I really wasn’t looking forward to this film, mainly because I’d panned Modern Times so recently and feared I’d run out of ways to say I find Charlie Chaplin unfunny because the humour is barely connected to the plot. And that’s exactly what happened with City Lights – it didn’t even have the attempt at social commentary that Modern Times did, so the sketch sections were under even more pressure to hold the story up, and once again they completely failed for me. I spent large portions of watching the film trying to imagine how a modern-day version would play out, and I couldn’t do it – it would be an inane romantic comedy, formulaic and built upon a flimsy surface difference to separate it from the other thousands of inane romantic comedies, and after hundreds of takes for each scene City Lights still feels like the silent-film era equivalent.
The Little Tramp (Chaplin) falls in love with a Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill), who mistakenly believes him to be rich; the Tramp also falls in with a suicidal/manic-depressive Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers), who treats him to wild nights on the town then forgets he ever knew him when he sobers up in the morning. But not that that has anything to do with much of what happens in the film – I was actually really surprised that more material wasn’t made out of the Blind Girl being, well, blind, or anything of the class difference that could easily arise from a Millionaire shining up a hobo and letting him loose in the top tier of social circles. Large sections of the film, like the boxing match where the Tramp is trying to earn money to pay the Blind Girl’s rent, could be deleted right out of the film with zero impact to the plot, and all of the humour is derived from the immediate circumstances and is never connected to anything greater. The Tramp gets a whistle stuck in his throat at a high-class party, keeps interrupting someone trying to talk, goes outside and drags some stray dogs back in with him… and nothing comes of it. Scene over. Obviously it’s funny, because we all know you can’t just bring dogs into someone’s house! Imagine! Also to help out the Blind Girl, the Tramp takes a job as a street sweeper, and gets a disgusted look on his face as a troupe of horses parade by, then gets really indignant as a man leads an elephant past him down the street. Funny, right? Because those animals are going to crap all over everything and he’s going to have to clean it! That people can call out modern comedies for being low-brow and hold this up as a timeless example of comedic genius reeks of hypocrisy.
I was coming in to my review for Gladiator thinking I would mostly be asking why this film needs to exist when it lives directly in the shadow of Ben-Hur, but on watching it I found myself thinking that is more closely parallels a film I’ve seen more recently: Braveheart. Both are swaggering historical epics, heavy on sentiment and by-the-numbers portrayals of heroism and villany, both are extremely popular and extremely overrated, and both have Academy Awards attached to them that really belong to the people involved for their earlier projects. Braveheart was a complete mess in terms of historical accuracy, but its heart was in the right place even if it missed the mark entirely and decried all of England to do so – Gladiator fails to even muster up the rah-rah let’s-get-the-bad-guy enthusiasm required to appeal to the lowest common denominator, be it steated in a cinema or the Colloseum, so much so that I’m wondering if I’m not somehow seeing a completely different film to the one other people speak highly of.
Roman general Maximus (Russell Crowe) is betrayed by conniving new emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix); from the low rank of slave he fights his way up in the gladiatorial arena to take revenge for his slain wife and child. The reason to strip Maximus of his rank is the late emperor had planned for him to succeed him, on the logic that a straightforward soldier would be better at restoring Rome to her former glory than another scheming politician. A soldier is all Maximus ever comes off as – a rank-and-file following orders. He will lead Rome because he he has to, will fight other slaves because he has to, will win in the arena because he has to, all without an ounce of charisma but much silent brooding. To counter this stoic non-performance, Joaquin Phoenix hams up his part like a child throwing a temper tantrum, acting out in the most evil fashion he can imagine so his father might pay attention to him from the afterlife the characters are constantly talking about. You couldn’t pick him faster as the villain if he were introduced with a black top hat and monacle, and any sort of threat his character is supposed to carry is all delivered off-screen by his cadre of royal guards. The action sequences are suitably large, but laboriously spaced between long stretches of uninspired dialogue, and half the time are cut with the ultra-fast method that completely removes any sense of being able to tell what’s going on. Thumbs down.
One of the hiccups with making my way through the big list of films the way I am is that the list I’m using is a little bit out of date, and so some films will be at a different spot by the time I get around to reviewing them. The Avengers was #100 on the list in September of last year; it’s now #161. I just wanted to be able to bring up that big rankings dive, because I didn’t believe this film had a spot on that list at all. Perhaps that was unfair of me to judge before seeing it, but now after over a year of hype and build-up and buzz I have, and I feel my opinion is completely justified.
