Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Five Movies That Should Have Been Great

Not every movie can be great. That's a simple, and one hopes fairly obvious, truth. It's okay, though, because most movies aren't really aiming for greatness anyway. Instead, they provide the backdrop of mediocrity against which the brilliant, inventive work of more talented creators can shine.

There is, however, one infinitely frustrating variety of not-great movie: the movie with real potential for greatness that falls short. As if to twist the knife, the glimmers of scope and originality these films have are usually enough to win them critical praise, despite the fact that they failed to live up to their potential. Today, I'm going to talk about five movies from the past five years  or so that should have been great but failed.

As usual, this is all just my opinion blah blah blah, everyone entitled blah blah, subjective blah personal taste blah no right answer blah blah blah blah blah. You get the picture.

Oh, before I start, I should throw this up just in case:


I am going to talk with a frank lack of restraint about each of these five films. If you see a title come up that you don't want spoiled for you, then stop reading immediately. Failure to do so is not my problem.

Alright, with that out of the way, let's get started.


Life of Pi (2012)

Directed by the supremely talented and eclectic Ang Lee, Life of Pi  was a film that clearly had a lot of effort put into its creation. The short version of the story is that Pi is telling a writer in the present about his wild adventures stranded on the open sea in a lifeboat with a decreasing number of animals, until it's just him and a tiger named Richard Parker (a name which, presumably, we're supposed to find funny). It is absolutely gorgeous, providing a rare glimpse at the true potential of CGI in crafting a striking fantasy world. What this critically lauded darling and Academy Award winners lacks, though, is everything else. It's all style, no substance. All polish, no car. The dreary, self-important, "Everybody look at how quirky and unique I am! Please pay attention to me! I want to be special!" protagonist Pi gets tiring within a matter of minutes. The ham-handed attempts at metaphor (Oh, the animals represented people the whole time? Wow, that's such a shockingly deep reflection on human regression during survival situations that the movie had better explain it in painstaking detail just in case a five-year-old in the back missed it) and philosophy (Clearly we should all adopt or reject deeply held beliefs on the basis of whether or not they seem scary to think about. That's totally deep and intellectually honest) are juvenile at best. In the end, it was a grand spectacle with a brilliant director and a potentially interesting premise that fell flat on its face due to bland characterization and inexplicably clumsy handling.


True Grit (2010)

On paper, the Coen Brothers' dark sense of humor and great handling of tough, world-weary law officers on the fringes of civilization in films like No Country for Old Men  and (to a lesser extent) Fargo  seemed to make them the perfect minds to remake one of the most well-known westerns in cinema history. Granted, it's a pretty straight-forward "I'm lookin' fer the man who shot my pa" kind of story, but if anyone could infuse some unique character into the old classic, it would be these guys. And they got Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin on board, so there was no shortage of acting chops in the cast. Well, they did capture a darkly striking view of the western frontier on a visual level, at least. Yet the overall result was a tired, pointless remake that utterly failed to improve upon the original. The screenplay didn't even bother to change things up, choosing to just stick with a more-or-less straight forward retread. Despite how laughably superior Bridges and Damon are to John Wayne and Glen Campbell in terms of acting skill, they both manage to give less convincing and less memorable performances. Bridges captures the stumbling drunken loser side of Rooster Cogburn's character, but he has none of Wayne's gravitas and his incomprehensible growling slur relegates any dialogue he delivers to half-glimpsed background noise. Damon is shockingly even stiffer and less interesting than Campbell was, and the inexplicably universally-praised newcomer Hailee Steinfeld delivers every line like she's a grade-schooler practicing her reading aloud skills. Brolin turns in the best performance of the lot, but he hardly has enough screen time to matter. This could have been John Wayne meets No Country, a darkly powerful western for the ages. Instead, it was just a pretty-looking but ultimately boring remake.


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

I can't even remember the last time I was so bitterly disappointed by a movie. In retrospect, after Guillermo del Toro left the project, dropping directorial duties back in Peter Jackson's lap, this was always going to be a disaster. Jackson had already done his Tolkien epic, which was amazing, but that part of his career was behind him now and he didn't want to do it again. It was evident in the way he kept fishing for other directors to take over the chair, and it was evident in the finished product. Despite the substantially larger budget, everything felt like a cheap knock-off of the original. None of the weight or significance of the previous Jackson trilogy is anywhere to be found, characters are one-dimensional and boring (with the lone exception of Gollum), the looming threat is more like a background nuisance, the world looks and feels fake, the padding needed to drag out a single book for three films really shows, and the over-reliance on fart jokes and horrible slapstick humor to float the "it's a kids movie" notion just serves to make the whole experience feel dumber. I knew not to expect the greatness of the groundbreaking Lord of the Rings, but I never thought Jackson and Co. would phone it in to this extent.


