Friday, July 18, 2008

Your Movie Sucks!

As the world watches and debates this weekend how great is The Dark Knight, let us consider those films that, as the kids say, “suck ass.” I mentioned in my Fatal Flaws article that I had read Roger Ebert’s latest book, Your Movie Sucks, which is a collection of reviews from the last decade or so of films that had fewer than one and a half stars.

It’s so easy to point to the strengths of a great film, which can be many, but I’ve always felt that you learn more from a film (or script) that fails. I always take those lessons of failure with me when I sit down to write, more so than the successes of great films.

Oh, the things that would drive Ebert crazy! I took notes. Whole preposterousness. Ridiculous stupidity in execution. A workable concept completely miscast. The lack of verisimilitude. Crushed by the weight of bankrupt clichés. Cardboard characters. Characters betrayed by the needs of the plot. Failing at its own objectives (i.e., a comedy that’s horribly unfunny). An indecipherable chaotic mess of a plot. Unfinished and unfleshed-out story, and thus, inconsistencies, improbabilities, unanswered questions, and unfinished characters. Suspension of belief and intelligence. Total implausibility.

He would sometimes cite Gene Siskel’s method of judging value: Is the movie better than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?

And so, I’d like to share highlights from the book, little golden nuggets for aspiring screenwriters, that I thought would be of interest. Screenwriting is tough. What’s at stake with every script is not only your career and your future but also the possibility of public humiliation. If you, as an aspiring screenwriter, are not insecure, paranoid, and worrisome about almost every story decision you make, I can’t help but wonder if there’s something wrong with you.


Hope you enjoy it.



Be Cool

John Travolta became a movie star by playing a Brooklyn kid who wins a dance contest in "Saturday Night Fever" (1977). He revived his career by dancing with Uma Thurman in "Pulp Fiction" (1994). In "Be Cool," Uma Thurman asks if he dances. "I'm from Brooklyn," he says, and then they dance. So we get it: "Brooklyn" connects with "Fever," Thurman connects with "Pulp." That's the easy part. The hard part is, what do we do with it?

Be Cool" is a movie that knows it is a movie. It knows it is a sequel and contains disparaging references to sequels. All very cute at the screenplay stage, where everybody can sit around at story conferences and assume that a scene will work because the scene it refers to worked. But that's the case only when the new scene is also good as itself, apart from what it refers to.

Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" knew that Travolta won the disco contest in "Saturday Night Fever." But Tarantino's scene didn't depend on that; it built from it. Travolta was graceful beyond compare in "Fever," but in "Pulp Fiction" he's dancing with a gangster's wife on orders from the gangster, and part of the point of the scene is that both Travolta and Thurman look like they're dancing not out of joy, but out of duty. So we remember "Fever" and then we forget it, because the new scene is working on its own.

Now look at the dance scene in "
Be Cool." Travolta and Thurman dance in a perfectly competent way that is neither good nor bad. Emotionally they are neither happy or sad. The scene is not necessary to the story. The filmmakers have put them on the dance floor without a safety net. And so we watch them dancing and we think, yeah, "Saturday Night Fever" and "Pulp Fiction," and when that thought has been exhausted, they're still dancing.


A Dirty Shame

There is in show biz something known as "a bad laugh." That's the laugh you don't want to get, because it indicates not amusement but incredulity, nervousness or disapproval.
John Waters' "A Dirty Shame" is the only comedy I can think of that gets more bad laughs than good ones…

To truly deal with a strange sexual fetish can indeed be shocking, as "
Kissed" (1996) demonstrated with its quiet, observant portrait of Molly Parker playing a necrophiliac. It can also be funny, as James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal demonstrated in the film "Secretary" (2002). Tracey Ullman is a great comic actress, but for her to make this movie funny would have required not just a performance but a rewrite and a miracle.

Fetishes are neither funny nor shocking simply because they exist. You have to do more with them than have characters gleefully celebrate them on the screen. Waters' weakness is to expect laughs because the idea of a moment is funny. But the idea of a moment exists only for the pitch; the movie has to develop it into a reality, a process, a payoff. An illustration of this is his persisting conviction that it is funny by definition to have Patty Hearst in his movies. It is only funny when he gives Ms. Hearst, who is a good sport, something amusing to do. She won't find it in this movie.


Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

There is not a character in the movie with a shred of plausibility, not an event that is believable, not a confrontation that is not staged, not a moment that is not false. For their sins, the sisterhood should be forced to spend the rest of their lives locked in a Winnebago camper. The only character in the movie who is bearable is the heroine as a young woman, played by
Ashley Judd, who suggests that there was a time before the story's main events when this creature was palatable…

The movie marks the directorial debut of
Callie Khouri, author of "Thelma and Louise." She seems uncertain what the film is about, where it is going, what it hopes to prove apart from the most crashingly obvious cliches of light women's fiction. So inattentive is the screenplay that it goes to the trouble of providing Vivi with three other children in addition to Sidda, only to never mention them again. A fellow critic, Victoria Alexander, speculates that the secret in Vivi's past may have been that she drowned the kids, but that's too much to hope for.


Double Take

"Double Take" is the kind of double-triple-reverse movie that can drive you nuts because you can't count on anything in the plot. Characters, motivations and true identities change from scene to scene at the whim of the screenplay. Finally you tire of trying to follow the story. You can only get the rug jerked out from under you so many times before you realize the movie has the attention span of a gnat and thinks you do, too.



It is possible to imagine this story being told in a good film, but that would involve a different screenplay. Nicholas Kazan's script makes the evil husband (
Billy Campbell) such an unlikely caricature of hard-breathing sadistic testosterone that he cannot possibly be a real human being. Of course there are men who beat their wives and torture them with cruel mind games, but do they satirize themselves as the heavy in a B movie? The husband's swings of personality and mood are so sudden, and his motivation makes so little sense, that he has no existence beyond the stereotyped Evil Rich White Male. The fact that he preys on a poor Latino waitress is just one more cynical cliche…

In the movie's headlong rush of events, Slim and Mitch are soon married, buy a big house, have a cute child, and then Slim discovers Mitch is having affairs, and he growls at her: "I am, and always will be, a person who gets what he wants." He starts slapping her around. Although their child is now 3 or 4, this is a Mitch she has not seen before in their marriage. Where did this Mitch come from? How did he restrain himself from pounding and strangling her during all of the early years? Why did she think herself happy until now? The answer, of course, is that Mitch turns on a dime when the screenplay requires him to. He even starts talking differently.


The Girl Next Door

The nature of their film is yet another bait-and-switch, in a movie that wants to seem dirtier than it is. Like a strip show at a carnival, it lures you in with promises of sleaze, and after you have committed yourself for the filthy-minded punter you are, it professes innocence… "Risky Business" (1983) you will recall, starred
Tom Cruise as a young man left home alone by his parents, who wrecks the family Porsche and ends up enlisting a call girl (Rebecca De Mornay) to run a brothel out of his house to raise money to replace the car. The movie is the obvious model for "The Girl Next Door," but it completely misses the tone and wit of the earlier film, which proved you can get away with that plot, but you have to know what you're doing and how to do it, two pieces of knowledge conspicuously absent here.


Head Over Heels

"Head Over Heels" opens with 15 funny minutes and then goes dead in the water. It's like they sent home the first team of screenwriters and brought in Beavis and Butt-Head. The movie starts out with sharp wit and edgy zingers, switches them off and turns to bathroom humor. And not funny bathroom humor, but painfully phony gas-passing noises, followed by a plumbing emergency that buries three supermodels in a putrid delivery from where the sun don't shine. It's as if the production was a fight to the death between bright people with a sense of humor, and cretins who think the audience is as stupid as they are.

Monica Potter and Freddie Prinze Jr. star in another one of those stories where it's love at first sight and then she gets the notion that he's clubbed someone to death. The two characters were doing perfectly well being funny as themselves , and then the movie muzzles them and brings in this pea-brained autopilot plot involving mistaken identities, dead bodies and the Russian mob.

Why? I wanted to ask the filmmakers. Why? You have a terrific cast and the wit to start out well. Why surrender and sell out? Isn't it a better bet, and even better for your careers, to make a whole movie that's smart and funny, instead of showing off for 15 minutes and then descending into cynicism and stupidity? Why not make a movie you can show to the friends you admire, instead of to a test audience scraped from the bottom of the IQ barrel?


