Saturday, February 25, 2012

Film List - I nearly walked out

I would never actually walk out of a film, of course.

I'm far too thrifty, always feeling the need to extract maximum value from every penny I've spent, even if it's proving to be torture for me.

I'm far too reverential about film. Watching a film - especially in the cinema - is almost a sacred act for me, highly ritualistic; and you can't depart from any detail of the ritual. You can't miss the start; you can't take any breaks in the middle; you can't leave before the end. (It took me quite a long while to get over a hang-up that films should always be consumed as a continuous real-time experience, and that it was thus not permissible to use the 'Pause' button on the DVD player, no matter how badly you need to go to the loo.)

I have a weird sort of optimism about bad films as well: I stick with them in the hope that they might reveal a few redeeming features later on, or at least cross over into the so-bad-it's-good zone of bathetic comedy.

There's probably an element of perverse pride involved too, a sense of achievement in having masochistically persevered all the way through to the end of a very bad film. Bragging rights, indeed: it can be pretty cool to be able to talk about a film that almost no-one else has seen, and to know in detail exactly what makes it so bad.

Now that I watch almost all of my films on DVDs or satellite television, I suppose it has become harder to maintain such a stern moral code. I will, occasionally, if I happen to start watching a film by chance on HBO, give up on it after 20 or 30 minutes (there is a lot of straight-to-video dreck on HBO Asia). But if I've started watching something as a deliberate choice, I do still feel committed to watching it through to the end - however disappointing it turns out to be. And I don't think I have ever given up on watching a DVD I've purchased (although, obviously, I try to be discriminating in what I buy).

The handful of titles below, then, represent experiences that linger in my memory unusually potently - levels of irritation, disappointment, tedium or dismay that were really extreme.

Films I've (Nearly) Given Up Watching Before The End

Prospero's Books
(Dir. Peter Greenaway, 1991)
I don't know quite how this one exhausted my patience so quickly and so thoroughly. In general, I have quite a high tolerance for Greenaway's overdone quirkiness, and a few of his films I really like: if I could fall for the gently insistent tempo and dreamlike imagery of Drowning By Numbers and the exuberant self-indulgence of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, why did this leave me utterly unmoved? I like Shakespeare, I like The Tempest. And we were supposed to relish the fact that this was a swansong performance from the venerable Shakespearean actor John Gielgud as Prospero. But I found it unutterably tedious, like watching paint dry. This remains the one and only occasion on which I have walked out of a cinema: I knew the film ran a little over two hours, and after an hour or so - which had felt like five - I simply couldn't take it any more.

The Usual Suspects
(Dir. Bryan Singer, 1995)
I know, I'm shooting at sacred cows again. This is widely acclaimed as one of the best films of the '90s, one of the best thrillers of all time. I HATE it. I hated within moments of its starting, and my irritation grew minute by minute, to the point where I very nearly did quit the cinema in despair right before the final 'big reveal'. Oh, sure, it's got a few things going for it: good cast, a few decent action sequences (especially the hold-up near the start). But right from the opening moments, I was picking up an overwhelming sense of smugness from the writer and director, a constant feeling that they were beating you over the head with how damn clever they thought they were: you don't know what's going on, do you? it's all just too convoluted, isn't it? what's this, another impossible twist? you're lost now, aren't you? you'll never work it out without our help, because we're just so much damn cleverer than you are. You know, I might have put up with that, if it really were all that clever. I get that sense with directors like Tarantino and the Coen brothers sometimes, but I put up with it because they really are pretty damned clever. This was just trite and ridiculous, 17 twists too many, none of which really made any sense. Frame stories with unreliable narrators do NOT make for a very satisfying cinema experience. And that ending was a big SURPRISE? Really? Did anyone not see that coming well before the mid-way point??

Boxing Helena
(Dir. Jennifer Lynch, 1993)
This is one I stayed with just to see if it might redeem itself through unintentional humour. It didn't. It's just bad - pointless and boring. Probably the worst film I have ever seen; or at least, the one with the most complete absence of any positive qualities whatsoever.

Dead Ringers
(Dir. David Cronenbourg, 1988)
Cronenbourg is a good action director, but whenever he's tried to go 'art house', the results - Crash, Naked Lunch - have been embarrassing. This is the worst of the lot: pretentious, repellent, and silly. I notice one of the IMDB discussion threads on this is headed 'Was it meant to be funny?' Yes, it's one of those films: such an outrageously bizarre concept that you can't take it seriously, but too distasteful to be amusing. I've never liked lugubrious Jeremy Irons much, either - although I suppose he's pretty good in this, as good as you can be in such an utterly absurd story. As soon as you see the synopsis on the back of the video box saying "a pair of mad gynaecologists who just happen to be identical twins...", you know this can't possibly work. It's a long film, too: long, and very boring. It's really very similar to Boxing Helena, but at least with better performances and production values.

