2012’s Biggest Let Downs

The 2013 Academy Awards was fun and there was much to celebrate. But 2012 also delivered some great disappointments that should have been mega hits. All of these movies were disappointing, but some had farther to fall. I’ll start with the least disappointing:

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Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Why it should have been great:

The floodgates have opened and comics are taking form on the big screen in exciting ways that were never before possible.  They have gained enormous traction in mainstream appeal and reboots have become commonplace enough that a new take on a familiar favorite can be seen just a few years after the last one.  No comic book franchise needed a fresh vision quite as badly as the underwhelming Ghost Rider.  The sequel, Spirit of Vengeance was Sony’s chance to get it right, especially after they fought so hard to retain the rights to the property.

What went wrong:

The script was rushed to meet Sony’s deadline and the movie didn’t have much going on beneath the special effects.  The lack of inspiration and daring lead to a run of the mill, action flick with a dull climax and a hokey twist of redemption for the tragic hero.

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Total Recall

Why it should have been Great:

Two 80’s classics from the mind of cult sci-fi mastermind Philip K. Dick appeared to have converged when the Schwartzenegger vehicle Total Recall was given a 21st century face lift with a  Blade Runner inspired set design.

What went wrong:

Everything.  The movie was not only flat, but the echos of the vibrant pulse of the 80’s original still spikes over the bland re-creation of every plot point.  Without at least an interesting new twist at the end, there is literally no reason to watch it.

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The Raven

Why it should have been great:

John Cusack stars as Edgar Allan Poe in a Sherlock Holmes style thriller based on Poe’s numerous tales.  Seriously, what part of that sentence doesn’t sound awesome?

What went wrong:

Edgar Allan Poe is a literary giant.  Screenwriter Hannah Shakespeare, despite her name, is not.  Though the visuals were pretty on target the story consisted of finding clues and arriving too late and finding clues… after a while it feels like a loop and it fails to contribute to or adequately explore Poe’s works, so the promising allure of the premise rises again nevermore.

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Prometheus

Why it should have been great:

Alien Prequel.

What went wrong:

Connecting the film to the highly successful franchise and bringing back the director that started it all gave false hope to many who wanted to see a compelling sci-fi horror film; and instead delivered an elaborately designed, but ill-plotted, quasi-philosophical, highly questionable storyline.  It pretends to explore the chasm between faith and science without taking a leap for true discovery, or at least making a convincing argument for either.

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The Dark Knight Rises

Why it should have been great:

The Dark Knight was a phenomenal achievement on top of the already acclaimed Batman Begins, which turned the genre on its head and delivered the Batman fans had been craving.  Audiences demanded a reprise and ceaselessly speculated about the next installment before Nolan even agreed to do another.  So the bar was set pretty high and the anticipation was palpable.

What went wrong:

Since I won’t review a film I haven’t seen in its entirety, this is my one chance to explain why I hate TDKR so much and forever hold my peace.  For starters, the decision to turn the series into a trilogy was near-sighted, and selfish.  I hate that TDKR is referred to as the final chapter of the Dark Knight trilogy, because that implies that the three films have more connective tissue than they do.  TDKR is not a natural conclusion to Batman Begins and there was no need for such an abrupt ending to the series.  I realize that there is a Ra’s Al Ghul connection and the Scarecrow even makes his third appearance, but these elements were contrived to bookend a series that artificially truncates the Dark Knight’s story. The forced conclusion effectively makes future installments by other directors extremely difficult and all but eliminates the possibility of continuing Batman films in the same vein.  It’s also worth noting that M.Night Shyamalan already did what Nolan gets so much credit for when he made Unbreakable, which was in essense the first installment of a trilogy that never happened, because it was too problematic.

The story chosen, taking Gotham under siege and revolting against its wealthy class (Occupy Gotham), lacks the layers and depth that the first two films had and simply piles scene upon scene, tenuously linking these separate characters and ideas together when they could have all been better used under different circumstances.  Rather than reinforce the story by reiterating a solid theme, Nolan pulls from three separate storylines in the Batman universe and files them down in order to force pieces together that don’t belong. The scenes were shallow and lacked the showmanship of the previous films that made it possible; serving as little more than bullet points to an over-reaching plot.  If they dropped the Dent angle and the Bane escape in the beginning, and hit Wayne harder when he was in his prime, not pissing away his inheritance in solitude.  They could have had a solid opening.  I would have liked to see an intro that finds Batman at war with the police possibly discovering “Robin” to be a worthy adversary/potiential apprentice.