The Hills Have Eyes

It always begins with the Wrong Gas Station. In real life, as I pointed out in my review of a previous Wrong Gas Station movie, most gas stations are clean, well-lighted places, where you can buy not only gasoline but groceries, clothes, electronic devices,
Jeff Foxworthy CDs and a full line of Harley merchandise. In horror movies, however, the only gas station in the world is located on a desolate road in a godforsaken backwater. It is staffed by a degenerate who shuffles out in his coveralls and runs through a disgusting repertory of scratchings, spittings, chewings, twitchings and leerings, while thoughtfully shifting mucus up and down his throat.

The clean-cut heroes of the movie, be they a family on vacation, newlyweds, college students or backpackers, all have one thing in common. They believe everything this man tells them, especially when he suggests they turn left on the unpaved road for a shortcut. Does it ever occur to them that in this desolate wasteland with only one main road, it must be the road to stay on if they ever again want to use their cell phones?

No. It does not. They take the fatal detour, and find themselves the prey of demented mutant incestuous cannibalistic gnashing slobberers, who carry pickaxes the way other people carry umbrellas.


How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days

I am just about ready to write off movies in which people make bets about whether they will, or will not, fall in love. The premise is fundamentally unsound, since it subverts every love scene with a lying subtext. Characters are nice when they want to be mean, or mean when they want to be nice. The easiest thing at the movies is to sympathize with two people who are falling in love. The hardest thing is to sympathize with two people who are denying their feelings, misleading each other, and causing pain to a trusting heart. This is comedy only by dictionary definition. In life, it is unpleasant, and makes the audience sad.

Unless, of course, the characters are thoroughgoing rotters in the first place, as in "
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" (1988), in which Steve Martin and Michael Caine make a $50,000 bet on who will be the first to con the rich American played by Glenne Headley. They deserve their comeuppance, and we enjoy it. "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" is not, alas, pitched at that modest level of sophistication, and provides us with two young people who are like pawns in a sex game for the developmentally shortchanged.


Invisible Circus

Adam Brooks' "Invisible Circus" finds the solution to searing personal questions through a tricky flashback structure. There are two stories here, involving an older sister's disappearance and a younger sister's quest, and either one would be better told as a straightforward narrative. When flashbacks tease us with bits of information, it has to be done well, or we feel toyed with. Here the mystery is solved by stomping in thick-soled narrative boots through the squishy marsh of contrivance.


Jeepers Creepers 2

To call the characters on the bus paper-thin would be a kindness. Too bad, then, that we spend so much time on the bus, listening to their wretched dialogue and watching as they race from one window to another to see what foul deeds are occurring outside. Speaking of outside, Scott is the obligatory obstreperous jerk who is forever speculating that the creature has gone and won't return; he keeps suggesting they leave the bus to trek to a hypothetical nearby farmhouse. He's a direct throwback to the standard character in Dead Teenager Movies who's always saying, "Hmmm ... all of the other campers have been found dead and eviscerated, Mimsy, so this would be an ideal time to walk out into the dark woods and go skinny-dipping in the pond where dozens of kids have died in the previous movies in this series."

Despite Scott's homophobia, the movie has a healthy interest in the male physique, and it's amazing how many of the guys walk around bare-chested. The critic John Fallon writes "at a certain point, I thought I was watching soft gay erotica," and observes that when four of the guys go outside to pee, they line up shoulder to shoulder, which strikes him as unlikely since they are in a very large field. True in another movie, but in a film where the Creeper is likely to swoop down at any second and carry someone away, I would pick the tallest guy and stand next to him, on the theory that lightning will strike the tree and not you.


Just A Kiss

Consider, for example, a sequence in which one character on an airplane uses his cell phone to tell another that he loves her. His phone emits lethal transmissions which cause the plane to crash. Everyone in first class lives; everyone in tourist class dies. I smile as I write the words. This would be a good scene in "Airplane!" What is it doing here, in a movie where we are possibly expected to care about the characters' romances and infidelities? To admit farce into a drama is to admit that the drama is farce.

But is it a drama? I haven't a clue. The movie seems to reinvent itself from moment to moment, darting between styles like a squirrel with too many nuts. There is one performance that works, sort of, and it is by
Marisa Tomei, as a bartender whose psychic gifts allow her to find meaning in the rings left by cold beers. She is a crazy homicidal maniac, but, hey, at least that means that nothing she does is out of character.


