Dave Bowman: “Open the pod doors HAL.”
HAL: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
Dave Bowman: “What’s the problem?”
HAL: “I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.”
Dave Bowman: “What are you talking about, HAL?”
HAL: “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.”
[Keir Dullea to HAL, “2001, A Space Odyssey” (1968)]
For anyone under forty (or maybe even fifty) you probably never had certain restrictions that the rest of us had when we were your age. Back then, we didn’t have the variety now available from various streaming services and numerous cable packages. For example, when I was in that age range, I used to love watching ABC’s “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” documentary specials, NBC’s “The Wonderful World of Disney” nature documentary films and TV show episodes, “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom”, and even, before I knew any better, a little thing called “The American Sportsman” which was also on ABC on Sundays. Now why would I say, “before I knew any better?” Well, it was because “The American Sportsman” not only highlighted outdoor recreational activities such as hang gliding, whitewater kayaking, etc., but it also had various celebrities participating in hunting and/or fishing trips which too often devolved into hunting and killing big game. While I readily admit back then that I thoroughly enjoyed watching some celebrity hunting dangerous big game, after awhile it finally sunk into my thick skull that, other than for food, why were these people killing such non-edible animals like lions, grizzly bears, cape buffalo, elephants, etc. other than it was (1) to show that they could do it, (2), to hang some future trophy on their wall, (3) to get a little extra publicity or money from ABC for themselves, and maybe, (4) for ABC to get big ratings by attracting the hunting community’s viewers while also providing a way for a lot of us non-hunters to sate our own blood lust urges by vicariously feeling like we were actually with William Shatner, Andy Griffith, Larry Hagman, Redd Fox, Shelly Hack, etc. killing these creatures while safely sitting at home with a beer in hand (Yes, I know, that was an extremely long “run on” sentence). Perhaps we all had in us our own kind of “dark passenger” like Michael C. Hall’s serial killer Dexter Morgan did after all.
Now, you can avail yourself to such things as the National Geographic Channel, Discovery’s “Animal Planet”, and even “ESPN Classic” which rebroadcast episodes of American Sportsman after having a prior revival of the show titled “The New American Sportsman” on ESPN2 from 2002-2006. Fine documentaries are still being made too, such as the Oscar winning Netflix original documentary film, “My Octopus Teacher” (2020) since Jacques Cousteau is no longer around. However, Dear Reader maybe also around now you are probably thinking, “Is that what I am actually going to discuss for this month’s Blog Post? Wildlife Documentaries? Really?” Well, not exactly!
You see, previously, motion pictures had expanded outside of continually being made inside film studios to the Great Outdoors. Studios found that it could be more financially feasible and profitable to shoot films on location both domestically and overseas rather than to build fake sets at home. This was especially useful with regards to making big budget epics even after the development of CGI, and a number of great films were made, and continue to be made all the way up to the present day. Unfortunately, with this development, a new sort of problem arose regarding big budget motion pictures along with some smaller ones as well. Pictures were now being made by directors more focused on making a picture with pretty artsy-fartsy visuals rather than actually making a movie with any real dramatic or believable depth. Despite the pretty visuals, such films were actually, “Pretty…Awful!” It is this development that this month’s Blog Post will discuss.
A great director that definitely wasn’t one of those artsy-fartsy types was British Director David Lean. His pictures were known for being visually stunning helped by a number of great British cinematographers, so much so, that maybe from the period of 1945 to 1980 they were absolutely the best in the world. The proof of that was in the number of Oscars that they were either nominated for or won with the help of David Lean. For example, you had…
- “Great Expectations” (1946): Oscar winner for best Black-and-White cinematography (Guy Green).
- “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957): Oscar winner for best Cinematography – Color (Jack Hildyard).
- “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962): Oscar winner for best Cinematography – Color (Freddie Young).
- “Doctor Zhivago” (1965): Oscar winner for best Cinematography – Color (Freddie Young).