The film is a thin excuse to gather as many superheroes as possible, have them fight a little, then learn to work as a team and defeat the real enemy and recover the cosmic McGuffin. Disney’s strategy after acquiring the right to Marvel’s comic properties of making a string of separate films to showcase the main members of the Avengers as an extremely long-game marketing tactic of building up the team film was brilliant and netted them a record-setting blockbuster, but actually watching the film felt like having teeth pulled. Each character plays a single note – Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) the sarcastic ass who’s secretly a decent guy inside, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) the socially awkward genius, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) the square-jawed all-American hero, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) the Strong Female Character, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) the guy who acts like Samuel L. Jackson – and with such a large cast and so much time devoted to the incredibly pedestrian action sequences occasionally broken up for trailer shots, there’s only the barest room for character establishment let alone character growth. Batman Begins does everything right in transforming a comic to the big screen, distilling sixty-plus years of source material into a cohesive interpretation of an icon; The Avengers does everything wrong, stapling together as many different elements in a frantic kitchen-sink rush and paving over the the rough edges with 20-minute action sequences with next to nothing at stake because all the participants are invincible and the common people who will be affected by the outcome non-existant. Watching this film felt like watching a child play with their action figures, having them fly through the air and slam into each other while making explosion noises.
I don’t think I like horror films.
The problem is that I think that I do. I like a good ghost story. I like films that can go to unnerving, dark places. I can even get down with dumb teenagers that act dumb and proceed to get murdered in creative ways. But this apparently not what a horror film is. I’m not sure what it is I’m describing, but “horror” is shorthand for “plenty of gore, little story” – which arguably it always has been since the days of shock films that ran back-to-back at the drive-in, so maybe it’s me who has gotten the whole thing wrong.
Anyway, my point was that the makers of The Cabin in the Woods don’t like horror films either. Specifically, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard don’t like the modern torture porn style that dominates the horror genre, so they made this film as a “critical satire” of torture porn and as an attempt to “revitalise” the slasher genre. That’s a cool idea. That’s a bit like what Wes Craven did with Scream when slasher popularity was fading out in the 90s, but where Scream was clever and witty and self-aware and genre-savvy, Cabin confuses criticism and satire for recognising the mistakes of its subject but continuing to make them anyway. It’s not like people don’t know films such as Hostel and The Human Centipede aren’t paper-thin excuses to show something shocking, so if you make a similar zero-character zero-plot film that crams in as many homages to the horror movie monsters you like, that’s not being critical: it’s making another bad horror film. Whedon’s snappy dialogue only really works on characters you can get to know, and when the cast are quite literally archetypes we’ve all seen before playing a story we all know, there’s no incentive to get to know them as individuals. The facelessness isn’t helped by Goddard’s direction, which is the same style of Cloverfield‘s “imagine the premise and you’ve already seen the film” deal. This is jumbled garbage that works neither as homage nor parody nor satire, all while thinking it’s infinitely more clever than it is. I can’t remember another film where I’ve said both “I have no idea what’s happening” and “That is completely unrealistic” as often as I did.
There’s a type of film that is, from a certain point of view, the most prefabricated formulaic film type that exists. Not anything that strictly adheres to any genre and takes no effort to provide a new twist or even a quality product. Not a story-light and effects-heavy blockbuster, either, as at least those are honest in what their role is (make money to bankroll smaller riskier projects). No, I’m talking about films that are Oscar-bait – dramatic portrayals of a hot-button issue with big names attached that attempt grit and realism and gravitas but usually end up as deep and meaningful as an after-school special. Write a script around something controversial, get your lead to cry (either a single stoic tear at the end or a total sobbing breakdown somewhere at the end of the second act, choice is yours), release the finished product in time for consideration by the Academy, and wait for a bite.
In Million Dollar Baby, aging boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) reluctantly takes Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) under his wing and, despite his gruff exterior and initial stance that he “doesn’t train girls”, becomes a substitute father to her. Morgan Freeman is also in the film as apparently a parody of himself, providing a completely superfluous narration where, when he’s not firing off fortune cookie platitudes is literally recapping what the audience can see is happening. The film manages some actual nice subtle moments in the middle, when Frankie and Maggie are bonding, but it’s consistently falling over itself laying down plot threads to be tied up later on with a trite nugget of wisdom showing how boxing is some grand metaphor for life as a whole. It’s plainly not, from just watching this film – it’s barbarism, animals being set on each other for the approval of a bloodthirsty crowd. The controversial subject matter I mentioned before is a one-two punch of women in boxing and assisted suicide, handled with all the grace of… well, I already made a fighting terminology reference, but it’s not handled well, and the supporting themes faith and poverty aren’t treated any better. These are heavy subjects and they’re reduced to window dressing. Are you making a gritty show-it-like-it-is film? Then actually explore the dark subjects you’re putting in your story instead of presenting them at face value and shouting at the audience “This is dramatic! Don’t you think it’s dramatic?!” I want to like you, Clint Eastwood, I really do, but you’re not making it easy for me.
