Wednesday, October 21, 2020

How to Avoid Bad Movies


This post is available as a vlog. I’m told nobody reads anymore, but that people have infinite patience for talking heads on screens. That being the case, you may as well gather up the family, kick back, and launch the video. If, on the other hand, you’re old school, the text is still here, along with original art by my daughter.


Okay, we’re into our eighth month of shelter-in-place and we’re running out of movies. We’ve seen the Oscar nominees and all the films friends have recommended and, it seems, are down to the dregs. It’s bad enough wasting time on a movie that ends up being lame, but now we’re spending half an hour researching what to watch and still coming up short.

In this post I’ll give you fresh guidelines on how to dodge bad movies. I’ll also provide a list of ten critics who should be banned for life, and why. Along the way you’ll get critiques of five awful movies that critics loved … not just to warn you away, but to examine how highly acclaimed movies can be so bad. Finally, I’ll provide a list of the twenty best movies I’ve seen in the last few years, just to end on a positive note.

Can’t we just follow the star ratings?

It’s common practice to vet movies by looking at their IMDb user ratings and/or Metacritic scores. I’m only halfway on board with this. I know I can’t trust my fellow man, because Avengers: Infinity War has an average IMDb user rating of 8.4. Meanwhile, no fewer than a dozen sequels have been made to The Fast and the Furious, so it’s obvious the unwashed masses are just pushovers.

The professionals ought to do better. For many months I’ve been choosing movies based largely on Metascore, that being the averaged ratings from (supposedly) “the world’s most respected critics.” To some degree, this works, as I’ve been warned off of countless movies that look good on paper, like Everything Is Illuminated (which scored only 58 points though the novel on which it’s based is fantastic) and Step Brothers (a mere 51, despite Rolling Stone naming it the 17th funniest movie of all time).

While Metascores do seem capable of outing bad movies, they’re far from totally reliable. I keep sitting through awful movies that have sky-high average scores. Multiple critics will give some film a perfect 100 and it’ll not just be meh, but actually totally lame. It seems that when a movie—especially a very serious one—tries really hard but crashes and burns, it’s almost guaranteed to be highly praised by critics anyway. I have a theory: when the plot and the point of a movie are totally unfathomable, a certain type of highbrow critic will want to rave about it, perhaps hoping to seem far more sophisticated and perceptive than his readership.

Last Year at Marienbad, though it’s too old to have a Metascore ranking, exemplifies the kind of relentlessly highfalutin movie that gets elite critics all hot and bothered. And yet, it completely sucks. The two main characters are annoying and unrealistic, their romance completely unconvincing and tedious, the dialogue maddeningly obtuse. Original? Perhaps. Watchable? I want that 94 minutes of my life back. (I fact-checked the length and it’s a good thing … I’d have guessed it was at least three hours long.) And yet critics adored this movie (or pretended to).

Check out the little video homage Richard Brody (the sometime New Yorker critic) pays to Last Year at Marienbad here. If you can’t help but roll your eyes at the film footage, and Brody’s bloviating about it, then you’ll understand what I’m talking about … the hyper-intellectual over-the-top highbrow nonsense so many critics indulge in. Even the mainstream critic Roger Ebert wrote, I kid you not, in his (retrospective) review of Marienbad, “I sipped my coffee and nodded thoughtfully.” It wasn’t enough that he liked the movie … he wanted us to actually picture him discussing the movie with a fellow intellectual, so we can appreciate how elevated their discourse was.

This weirdness can be explained in terms of mimetic theory. In her great book The Possessed, Elif Batuman, citing René Girard, the father of mimetic theory, describes it thus:

According to Girard, there is in fact no such thing as human autonomy or authenticity. All of the desires that direct our actions in life are learned or imitated from some Other, to whom we mistakenly ascribe the autonomy lacking in ourselves… The perceived desire of the Other confers prestige on the object, rendering it desirable. For this reason, desire is usually less about its purported object than about the Other; it is always “metaphysical,” in that it is less about having, than being.

Stay with me here. The purported object, in this case, is the movie, and the critic is the Other. By asking us to picture him discussing Last Year at Marienbad while sipping his coffee, Ebert is inviting us not so much to contemplate the movie, but to imagine what it’s like to be him, to be so smart as to actually understand this utterly cryptic work. It’s not so much that the movie itself is desirable; the review is about being the kind of moviegoer that can appreciate such a fine, subtle, highly sophisticated film. (It doesn’t matter that Ebert may be making fun of himself, just a bit, in his review … it’s still a fawning endorsement of a bullshit movie.)

Audiences who go in for these highly praised but inscrutable films are sharing in the illusion that there’s something to “get,” if only you’re smart enough. Believing that they “got” the movie is a matter of cognitive dissonance: I must have liked it, because it’s such an amazing film for those alive to its brilliance. Once this self delusion is built, it’s hard to tear down. Even when someone cries bullshit and says, “That movie was lame, I was totally lost” these fans just feel extra smug and elite, stroking their goatees (or bare chins because in the moment they forget they don’t actually have goatees), looking down on the naysayer, lost in their metaphysical identification with supreme intellect.

(This isn’t to say I’m a lowbrow cretin who only enjoys dippy comedies or action movies. As detailed here, I think my highbrow credentials are in pretty good order.)

Mick LaSalle, the San Francisco Chronicle movie critic, who has been at it since 1985, strikes me as pretty reliable. In a recent column he put forth a very useful idea: “With a bad story, the best you can hope for is a movie that’s bad in such an original way that critics, for a time, will insist it’s great. Like Last Year at Marienbad.”

