We’re continuing with a theme of style over substance with this post. I guess that’s fitting, because this little blog of mine is a triumph of style over substance. Let’s not pretend we don’t know what’s going on here – it’s a nicer-looking Cracked.com with an emphasis on movies. That’s okay with me. Elegant headers and fonts and – ooh look, dick jokes!
Posts have been sporadic these last few days because I’m working on a screenplay (yeah, I keep mentioning it) and writing these entries takes at least two hours a day and more creativity than it would appear. Today’s post is imaginatively titled “beautiful, terrible films”, but in reality that describes many films. But here are a few I think deserve particular mention. Avatar (2009) was going to appear on this list, but then I realised that not although Avatar is a terrible film, it isn’t a beautiful film- it sucks to look at and gives me vertigo.
House of Flying Daggers (2004)
The sequel/prequel/equals-pequals of the acclaimed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, featuring more gymnastics, unreal sword fights, intrigue, and lots and lots of bloody bamboo everywhere.
The Beautiful: To say that House of Flying Daggers is a visual masterpiece would be a total understatement. Scenes are colour-coded, everybody wears absurdly beautiful clothes, and there’s a specific and obvious attempt to make this movie look as realistic as possible.
The Terrible: Some things were made to be looked at and not understood – a Picasso, for example. A Rothko. A Mondrian. And it seems like House of Flying Daggers is designed around that very principle. It doesn’t matter what’s going on, because look! Chinese people! And they’re fighting about something! Isn’t that cool? Oh look, one of them did a surreal backflip and is sword-fighting upside-down! Golly. They are the master race.
No expense was apparently spared to make House of Flying Daggers look as authentic as possible. Everybody wears those cool chinese robes from the Confucian period and speaks in this orotund, rhetorical style that’s at once musical and intriguing. But I don’t count myself as stupid and I had immense difficulty understanding why a blind woman had Daredevil-like powers and was also a criminal. And then some bad guy falls in love with her exactly like in Crouching Tiger and I’m not sure if I’m watching an art film, a love film, a martial arts film or a piece of Chinese Government propaganda. If this is supposed to be realistic then how come gravity weighs less heavily on Chinese people? Is it because we westerners eat too much meat? If people are going to dance in the sky and perform impossible feats why stretch for realism? why not set it on the moon or in a sea shell or inside the mind of Mily Cyrus? Then there’s the story itself. Is it Romeo & Juliet? Brief Encounter? Subplots appear and then disappear back into the bamboo like…well, like crouching tigers (do you see what I did there? World-class writing). Everything is as vague and ethereal as possible. I mean, the bad guy falls in love with the girl based on her ability to hear a pebble bouncing off a drum? I don’t get it. Dammit this film makes no sense.
Sky Captain & The World of Tomorrow (2003)
Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow star in a movie almost entirely filmed in front of a green screen in somebody’s back yard. The improbably-named Sky Captain (Law) is captain of a secret reconnaissance-and-strike force pitted against some giant robots.
The Beautiful: I’m going to be honest. I love this film. I love this film so much I can’t be objective about its failings. I would like to say that Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow phone in a pair of awful performances, backed up by Michael Gambon, Angelina Jolie and Giovanni Ribisi. I would like to say that the CGI fell flat at the time and looks even more dated now. I would like to say I hate the Buck Rogers steampunk-meets-Art-Deco Worlds Fair feel of the movie. I would like to say a lot of awful things about Sky Captain.
But none of these are true. This is a masterpiece of a film. While the overall plot is a little simplistic (robots attack – find guy who sent them – stop bad guy) it doesn’t detract from the feelgood excitement of the movie. Law and Paltrow provide a pair of stellar performances, even more impressive when you consider the fact that basically nothing around them is real. They’re standing in a garage for most of this movie. The writing is good (ie better than most movies produced by big studios) and it provides childish thrills and spills. More than anything else, Sky Captain set the stage for the modern era of green-screened, CGI-augmented movies. It was a trail-blazer for more popular movies like Sin City and Avatar.