Django Unchained (2012)

Saying anything bad on the internet about a Quentin Tarantino film is just asking for trouble, but I'm going to do it anyway. Django is one of the clearest examples I can find of a movie that was truly great for 3/4 of its run time, only to piss it away at the end. Despite Jamie Foxx's clearly-designed-to-be-Will-Smith protagonist taking center stage in name, he's overshadowed by DiCaprio's slightly overrated but still quite compelling villain. The two of them combined are dwarfed by Christoph Waltz, whose absurdly good turn as the bounty hunting dentist Dr. Schultz cemented the notion that if he played nothing but supporting Tarantino characters for the rest of his career, he'd retire with more Oscars than Katherine Hepburn. The story is compelling, the action is fun and exciting, the characters are engaging, the acting and dialogue are all great, and the film has style to spare. 90 minutes in, I was sold on the idea that this was a great film. 120 minutes in, I was still on board, but I was ready for the big finale. 165 minutes in, when the closing credits finally rolled, I was pissed off to see it all fall apart so badly. There's a point, where Waltz's character has the opportunity to take his deal with the devil, as it were, and walk away with cash in hand. Instead, he shoots the villain right in the head. Awesome. Henchmen quickly gun him down, and the ensuing massive shootout was the logical conclusion. Django could have killed Samuel Jackson's "Uncle Tom" style character (who was right there), scooped up his captive wife (who was right there), burned down the mansion (which he was in) and rode off into the sunset to the satisfaction of all. Instead, this massive shootout concludes with him being captured, imprisoned, walking around in the desert for thirty fucking minutes, then going back and having an entirely redundant shootout in the same house, where he finally does all the stuff he should have done in the first place. Not only did this drag on way too long, it did so after passing right by the logical climax, and it made us endure an entire final act in which easily the two most compelling characters are already dead. It's still a good movie, but it could have been so much better if it hadn't fumbled at the goal line.


District 9 (2009)

Of all the movies on this list, Neill Blomkamp's feature length debut is the hardest for me to include, yet it is the most deserving of this blog post's title. It's hard to include because I genuinely like this movie, but it fits the descriptor perfectly because it was one final act away from being one of the greatest sci fi films of all time. The premise, that an alien ship carrying refugee dregs of an advanced society arrives above Johannesburg and the passengers quickly become a hated underclass consigned to slums on the city's outskirts, is excellent. It sets up a powerful look at (among other things) racism, classism, systematic government oppression, the power of bureaucracy to turn people into numbers, and the effort of the oppressed to preserve their own cultural identity. Shot in a pseudo-documentary style, it really sells the idea, making the world feel real and the events of the story seem vital and compelling. Then, in the final act, it evidently decides that a compelling, hard-hitting story and powerful social commentary are way less fun than robot fights and explosions. The film morphs from something wonderful and utterly unique into Transformers, the 14-year-old boys in the crowd rejoice, and those of us previously enthralled by the film's originality and power let out a groan of despair as the greatest sci fi film that never was becomes yet another movie about rockets, robots, and alien plasma guns.


  1. The picture at the top is great. The Thing is just right there in the center--awesome. I've actually seen all of these except Life of Pi.

    True Grit: I can't remember whether I've seen the original, so I didn't come in with that baggage. I remember thinking it was good, and I liked Bridges in the role. That's about it.

    The Hobbit: You're right, I think it should have had a different director, and it should never have been made into three movies. But I have to disagree on one point, that is I think they put too much time and effort into the looming threat. The book barely conveys that at all, and it really should have been much more of a kids' movie--as the book was.

    Django: I loved it. I don't recall having any problem with it. I'm not going to tar and feather you over it, though.

    District 9: I really didn't care for the film at all. Mostly, I hate the pseudo-documentary/reality TV style (and I hate how so many TV shows use it now as well). That doesn't add to the realism for me, and I've never enjoyed reality TV, so it has no positive associations. That will immediately turn me off to anything (except The Blair Witch Project, where it served a real purpose). Other than that, it was a long time ago, but I found the whole premise of turning into an alien a little hard to swallow* and the main character unrelatable.

    *This is in stark contrast to The Thing of course, where the alien was a chameleonic parasite. If the District 9 aliens were parasites then that would make sense, but they had a language, technology, and culture of their own. Parasites don't.

  2. I haven't seen any of these.

    As far as The Hobbit goes...well, once the trilogy decision was announced, I wrote it off. The presence/absence of del Toro did nothing to sway me either way.

    I'm just glad nobody has the stones to tackle The Silmarillion. Good God, would that be a mess.

    1. They could do the Narn i Chîn Húrin, at least. I've always loved that part best, and it was turned into a standalone book.

    2. Actually, the more I think about it, they could make it into a TV series if they had a big enough budget. There are two ways you could go with that. A) You could have the series go by pretty fast with a lot of huge, dramatic scenes and perhaps not enough characterization. Or B) you could dedicate entire seasons of the show to specific story arcs, which would leave a lot of room for embellishment. Option B) makes more sense, but depending on the writers employed that room for embellishment could be a blessing or a curse.