Look, I don’t mind if I end up being underwhelmed by a lowbrow comedy like Wet Hot American Summer, even if Rolling Stone called it the 38th funniest movie of the 21st century. If I choose to ignore the 42 Metascore, well, caveat emptor. But when 26 different critics give a movie like There Will Be Blood a perfect 100, and the Metascore is 93, and I find the movie a bit tedious and its ending unforgivably ill-considered and poorly executed, erasing any meaning that could have been built up over the previous 2 hours and 38 minutes, I get a little pissed. So I’ve selected five highbrow movies with absurdly generous reviews and will walk you through exactly how they go wrong, and how we go wrong watching them. (Note: I have not actually watched Wet Hot American Summer.)

Warning: my commentary is chock full of spoilers. Because you absolutely should not watch any of these awful movies, in my opinion there’s nothing really to spoil.

Under the Skin (2014) – 80 Metascore

This highly artsy sci-fi movie features Scarlett Johansson as some kind of space alien who goes around seducing men and luring them to her weird lair where they sink down into some subterranean liquid and dissolve. She has some kind of supervisor who drives a motorcycle. Eventually she goes rogue and tries to have actual sex, which doesn’t work out so well, and eventually some asshole lights her on fire. It sounds more exciting than it is. Actually, it was godawful slow. Fortunately, we were streaming it online so we were able to speed it up … first to 1.25 times the normal speed, then 1.5, and finally all the way up to twice the normal speed and its pace was still glacial. The official runtime of the movie is 1 hour 48 minutes, but even with the second half sped up it felt like well over two hours.

And yet, a dozen critics gave this movie a perfect score of 100. For example, Donald Clarke of the Irish Times raved about it. Did he literally call it perfect? Well, no, and his review does allude to “occasional outbreaks of ambiguity” and allows that “the chain of command between the alien and her biker superiors is a little unclear.” Uh, yeah. The biker had nothing to do with anything else in the movie, we just got a lot of footage of some guy driving around on a motorcycle and occasionally dismounting and walking around. Calhoun goes on to say, “The drift of the plot is, however, always easy to grasp.” Well, duh … because the same damn thing happens over and over again, the repetition being utterly senseless and frankly cruel. Clarke concludes, “Under the Skin manages to foster empathy with an entity as isolated from human experience as an avalanche or a weather system. Such achievements tend to allow films to be classed as masterpieces.” Okay, first of all, if he admires empathy, why does he have none for the innocent people he’s recommending this terrible movie to? And second of all, “tend to allow films to be classed”? WTF? How does an achievement “allow” anything? Who taught this guy how to write a sentence?

I suppose I could sequentially rip apart every rave review of Under the Skin, but there’s a more important problem to address: Metacritic claims that Anthony Lane, of The New Yorker, who happens to be my favorite critic, also gave it a perfect 100. Naturally, I was skeptical. Not all (or even most) critics give movies a numerical rating, and I’ve seen before how Metacritic will sometimes assign a really high score to an only somewhat positive review. So I immediately clicked the link to the full review. My discovery? Anthony Lane didn’t even review this movie! The New Yorker review is from Richard Brody, and could not possibly be given a score of 100. Brody writes, “The conceit … offers immense promise,” but goes on to say:

It’s not a vision or even an idea, it’s a premise, and one that’s left completely undeveloped. Glazer evokes the idea of strangeness without actually seeing much, showing much, or revealing much. That job goes to the insistent music, which forces a stereotypical eeriness, as in the scores of fifties sci-fi B-movies, but without the hysterical exaggeration—without the fun.

He praises Johansson’s acting, but declares that her 2007 movie The Nanny Diaries “is a much better movie than Under the Skin.The Nanny Diaries has a Metascore of 46, with New Yorker giving it, by Metacritic’s reckoning, a mere 40 points. So much for trusting Metacritic on this one.

(Note that Anthony Lane has written about Under the Skin, within a profile of Scarlett Johansson. He’s clearly smitten with her and does praise the movie, but it wasn’t a review per se and shouldn’t earn the movie 100 points.)

Now, I wouldn’t ask you to ignore all these 100-point reviews just because I hated this movie. Many real critics also butchered it. Rex Reed, in The Observer, praises Johansson’s sex appeal, skin, and smile, but laments her “stunning ignorance about how to choose the right roles.” Mick LaSalle, in the San Francisco Chronicle, gets right to the heart of the problem: “Under the Skin can be confused for a movie that hides its meanings, when it’s really a movie that hides its meaninglessness.” He calls BS on the high-minded ambition of the movie and decries its boring repetition:

So this is no normal woman. This isn’t even a normal homicidal maniac. This is someone on some kind of supernatural harvesting project. This is clear from the very first minutes, and the movie never advances beyond that. Instead virtually the entire action of the film just repeats the same kind of event - she goes out, looks for a man, etc. As one might imagine, this becomes quite dull, even sleep-inducing, especially considering the movie’s overall cast of slow-moving gloom.

Metacritic assigns a rating of 50 points (out of 100) to LaSalle’s review, which I think is really, really generous. My wife and I hated this movie. We should have just shut it off, but when a movie has such a high Metascore, we have sometimes fallen prey to the “sunk cost” fallacy … thinking we should give a movie the chance to redeem itself. As agonizingly slow as the movie was (even when sped up), we just kept watching, until we finally finished and were utterly disappointed—not just in the movie, but in ourselves for having faith in it.

So, there are two lessons to be gleaned here. First, don’t always trust the Metascore. Second, fail fast … if a movie sucks after 30 or 45 minutes, it’s mostly likely going to suck all the way to the final credits, no matter how many critics fawned over it.

To be continued…

Well, I’ve clearly run out of space here, or at least you’ve run out of time or patience for now. Check back in a week, for Part II: the next four movies to avoid, the ten critics you should ban for life, and the twenty best movies I’ve seen lately.


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