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john cribbs

Overrated (movies that people treated like the Second Coming when it was more like a monkey coming)

Again what's important to keep in mind when it comes to this section is that I didn't necessarily hate any of these movies, but they were no great shakes. It's meant to be more of a criticism of their overwhelming reception than the films themselves (although if I rated these movies by the quarter, only about 1.5 of them would be any good.)


1. The Dark Knight. "Why so serious?" is the catchphrase made famous by the late Heath Ledger's pancake-faced, razor-scared Joker, and it's something I'd love to ask Christopher Nolan and company. I don't mean that opting for straight face in a superhero movie in and of itself should be verboten, but when it comes to applying deeper meaning to a story about a masked man flying around the city fighting crime, it's best not to overdo it. Even that would be fine if the filmmakers were able to deliver the rudimentary elements of an action movie, but any fun that's to be had is sucked up under all the inner conflict, textbook psychology and allusions to contemporary hot topics such as the War on Terror. Nolan should have focused on making at least one of the big set pieces work. Instead every one of them – especially the big car chase – is a dark, choppy series of disorienting close-ups.

The Joker – a maniac who runs around in clown makeup – is here meant to be some kind of manifestation of human indifference and repression, a breakout of the collective id that's been swelling under urban anxiety. Really? I thought he was a gangster in makeup. It's arguable that 60 years of character development justifies this amount of substance and the Joker's longstanding iconology earns it, but the movie sure doesn't. And I hate to be the one to step on the ashes, but Ledger's performance (something even the one or two less-than-glowing reviews I've read gush about) is merely adequate: he seems to be having a good time experimenting with just how nutty he can make this guy but I never once found him as scary, or profound, as so many others seemed to. (You know what is scary? Smilex gas. I thought Nicholson was effortlessly creepy in the original Batman movie. Never thought I'd defend Tim Burton like this, but then I did knock Big Fish earlier so I guess it evens out.) But that's nitpicking, and certainly not indicative of what's wrong with the big picture.

Honestly, I feel kind of indignant that I would even have to explain why I think a Batman sequel that's been called "Shakespeaean," "the Godfather of superhero movies," ranked the best movie of the year by numerous reputed critics and the fifth best movie of all time on imdb is a little overrated. I'm bitter that last year's excellent Spiderman 3 was so thoroughly rejected by the masses, and that in a year of above-average superhero flicks – Iron Man, Hellboy II, Incredible Hulk, even half of Hancock – Nolan's film has been heralded as unquestionably the crθme de la crθme. Each of those movies were unapologetic roller coasters that presented their heroes as self-made men whose incredible powers came with a life-redefining awareness of responsibility. There is no hero in The Dark Knight, only the wafting air of Importance.


2. Slumdog Millionaire. Really? This movie? Danny Boyle's Mumbai-set Dickensian crowd-pleaser (folks at TIFF wouldn't shut up about it, and it not surprisingly picked up the Audience Prize there) has apparently captured the hearts of the world, making it the latest movie to make its audience want to stand up and cheer. Unlike The Wrestler, this one didn't quite live up to the buzz. True there is a gorgeous Indian girl in the last half hour (props to Paul Cooney for pointing that out) and to be fair she's more than gorgeous – her beauty is ethereal. She doesn't belong on screen, she should be bronzed and placed atop a mountain somewhere for all to gather and worship. This is one dynamite gal. She plays the grown-up (and out) version of the slumdog's true love, one of those Perfect Women the hero loses and finds throughout his life; as in Forrest Gump and Benjamin Button she's the practical "only girl." To win her, our hero first has to win an episode of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" which, lucky for him, is comprised entirely of questions relevant to his life (in chronological order no less.)

Opening with scenes of police torture and violent Hindi-Muslim conflagrations in which innocents are slaughtered, it seems at first like Millionaire is going to be a responsible social drama, relevant even more so in the wake of the November terrorist attacks. That approach flies out the window when the first series of flashbacks to the slumdog's youth features an extended poop joke (what's with Danny Boyle and feces?) and soon introduces a series of comic book villains, child exploiters and bling-heavy gangstas each more ridiculous than the last (when the slumdog saves his love just before she's defrocked by a mean trick, the hideous john sneers, "Did you think you could just walk in here and take my prize?") It's soon made clear that the slums of Mumbai are just a background to a story that could have just as easily been told about an underdog peasant outside Acapulco, a longshot aborigine in the Auckland bush, a dark horse gutter snipe in Brazzaville (provided all of those places have their own version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?") A disinterested Boyle quickly sheds any unpleasantries that might get in the way of his glossy romance (even the cops electrocuting Mr. Slumdog are sitting around joking with him after a scene or two.)