What is the purpose of a film? Primarily, it’s entertainment, right? You can use film for other things, of course – you can make a film to educate, to experiment, to have an excuse to hang out with your buddies, but the main reason films are made is for people to get some kind of enjoyment out of them. What sort of enjoyment varies greatly, as there’s as much validity in an asthetically beautiful exploration of the human condition as there is an explosion-filled rollercoaster ride, and naturally it’s also going to vary from person to person how receptive they’ll be to the kind of entertainment the film wants to give. So what happens when a film’s purpose isn’t to entertain you? What if a film is made just to hurt its audience? Not to provide an emotional catharsis through tragedy – because that too is an ancient form of entertainment – but to just inflict the kind of raw unrelenting pain you can find easily in the real world?
Amores perros is made of three loosely-connected stories that all intersect with a car crash: Octavio (Gael García Bernal), the driver, who covets his abusive brother’s wife; Valeria (Goya Toledo), a model and mistress who’s heavily injured in the crash; and El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría), a vagrant hit-man who abandoned his wife and child to be a guerrilla resistance fighter who witnesses the accident. There’s no neat little coincidences that keep the three leads crossing paths, aside from brief glances here and there, and each story doesn’t have much of a resolution – they all start bad and end undefined. Octavio is building up a bankroll so he and Susana (Vanessa Bauche) can escape from his brother Ramiro (Marco Pérez), but when Octavio earns his money from dogfighting and Ramiro makes the bulk of his living knocking over drugstores, there doesn’t seem to be so much difference between the two. Valeria grows more and more unstable after her injury, which culminates in her losing her leg and by extension her career as a model and her love Daniel (Álvaro Guerrero) as he begins to cheat on her the same way he cheated on his wife. El Chivo forces his last client to confront his target instead of letting a killer for hire pull the trigger for him, leaves a bundle of money for his now-grown daughter, and walks off into the sunset. None of the endings are especially satisfying, none of the characters especially relatable beyond their pain. The film is well-constructed but completely unenjoyable, not even kind enough to give motivation or closure to anything it leaves you with. It’s so full of pain that I can’t even bring myself to rail against the excessive animal cruelty, which I thought was going to be a huge sticking point in my review when the film started. If I needed a compass-point to define what entertains me, I would say it is the exact opposite of Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s films.
I like many of the ideas present in The Signal. Some mysterious broadcast fires out of televisions, radios, and phones that, instead of the traditional horror trope of mind control, breaks down people’s reasonable thinking, turning them paranoid and delusional and ultimately turning them on each other. That’s neat. That actually seems like some kind of vaugely plausible black-ops secret millitary kind of weaponary that might be accidentally (or not) tested on an unsuspecting population, and it’s a set-up that’s primed with tension and doubt and unreliable narrators and all sorts of things that make for good horror/thriller material. It’s also one story told in three parts by three different directors, which potentially is a great way of showing and skewing the views of your separate protagonists. That’s neat too. It’s an independent film with a tiny budget and a short shooting schedule and it manages to look pretty convinving most of the time, so that’s good. So it makes me so mad that a set-up with such potential ends up as such a shambles of a film.
What exactly the mind-destroying signal does to people, how it affects them, and if anything they’re seeing is real or not, is unclear, and not in a good way. Pretty much anything could happen to any of the characters, and five seconds later the film could easily skip back from that and shout, “Psyche! It was just the signal!” and caper off without any sort of sense or explanation. The shift in directors is jarring because the middle section is so different from the first and the third not different enough. The whole thing feels like a shoehorned excuse to tie together a reel of horror effects – which are pretty good for the budget – with a vauge, undefined plot device that would give the filmmakers free reign to put whatever gross splatter scene they wanted to without having to deal with its consequences later in the story. There’s a marked difference between not figuring out what was happening and not being able to figure out what was happening: one’s a fault with the viewer and the other a fault with the film, and when a film is this flawed it’s not worth expending any further effort on.