Just Married

Sarah and Tom have nothing to talk about. They are a pathetic stupid couple and deserve each other. What they do not deserve, perhaps, is a screenplay that alternates between motivation and slapstick. Either it's character-driven or it isn't. If it is, then you can't take your plausible characters and dump them into Laurel and Hardy. Their rental car, for example, gets a cheap laugh, but makes them seem silly in the wrong way. And earlier in the film, Tom is responsible for the death of Sarah's dog in a scenario recycled directly from an urban legend everyone has heard.

Would it have been that much more difficult to make a movie in which Tom and Sarah were plausible, reasonably articulate newlyweds with the humor on their honeymoon growing out of situations we could believe? Apparently.


The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Now listen carefully. M informs them that the leaders of Europe are going to meet in Venice and that the mysterious villains will blow up the city to start a world war. The League must stop them. When is the meeting? In three days, M says. Impossible to get there in time, Quartermain says, apparently in ignorance of railroads. Nemo volunteers his submarine, the Nautilus, which is about 10 stories high and as long as an aircraft carrier, and which we soon see cruising the canals of Venice.

It's hard enough for gondolas to negotiate the inner canals of Venice, let alone a sub the size of an ocean liner, but no problem; "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" either knows absolutely nothing about Venice, or (more likely) trusts that its audience does not. At one point, the towering Nautilus sails under the tiny Bridge of Sighs and only scrapes it a little. In no time at all there is an action scene involving Nemo's newfangled automobile, which races meaninglessly down streets that do not exist, because there are no streets in Venice and you can't go much more than a block before running into a bridge or a canal. Maybe the filmmakers did their research at the Venetian Hotel in Venice, where Connery arrived by gondola for the movie's premiere.


The Legend of Zorro

Now come Banderas and Zeta-Jones again, with the same director,
Martin Campbell, and of all of the possible ideas about how to handle the Elena character, this movie has assembled the worst ones. The sublime adventuress has turned into the kind of wife who wants her husband to quit Zorroing because "you do not know your own son," and besides Zorro comes home late, she never knows where he is, etc. We are inflicted with such dialogue as:

"People still need Zorro!"

"No -- you still need Zorro!"

"You're overreacting!"

Saints preserve us from Mr. and Mrs. Zorro as the Bickersons. And what are we to make of their son, Joaquin (a good little actor named Adrian Alonso), who dresses like Little Lord Fauntleroy but has developed, apparently by osmosis, all of the skills of his father, such as shadowing bad guys, eavesdropping on plots, improvising in emergencies and exposing a dastardly scheme to overthrow the government.

He's a bright kid, but not bright enough to recognize that Zorro is his own father. To be sure, Zorro wears a mask, but let me pose a hypothetical exercise for my readers. Imagine your own father. That's it. Now place him in a typical setting: Pushing back from the dinner table, cutting off some jerk in an intersection, or scratching his dandruff. Now imagine your dad wearing black leather pants, a black linen shirt, a black cloak, a flat black hat, and a black mask that covers his eyes. Got that? Now imagine him pushing back from the table. Still your dad, right? You can almost hear your mom: "Now don't you go getting any ideas about that whip."


The Man

At Telluride over the weekend, I was talking to
James Mangold, the director of "Walk the Line" and other ambitious pictures, and he said an interesting thing: Hollywood executives are reluctant to green-light a project that depends on the filmmakers being able to pull it off. They want familiar formulas in safe packages. An original movie idea involves faith that the script will work, the director knows what he's doing and the actors are right for the story. Too risky. Better to make a movie where when you hear the pitch you can already envision the TV commercial, because the movie will essentially be the long form of the 30-second spot. Go online, look at the trailer for "The Man," and you will know everything you could possibly need to know about this movie except how it would feel if the trailer was 80 minutes long.


Masked and Anonymous

"Masked and Anonymous" is a vanity production beyond all reason. I am not sure, however, than the vanity is Dylan's. I don't have any idea what to think about him. He has so long since disappeared into his persona that there is little received sense of the person there. The vanity belongs perhaps to those who flattered their own by working with him, by assuming (in the face of all they had learned during hard days of honest labor on a multitude of pictures) that his genius would somehow redeem a screenplay that could never have seemed other than what it was, incoherent raving juvenile meanderings. If I had been asked to serve as consultant on this picture, my advice would have amounted to three words: more Tinashe Kachingwe.


