2008 In Review
A great premise can be tantalizing to a studio. A corporation only thinks about a way to sell its product, it is uninterested in its level of mediocrity, so a solitary, exciting idea sounds great in a 30 second ad. A writer knows better, realizing that the initial premise is only the starting point, you have to make the audience care about the characters reacting to the situation and consequences created by that idea.
2008 was filled with a barrage of great sounding films, but they didn’t deliver, meaning all the work that went into them is summed up in what has been reduced to a gimmick, and if the audience doesn’t buy into the gimmick, they’ve just wasted their time and money. Normally, this limited scope refers to the summer blockbuster, where the thought process is, throw a great deal of money at something very small, until it bloats and can’t move around and is forced to conform. But more and more, even the movies made to win awards have their one flashy idea dragged out to an obnoxious length, thinking that the audience will be no match for a manipulation war of attrition.
That two pronged attack of awards or money really gets at the problem, and why audiences should look elsewhere for their entertainment and edification. If a film’s sole goal is to either be successful financially or win awards (which, in turn, gets people interested to want to see the film, and therefore makes money), the viewers are no longer part of the equation, just a hindrance, waiting to be forced to make a decision on what kind of product they are told they should prefer. In Hollywood, movies are now things, like laundry detergent or drain cleaner, and those things are beholden to share holders, who are interested only in the public’s financial investment, not whether or not they were satisfied with the product.
Such a conundrum explains why I could go back and look at a list of all the movies I saw that were released in 2008, and 95% of them have made no impact on my brain, to the point where I can’t remember an individual scene, only their basic premise. Now I’m aware, that most people who don’t live in New York or Los Angeles don’t catch up to what is considered the best of the year, until months later, when the films receive a DVD release. Only those movies that have received enough award recognition open all over the country, and that is after weeks and weeks of hype. The rest of the country gets to mop up with sloppy thirds and fourths. The studios allow them the opportunity to witness what has already been pre-approved by the so-called smarter people. In other words, you only get to enjoy the product after the important people have already decided they like it, as opposed to the other way around, where you make up your own mind, and don’t adhere to peer pressure (“well everyone said it was a good movie, therefore, it must be; I must be not smart enough to understand it”). This kind of condescending attitude is how we get movies that are so forgettable and mediocre, adhering so slavishly to formula, that the tendency is to forget what you’re watching while it is actually going on, as opposed to after it finishes. You’re so used to this cycle of repetition, you’re not even aware of your mind drifting. You’ll start thinking about your grocery list, so it’s a good thing there’s all that product placement on screen to remind you what you’re supposed to buy.
Now I know that that all sounded depressing, what if you just wanted escapism and wanted to turn your brain off and enjoy some mindless nihilism? I don’t have a problem with at all, and in such a case, I’d suggest Wanted, last summer’s wonderfully illogical and absurd action movie, in which all logic and physics are thrown out immediately in favor of completely over-the-top and kinetic chases and gun fights. It is rare to see such energy sustained for a movie’s entire running time, without falling into the pits of repetition.
If you don’t want to watch something so actively dumb, I’d go with David Mamet’s Redbelt, a twisty thriller that expects you to follow along without spelling out every little detail in the usual pandering fashion. Mamet is one of the few current filmmakers who expects the viewer to be smart (his brilliant 2004 film, Spartan does as well) and if you’re not, that’s your problem, not his.
It is not a surprise that both Redbelt and Wanted get penalized for going beyond expectations, and are totally snubbed by the various corporations that give out awards. It is not in a studio’s best interest to excel, because it means that the audience will start expecting it all the time. It explains why such a hollow and exhausting movie, The Dark Knight, would get so much praise and success. Is The Dark Knight better than Batman and Robin, Batman Forever, or any of the other previous sequels? Yes. It’s even better than Batman Begins, but arriving at that notion comes with the realization that it could hardly help being better than the former two, and only to scale past competence and mediocrity to exceed the latter. The Dark Knight has everything in it, certainly no expense was spared, but it is so pumped up and distracted, that it never gives its scenes a chance to breathe or to build any momentum. At the end of its bombastic and noisy two and a half hours, I was just tired.
However The Dark Knight is a masterpiece compared to the recently released trifecta of Oscar bait, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Gran Torino, and Seven Pounds. Benjamin Button features a fantastic premise, a man who ages backwards, starting out as an old man and ending up a small child, and over its 159 minutes, does nothing with it. This was an especially grave disappointment considering it was directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, The Game, Seven, Zodiac), a filmmaker who uses all of the technical possibilities he can to infuse challenging stories with as much conflict and stress as possible. Benjamin Button isn’t so much a soft-peddled plea to be liked (strange, coming from a guy who directs very confrontational and violent films), but completely beneath Fincher. His hand is not even evident throughout the film, but the screenwriter certainly is. Eric Roth, who not coincidentally wrote the strikingly similar Forrest Gump, throws in as many clichéd and empty scenes as he can, character development is whisked away in favor of endless montages of people bonding and laughing, as opposed to actually hearing what they have to say. Benjamin Button follows virtually every note of Forrest Gump well past the point of distraction, and to where it might as well be a compare and contrast essay.