- “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970): Oscar winner for best Cinematography – Color (Freddie Young).
- “A Passage to India” (1984): Oscar nominated for best Cinematography – Color (Ernest Day).
However, these pictures, along with others that he directed, were not just visually stunning. Most of them, whether good or bad (I’m looking at YOU, “Ryan’s Daughter”), usually had complex storylines with brilliant screenplays that Lean utilized to elicit powerful and memorable performances with only a few “bad” exceptions [like YOU TOO, Christopher Jones (“Ryan’s Daughter”)]. Whether it was the dark English countryside or London slums for his two great Charles Dickens’ adaptions, the wild Irish coastline, or such international locales as the canals of Venice, the jungles of Burma, the deserts in Arabia, the vastness of revolutionary Russia, and the India of the 1920s under British rule, Lean’s films, both large and small were textbook examples of how to show visually brilliant motion pictures, while at the same time, telling complex stories of individuals in a realistic and believable manner. Unfortunately, just like the movie “Ben-Hur” led to a lot of really bad biblical movies being made afterwards, I believe that Lean’s influence led to a lot of visually stunning, but dramatically empty motion pictures being made ever since. Even worse, a number of these glorified National Geographic films were highly acclaimed Academy Award winners along with being financially successful too. However, who started this ball rolling? There could be many opinions as to who was this first directing culprit. I definitely have my own choice of who started and popularized this sort of garbage. I feel that person was Stanley Kubrick!
In previous Blog Posts I had mentioned that Kubrick was one of the most overrated Asshole Film Directors that I have ever seen, but I never explained why. Well, that is going to change right now. While he made some fine films earlier in his career like “Paths of Glory” (1957) and “Spartacus” (1960) (maybe due to Kirk Douglas keeping Kubrick’s excessive tendencies in check) along with “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), he also made three of the worst visually stunning but dramatically feeble pictures that I have ever seen. Those three were “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), “Barry Lyndon” (1975), and “The Shining” (1980).
“2001”, supposedly based on a short story by Arthur C. Clarke had groundbreaking, for its time, visual and Oscar winning special effects. What it didn’t have was… anything else. The screenplay was deliberately almost non-existent with the two main actors (Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea) more lifeless than a speck of dust since he deliberately wanted the film to be a nonverbal experience that didn’t rely on a traditional narrative structure. And it was! It was a boring and long (142 minutes originally reduced from 161 minutes) nonverbal experience. Instead of a music score he just used classical music which had no emotional or dramatic relationship to any scenes just to create some sort of a mood. Now Dear Reader, does this kind of seem like a documentary with a few human reenactments thrown in? Well, it sure does to me! Also, you could tell after “2001’s” release that it was a crock of S**t because Lockwood, Dullea, Kubrick, Clarke, and maybe some drunk on a park bench all had different explanations for what it all possibly meant including the movie’s weird psychedelically incomprehensible ending. Honestly, if I had to pick one of their explanations, I think I’d take the drunk on the park bench’s version, Monty, for ten bucks! When “2001” was released, it was not, at first, a financial success, and had numerous people walking out either during or afterwards scratching their heads wondering “What in the ever-loving F**k did I just see!” Kubrick, like the arrogant and pompous asshole that he was known to be, must have thought that it was beneath himself to actually provide an understandable explanation of what his movie was all about to the viewing public. However, ultimately, it became a financially successful arthouse film classic especially among loads of stoned out Collage students in the following decades. It also drew acclaim from a number of nose-up-in-the-air film critics (who also must have been stoned), that thought Kubrick’s non-traditional direction was brilliant rather than having balls the size of a flea to admit that “2001” was just a piece of boring incomprehensible Crap made by a poser artiste!