The Master of Disguise

The movie is a desperate miscalculation. It gives poor
Dana Carvey nothing to do that is really funny, and then expects us to laugh because he acts so goofy all the time. But acting funny is not funny. Acting in a situation that's funny--that's funny.



Downtown itself looks like the amusement park from (or in) hell, and there's a lot of "
Beetlejuice" in the inspiration for the strange creatures, one-eyed and otherwise, who live there. But strangeness is not enough. There must also be humor, and characters who exist for some reason other than to look bizarre. That rule would include Whoopi Goldberg's Death, who is sadly underwritten, and played by Goldberg as if we're supposed to keep repeating: "Wow! Look! Death is being played by Whoopi Goldberg!" It is a truth too often forgotten that casting a famous actor in a weird cameo is the setup of the joke, not the punch line.



Eventually we realize that Fonda's character consists entirely of a scene waiting to happen: The scene where her heart melts, she realizes Charlie is terrific, and she accepts her. Everything else Viola does is an exercise in postponing that moment. The longer we wait, the more we wonder why (a) Charlie doesn't belt her, and (b) Charlie doesn't jump Dr. Kevin -- actually, I meant to write "dump," but either will do. By the time the happy ending arrives, it's too late, because by then we don't want Charlie to marry Dr. Kevin. We want her to go back to walking the dogs. She was happier, we were happier, the dogs were happier.


Mr. Deeds

Frank Capra played this story straight. But the 2002 film doesn't really believe in it, and breaks the mood with absurdly inappropriate "comedy" scenes. Consider a scene where Deeds meets his new butler Emilio (John Turturro). Emilio has a foot fetish. Deeds doubts Emilio will like his right foot, which is pitch black after a childhood bout of frostbite. The foot has no feeling, Deeds says, inviting Emilio to pound it with a fireplace poker. When Deeds doesn't flinch, Turturro actually punctures the foot with the point of the poker, at which point I listened attentively for sounds of laughter in the theater, and heard none.

There's no chemistry between Deeds and Babe, but then how could there be, considering that their characters have no existence, except as the puppets in scenes of plot manipulation. After Deeds grows disillusioned with her, there is a reconciliation inspired after she falls through the ice on a pond and he breaks through to save her using the Black Foot. In story conferences, do they discuss scenes like this and nod approvingly? Tell me, for I want to know.

[Indeed, they do, Roger.]


The One

This titanic closing fight, by the way, may use cutting-edge effects, but has been written with slavish respect for ancient cliches. It begins with the venerable It's Only a Cat Scene, in which a cat startles a character (but not the audience) by leaping at the lens. Then the characters retire to a Steam and Flame Factory, one of those Identikit movie sets filled with machines that produce copious quantities of steam, flames and sparks. Where do they have their fight? On a catwalk, of course. Does anyone end up clinging by his fingertips? Don't make me laugh. The movie offers brainless high-tech action without interesting dialogue, characters, motivation or texture. In other words, it's sure to be popular. Seeing a movie like this makes me feel bad that I applied such high standards to last week's "
Donnie Darko," which also deals with logical paradoxes, and by comparison, is a masterpiece.


The Promise

Another difficulty is that the story is never organized clearly enough to generate much concern in our minds. The characters are not people but collections of attributes, and isn't it generally true that the more sensational an action scene, the less we care about the people in it? It's as if the scene signals us that it's about itself, and the characters are spectators just as we are.

I spent a fair amount of time puzzling over my notes and rummaging on the Web for hints about the details of the plot, and in the process discovered a new Movie Law. You are familiar with the Law of Symbolism: If you have to ask what something symbolized, it didn't. Now here is the Law of Plots: If you can't describe it with clarity, there wasn't one. I know someone will throw up "
Syriana" as an objection, but there is a difference between a plot that is about confusion, and a plot that is merely confused.


Reign of Fire

I'm wondering, why, if civilization has been destroyed, do they have electricity and fuel? Not supposed to ask such questions. They're like, how come everybody has cigarettes in "
Waterworld"? Van Zan figures out that the dragon's fire comes from the way they secrete the ingredients for "natural napalm" in their mouths. His plan: Get real close and fire an explosive arrow into their open mouth at the crucial moment, causing the napalm to blow up the dragon.

