Monday, November 21, 2011

The Movie's Good, I Just Don't Like It

"Greg said it's not about that so shut up, stupid!"
The laws of film criticism would seem to dictate that when a movie is good, demonstrably good, we should like it or, at least, appreciate it in all its glorious excellence.  I'm not talking about those recent brouhahas and kerfuffles and, dare I say it, foofaraws that erupted after that one critic wrote a piece about how he didn't like those movies he was supposed to like, but found boring, only to be told by two other critics exactly why those movies were likeable.

It's not about that.

No, it's about a movie that seems well-done in every possible way but is still quite unlikeable.  The writing is literate and tight, the plot works well, the acting is uniformly good, the direction clear and efficient, the musical score, editing, photography, sound, etc. are all top-drawer, as my non-existent prep school friends would say (their names are "Chip" and "Skip").  And yet, I simply don't like them.  And I don't mean "it's not my cup of tea" (Chip and Skip again), I mean, "Damn!  I really hate this movie!"  See, that's kind of confusing because when a movie has everything going for it, it seems like somehow, someway, I should like it.  But that's not the case nearly as often as it should be.

Back in 1996, everyone in the world of film criticism (well, it seemed that way but it was before aggregate shit sites like Rotten Tomatoes so what in the hell do I know) was lying on the floor recovering from spasms of nirvana after watching The English Patient.  Seriously, I'd read a review and the critic would be all like, "English Patient? Touch me... there."   So I saw it and found it to have fantastic acting, a really tight script, good clean direction and breathtaking cinematography.  And, brother, did I hate that fucking thing!   And I don't really know why because I've never taken the time to go back and watch it again which I probably should because it seems like I'm constantly hating or loving movies that I end up reversing my opinion on in weeks, days, sometimes hours.  I do this because, as best I can tell, I've got some kind of mental problem but, you know what, that's for another post.

So, again, I can't claim The English Patient is bad.  I think everyone involved should be proud of their accomplishments on it.  It's not easy to make a movie, really it's not and something like The English Patient shows the kind of skill and talent that we should all be so lucky to possess.  It takes time, patience and a butt-load of money and I'm not here to dismiss any of the movies discussed in this post, just say that, inexplicably, I don't like them while acknowledging they're all well-done.

"This movie is bullshit! Good popcorn, though."
What got me thinking about this again was my recent viewing of The Road.  Is it well done?  I'd say, exceptionally so.  The post-apocalyptic landscape is, for one, so convincing, so dead, so grey, so lifeless that I'd swear the art director and set designer had somehow seen the coming end of the world and replicated it for the film (how they would have done this I'm still working out but I'm strongly leaning towards a time-helmet of some kind).  The lead performances by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smitt-McPhee are both excellent and the story has a lean, efficient quality to it.   A no-frills kind of feeling that is perfectly fitting for such an enterprise.  And yet, by the end, I couldn't help but think the entire viewing was a complete and utter waste of my time.   I've felt that way ever since.  Here's what I got from it:  Nothing.

Maybe there's a slickness involved that I just don't connect with.  It's possible.  All the films that produce this kind of reaction in me feel perfectly done in some vague, technical way.  In fact, a lot of Best Picture winners fall into this category for me as well as almost the entire career of Ron Howard.  I see a Ron Howard movie and everything in them seems just right, you know?  As in, no chances taken, no going outside the constraints of the familiar, no bold exploration of new ideas.  They all have that prepackaged feel to them.  A sort of "Paint by the Numbers" where all the colors are right and in the right place but it feels forced, stiff, dead.

By contrast, when I watch something like Stroszek, it feels like Werner Herzog was making it up as he went.  And that feels great!  It's like he said, "Okay, let's film you driving away.  No! Wait!  Drive the truck in circles first.  Then get out.  Then get back in.  Set something on fire.  No!  Wait!  Is there some kind of crazy theme park or arcade around here?  What?  What's that?  Dancing chickens?  Perfect!  Let's go there and film that!"

