Friday, December 08, 2006

Ten Movies That Ain't All That

Greencine Daily posted a link to Premiere Magazine's list of The Twenty Most Overrated Movies of All Time, and seeing as how most of us movie nerds love lists more than dogs love peanut butter, I couldn't resist cobbling together a response (I agree with a lot of Premiere's choices, but they missed a few).

Stuff like this naturally prompts a need for a blanket definition of an 'overrated' movie. Is it the Absurdly Popular Box Office Hit? The Pretentious Masterwork that Launched a Thousand Critics' Drool Puddles? The Venerated Old Hollywood Classic? I figure it's at least one (or any combination) of the three. It can even be a movie that you like, just so long as the vocal huzzahs (critical, popular, or both) that surround said movie exceed the actual merit of the final product.

Incidentally, Premiere's list of Twenty Most Overrated included rebuttal statements in defense of every movie. So if you think I'm on crack with some of my opinions, lemme know. Constructive dissent might make me reevaluate some of my choices. Then again, that dissent might just convince me that you're smoking higher-grade rock than I am.

So without further tangential ratchet-jawing, here's my two cents, in no particular order.

Titanic (1997): It's got impressive special effects. It possesses the proverbial all-star cast. It's long. An utterly chemistry-free romance whirrs away mechanically at its center, over a bedrock foundation of the kind of melodramatic hooey that reached its pull date around the Silent Era. And it won a Best Picture Oscar. Figures.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966): We're talking heresy here, I guess, since Sergio Leone's Man With No Name Trilogy reignited the Western genre and inspired ripples that still course through modern cinema. And never in a million years would I dispute the on-site brilliance of Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and (especially) the mighty Eli Wallach. But at 2.5 hours (three if you go with the unexpurgated cut), it's too much of a good thing, with endless minutes of meandering (yes, it's visually-arresting meandering set to a boffo Ennio Morricone score, but it's still meandering) offsetting the flashes of action and existential cool. It's a good movie, but not a great one.

Dances With Wolves (1990): Premiere's staff threw that flight of sports-fantasy whimsy Field of Dreams onto their list: Kevin Costner's polite, visually-sumptuous-but-inherently-dull Big Western Epic, meanwhile, earns the Emperor's New Clothes label much more vigorously. If this bale of hippie-twaddle hay hadn't been shot to perfection by cinematographer Dean Semler, Costner would be selling plasma screen TVs at Sears today.

Halloween (1978): Director John Carpenter crafted two of the most satisfying genre films of the eighties with Escape from New York and The Thing respectively, but I've grown a bit lukewarm on his breakout movie. Yeah, it's well-crafted, has some good performances, and registered lasting seismic impact on the horror scene (for better and for worse), but its influence still far exceeds its merits.

Raging Bull (1980): After watching Raging Bull with me a few months back, my dear wife launched into an incredibly intelligent, measured, and incisive case against Martin Scorsese's work (how 'bout a guest Blog on this topic sometime, hon?). I admire the man's efforts much more than she, but as is, all my Scorsese-lovin' pals are gonna rough me up big-time for what I'm about to say about what many consider to be Scorsese's masterpiece.

I'll freely cop to the fact that many great things were poured into Scorsese's biopic on boxer Jake LaMotta. Michael Chapman's impossibly rich lenswork, Thelma Schoonmaker's brilliant editing, and the movie's immersive and impactful use of sound and sound effects remain unrivaled. Cathy Moriarty's unself-consciously natural and achingly honest work as Vicki, and DiNiro's staggering physical and technical discipline in the title role still impress today.

But Best film of the Eighties? C'mon. The script by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin never really gets under it's subject's skin until the very end, so for much of Raging Bull's running time Jake LaMotta's nothing more than a grunting embodiment of extra-ugly Id who makes a handsome living by unleashing his impulses with lethal effectiveness. The fact that he can't corral that Id in his private life would provide more dramatic meat if we saw inside this guy more. And don't try arguing that maybe there is nothing more inside him than a primal impulse to violence and gratification: that's a cop-out. I've got no problem with an unlikeable human being at the core of a movie. But if you don't let me see inside him during the bulk of the running time, all of the amazing sound, fury, light and shadows are for naught (or at least for not enough).

Whew, that one took a lot out of me.

The Sound of Music (1965): Premiere's staff takes the critical bat to the knees of An American in Paris, while leaving this empty-headed little bonbon alone. WTF? Why did this perfectly pleasant and acceptable but utterly unspectacular movie become such a phenomenon? Cute li'l moppets singing cute li'l songs alongside their cute li'l nanny does not movie iconography make (even if it's in front of eye-popping European scenery). If you wanna talk truly great movie musicals, West Side Story possesses a much more resonant emotional center, and Singin' in the Rain hits the comedic sweet spot a lot more adroitly.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004): It's blessedly free of scatology, and at some points it captures the dustbowl vacancy of suburban America with knowing affection (I lived a variation of the egg farm scene when I was fifteen). But the massive echo Napoleon Dynamite left on the pop culture radar has always stymied me. Other movies captured awkward adolescence a lot better (and funnier), and the characters are too broadly-drawn to really stick to the ribs. They do, however, make great action figures. Speaking of which...

Batman (1989): As visually kinetic as Batman is, it spins off into irritating, near-unwatchable hyperkinetic goofiness in its final third. Even this early in his career Tim Burton already merited consideration as one of modern cinema's supreme visual stylists, a strength that renders his all-thumbs handling of actors (Ed Wood excepted) all the more frustrating. Jack Nicholson's Joker provides a textbook example of a Thespian Bull thundering through the proverbial china shop (this from a fan of Nicholson's and Burton's).

The Seven Year Itch (1955): This Billy Wilder-helmed comedy depicting husband Tom Ewell's unconsumated lechery over dim bulb Marilyn Monroe has aged badly. There's a reason that the only thing you remember from this movie is a peek up Monroe's skirt, folks.

Pulp Fiction (1994): Hardcore movie geeks are like some sort of intellectual Elks' Club sometimes, wearing their silly-ass fezzes and yokking it up at jokes and references that leave the non-Elks' Club masses in the cold. Pulp Fiction, then, is the comedian playing the Elks' big Catskills shindig, telling jokes and stories that'll appeal most profoundly to his liquor-(or movie-)soused specialized audience. So remember when I tell you that I adore Pulp Fiction almost beyond words, and that I think it's one of the greatest movies of the nineties, that's coming from one of those polyester-clad Fez-headed jackasses. And we do have a tendency to overrate things.


Reel Fanatic said...

I definitely don't know enough to be a "hardcore geek" about anything, but like Nixon, I know what I like, and I like "Pulp Fiction" .. I'm definitely with you on Titanic and Dances with Wolves though ... They just blow

Brad said...

Wha?! "Raging Bull" IS in my all-time top five or so greatest movies EVER. I'm too staggered to summon any intelligent rebuttal, so I'll just say you're WRONG WRONG WRONG!!! You're WRONG about "The Sound Of Music Too". Two out of ten. Not bad though.