He has another bright idea. (Spoiler warning.) All of the dragons they see are females. Many of them carry eggs. Why no males? Because, Van Zan hypothesizes, the dragons are like fish, and it only takes a single male to fertilize umpteen eggs. "We kill the male, we kill the species," he says.

Yeah, but ... there are dragons everywhere. Do they only have one male, total, singular? How about those eggs? Any of them male? And also, after the male is dead, presumably all of the females are still alive, and they must be mad as hell now that they're not getting any action. How come they stop attacking? I know I have probably been inattentive, and that some of these points are solved with elegant precision in the screenplay. But please do not write to explain, unless you can answer me this: Why are the last words in the movie, "Thank God for evolution"? Could it be a ray of hope that the offspring of this movie may someday crawl up onto the land and develop a two-celled brain?


Reindeer Games

“Reindeer Games” is the first All Talking Killer picture. After the setup, it consists mostly of characters explaining their actions to one another. I wish I'd had a stopwatch, to clock how many minutes are spent while one character holds a gun to another character's head and gabs.
Charlize Theron and Gary Sinise between them explain so much they reminded me of Gertrude Stein's line about Ezra Pound: "He was a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not." Just a nudge, and the movie would fall over into self-parody, and maybe work better. But I fear it is essentially serious, or as serious as such goofiness can be.


Resident Evil

Alice/J.P./M.T. or Rain (I forget which): "It's coagulating!" Matt or Spence (I forget which): "That's not possible!" "Why not?!?" "Because blood doesn't do that until you're dead!" How does the blood on the floor know if you're dead? The answer to this question is so obvious I am surprised you would ask. Because it is zombie blood.

The characters have no small talk. Their dialogue consists of commands, explanations, exclamations and ejaculations. Yes, an ejaculation can be dialogue. If you live long enough you may find that happening frequently.


Resident Evil: Apocalypse

We pause here for logistical discussions. In a scene where several characters are fighting zombies inside a church, the renegade scientist comes to the rescue by crashing her motorcycle through a stained-glass window and landing in the middle of the fight. This inspires the question: How did she know what was on the other side of the window? Was she crashing through the stained glass on spec?

My next logistical puzzlement involves killing the zombies. They die when you shoot them. Fine, except Umbrella Corp. has developed some mutants who wear bulletproof armor. Zillions of rounds of ammo bounce off this armor, but here's a funny thing: The mutants do not wear helmets, so we can see their ugly faces. So why not just shoot them in the head? Am I missing something here?


Romeo Must Die

It is a failing of mine that I persist in bringing logic to movies where it is not wanted. During ``Romeo Must Die,'' I began to speculate about the methods used to buy up the waterfront. All of the property owners (of clubs, little shops, crab houses, etc.) are asked to sell, and when they refuse, they are variously murdered, torched, blown up or have their faces stuck into vats of live crabs. Don't you think the press and the local authorities would notice this? Don't you imagine it would take the bloom off a stadium to know that dozens of victims were murdered to clear the land?

Never mind. The audience isn't in the theater for a film about property values, but to watch
Jet Li and other martial arts warriors in action. “Romeo Must Die” has a lot of fight scenes, but their key moments are so obviously filmed via special effects that they miss the point. When Jackie Chan does a stunt, it may look inelegant, but we know he's really doing it. Here Jet Li leaps six feet in the air and rotates clockwise while kicking three guys. It can't be done, we know it can't be done, we know he's not doing it, and so what's the point? In “The Matrix,” there's a reason the guy can fly.


Running Free

I seem to be developing a rule about talking animals: They can talk if they're cartoons or Muppets, but not if they're real. This movie might have been more persuasive if the boy had told the story of the horse, instead of the horse telling the story of the boy. It's perfectly possible to make a good movie about an animal that does not speak, as
Jean-Jacques Annaud, the producer of this film, proved with his 1989 film "The Bear." I also recall "The Black Stallion" (1979) and "White Fang" (1991). Since both of those splendid movies were co-written by Jeanne Rosenberg, the author of "Running Free," I can only guess that the talking horse was pressed upon her by executives who have no faith in the intelligence of today's audiences.