It's the same when I watch early Scorsese.  Mean Streets and Taxi Driver have a dirty, messy, sloppy feel to them, a feel I really like.  The Aviator, on the other hand, is excellent on all levels but I just don't like it.  It feels so clean, so polished, so... so not Scorsese.  Same with The Departed.   All of these films, from The English Patient to (oh, let's pick a Howard film) Frost/Nixon seem so very uninspired.  They feel like the work of people who all know exactly what they're doing and they do it well but they don't let any part of themselves become a part of the equation.   It's like the recording of Born Free by Andy Williams (Huh? What?  Just bear with me, okay?).  In the song, he sings every note exactly as written and it's a running joke for my wife and me to take note of the one part in the song where he doesn't, the very last verse where, instead of singing the word "free" he kind of speaks it, boldly.  It's unintentionally funny because it's the one, single, solitary moment where he lets any kind of personality enter into his rendition.   Rather than phrasing the words to fit his feelings, emotions and instincts, like a Billie Holliday or Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra, he does exactly what he's supposed to do.  Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

"Nothing I said applies to me.  Now get off my lawn!"
So maybe that's it.  Maybe when a film does exactly what it's supposed to do, it turns me off.   Maybe that's why I'm a fan of so many scratchy, ugly, thrown-together movies from the seventies and so little a fan of so much from the eighties on.   From the eighties on, thanks to technology in filming as well as post-production editing and special effects, even crappy, low-rent movies have a slick, polished look to them.  But that can't be the whole story because as much as an Out of Africa, The Last Emperor, Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty or Chicago don't work for me, practically everything Hollywood did in the forties does and if anything ever fit the definition of "people who know exactly what they're doing and doing it well", it's Hollywood in the forties.  I mean, those guys and gals put together movies like Tin Lizzies rolling off of Henry Ford's assembly line and, somehow, most of them do feel inspired to me.  Maybe that's because they were inserting themselves into the films (oh shit, it's that theory -  RUN!  Save yourself before it takes over the whole discussion!).   Or maybe there are too many people involved in the post-production now to keep any kind of individual directorial vision up there on the screen for anyone to even notice.  Or maybe I'm just a grumpy old curmudgeon and this is the dumbest idea I've ever had for a post because, in the end, there can be no possible answer to the question, "How can a movie do everything right and feel so wrong?"


Peter Nellhaus said...

Opie usually gets a pass from me because he can be slyly subversive at times, and anyone with a daughter who stars in a Lars v. Trier film, and refuses to live in LA, has a bit more than meets the ordinary eye. What may be his most personal film, The Missing, was hardly a hit.

A film that got critical praises was Bela Tarr's Satantango. Watching the guys wait around in crummy winter weather in an mostly empty bar, I was thinking how much I liked that film better when Andre De Toth made the film as Day of the Outlaw.

Greg said...

I've not yet seen Satantango but it seems like the opposite of the slick, polished, overly-produced movies I tend to dislike so maybe I'll love it. I don't know.

I guess another way to put it is sometimes I prefer a movie with tons of flaws but a great adventurous spirit, like Friedkin's Sorcerer, to one that's polished and slick and has nothing really demonstrably wrong with it, like Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. which I don't really care for.

And The Missing I didn't see. Hell, didn't even remember it being released. Just read up on it. Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett. That's really all I need to know. I'm seeing it. Maybe a Howard film will finally do something for me. It sounds like this one just might.

Michael Troutman said...

I understand why it's hard to pin down. I have seen plenty of films that are paint by numbers crap, but I have also seen movies that do everything right and love them. The most interesting films are the ones that feel human made. You can't really apply Punk DIY to film, but as a director it's possible to get enough of yourself in there to make a difference.

David said...

Greg, another insightful post.

You are not alone in this experience, and certainly not a lone, grumpy old cinephile - I'm one as well and proud of it!