Last year I accused Ang Lee of being world cinema's substitute teacher. After returning from outer space with last year's surprisingly good Sunshine, and having previously poked his fingers into the crime, children's and horror genres, Boyle's turn here and his upcoming film about the end of Apartheid in South Africa suggest he's just as game to dabble in different cultures (remember Ang Lee's Western?) The difference between them is that it's impossible not to recognize a Danny Boyle movie, with its hip soundtrack, wooshy camerawork and Avid farts – a style that's not as bad as a Tony Scott or Michael Bay action movie but proves just as intrusive to the telling of a story, in this case one that wasn't really all that interesting to begin with.


3. Pineapple Express. I was genuinely excited for Pineapple Express. Everything stacked up pretty good: David Gordon Green would direct a stoner action movie from a script by the Superbad guys featuring James Franco as a character inspired by Brad Pitt's True Romance roommate Floyd. I was captivated by the hypnotic vibe of the trailer, with its excellent use of M.I.A's "Paper Planes," and pictured a weird and brutal crime comedy along the lines of Miami Blues and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Unfortunately the movie fails on both fronts: the stoner comedy doesn't provide enough jokes and the action movie doesn't supply enough adrenaline; neither of them mesh well together at all.

The screenplay by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (with help from Judd Apatow) is sloppy and refuses to commit to anything including a central story. A useless and unfunny prologue, a subplot involving Rogen's high school girlfriend that does nothing apart from saving the film becoming a total sausage fest, and more than anything an overemphasis on the "weed weed weed weed – did we mention we love weed?" theme are just examples of the half-baked concepts used to pad out the skeleton of a movie with almost no ideas. Even its take on the old "pair of bickering married couple hitmen" adds nothing new to the old formula. Poor Gary Cole stands around in every one of his scenes looking off-camera like he's waiting for direction. Gordon Green doesn't just drop the ball there: with the exception of male bonding scenes between Rogen's process server and dealer James Franco – who for his part is great in the movie – the film is almost toneless; anesthetic (I know some drugs have that effect, but ) The torturing of Danny McBride could be equally funny and horrific, but it's played like a cartoon, like the bullets don't really hurt. I mean come on, a parked car that's blown up straight into the air and lands on top of a screaming Rosie Perez? This is Road Runner stuff.

The strange thing is, the positive reviews of Pineapple Express somehow found in it the very elements I had hoped for that were glaringly absent. Harsh violence? One review I read even went so far as to call it "Peckinpah-esque." Dreamlike tone? The movie never gets surreal enough to suggest the stoners' experiences are actually being brought-on by the title drug, which is how I'd imagined it before seeing it and being disappointed. I'm telling you, I did so much anticipating of just how great this movie could have been, I expected a kind of Total Recall "did all these outrageous things really happen to us?" ending. That's how much credit my mind gave this film. How did everybody see these things in the movie when I didn't? If Gordon Green goes through with his remake of Suspiria, I hope somebody starts this movie over again from scratch: recast Rogen, get Shane Black to write a new script, reduce the pot references 70% and deliver the remarkable film promised by the preview.


4. Gomorrah. A jarring opening shot of feet shuffling over gravel. Mumbled dialogue spoken by non-actors in another language overlapping on the horribly-recorded soundtrack. Grainy footage of dilapitated, nondescript European buildings shot on location. Yep – this is 2008's recipient of the "din" award, unofficially bestowed upon the movie that showcases the kind of faceless style that seems so popular in the wake of Mr. Lazarescu. These techniques can and have been used well, but if the movie itself is empty they're nothing but attempts to breath life into a dead body. Gomorrah has its share of those, as it is largely about the poor folks who cross the Camorra (or pop up on the radar just enough that they warrant unwanted attention) and don't live to tell about it in and around modern Naples. The film concludes with a series of facts about the Camorra that are intriguing but have almost nothing to do with the two hours of mumbling and violence that have come before.