Rush Hour 2

There is a belief among some black comics that audiences find it funny when they launch extended insults against white people (see also
Chris Rock's embarrassing outburst in the forthcoming "Jay and Silent Bob"). My feeling is that audiences of any race find such scenes awkward and unwelcome; I've never heard laughter during them, but have sensed an uncomfortable alertness in the theater. Accusing complete strangers of being racist is aggressive, hostile, and not funny, something Tucker demonstrates to a painful degree in this movie--where the filmmakers apparently lacked the nerve to request him to dial down.


Say It Isn’t So

A comedy character can't be successfully embarrassed for more than a few seconds at a time. Even then, it's best if they don't know what they've done wrong--if the joke's on them, and they don't get it. The "hair gel" scenes in "
There's Something About Mary" are a classic example of embarrassment done right. "Say It Isn't So," on the other hand, keeps a character embarrassed in scene after scene, until he becomes an embarrassment. The movie doesn't understand that embarrassment comes in a sudden painful flush of realization; drag it out, and it's not embarrassment anymore, but public humiliation, which is a different condition, and not funny.


Silent Hill

Now here's a funny thing. Although I did not understand the story, I would have appreciated a great deal less explanation. All through the movie, characters are pausing in order to offer arcane back-stories and historical perspectives and metaphysical insights and occult orientations. They talk and talk and somehow their words do not light up any synapses in my brain, if my brain has synapses and they're supposed to light up, and if it doesn't and they're not, then they still don't make any sense.



It happens that I've just seen a complicated noir,
Roman Polanski's "Chinatown," which also involves sexual misconduct in the past and blackmail in the present. One reason it works so well is that the characters seem to drive the plot: Things turn out the way they do because the characters are who they are. The plot of "Simpatico" is like a clockwork mechanism that would tick whether or not anyone cared what time it was.



There is a kind of one-upmanship now at work in Hollywood, inspired by the success of several gross-out comedies, to elevate smut into an art form. This is not an entirely futile endeavor; it can be done, and when it is done well, it can be funny. But most of the wannabes fail to understand one thing: It is funny when a character is offensive despite himself, but not funny when he is deliberately offensive. The classic "hair gel" scene involving
Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz in "There's Something About Mary" was funny because neither one had the slightest idea what was going on.



The men in "
Tomcats" are surrounded by beautiful women, but they hate and fear them. That alone is enough to sink the film, since no reasonable person in the audience can understand why these guys are so weirdly twisted. But then the film humiliates the women, and we wince when it wants us to laugh. Here is a comedy positioned outside the normal range of human response.



The characters in "
Waiting..." seem like types, not people. What they do and say isn't funny because someone real doesn't seem to be doing or saying it. Everything that the John Beulshi character did in "Animal House" proceeded directly from the core of his innermost being: he crushed beer cans against his forehead, because he was a person who needed to, and often did, and enjoyed it and found that it worked for him. You never got the idea he did it because it might be funny in a movie.


Wolf Creek

“I like horror films. Horror movies, even extreme ones, function primarily by scaring us or intriguing us. Consider "Three ... Extremes" recently. "
Wolf Creek" is more like the guy at the carnival sideshow who bites off chicken heads. No fun for us, no fun for the guy, no fun for the chicken. In the case of this film, it's fun for the guy.”


Matt said...

Thanks for this, that was great... too many highlights, even in those short excerpts, to list.

But I think the real reason that Ebert's the only recognizable mainstream film critic these days is because, unlike anybody else working today, he can pinpoint exactly why films don't work - David Ansen, Rex Reed, and A.O. Scott may be able to effectively rip a movie to shreds, or put it up on a pedestal, but Ebert is the only one either willing, or able, to pinpoint the fatal flaw of the premise of 'Monster of Law.'

Joshua James said...

That was cool.

I do maintain, however, that REIGN OF FIRE could have worked, had they worked out their third act better.

but yeah, as it is, it didn't work. Too bad.

Christian M. Howell said...

That was a breath of fresh air. Finally a critic who doesn't believe in the "a-hole arc." Or the lying suitor getting the girl.

Or especially the obnoxious relative that wants DNA tests. But then maybe the desolate gas station is my biggest pet peeve.

Not it's gotta be the visits to the unbelievable worlds that reject physics.
Or perhaps it's all about NOT TRYING TO BE CLEVER. The funniest joke is NOT funny to the "butt of it."
Scary scenes involve little to no forewarning of the victim. I guess that's why Jason is a slasher not a horror movie.

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