Jar-Jar Binks: “I spake!”
Qui-Gon Jinn: “The ability to speak does not make you intellegent. Now get out of here.”
[Ahmed Best to Liam Neeson in “Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace” (1999)]
You know, I find that it is never great when you spend your hard earned time or money to either see or experience something that is outright terrible. You hate seeing your favorite sports’ team beaten very badly. You go to a vacation spot and either the weather is terrible or you get sick and are in bed the whole time. You go see a concert, a play, a movie or something on TV or Cable and it is completely awful. Yes, that can be really depressing. However, although annoying, that is not the worst thing that can get me really mad. There is one thing that can get me angrier than anything else. What if you start to watch a play, a movie, a TV or Cable show or series that you really start to like a lot and you invest your time, money, interest, or all of the above in it and then it completely falls apart, after sucking you in faster than a piece of lint into a vacuum cleaner bag. That is when I really want to swing a baseball bat to anything made of glass (or the heads of all of the principals who made this mess for making a sucker out of me and wasting my time). That is what this month’s post will discuss.
One type of this problem is when a conception of how a specific actor’s character in a production should be portrayed is wrong, and ultimately it ruins the entire production. An example of this was for the Star Wars movie, “The Phantom Menace” and the character of Jar-Jar Blinks. George Lucas, a technological genius but a horrible director of actors, is probably the one most responsible for this mess. He returned to directing after a 22 year absence (he only directed the original Star Wars, not the next two) and his ineptitude really showed here in many ways. I could list what many of these were but maybe the biggest one was in his conception of what Jar-Jar Blinks character should be. Jar-Jar looked like a cross between a beagle and a wet noodle and was a heavy-handed attempt to be the movie’s comic relief while appealing to all of the children in the audience by acting clumsy, stupid, and speaking fractured English. Unfortunately, he wasn’t funny, but most definitely he was stupid, annoying, and constantly distracting. Jar-Jar was rated as the most hated character in all of the Star Wars movies and also one of the most hated characters in the history of film. Quite an accomplishment Georgy! Maybe next time you should just stick to the technical side of things!
Another type of this problem is when a possibly good entertainment production is ruined by an actor being terribly miscast. That occurred for the TV miniseries, “Centennial” (1978-1979) and the casting of Robert Conrad as Pasquinel, a French Canadian fur trader. Originally, they wanted either Charles Bronson (who wanted too much money) or Robert Blake (who just finished his TV show “Beretta” and didn’t want to do another TV show). So someone had the bright idea of casting Conrad for the part instead. Conrad, despite the fact that he had a really long and successful TV career (“Hawaiian Eye”, “Black Sheep Squadron”, etc.) was a really bad actor. He supposedly worked with a dialect coach to perfect his French Canadian accent (he should have asked for his money back) but nobody could help him actually act.
When he starred in another early successful TV show, “The Wild, Wild West” (1965-69) he did most of his own stunt work maybe to hide the fact that his partner, actor Ross Martin (a real actor), made him look so amateurish that every time they did a scene together it looked like he couldn’t win an acting role in a High School play. Now in “Centennial” who was he partnered up with this time? Why Richard Chamberlain (an even better actor) who played a Scottish-born trapper with a believable Scottish accent. It was almost laughable whenever the two of them were in the same scene together. If he wasn’t killed off after the first two episodes this miniseries (one of the most expensive on TV at that time) would have been a complete disaster.
This type of problem can also occur for a movie or TV/Cable show when a prime actor is eliminated and the whole thing then proceeds to completely fall apart. The best example that I can think of is for the movie, “Gravity” (2013). Despite all of the acclaim and Oscars that it received (Best Director, Cinematography, Editing, etc.) I didn’t like it much at all. It is a S/F tale of survival with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney playing two astronauts desperately trying to survive and return to earth when disaster strikes while they are working on a satellite upgrade in space. The movie is basically a suspenseful two person character study. However, when you have an entire movie hanging on two people in crisis, whether it’s for a satellite disaster in space, finding a parking space at a shopping mall on a Black Friday Sale, taking a three year old to the dentist for the first time, etc., you Damn better be sure that the two people are not only interesting, but also, actually believable. And you especially better make sure that if one of the two characters is eliminated from the movie half-way through, the other one can carry the rest of the movie all by themselves. Unfortunately, for “Gravity” that doesn’t happen.
Acting-wise, the best thing about the movie is George Clooney as veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski who is planning to retire after this mission (Cliché! Cliché! Cliché!). Kowalski is a relaxed, joking, competent, and smiling leader who probably wouldn’t break a sweat if he jumped off the Empire State Building. In other words, George Clooney is basically playing George Clooney! And he’s terrific! Whenever he’s on the screen, he steals the entire movie. Unfortunately, when he departs the film mid-way through, and you now have Sandra Bullock taking over the rest of the movie, it crashes faster than a real satellite hitting the earth. Bullock can be a decent actress but here she just can’t pull it off. Even though it’s her first space mission her character is too often scared and panicking. She acts more like someone freaking out when they see a mouse running across their kitchen floor than a calm and competent NASA professional. Worse, we even find out that she previously lost her young daughter in a school yard accident (let’s go for some cheap sympathy too shall we). Bullock got an Oscar nomination for this role [although never forget that the Academy also once gave one to Ryan O’Neal for “Love (should have been “Dud”) Story”]. No later CGI space action scenes could ever really save “Gravity” after this mistake.