Also, if they weren’t going to have Batman for most of the movie, they should have introduced Azrael, his temporary replacement, rather than setting up a Robin. I love Robin and JGL, but why use screen time setting something up when you are concluding your “trilogy”.  When Batman is in the movie, the action is a joke.  I think history will tell that people would rather forget about this film. It basically spits on the success of the franchise and gives its audience the finger. Bottom line is, if Nolan didn’t want to do the movie, he should have left it alone and let someone else take a crack at it.  Still, I had seen enough warning signs to diminish my expectations, so it wasn’t my biggest let down of the year.

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Brave

Why it should have been great:

It’s Pixar, first of all, and it was in development for a really long time.  It was going to be the first folk/fairy tale by the studio, effectively trading places with Walt Disney Animation Studios which made the much more Pixar sounding Wreck-it Ralph.  When it was titled The Bear and the Bow, the early artwork was gorgeous and the original story description read like and Mulan meets The Little Mermaid.

What went wrong:

They changed writers and dropped the title in an attempt to make the Bear element a surprise.  The quality of the animation slipped by Pixar standards, apparently putting everyone on staff on “hair duty” and letting everything else slide.”  The story was slow, way too simple for its running time and it did little to distinguish itself from the previous Disney disappointment Brother Bear.

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Giving Up and Walking Out: How to Press Eject Before it’s Too Late

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Highly anticipated: Even higher pay-off

I haven’t written a review in a while.  Mostly because a lot of the films I’ve seen have really disappointed me (some of which were highly anticipated and from directors I typically hold in high regard) and I don’t like writing negative reviews.  I feel more energized and excited and better all around when I can say a bunch of positive stuff, I also love being able to share the experience and say, “Hey, you should see this.”  I find it much more valuable than finding out which movies to steer clear of.  Also, if someone likes a movie I don’t, that’s fine.  I’m much more inclined to argue my point if someone doesn’t like a film I am particularly fond of.  I haven’t only seen bad films, but nothing lately has really compelled me to write about it.  Not long ago I saw Django Unchained.  I had an absolute blast.  Tarantino is just a master and so full of passion and fun and whimsy in addition to being able to create such polished and consistent drama.  It tires me out thinking of all the great things I can say about QT and his work and his work really transcends anything I can say about it at this point.  At least that’s how I feel.  Sure, he has his detractors, but he can handle them.

gi django waltzThe last thing I wanted to do after I saw Django was review it.  I just wanted to see it again and maybe write Tarantino a thank you letter.  I still might.  Instead, I called my best friend to tell him what I did;  That I had seen the film in Portland’s Cinetopia and that I watched it with Dechutes Chain Breaker Ale (chosen for both theme and deliciousity).  Well, he hadn’t seen it yet, but we got to talking about other films including The Dark Knight Rises, which I had finally gotten around to renting.  I told him the sad truth.  I didn’t finish it.  I turned it off  and replaced it with my DVD copy of 1989’s Batman (Robert Wuhl FTW!).  I wanted a real Batman movie, not whatever that was.  And I had plenty of complaints, but mostly it was just boring, convoluted, and ultimately lacked style.  It may work for some, but not for me.  I expected something consistent with The Dark Knight and TDKR is really just, passionless and overreaching in my opinion.

So, then began our dispute about whether, or not it is okay to judge a movie before watching it in its entirety.  He believes that a movie is meant to be seen as a whole and only after the entire story is allowed to play out should you be allowed to criticise.  I understand that point of view.  It’s wrong, but I understand it.  The truth is, short of walking out of the theater and demanding a refund, you absolutely can and should be able to determine within minutes of the film’s opening if it is going to be worth the investment of your time.

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Corny

We do it with trailers all the time.  They are supposed to hook us and make us want to see the film, but it’s also part of a screening process.  You are given a few glimpses of images designed to sell you on the movie, but they still have to  use their movie to do it, so you can speculate from just a 30 second spot just how much potential the film has to be good.  You can hypothesise whether all of the good shots from the movie were used in the trailer, whether you’ve been there and seen that, and whether there is enough depth, originality, humor, or vision to set it apart from its competitors.  When I saw the trailer for TDKR my enthusiasm, already deflated by the Bane prologue I had seen, sank into complete disinterest.  We as consumers have to weigh out the options just as production companies determine their next investments.

gi tv setIf you want to write a screenplay, you can.  Nobody can stop you.  If you want to write a movie, you suddenly have a ton of opposition to overcome.  The least of which is selling your vision to someone who thinks they can profit off of it, and that’s only after you’ve proven you can be taken seriously as a writer.  That means you have to get the right contacts, you have to sell what people are buying, you have to compromise, you have to deliver.  In short, you have to abandon the notion of “your movie” and give your investors the product they are after.  Now, I’m not down on the system.  It’s a business and it’s no better or worse than any other industry.  In fact, I think it’s wonderful that art finds a way in the industry and you can find great work in studio productions as well as independent ones.  What I’m saying is it is hard, rigorous work to get in and establish a foothold in the business.  You have to meet the approval of many and pass a series of trials to succeed, but that doesn’t guarantee a good product.  For as much history that we have to refer to and as many how to guides that point out the basics of the craft of telling a good story it would seem that the ones who do the financing, still don’t understand how to differentiate between good solid entertainment and garbage.  Millions of movies come out of the woodwork and we the consumers who drive the industry are left to determine what’s good and bad as though there were no screening process at all and anyone is free to just make and distribute a bad movie, no matter the cost.