The film this one brings quickest to mind is Fernando Meirelles' also-overrated City of God, which detailed casual murder-as-daily routine in Rio de Janeiro but kept its story tight enough that the senselessness and regrettable callusness of crime was palpable with every crack of a bullet. Gomorrah's separate stories (five or six in total) are so sprawled out and interchangeable that the deaths become not only random but redundant, when you can even remember which character it is that's cashing their chips. It's also never surprising: when the film opens on four tough guys laughing and bullshitting in a tanning salon, you know they're about to get whacked. Actually a film Gomorrah could learn from is Alan Clarke's Elephant, which lacked a story entirely but trailed one assassin after another as they carried out their dirty business. Clarke made you care about silent non-characters even though their introduction was their death scene: the reason was weight given to the tragedy of annihilation. Gomorrah is comparatively light, and often goes out of its way to make sure the victims are pretty goddamn obnoxious to begin with, especially a Beavis and Butthead duo who run around with a cache of stolen guns acting like big shots. Matteo Garrone knows how to find good moments – the tailor sticking his head out of the trunk as he's smuggled to a Camorra-competing Chinese factory is ludicrous and tense – but he's unable to get any his characters to a proper emotional coda. I'm sorry Scarlett Johansson is wearing your dress dude. Goddamn those fiendish Camorra!


5. Milk. I was hoping this would just be one of my "disappointments," but its presence on almost every major year-end list and string of award nominations has forced me to include it here. As far as intentions go, this movie couldn't be more genuine and come at a better time. But that doesn't disguise its bio-pic tendencies or its inferiority to the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, from which it borrows most of its important scenes. Any time a major "gay" movie is released, all I can think of is what Fassbinder said about Fox and His Friends: he was proud to have made a movie with homosexual characters that wasn't focused on the issue of being gay. That was 33 years ago, and while I don't blame the producers or Gus Van Sant (it's a relief to have a gay director helming this instead, say, of Ang Lee) for getting an important story on the screen even if it meant the money came from folks who wanted an "issue" movie, the film still ultimately suffers from being just that. Because when a Hollywood actor signs onto an issue movie, he's going to tap into his tortured artist soul and dig up his interpretation of an oppressed character, be they black, retarded, handicapped, fat, female or gay, whatever it calls for - and too often it comes out the same way. Especially if the tortured artist is Sean Penn, name-dropped in Tropic Thunder as one likely to go "full retard." He plays Milk as if there's something physically wrong with him, and his performance doesn't feel any different from when he played I Am Sam. He gets solid support from James Franco and Josh Brolin (not so much from Emile Hirsch, who is unsurprisingly awful) but ultimately the weight of the drama is on Penn's shoulders, and his failure is a big crater the film can't make it over. It's also hard to follow Van Sant from Paranoid Park, and five years of a shocking and brilliant change of style, to this movie. We've seen Van Sant go straight-forward, and coming off his last three films to make this...let's just say he's not the man anymore dawg. I will say the location shooting is excellent, and the story of Harvey Milk – over-dramatized as it is – has lost none of its power or relevance.



No Thanks

Films that might be good/might be bad, but overwhelming evidence suggests I wouldn't dig them.


1. Anything Steven Spielberg and George Lucas might have released this year.

We'll leave it at that.

2. Sink-a-Douche, New York. If you've ever met me, you're probably aware of at least two things. I have brown hair. And I hate Charlie Kaufman. I may lose the hair eventually, but it's safe to say that my distaste for anything this guy is associated with is the kind of beautiful thing that will last a lifetime. For years I've been wanting to actually make a jewel heist movie starring John Malkovich so that already-crappy joke officially wouldn't make any sense (althoguh might make that film seem even more ooh clever and surreal, might backfire on me there.) Unfortunately most people misunderstand my hatred: they figure it's because I didn't "get" Being John Malkovich, or that Adaptation was "not my thing." Neither could be further from the truth. I looked forward to those movies, in both cases excited to have something subversive that didn't play by the rules plopped into the sea of the same boring stuff. Instead, Kaufman tends to sink a douche. For a meta man who aspires to evoke Kafka, Beckett and Italo Svevo his writing comes off self-satisfied, tediously abstract and overall unfunny. If his scripts can't come to life under the hands of talents like Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, they don't have much chance flourishing under his helm. I can just imagine how much more drab he can get his actors to appear, how many more lame jokes will actually make it to the final cut without someone to chuck them out, and how high the level of smug pretension can rise before swelling and exploding from his inflated head. The film has gained a strong love-or-hate reputation, and it's safe to say I'd lean towards the latter. One positive thing I will say, I heard about the gag with Samantha Morton living in an apartment that's constantly on fire. That's a pretty Bunuelian concept, I can get behind that, but I'm sure it will be the 60 foot Emily Dickinson puppet of the film, i.e. the standout inspired surrealist joke in otherwise muddled obliqueness. I just don't intend to see it, that's what to take away from all this. Michelle Williams can thank me for that: otherwise she surely would have ended up in three of my ten least favorite movies this year.