Secret Window
(Dir. David Koepp, 2004)
Yet another of Stephen King's whiny It's hell being a writer, you know? stories. Stephen King is another of the sacred cows I often take pot-shots at: I concede that he's an unusually good writer at the nuts-and-bolts description level; but I think he's absolutely terrible, TERRIBLE at story construction. It's difficult, I know, to achieve any originality in such a well-worn and formulaic genre as horror; but King's approach, instead of trying to come up with a genuinely unusual idea, or to develop a stock idea in an unusual way, or to just see one idea through to its conclusion, is to pile up more and more ideas - giving his yarns a false semblance of uniqueness that is actually nothing but a tiresome over-elaboration. Again and again he finds a good idea, and then buries it under a welter of formulaic 'twists'. Here, for example, the initial premise is a writer's paranoia about being unable to prove the authorship of his work. That's a promising idea, but it is soon drowned out by a more conventional psycho stalker plot. And then that in turn is supplanted by a split personality idea - haha, it was the writer himself doing all this crazy stuff the whole time! Bet you didn't see that coming! Yawn. Yes, we did. After about 5 minutes. Johnny Depp is miscast here: much too young, much too cool, much too Johnny Depp to play this tortured, geeky writer. And his performance is somewhat bizarre: it seems like he doesn't want to be in this awful movie, and is just sleep-walking through it. I was watching this on HBO a few weeks ago, but it was so dire I went back to working on my computer - leaving it on in the background, just to see if it would confound my expectations of how it was going to turn out. It didn't.

Due Date
(Dir. Todd Phillips, 2010)
What is it that is so unlikeable about Zach Galifianakis? Is it just the difficulty of pronouncing his name? Is it that scruffy beard? Is it his apparently unshakeable belief that he is likeable, really? Or is it the fact that after his having had such a big breakthrough in The Hangover, Hollywood now condemns him to play the same cretinous goofball role for the rest of his career? Frankly, I didn't like him in The Hangover: the character was annoying, unbelievable, and unnecessary; the film was carried to success by the ensemble dynamic of the other members of bachelor party, not by Galifianakis's socially retarded man-child. Due Date takes that character to another extreme, stripping it of the few redeeming features that it had in that earlier hit. It's a road trip buddy movie about mismatched travelling companions who eventually discover an affection for each other through their shared misadventures - that old thing again. I should have watched Planes, Trains, and Automobiles again; John Candy is colossally irritating at times, but he has a human vulnerability about him; he's not a complete jerk all the time. In this film, Galifianakis is a complete jerk, all the time: preternaturally dim, self-absorbed, irresponsible. He drives drunk, he drives while smoking weed, he drives despite being apparently narcoleptic; he causes two enormous road accidents, either of which would certainly have been fatal to his put-upon travelling companion (I am not comfortable with that level of extreme violence in a comedy), but which miraculously leave him with just a few broken bones. Later, he gets the guy arrested by the Mexican border police - what a hoot that is! Oh, yeah, and he accidentally shoots him in the leg as well. Are you laughing yet? Maybe the masturbating in public will do it for you, that's such an amusing quirk of behaviour! In fact, the cruellest indignity he inflicts on his companion is to respond to a confidence about his childhood desertion by his father... by laughing hysterically at him. Robert Downey Jnr is the victim. I used to feel that I would watch anything with Robert Downey Jnr in it, but this monstrosity really put that to the test, and may have undermined my faith in the principle for the future. I have never seen such a relentlessly, painfully unfunny 'comedy'.

A supplemental note: I had an experience once that brought home to me very powerfully how one's impressions of a film might be radically distorted if you quit on them. Admittedly, this is not a wholly apposite example for the question of suffering bad films, because this was clearly a very good film that just happened to be too violent for some tastes. Nevertheless, it reinforced my conviction that you can't afford to give up on a film, because there might be a little gem of something wonderful and unexpected just around the corner in it. This example occurred during my first viewing of Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, on a matinee showing, fairly thinly attended, at the Phoenix Cinema in Oxford in the summer or autumn of 1992. There's a notorious sequence in the middle of the film where a psychopathic gangster tortures a helpless hostage policeman with a razor... and then pours petrol on him, threatening to burn him alive. One of my fellow viewers in the Phoenix that day huffily stormed out at exactly this point, the more violent than usual flapping of the swing doors behind him underlining his outrage. I imagine that chap believes to this day that the cop was set on fire. But that, of course, is not what happened at all (that might be just a bit too much even for Tarantino!). I sympathised with the stormer-out, I really did. I don't think I have ever felt so uncomfortable in a cinema before, and I might possibly have considered bolting myself. But even in the midst of my horror and disgust, I couldn't help admiring Tarantino for managing to get me this emotionally engaged. And the film had been so compelling up to this point, I simply had to see how it was going to turn out - even though this one sequence might prove to have been just too darned offensive, even for someone of such robust unoffendability as myself.


John said...

Being younger I enjoyed Usual Suspects when I first saw it and the twist actually did twist me back then. Another thing about my age is I'm used to an abundance of film reviews that are easily accessible. I'm quite happy for someone else to tell me whether I'm going to enjoy a film or not and I haven't been let down yet. I have had one such bad experience though; a situation where I went on a whim and couldn't rely on my lofty critic community at the time:
Ladder 49 is quite possibly the worst film I have ever watched. I toughed it out 'til the end but from about 15 minutes in I was holding my head in utter boredom and disgust. The opening scene is actually quite entertaining and quite well done but the rest plays as a reality TV show following around the dullest, most average man possible. All of life's stages are played out here only they're as generic as can possibly be. The fact that the lead is a fireman does nothing to bolster them, it's still the dullest existence imaginable put to celluloid (to me anyway.)

Froog said...

Ah, youth.

You might have enjoyed Boxing Helena when you were 10 as well.