gi schlockIn most cases, it’s the indie films that really let me down.  For one, they don’t have quite as much publicity, so I am usually going into it blind, whereas if they had been marketed by a big distribution company I would have been exposed enough to the film to determine if I thought it would be right for me.  They also lack in production value and often are not directed with much finesse.  It’s hard to say exactly where an indie film goes wrong because usually the whole cast and crew is somewhat inexperienced.  You can’t always pinpoint if the writing is bad or if the actor just didn’t land it, or if better photography or more interesting coverage could save a scene that is flat.  Still, I find the same problems in big budget actioners or comedies that I just find unwatchable.  So indie films are no more likely a source of great art than “Big Hollywood” can be blamed for all mindless schlock.

gi netflix instantHere’s the thing: There are so many movies out there mainstream or not, and with several digital media platforms streaming an endless supply of potential entertainment, “consumer me” expects “film you” to get my attention and not let go, lest I find something much, much better out there to occupy my time.  For as hard as it is for a good writer to get noticed, it is an insult to see much of the turds deemed worthy to polish and exhibit because of some x factor that might incite just enough interest to raise a profit.  It becomes necessary, with such a saturated marketplace, to become a little more aware of the quality of product we are offered, especially when we pay to view such content.

gi promoMy first step in personally determining what movies I choose to watch was ignoring the stars.  They are the easiest way to push a bad movie on an audience and they often have least to do with whether, or not the film is any good.  They don’t even know how the movie is going to turn out, yet they are saddled with the task of mustering up enthusiasm in appearances on talk shows.  The things I look to are the writer– because the script is the backbone of the film– and the director, because ultimately they determine the most of what the finished product will be.  The better the track record the more the likelihood that a movie will be worth the ticket price.   It’s unfortunate then that actors work so much more than writers and directors and your trusted handful of artists make so few appearances.

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Screenwriter Drew Pearce’s only feature film credits are all still in production.

It’s also remarkable how often a high-profile tent pole, or other highly anticipated property is entrusted to writers whose IMDB profile credits them with only commercials and a short or two, or some relatively unknown television series.  As a consumer, it’s hard to trust these resume’s when it’s obvious the studios are banking on the appeal and recognition of the property itself, such as the recent slew of Hasbro related films.  Sometimes the producer has directing or writing clout that he uses while giving some young hotshot a chance.  That’s very cool, but also a little tricky and not always reliable.  In the case of TDKR, Chris Nolan is the director who elevated both the franchise and the genre.  He has a fantastic track record, but I also took a cue from the lack of willingness I perceived in regards to making a third installment.  I felt as though he did not want to make the film, but either the money was too good or he was already under contract for a third.

The role of the critic remains essential for helping to sift through all of the options.  They watch it and tell you what you can expect.  You find one of those that you trust and you are golden.  When TDKR finally came out, the critics I read gave reluctant mixed reviews, indicating that the movie had indeed fallen short of the glory of its predecessor. I again opted to hold off on watching the film which continued to show signs of disappointment.  But the critic is just a guide, and if the movie in question isn’t high-profile enough it may go unnoticed by many.  If you want entertainment now, as so many distributors promise, you have to trailblaze a little bit.  This is where it helps to recognize quickly whether or not you may have stumbled on the wrong path.

Again, it starts with scriptwriting and the process that so many readers at production companies and agencies go through just to pick that one promising gem out of the thousands of submissions.  Some people may only request the first ten or thirty pages.  That’s enough to see where the story is going or even if you have a story.  My screenwriting mentor Jonathan O’Brien stated that he could tell in ten pages if a script was going to work, and usually his instinct would be right after the first page.  If a page translates to a minute on-screen as it is supposed to then the same time frame should theoretically apply.  About ten to thirty minutes in, you usually have enough of an idea where this movie is going to determine if you want to continue watching.  That doesn’t necessarily mean you give up on it though and there are several reasons to continue to give it a chance.