Regarding The English Patient you're quite correct. Though very well made it only appealed to my aesthetic sensibilities. I could appreciate it on a technical and intellectual level but it never engaged my emotions. It never felt like it had real heart. I never felt while watching it that it had the possibility of surprise, so seemingly calculated was it in it's construction. I tend to feel mostly that way about The Aviator as well.

Greg said...

You can't really apply Punk DIY to film, but as a director it's possible to get enough of yourself in there to make a difference.

Definitely a part of my problem with Ron Howard. He just seems to make the movies as written, kind of there to act as the traffic cop who yells "action" and "cut". He doesn't really do anything wrong but he definitely doesn't do anything exciting either.

Greg said...

David, thanks. Yes, The English Patient feels utterly calculated, in every sense. I mean, I know that every major motion picture is calculated, given the prep time and expense but that doesn't mean they have to feel calculated.

Scott Nye said...

But on the other hand, the Coen brothers always make supremely calculated films, but they've made some of the best films of the last twenty years. They even FEEL calculated, but that's a large part of their joy as well. What gives?

The problem isn't proficiency, but, as some have alluded to here, a lack of passion, of spirit. You can make all the "right" decisions, but the movie can still be totally devoid of soul (The Road is a perfect example), just as you can do a totally shoot-from-the-hip film that yields nothing (the Duplass brothers' Cyrus was just a total misfire).

Anonymous said...


For me, I dislike well made films if there is no one in the movie I care about. Not like-I'm not asking for characters that are likeable-but that I care whether they live or die (even if I want the latter). And you can have an otherwise excellent movie that just has no one it that touches me. (But hey, nothing works for everyone.)

Pat said...

Greg - You, I and Elaine Benes are all in the same camp as regards THE ENGLISH PATIENT. I can't really come up with a single example of a serious flaw (although a friend of mine does a wonderful, hilarious over-the-top impersonation of Ralph Fiennes' agonized grimace as he carries Kristin Scott-Thomas through the desert or wherever the hell he carries her) - but I can't imagine I'll ever be motivated to sit through it again.

On the other side of the coin, I've always loved MAGNOLIA, even though it's too long, too all-over-the-place and not nearly as cohesive or integrated as it wants to be (and Julianne Moore is uncharacertistically AWFUL in it). In short, it's a mess, but a really interesting, fun and inspired kind of mess.

bill r. said...

I'm not talking about those recent brouhahas and kerfuffles and, dare I say it, foofaraws that erupted after that guy wrote that piece about how he didn't like those movies that were supposed to be movies he liked but he found them boring and then a bunch of critics were all like, "I hate you!" and went running to their rooms

Well I never. I wish you'd said something when I wrote my post! I can't trust you. I quit, you can have my blog.

Also, I basically know what you mean here, but in your reasoning I do think you're cherry-picking just slightly. Contrasting Herzog and Ron Howard makes sense when you describe it, but all I can think of, when you talk about the over-planned feeling of Howard's stuff, is how minutely worked out every Coen brothers film is, and I know you like them.

So, you kow. Explain that one, tough guy.

Mike Lippert said...

I think the most important message in this piece is that there is a difference between something being good and liking something. A lot of people get them confused. A lot of bad criticism is written because of that. Anyone can say if they like something of not (everyone is entitled to their opinion) but not everyone has the knowledge to decide if a movie is good or not. You have to actually know what you are talking about to justify claims like that. Because of that, I can get behind everything you've written here.

Fred said...

The English Patient may be the film that I hate the most in this World. It felt like they stretched a scriopt for a mediocre 90 minute film into 3 uncomforatable, boring hours. I'm also with Elaine Benes on this, as I was literally yelling "Die! Dile already you bastard!" at Ralph Fiennes's character in the middle of the theater. Seriously, how I am supposed to give a fuck about some rich asshole who betrays the Allies and helps the Nazis so they can recapture Tobruk, kill Allied soldiers, prolong the Holocaust and cost Jurgen Prochnow his thumbs?

Greg said...