3. Doubt. I swear to god, I can't keep all these single-word title adaptations of Pultizer-winning plays straight. Wit, Proof, Closer, Doubt I couldn't point them out in a police lineup. But since this one is out now I'm pretty sure we're talking about Meryl Streep as a nun who hates ballpoint pens and has it in for Philip Seymour Hoffman, featured in two movies I have no interest in seeing this year after his double aces of 2008 (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and The Savages.) Like all theatrical productions, there's no Doubt what one can expect from this film is a lot of actors trying to out-scream each other in order to score nods at award ceremonies. I guess some folks will like this one because it's by the guy who made Joe Versus the Volcano all those years ago. Since I don't have much to say about this particular movie I'll focus on that for a minute: didn't that have Abe Vigoda? Is Abe Vigoda still alive? I just killed him didn't I? Many people have tried to convince me to revisit Joe, which I last saw in the theater in 1990, but I remain incredibly skeptical. For one thing, Tom Hanks once claimed to have only made five good movies in his career. Since he's obviously referring to Bachelor Party, The 'burbs, Toy Story and Toy Story 2 that just leaves one slot, which I'm just assuming he's leaving open in case he ever makes something else worth watching. I doubt he considered Joe Versus the Volcano. So I'm not sure if it's worth revisiting. Also, it's by the writer-director of Doubt. On another note, the title of this film is too reminiscent of Uncertainty, the worst movie of the year. Let's not be ambiguous about our movies – let's be sure whether or not they're worth two hours of our life.


4. Australia . I want to support my boy Hugh. He's a charming lead in everything from superhero movies to self-indulgent fantasy films about space bubbles (sorry Aronofsky you need to make a few more Wrestlers before I cut you slack for that one.) He still needs a new agent, but at least he's working so I figured I'd see this one to support the Jackman. Then I remembered playing arcade games in the movie theater lobby for two hours after Jordanna Kalman and Chris Funderburg refused to walk out of Moulin Rouge with me. I like arcade games, but without pre-knowledge of which ones any given theater might supply, which of them may or may not be out of order, whether the venue provides a change machine etc I figured it wasn't worth the risk to see Baz Luhrmann's sweeping epic of love and loss Down Under. There's also something hugely conceited about naming your film after the country you live in, as though everybody should agree that your vision is so huge and important its scale as a film could only equal that of its country of origin. "Finally, the quintessential Australian film!" Does Luhrmann think he's that much more important an export than Yahoo Serious? I guess Bryan Brown does appear in a supporting role – one thing's for sure, you're making Australia: The Movie, it definitely has to feature Bryan Brown (no sign of Paul Hogan tho'.) I suppose it's a silly complaint, but personally I'd be cynical if somebody here made a movie just called America. Like all the movies on this list I didn't care enough to find out much about it. I do know "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is used prominently in the movie, so good to know Luhrmann hasn't tired of claiming iconic examples of pop cultural music for himself and his own purposes. I also figured Margot at the Wedding was a good enough place to leave Nicole Kidman and not have to be reminded of her scary mannequin features in the kind of big budget shells that made me hate her in the first place.


5. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. Forget for a second that this is an obvious attempt to capitalize on the head-scratching popularity of last year's cinematic abortion Juno. Forget that it's essentially American Graffiti set in the East Village where instead of Wolfman Jack the characters run into Devendra Banhart. Forget that the title takes the names of two truly iconic figures of the big and small screen (not to mention literature) and slaps them on their unappealing leads. Actually, I can't forget any of that stuff and that's why I would never want to see this movie. The Cameron Crowe-inspired "movie as a mix tape" culture has bred far too many insultingly cute little titles like Nick and Norah, and this one actually decided to put "playlist" in the title! Well this one's never gonna spin in my player bub.


(continues on next page with more award and memorable moments from 2008)

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