Saturday, October 31, 2020

How to Avoid Bad Movies - Part II


I am well aware of the dangers of repetitive stress injuries, such as those incurred using the mouse scroll-wheel or web page scroll-bars. Meanwhile, I wouldn't want you to get your touch-screen all grubby dragging your way through a seemingly endless blog post. With these pitfalls in mind I've created a vlog of my latest post, so you can just sit there, slack-jawed, and let my words wash over you. Or you can plug in your headphones, slip your smartphone in your pocket, and pretend it's a podcast. For the old-school types, the complete text is provided below the vlog.


In my last post, I explored the question of why critics so often lavishly praise totally lame movies, particularly artsy and highbrow ones. I used a case study, the abysmal film Under the Skin, to showcase this unfortunate phenomenon. In this post, I’ll warn you away from four more awful yet highly acclaimed movies, to further examine how critics go wrong. Then I’ll name for you ten critics who, being repeat offenders around this “emperor’s new movie” syndrome, should be banned for life. I’ll wrap up by listing twenty great movies I’ve seen recently, just to finish on a high note.

(Yeah, I know I promised a lot of this in my last introduction. This time I’ll make good.)

A Summer’s Tale (US release 2014) – 91 Metascore

This French movie came out in 1996, but didn’t reach the U.S. until 2014. Only three critics gave it a perfect 100, but its Metascore is a shockingly high 91. It’s tempting to call it science fiction, because the plot is utterly fantastical and mind-bending: a goofy-looking young college grad spends the summer at the beach waiting for his uncommonly hot girlfriend to join him, and while he’s waiting, he hooks up with first one and then another highly attractive young woman, and kind of two-times both of them until his girlfriend arrives, at which point we have a bona fide love rectangle. Of course the women ask him to choose but he can’t, or won’t. He just kind of hovers like an little kid trying to choose a Sees candy, while you’re impatiently waiting. The worst part? All the women put up with it. Are French women really this self-loathing?

There’s nothing funny, charming, or exciting about the goings-on. It’s just a tedious series of totally unrealistic non-confrontations. My wife and I didn’t even make it to the end, as our patience wore out. I kept hoping to be rewarded by something dramatic happening, like all three women turning on him, or his suddenly being retrieved by his overlords’ spaceship.

I cannot fathom what anybody saw in this movie. I mean, the critics do try to explain, but their reviews are as meaningless as the movie. Most of these critics seemed smitten in advance because the director, Éric Rohmer, is famous. (Note the accent aigu over the “e” in his name. I’ll bet critics love that. So foreign! So-phisticated!) Jonathan Kiefer, in The Village Voice, writes, “The Rohmer touch consists of nonchalance and effortless sensuality, not just in the people, but also in the landscape, somehow even in the air.” Oh, how poetic! So we should see the movie because the air portrayed in it is nonchalant and sensual? Keith Uhlich, in TimeOut, writes, “Rohmer has a genius for taking a seemingly mundane situation and slowly tightening the screws.” Well, I agree with him on “mundane” and “slowly,” anyway.

Kenneth Turan, in the Los Angeles Times, says, “It may seem like nothing much is happening on-screen, but by the time A Summer’s Tale is all over, it feels like everything important has been said and done.” Everything? What about the dumbass dude getting dissed? What about me being entertained? Steven Rea, for The Philadelphia Inquirer, writes something eerily similar: “A Summer's Tale is one of those movies where it looks like nothing is happening.” How can these guys agree on that damning characteristic of the film, without agreeing that it’s fricking boring? Every review listed on Metacritic is favorable, and they’re all wrong.

The main lesson here is to take gushing reviews of French movies with a grain of salt. After all, who ever said the French made good movies? Croissants, bicycle wheel rims, wine, sure … but movies? I have tried to remember a French movie I really loved, and all I could come up with was Diva, from 1981. Part of why I loved it is that my dad took me to it, which was a rare treat. Yes, it was good, but I won’t let my nostalgia impart too rosy a color. Okay, if I really stretch, there was also Small Change (L'Argent de Poche) which I saw on my ninth birthday, also with my dad, and which didn’t measure up to my original delight when I eventually saw it as an adult.