But on the other hand, the Coen brothers always make supremely calculated films, but they've made some of the best films of the last twenty years. They even FEEL calculated, but that's a large part of their joy as well. What gives?

But in their calculations I feel the joy of the cinema, and that makes all the difference.

Greg said...

And you can have an otherwise excellent movie that just has no one it that touches me.

It happens with lots of Oscar winners for me. All made by top level Hollywood craftspeople, all polished and refined and yet so lifeless. It's the essence that sometimes gets lost with having everyone doing everything perfectly right.

Greg said...

Pat - Ha, I'm with you totally on Magnolia. What a grand, glorious mess that movie is. I love it and think because it's so messy it's excellent. There's a spirit behind that film, a verve, an artistic curiosity that I find quite impressive.

And The English Patient feels totally and perfectly made. Zzzzzz.

Greg said...

Bill, like I said above (wrote it before seeing your comment) with the Coen brothers I feel such a love for being adventurous, with trying new techniques, with going in new directions that I don't get from Howard. Of course, this is all so very subjective. Like I said, none of this can be proven or answered in any reasonable way. So, anyway, up yours.

Greg said...

difference between something being good and liking something. A lot of people get them confused. A lot of bad criticism is written because of that.

Amen. It's a tough thing, though, to write about a movie being good that you just don't like which is why, if I had to (if I were a paid critic), I'd praise everything in The English Patient and then reveal that it didn't move me in the least. You've got be honest and cover all the bases and a lot of criticism doesn't do that.

Greg said...

The English Patient may be the film that I hate the most in this World.

Fred, your further description fits mine to a tee. Why, exactly, I ask myself during the course of the film, am I supposed to give two shits about these characters. It's a mystery to me.

Jerry said...

Greg, I think you are my new best friend. This post perfectly expresses how I feel about how movies changed in the 1980s, and why they were so good before.

Greg said...

Jerry, glad to hear it. Movie in the eighties on just start to look too polished and finished. Still tons of great films in there, no doubt, but that spontaneous, gritty feel is gone.

Scott Nye said...

"Jerry, glad to hear it. Movie in the eighties on just start to look too polished and finished. Still tons of great films in there, no doubt, but that spontaneous, gritty feel is gone."

The Lincoln Lawyer, Redland, Rubber, Meek's Cutoff, Super, Hesher, Beginners, The Tree of Life, Another Earth, The Guard, Margaret, Rampart, Melancholia, Martha Marcy May Marlene.

And that's just this year.

Greg said...

Tree of Life was great. Seeing Melancholia this week. Have pretty high hopes for it.

Scott Nye said...

Well, my point is that this spontaneous-gritty-not-planned-within-an-inch-of-its-life mode of operation is very much alive and well, regardless of quality. The whole mumblecore movement proves that, if nothing else.

Kelli Marshall said...

First, please, please tell me you're a SEINFELD fan and that you've seen the episode "The English Patient." A taste:

Second, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE "doesn't work for you"?! You're killing me, man. Killing me. :) It's one of my Top Ten Favorite Films. I've actually taught the screenplay as a work of literature. The puns! The intertextuality! The glorious crosscutting in that lovemaking/creation of R+J scene! Love, love, love all of it.

Greg said...

Kelli, so glad to see you here, even if you do like Shakespeare in Love. Ha, ha [nervously laughs, adjusts collar, starts sweating], I'm kidding. The movie's good, I just don't like... hey, wait a minute. That's the title of the post. Anyway, I was talking about the other Shakespeare in Love.

And, yes, I've seen every Seinfeld probably 10 times at least and certainly know that one. It came to mind instantly as I starting writing this piece.

man in the iron mask said...

But Greg, we can argue, surely, that both The Road and Frost/Nixon are not exactly doing "everything right", if that term means skill/craft.
In fact, these films are mediocre (The Road) to sub-standard (Frost/Nixon) because there is a certain level of, how do I say, ineptness in the proceedings.