gi fight club nortonFor one, the film may be very good at eluding your perceptions and preconceptions.  It is entirely possible that a film is exceptionally good and you don’t know it until you reflect on it later.  These movies you may downright loathe, but that feeling is rooted in uncertainty over what is being conveyed rather than the overall quality of the piece.  I remember the first time I saw Fight Club, I was very uncomfortable and found it tedious at times to the point of near torture.  I had empathized so much with Edward Norton’s character that it really put me through the wringer and only near the end did I get the chance to appreciate one of the most rewatchable and influential films of my lifetime, certainly a personal favorite.  If I had turned it off I’m sure I would be likely to catch it at some point years later and maybe have an entirely different experience.  So judgement should not be considered final even if it is swift and harsh.  Still, this is not the type of movie I am referring to when I talk about “giving up” on a movie.

gi poster bottlerocketYou may have even a more passive experience that leads closer to boredom than anguish, just out of the uncertainty of whether there is indeed a story.  Wes Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers, but I have to be honest that I rarely “get it” the first time around.  His movies are so subtle with such a slow burn.  If you aren’t the stop and smell the roses type, it can be difficult to appreciate right off, but the craft is certainly there, buried among layers of atmosphere and keen observation.  Only after I’ve finished watching one of his films am I really able to start processing all that I have seen in a manageable context.  On the flip side, there are sometimes terrible movies, that are also at least good enough with craft, that even though you know it’s a mind numbing waste of time they manage to bait you into watching a littler longer and a littler longer until finally you reach the climax and before you know it your whole afternoon is gone.  They tricked you.  Because they had a basic understanding of formula, they were able to tell their mediocre story just well enough to keep you from looking for something else to do.

Popular opinion is the basic model we are expected to follow on sites like Netflix and amazon.com.  Other viewers’ scoring based on a five star system indicates the average rating given to a particular movie.  Unfortunately, right out the gate you can see a problem with the type of streaming options that are available.  The large majority of instant options get one and two star ratings.  Redbox offers cheap rentals, but mostly the same kind of sub par offerings with the exception of possibly a couple of good new releases and an occasional pleasant surprise.  When you are streaming entertainment that is part of a monthly service fee, giving up on a movie is as easy as changing the channel.  It’s harder if you’ve paid a buck twenty or up to four dollars to rent it.  But that doesn’t mean I won’t do it.  I’m serious about this.  A two star rating might make you feel better about not liking a film, but by chosing to give it a chance you showed that you are capable of ignoring public opinion.  If you turn that ability the other way and ignore high ratings as well it can be very freeing.  Like critics, rating systems based on public opinion can be great clues, but they are not fool-proof.  You decide what you want to see, but that power of decision doesn’t begin and end with pressing play.

I would never write a review for a movie that I haven’t seen from start to finish.  That is absolutely messed up.  But I have judged several, movies often within the first ten minutes, thereby adding days to my life.  I take the idea that a film should be judged in its entirety from a different perspective.  Even if a film miraculously has a terrific ending that is massively inconsistent with its beginning, the beginning is still decisively bad.  Even after finishing the movie on a good note there will still be that one thing–that it being horrible thing– that ruins it.  So if you’re bored and no longer care how the movie ends, that’s a good indication that it not only is a bad film for failing to hold your attention, but there is really no need to continue devoting your time to it.  After all, it’s there for your entertainment, and unlike a boring party guest, you can just shut it off and look the other way.  Why would you continue to watch something that you already know is not working.  Your rental money is already spent and will be waisted either way, might as well redeem what time you still can.

gi batmanI gave  about an hour to TDKR before pulling the plug shortly after Batman makes his unimpressive first appearance.  I had been shuffling scenes and rewriting the film in my mind, from the very beginning.  This was not the Batman I wanted to see and I yearned for a better adaptation, which is why I pulled out my copy of Batman and saved the evening with moody atmosphere, wonderful toys and one of film’s most quotable goofballs, Alexander Knox.

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“Lieutenant, is there a six foot bat in Gotham City? And if so, is he on the police payroll? And if so, what’s he pulling down… after taxes?”

People say that I missed most of the movie and that it all comes together, but most of them also agree that it doesn’t come together very well.  I certainly didn’t want to see another two hours of what I had been watching and one hour is way too much time to hold off an audience before allowing a film to become acceptable, especially in the wake of TDK.

Cutting your losses and saying goodbye to that rental money is the hardest thing.  Judging a film you only partially watched is easy.  It’s already been determined that it failed to entertain you.  You paid your money and went in with good intentions.  The movie started and set everything up and at some point you realized “this is really bad.”  Why should you have to sit idly through the entire production just to feel justified in your feelings of betrayal?  You shouldn’t.  To me, that bad, used portion of the movie and the lack of motivation to continue watching is evidence enough.  If you don’t like your Starbucks latte, you don’t drink the whole thing before complaining.  It’s better to say,” it was so bad I stopped drinking it,” than to hand them an empty cup and shrug.