Noting that a critic for TimeOut gave A Summer’s Tale a perfect 100, I looked at their list of the top 100 French movies of all time. Here are my sub-one-sentence capsule reviews of the ones I’ve seen:

  • Last Year at Marienbad – As described in my last post, this was totally confusing, pointless, and dull
  • A Trip to the Moon – This is the famous movie of the cigar-like rocket stabbing the moon in the eye; compared to the state of the art in movies of its era—i.e., nothing—it was, well, diverting, at least for a few minutes
  • Amélie – Pretty forgettable, but pleasant enough … she’s a little goofy-looking and as usual there’s a lot of accordion music
  • The Artist – Yeah, so it won an Oscar, and didn’t have any sound … that’s about all I remember of this pretty underwhelming movie
  • Belle de Jour – Boring, pointless, not nearly as sexy as it was surely supposed to have been
  • La Vie en Rose – I’m pretty sure I saw this but it didn’t leave a dent
  • The Class – Pretentious, square, meh

And these are the best of all time? Fine, TimeOut is just one list (frankly, the only list I could find among English-language websites) so if you find a better one, studded with movies I’d remember totally digging, well … let me know. By the way, I have nothing against foreign films. Even a tiny country like Sweden does just fine … for example, Force Majeure and Let the Right One In are both great.

(Okay, I lied. I can think of one truly amazing French film: the short animated Memorable, which you can watch here. Metacritic has no listing for it. Let’s call this the exception that proves the rule.)

Her (2013) – 90 Metascore

The idea of this movie is kind of neat: a guy falls in love with Samantha, the human-like operating system of his phone. This sets up an exploration of the foolishness of humans in conflating pretty interfaces with actual connection. The problem is, the spectacle soon becomes pretty much unendurable because the milquetoasty main character, the aptly named Theodore, just doesn’t know when to let go. Most of us have known a fool-for-love who embarrasses himself (or herself) by letting unrequited puppy love turn into an obsession, but we wouldn’t pay to watch it on a screen.

Theodore, as played by Joaquin Phoenix, is particularly annoying because he’s utterly shameless and a complete weenie. If you’ve seen Ghost World, you’ll recall that Steve Buscemi did a great job portraying a fairly unattractive character you can reasonably believe would sink to pretty low levels of self-debasement when in thrall to a young attractive woman, but who nevertheless manages to hang on, ultimately, and show that he’s got a fricking spine. No such luck with Phoenix. I eventually wanted his character to be put out of his misery, perhaps via frontal lobotomy.

Which brings us to the ending (spoiler alert!), when Samantha starts hanging out with a bunch of other AIs, and casually mentions to Theodore that she also communicates with thousands of other humans through their phones and is in fact in love with hundreds of them. Suddenly Theodore’s illusion of fairy tale romance is shattered. I really loved this plot twist, but it wasn’t enough to redeem all the dull and painful stuff that came before it.

There’s a handy literary term for this effect: the “imitative fallacy.” As described here, this can occur when a “novel is concerned with an unlikable or inaccessible protagonist, [thus] the narrative is also unlikable and inaccessible. Since the reader cannot figure out the protagonist, nor is the reader given any reason to care about the protagonist, the reader disengages.” Obviously this holds true for screenplays as well.

And yet, this movie received a whopping 19 perfect 100 review ratings. Come on … that many critics thought it was perfect? Puh-lease. At least one of these critics officially concedes that it’s not perfect, but this is Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic who calls it “virtually perfect” so he’s probably just trying to be clever. (The rest of his review is insufferably cloying.)

These reviewers stoop to gushing, sentimental statements about the romantic authenticity of this human/AI relationship: “honest-to-goodness romance,” “it is a love story,” “the romance creeps up on you, just as it does with Theodore,” “a heartrending romance … for all of us,” “a celebration of all that can be achieved between two like-minded souls,” “a deeply sincere romance.” Are you kidding me?

Look, I’m not trying to be some buzzkill anti-romantic sort, and I do believe in true love. Actually, that’s precisely why I bristle at the suggestion that the relationship in Her could be legit: such a notion devalues the full, real connection possible between two humans. For all her sultry voice and clever utterances, Samantha has neither a body nor a soul. Okay, maybe you’ll fight me on whether AI can have a soul, but there’s no question it lacks a body. Do these critics really believe that the sensual, tactile aspects of love are unnecessary? Since when? (A Star Trek episode from the ‘60s already debunked this idea … it concerns life forms that are supposedly far too advanced to bother with bodies, and which instead occupy translucent orbs, but they jump at the chance to take over the bodies of the Enterprise crew, and are thrilled to have flesh and bones again.)