Let us pick Frost/Nixon, and I wouldn't crib about the historical inaccuracies. What I'll focus on is the filmmaking choices.
Everything about Frost and Nixon lay in the how, why and what of those interviews. The script is right in creating a narrative about the interviews, rather than the men, but it botches up the execution. The interviews, themselves have significantly less footage. They’re, as a matter of fact, pushed to the background, used only as a punchline every now and then. What we see is behind the scenes, which is fine up to a point. But here, it gets way too much, especially when every time either Frost or Nixon score a point, we see reactions of the aides on both sides. There’s Kevin Bacon, as Jack Brennan, and his end of the bargain is to look mean and menacing. There’s Diane Sawyer in Nixon’s camp, and all she and the other two are asked to do is to smirk as they look at the miserable Frost. Are they even characters, or are they just excuses for the bad guys? It is shameful of the film to resort to such means to invoke emotions out of us. Nothing is left to our inference, and everything is spelt out by means of the various side characters. The script has a neat style where everybody except for Nixon and Frost are shown speaking about the interviews, as in a History Channel documentary, and they interpret and lay out everything for us. They might as well have had a scoreboard nearby and it wouldn’t have made it any worse. And there is another weakness that is betrayed in the process.
One of the great features of the original interviews was the atmosphere, with its low-key home lighting, which reined in a cozy, warm environment. It felt interior. The film though for its part doesn’t know how to shoot those sequences. So all it does is show us excerpts of those interviews, and if you have ever heard an interview, you would agree that the impact lay in how it evolves rather than the highlights. It is a slow process, a gradual increase in the tension, each moment drawing strength from the previous. The film doesn’t know that, and for it this is a boxing match. A punch, a sentence is all it needs. The final interview, and the final apology is run fast because it needs to be accommodated by highlighting the key points, and it is a horrendous example of by-the-numbers filmmaking.
I mean, how dense can a film be if it does not realize the cinematic power of the original interviews, and that the Nixon interviews, more than an historical event, were a media event.

man in the iron mask said...

Let us now consider the mediocrity of The Road.
This is a film about apocalypse. Now, I often imagine post apocalypse as one big void. A void of space, and a void in time. Nowhere to go, or maybe everywhere to go. The thing is, such a world wouldn’t have an edit. A jump in time, here, is a mistake. I absolutely agree with the commercial aspects of it, but I also absolutely detest the moral aspects of it. You see, I am not sure if simply telling us about a father and a son lost in this infinite wilderness, where any direction could spiral downwards, without any real endeavor to make us feel what they are going through, is entirely right.
Consider a film like PVC-1 that simply wears us down.

A film just cannot shorthand through such situations, through little scenes showing the misery, and then cutting to the next scene. These moments ought to be prolonged so much so that they feel present. Say whatever about Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, but he wasn’t trying to shortchange his way through the misery of its violence. It was a film that was about itself. And as far as I remember, Cormac McCarthy's book didn't have any chapters. Please do correct me if I am mistaken.
Moreover, this is the guy who made The Proposition. He ought to know that a drama set in a post-apocalyptic world does not, under any circumstance, warrant a background score. More so not a film like this one here, whose very calling card is a desolate world. A background score always fills the gap within your mind. It is meant to provide closure, sort the deal out with your emotions. So very neatly wrapped in its mediocrity and not at all trying to push itself.

So yeah, I absolutely stand behind your hatred for these films, and I detest them myself.

Greg said...

Man in the Iron Mask - Those are great observations on NIXON/FROST and THE ROAD. I can't say I'm displeased to see you tear down even the veneer of either being well-made although I suppose I meant professionally done more than competently done. Which has me thinking, maybe that's it. Maybe all these movies we don't like, like ENGLISH PATIENT or THE ROAD or NIXON/FROST, we don't like because through their professional veneer we glimpse less than competent decisions being made.

Although, with THE ENGLISH PATIENT, I really just don't like the story a whole hell of a lot either.