Consider these facts, and tell me if you can distinguish Benjamin Button and Forrest Gump. A very famous actor known the world over, and whom the audience feels comfortable with (Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt) plays an innocent simpleton from the south. Thought of as a freak and shunned by society, a caring and saint-like woman teaches him the lessons of life. He meets a young girl who he falls in love with at first sight. They share a brief flirtation, until she goes off to explore the world and is eventually punished for rejecting our hero, in favor of her selfish whim of wanting to have life experience and not just conform. In the mean time, our hero goes through decade after decade (with musical signposts and famous radio moments informing us of the time period) doing whatever is thrust upon him, never developing any personality of his own, just a lump of empty sweetness, with every character he’s introduced to remarking on his disability (stupidity, looking like an old man) and summarily punished for their life’s ambitions. Our hero fights in a war (and works under a profane and drunk leader), and somehow is the only survivor of insanely grim and unlikely circumstances, seemingly because of his “goodness” as a person. Nothing in his life before or after the war seems motivated by anything more than conforming, and he somehow expects the love of his life to do the same. If she happens to find other company, she is a bad person for not having waited around for him for years, despite their lack of commitment and/or communication with each other. When they finally come together, they produce a child who is unaware of his existence for many years. This is all told with a hacky framing device by which either an unimportant character reads from a rather detailed diary or listens for hours on end at a bus stop. Our hero is somehow not famous for all the major events he seemed directly a part of, or the fact that he is the only person ever to age backwards. The notion of magical realism is stretched very, very thin, not helped by the manipulative and unearned emotions on screen. There is a random and computer enhanced symbol of the lead’s special innocence used to restate his innocence (a feather, a humming bird), but is clearly shoehorned in to give false meaning to the proceedings. And most importantly, the sole reason for the making of the film seems to be a great technological advancement, whether it be the ability to inject a fictional character into real news footage, or age an actor using a computer instead of rubbery and distracting makeup. Both movies are completely disingenuous and seem to be made by randomly assembling plot points written on note cards on a cork board.
Gran Torino and Seven Pounds have far less going on than Benjamin Button, but are just as underwhelming. Gran Torino should have been played as comedy, with Clint Eastwood scowling at his neighbors for being on his lawn, and for being foreign. The fact that the whole movie is played straight, with his conversion from racist curmudgeon to hero/martyr of the neighborhood and all oppressed minorities, is quite odd. Any glib description of the story (not to mention its stiff acting and cartoonish gang members) would be completely fair to the actual content of the movie. I’ll go with Dirty Harry’s Racial Enlightenment After School Special.
Seven Pounds doesn’t even manage unintentional humor, just a single concept, Pay it Forward, but with organ donation, and tries to hide behind a cloud of mystery. The ending is obvious from the first fifteen minutes, but the filmmakers seem to think that having Will Smith act noble will be enough to hang the whole movie on, and never bother developing anything, and so while the characters are in the dark about what’s going on, we keep looking at our watches. It is a prime example of corporate thinking as art.
So what does that leave you to watch? There are some 2008 films that are amusing for one viewing, (Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Iron Man, Hancock, Cloverfield, Machine Girl, The Bank Job), and there are those films which are intelligent, as long as you don’t think too hard, or else you might realize how empty they really are, (The Visitor, Lakeview Terrace, Vantage Point). There are films that are so bad they are funny (Bangkok Dangerous, In the Name of the King, 88 Minutes, Street Kings, Seed, Untraceable) and films that are totally unbearable (Sex and the City, Indiana Jones and the too old for this shit crew, Towelhead, What Happens in Vegas…,The Love Guru, Smart People). There are the well-made films on important subjects that are good for you, like vegetables, but they are more to be respected than enjoyed (Frost/Nixon, Milk), and films that are totally forgettable despite having a spark of an idea (Eagle Eye, Save Me), or are indifferently made (Get Smart, Stepbrothers, Charlie Bartlett, The Incredible Hulk). There are middling movies with one outstanding element and the rest on auto-pilot (Ana Faris in The House Bunny, Francis McDormand in Burn After Reading, the visuals of The Fall, the wordless first half of Wall-E, Van Damme’s to the camera monologue in JCVD), but all that says is that there were a lot of incomplete, half-assed movies released this year.
My suggestions? The best two movies of the year were In Bruges (an uninteresting premise, criminals hiding out in a foreign country) for its great dialogue, pathos, humor, acting, menace, and surprises, and Be Kind, Rewind (a great premise, video store employees accidentally erase tapes and have to recreate the films on their own), a sweet, funny, uplifting, and charming movie that goes in many directions you were not expecting. Sure, these movies might challenge you and force you to think for a bit, but you can always do your grocery shopping later.