At least not all critics loved Her. Mick LaSalle, of the San Francisco Chronicle, got it right (and I wish I’d read his review before wasting my time on this movie). He describes this movie as “a lot more interesting to think about than watch” and goes on to say:

The story is too slender for its two-hour running time, and the pace is lugubrious, as though everyone in front and behind the camera were depressed. But the biggest obstacle is the protagonist, who is almost without definition. He is just some average guy of the near future, totally bland, someone with no obstacle he needs to overcome and no powerful desire he needs to satisfy.

The moral of the story? Don’t trust romantics. Remember, Romeo and Juliet was a tragedy! Where romantic movies are concerned, seek out the bad reviews and give them their due.

Melancholia (2011) – 80 Metascore

 I had forgotten all about this movie until I was combing through my Kanopy viewing history and didn’t recognize the title. Only after reviewing the trailer did I remember: oh, yeah, that tedious movie. It’s about a woman who gets married, then starts wigging out, and then there’s this planet on a collision course with Earth, which turns out to be a metaphor for depression (about as subtle as being whacked in the face with a bag of party ice). Instead of a massive explosion (which would have at least been stimulating) the ending slows to an absolute crawl—that is to say, even slower than the rest of the movie, which was slow enough already—with lots of slow-motion fanciful effects and overdramatic music. I find it funny that this movie tried so hard to be moving and unforgettable, and yet I forgot everything about it, including the very fact of it, despite having watched it less than a year before.

This movie garnered lots of very favorable reviews, including six 100s. As always, we need to take these Metascores with a planet-sized grain of salt. Perplexed by the 100-point rating ascribed to Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review, I read the full text, which praises it, sort of, but nowhere suggests it’s perfect. Lane breezily describes Melancholia as depicting “clumps of unlikable people behaving implausibly in confined spaces.” He calls the start of the film “quite a spectacle” and says its “sights are wondrous to behold, and, in their embodiment of Stygian souls, they leave the rest of the movie looking superfluous.” He goes on to say:

The middle of the film is an itchy and tremulous account of a wedding party at a Swedish country house, in which the bride, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), keeps wandering off to take a bath or to have sex on the golf course with someone other than the groom, while maintaining frayed relations with her foul-tempered mother, her feckless father, and her anxiety-ridden sister, Claire, who looks nothing whatever like her. Fun for everyone!

Does this strike you as the awestruck, fawning praise of somebody responding to a true masterpiece? No, I didn’t think so either. So where did Metacritic get that perfect score of 100? Beats me.

Again, very few critics on Metacritic found fault with this film, but the Chronicle’s LaSalle did. His review starts with what’s praiseworthy, but then prepares us for the bad news. In doing so, he gives us a clue into why so many critics fawn over these excessively high-minded, ambitious “intelligent” films: “[Melancholia’s] flaws are so typical and pedestrian that it’s difficult to sound intelligent mentioning them.” Fortunately, he proceeds anyway:

But it must be said: Melancholia is grindingly slow and endless, with scenes that go nowhere and long, long stretches of directorial indulgence. There is almost no tension and barely enough story to carry it to feature length, much less 2¼ hours. What’s that steady buzzing noise? It’s the sound of other audience members snoring. Halfway through, you may wish the planet would come crashing into the wedding. Long before the end, you might wish the planet would come crashing through the theater.

Perhaps what tripped up the critics was the pedigree of this movie: it was directed by Lars von Trier,  the celebrated Swede. Look, everybody’s fallible. I already listed a number of fairly lame French movies that critics loved. And consider the world famous Italian director Federico Fellini: he created , which was a complete train wreck. Perhaps American critics have a soft spot for foreign directors. Well, they shouldn’t.

There Will Be Blood (2007) - 93 Metascore

There Will Be Blood looked grand and was quite gripping for a while—but the ending is the kind of WTF, hit-the-Hyperspace-button, totally out-of-place climax that kind of ruins everything that comes before it, which is a great shame since the movie had been trying for two and a half hours to build something coherent. Instead it simply detonated, as though Paul Anderson, the writer-director, just didn’t know what to do and kind of panicked. David Denby, who praised the movie excessively (with a review that Metacritic listed as a perfect 100) acknowledges the flaw:

The movie becomes an increasingly violent (and comical) struggle in which each man humiliates the other, leading to the murderous final scene, which gushes as far over the top as one of Daniel’s wells. The scene is a mistake, but I think I know why it happened ... [it] is a blast of defiance—or perhaps of despair.

