opposite ends with you: I see it as a very relevant, if not important, work of art; Rooney Mara's performance, and her part/involvement in the story, is exactly how I saw/read it in the book; it is very much suspenseful, and is as violent as it should be; and the cast, regardless of whether they're playing to type, all give very faithful depictions of the characters from the book, while still giving nuanced performances that rise above any stockness that was felt in the novel.

Those are my two cents, and speaking of which, my pick for most overrated movie of the year is "Fast Five." What were all the positive reviewers on during their given screenings?!? I know you gave it a positive review, so maybe you can explain... All I know is that when normal human characters, who are supposed to be flesh and bone, are suddenly able to survive extraordinary and supernatural acts beyond the capabilities of human mortals, and who also suddenly lose their moral compass for the sake of "stealing the money for the 'right' reasons," then I suddenly get lost, disinterested, and kind of sad for all of humanity. My brain literally shut down during the movie because the BS meter just couldn't handle it anymore. It was truly awful.

Scott Mendelson said...

Since the stunt work was practical, I was able to completely buy the characters surviving their various bits of daring-do. SOMEONE survived doing those stunts, thus I could believe the characters could too. As for the plot, all caper films basically have characters stealing something and expecting us to root for them in doing it. Since the target was a drug kingpin and cop killer, we weren't supposed to feel too sorry for him. You could have argued that the leads should have taken that money and given it to the local poor, but that's a different movie.


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