The next type of a promising type of entertainment being ruined is something that I have labeled “The Half Balloon Syndrome!” It is when, say for example, a movie starts slowly but shows signs of getting interesting so you decide to stick with it and it sloooowly starts to get better and then… like a half blown up balloon, all of the air is suddenly let out of the balloon and it never starts to ever inflate again. A couple of recent movies that fall victim to this problem are the character driven films “Enough Said” (2013) and “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (2015). Both films concern long-time divorced or widowed women (for “Said” Julia Louis-Dreyfus and for “Dreams” Blythe Danner). At a party, Dreyfus meets Albert (James Gandolfini) who is attracted to her and they start to date. At the same time she makes a new friend, Marianne who she later discovers is Albert’s ex and uses that knowledge to find out more personal information about Albert while not telling either Albert or Marianne that she knows the other one. For Danner, a long-time widow set in her ways, she meets Bill (Sam Elliott) who also lives in the same retirement community as her other female friends. When Bill later meets her again he asks her out and they start to date.
Both movies start slowly but start to get interesting due to the growing interaction between the principal characters. Gandolfini and Elliott give fine performances and each movie seems to start going somewhere when, unfortunately, they stop. For “Said” the problem is that, because it starts so slowly, more character interaction was needed along with more development of how Dreyfus’s continuing deceit was becoming more and more problematic which would also help further develop the movie’s comic and dramatic elements. For “Dreams” the problem is even worse. There is far too little interaction between Danner and Elliott (which happens to be the best thing in the movie) before Elliott is removed from the picture entirely. The resulting vague conclusion of “Dreams” ultimately leaves you feeling cheated and betrayed.
The last type of a promising movie, TV/Cable series, etc. turning bad is when either midway or towards the end of the movie or series’ run, the Director, Movie/TV Studio, etc. do a stupid plot twist which completely ruins it, or they can’t think of a way to properly end it so they just do a ridiculous hackneyed ending. For every TV series that had a great closing finale like “Breaking Bad,” “Justified,” and “Rectify,” you had others that were outright awful like “Dexter,” “The X-Files,” “Miami Vice,” and the most recent version of “Poldark.” For movies, I can think of two films in particular that, to this day, I am still pissed off about in how they were ruined this way. Those two movies were “Tequila Sunrise” (1988) and “The International” (2009). “Tequila Sunrise” starred Mel Gibson as Mac, a divorced former drug dealer now trying to go straight and raise his young son. However, his close childhood friend Nick (Kurt Russell), a LA police Lieutenant along with the DEA and a Mexican federal police officer suspect that Mac is still dealing drugs and still involved with a mysterious Mexican drug kingpin named Carlos whose identity is unknown. Nick also tries to ingratiate himself with Jo Ann (Michelle Pfeiffer), a stylish restaurant owner that Mac is interested in to find out more about Mac’s plans. Before you know it both Nick and Mac fall for Jo Ann and… complications ensue (I know! I know! When will I quit using that phrase.)
Oscar winning screenplay writer Robert Towne (“Chinatown”) directed, and the movie had style to burn. The Oscar nominated cinematography by Conrad Hall, the sharp sophisticated screenplay and direction by Towne, the complex plot, and a career best performance by Kurt Russell had this movie rolling until… the plot took a stupid twist which ruined the last third of the movie. I won’t mention the details of the twist other than when the identity of Carlos is revealed it is so far-fetched and unbelievable that you just want to rip up your movie theater seat and throw it at the screen. From that point on the movie devolves into one dumb, convoluted, and weak plot progression after another until by the time the final confrontation between Mac and Carlos occurs, you just want this now stupid mess to end.
“The International” starred Clive Owen as Louis Salinger, an Interpol detective obsessed with bringing down the International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC) that funds such activities as money laundering, terrorism, arms trading, and illegally selling girl scout cookies (Just kidding) which helps to destabilize various world governments. The storyline is based on an actual international banking scandal of the 1980s and the movie touches on how crooked global banking can affect international politics around the world. For awhile, director Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) brilliantly creates a suspenseful and believable portrait of paranoia and international intrigue that could rival classics like “The Third Man” and “All the President’s Men”. For the first half of the movie I was easily labeling it as the best movie of year. And then… it completely falls apart!
Early test results of the movie in 2008 were not good (maybe because the screenplay did not develop the characters more fully) so the powers that be instead of developing the characters better decided to just reshoot some of the scenes and turn it into an “action” movie. Bad idea! Now you have IBBC sending a hit team loaded with automatic weapons to take out one of their assassins before he is arrested by Salinger. And where do they subtly decide to do it? Why of course right inside the New York Guggenheim Museum full of more people than the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. What the F&$%k!!! At this point the movie changes from a tightly wound suspenseful tale into a bombastic, stupid, and unbelievable shoot-’em-up that only Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham fans would ever love. The movie never recovers from this point on and the subject of international financial corruption (which is especially relevant today) is just thrown away.
Well that about sums it up for today. So the next time you are suckered by a movie or TV/Cable series turning out this way, maybe you should just follow the immortal words of Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe (Cro-Magnon Man) Friday in “Dragnet” telling a young illegal substance user:
“You want to expand your mind? Read a book!”
Or better yet, expand your mind by taking those illegal substances first and then take that book and whack Joe Friday upside his head!