Why should a flawed movie get 100 points from anybody? And Denby doesn’t even acknowledge the movie’s other great flaw: the shrill, grating, overwrought score from Jonny Greenwood, the composer in the rock band Radiohead. (I have nothing against Greenwood, by the way … I fricking love Radiohead.) Bad music stretched over a movie this long does not make for a perfect movie. I wanted to like it but couldn’t.

Again, very few critics seemed to have the balls to criticize this movie, but LaSalle was up to the job. He, too, decries the dumb ending:

As was the case in Magnolia, with its raining frogs, There Will Be Blood derails into grand gestures and deliberate perversity. The finish is not quite as bad as having Anderson pop out from behind the curtain to announce the previous two hours have been a joke. But it’s close enough to rob There Will Be Blood of any impact, besides that which is focused on the director - a kind of “wow, could you believe he did that!”

He concludes, “there should be no need to pretend There Will Be Blood is a masterpiece just because Anderson sincerely tried to make it one.”

The takeaway here? Any time a movie is super long, go ahead and read the negative reviews. Perhaps there’s something intrinsically self-indulgent about asking for that much of our time, and those striving for something epic may be betraying a weakness for the grandiose.

Second takeaway? If LaSalle dislikes a movie, trust him on it! He’s batting a thousand so far.

Blacklist these critics!

I will freely acknowledge that I’m not a professional critic. Meanwhile, we all have our particular tastes, our turnoffs, and our guilty pleasures. I would never blacklist a critic on the basis of one or two indefensible missteps. (After all, Anthony Lane liked Melancholia and Her, but I still mostly trust him.) But when a critic has a long track record of gushing over totally lame movies, it’s time to draw the line. Here are ten critics who need to be banned for life for having at least three strikes against them.

Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic, gave There Will Be Blood a 100, Her a 100, Melancholia a 90, and Under the Skin an 80.

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune, gave Under the Skin an 88, There Will be Blood a 100, Her a 100, and Melancholia an 88.

Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post, gave Under the Skin a 100, There Will be Blood a 100, and even Her a 100. She hit the trifecta! On top of that, she gave Melancholia a 75.

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone, gave There Will be Blood a 100, Under the Skin an 88, Her an 88, and Melancholia an 88. On top of this, he gave the utterly dull Remains of the Day a 90 and called it “one of the best films of the year.”

Lawrence Toppman, The Charlotte Observer, gave Under the Skin an 83, There Will be Blood a 75, and Her a 100.

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon, gave Under the Skin a 100, Melancholia a 100, and Her a 90.

Glenn Kenny, Premiere and, gave There Will be Blood a 100, Her an 88, and A Summer’s Tale an 88.

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times, gave There Will Be Blood a 90, Her a 100, and A Summer’s Tale a 90.

Peter Rainer of The Christian Science Monitor gave Her a 100, There Will Be Blood a 91, and A Summer’s Tale an 83.

Steven Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer, gave both There Will be Blood and Under the Skin scores of 88, Her a 100, Melancholia an 88, and A Summer’s Tale a 75. Amazing: he gave positive reviews to all five of my bad-movie poster-children!

Never mind that the scores themselves were assigned by the (obviously) fallible Metacritic … these reviewers praised one awful movie after another. Blacklist them all!

Some really great movies

You might get the impression I just don’t like movies. In fact, I do! Here’s a list of twenty great movies I’ve seen recently (in no particular order):

Toni Erdmann (2016)

Dunkirk (2017)

Miss Juneteenth (2020)

Winter Sleep (aka Kis Uykusu) (2014)

People, Places, Things (2015)

The Wedding Plan (aka Through the Wall, Laavor et Hakir) (2016)

The Farewell (2019)

The Florida Project (2017)

The Social Dilemma (2020)

In the Loop (2009)

Out of Sight (aka Lemarit Ain) (2006)

Greta (2018)

Ex Machina (2014)

The Lobster (2015)

The Housemaid (aka Hanyo) (2010)

Incredibles 2 (2018)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Spectre (2015)

Price and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)  - note: this is the rare case when the Metascore is quite low (a 45) but the movie is actually good … trust me


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