The Terrible: Sky Captain cost $70M to make and had a return of about $5. The world wasn’t ready.
The Cell (2000)
Few now remember the dark time in our nation’s history when Jennifer Lopez had a film career. The Cell is undoubtedly her best film, although considering that it’s up against Gigli, one of the biggest box office bombs of all time, that’s not saying much.
The Beautiful: Jennifer Lopez is a psychologist (no, wait, it gets better) who has to go into the mind of serial killer (wait for it) to save his last victim from being drowned (isn’t that the best movie pitch you’ve ever heard?). The inside of the killer’s mind is a stylistic maze of metaphor and illogic, which means that this movie has some of the most beautiful, bizarre, and scary-as-shit scenes of any movie ever. The serial killer is possessed by the need to free people from pain and his dark side appears as a demon (complete with devil horns made of his hair) who is perpetually battling it out with his more innocent, repressed side, represented by a child. There are lots of visual metaphors (a donkey being sliced perfectly into pieces by falling panes of glass being one) and overall The Cell is a treat to look at: stark, bizarre, beautiful and compelling to the eye.
The Terrible: Jennifer Lopez is a psychologist who has to go into the mind of serial killer to save his last victim from being drowned. You can laugh now.
Appleseed Ex Machina (2007)
Some dumb anime movie about people with guns and stuff. I dunno, I wasn’t watching it for plot depth.
The Beautiful: Look at the picture that accompanies this entry. That’s not a production still. That’s not a pre-production design. That’s a frame from the movie. I shit you not. Every frame of this movie (and that’s twenty-four a second) is rendered in crisp, clean, Blu-ray quality visuals, with a stylistic perfection that’s never been replicated. Freeze this movie at any particular point and you could be looking at a painting. It’s achingly beautiful and very easy on the eye.
The Terrible: Nobody I know has ever heard of this movie (or for that matter, the Appleseed series). I got it by accident because Lovefilm recommended it. I watched it. It made no sense to me. I’ve just read the wikipedia entry. It still makes no sense. It doesn’t have to. People who watch anime films only watch them for a couple of reasons: 1) They’re watching Studio Ghibli masterpieces like Ponyo (my favourite kids movie of all time) or Howl’s Moving Castle. Fair play to them. 2) They’re big fans of a particular series (like Appleseed or Death Note) and are going to watch everything to do with it that comes their way, regardless of quality. 3) They’re those annoying teenagers who think everything Japanese is automatically cool. I would like to kill these people with a big spade. The first group aren’t going to watch Appleseed Ex Machina because it’s not an instant classic. The second group are, but it doesn’t have to make sense – it can just riff off a series – and they’re going to watch it anyway. Nobody gives a shit what the third group thinks.
So I can sort of see why Appleseed Ex Machina doesn’t make sense and doesn’t need to. That doesn’t stop it from being beautiful, but it does stop it from being enjoyable.
The Dreamers (2003)
Two arrogant French siblings and an American tourist hang out and discuss films and the brother and sister are wwwwwaaaaay too close if you catch my drift.
The Beautiful: This film is fuckin’ louche as balls. It’s piquant as shit. I found it really, really enjoyable because it riffs off of famous black & white films, paying homage to the great era of expressionist cinema, and discusses pop culture against a backdrop of France during the student riots. Everybody smokes and drinks too much and has these way involved conversations about Jimi Hendricks. It’s awesome. Hey, it’s Paris in the sixties! There isn’t a cooler setting.
And Eva Green gets naked. FOR LIKE A THOUSAND HOURS. And then stuff gets weird and she tries to kill them all and it ends on a really bummerish, sad note.
The Terrible: This movie has absolutely nothing to say. Not about the student riots and individual freedom, not about the sociological changes of the sixties, not about the differences between Americans and Europeans, not about counter-culture, not about the great age of the silver screen. It has no point to make and no motivation to move the film forward. Instead the three main characters smoke pot and get naked in a big bath. Which is nice, but when you go to a restaurant you don’t fill up on bread. I don’t know what I meant by that.