“Barry Lyndon,” was (very loosely) based on an 1844 novel by William Thackeray that told the story of the rise and ultimate downfall of an Irish rogue. This 187-minute molasses uphill slog should have had someone like Peter O’Toole, Michael Caine or Albert Finney in the title role since they were all great actors who could personally pull off carrying such a visually epic film. Kubrick’s choice: Ryan O’Neal (who makes Christopher Jones look like Lawrence Oliver by comparison). Despite “Lyndon” winning some Oscars (cinematography, costumes, art direction, etc.), for once, a lot of critics along with some of the general viewing public saw through Kubrick’s cold, lifeless, unemotional directing style which focused more on the pretty visuals, sets, and costumes rather than the actual storyline, and a lot of them were not pleased. Also, by having O’Neal, who emoted about as convincingly as one of those giant balloons floating in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, in the lead, it only demonstrated that Kubrick picked O’Neal for his “pretty boy” face alone, rather than his acting skills, since having a real actor on the screen might distract viewers from focusing on Kubrick’s visually sleep-inducing masterpiece! “The Shining”, based on the Steven King horror novel, only had more of Kubrick’s same old Shit of using mostly classical music (badly) rather than a real film score, a badly altered adaption of the novel that royally pissed off King, an over reliance on visual technical wizardry like his over use of the Steadicam, an overlong film length (144 minutes), the same cold, lifeless, and detached directing style, and continued miscasting like Shelley Duvall (constantly shrieking worse than a tea kettle lid) and Jack Nicholson [in a warm-up before grossly overacting as the Joker in “Batman” (1989)]. It’s poetic justice that for the “Golden Raspberry Awards” that year, Kubrick was nominated for Worst Director for “The Shining.” Oh, and as for him being such a total perfectionist control freak, his visually stunning opening panoramic overhead camera shot of a vehicle traveling up a Rocky Mountain Road also happened to include the shadow of the helicopter shooting the scene. Ops! Yeah, he’s a cinematic “GENIUS” alright! When Pigs Fly!
Moving right along, you had other visually stunning but awful as well as overly, long epic films which would have been better served if they just removed all of the actors and showed them on the Travel Channel instead. Some of these insomnia reducers were:
- Out of Africa (1985): Despite Meryl Streep giving Robert Redford an acting lesson playing Danish Karen Blixen in 1913 British East Africa, this turgid romantic melodrama was more concerned with helping African tourism by showing as many shots of herds of African wildlife running along the countryside rather than watching Redford, try to play a Brit named Denys Finch Hatton (with an American accent). My “English Leather” Deodorant Speed Stick was more authentic than his performance, and all the pretty scenery in the world couldn’t save this film from crashing worse than Redford did, not soon enough, in a biplane, by the end of this film.
- The Mission (1986): It’s the indigenous Indians and Jesuits of the Paraguayan jungle of the 1750s vs. the Spanish forces sent to kill/enslave all of them. Who will win? Director Roland Joffe sure doesn’t care! He would rather show as much of the jungle, rivers, and the towering Iguazu Falls than anything else. While doing so, he seemed to have forgotten how to explain why all of the Spanish forces were able to climb up the sheer rock face of the Falls while pulling up their cannons, canoes, pianos, refrigerators, bank vault, Mama Cass Elliot, etc. behind them, and that none of the Indians and Jesuits thought to do anything like cutting all of their climbing ropes, or raining arrows, rocks, musket balls, spit balls, naughty words, etc. from the top of the Falls down on them before they reached the top and wiped them all out. Oh well, I guess they were all too busy praying or watching all the pretty scenery to be bothered!
- The Last Emperor (1987): Let’s do a film about the last Chinese Emperor Puyi (or is it Pee-Yew?). And let’s have “legend in his own mind” John Lone (Who?) star. And let’s have unapologetic Marxist Bernardo Bertolucci, whose greatest claim to fame was making the lovingly photographed Porn/Rape film, “The Last Tango in Paris” direct. And let’s get it to be the first Western feature film authorized by the People’s Republic of China to be filmed in the “Forbidden City” in Beijing to show off all the pretty visuals. And let’s allow the Communist Govt. (with Bertolucci’s eager concurrence) complete control over how the film will portray China, under Mao (who was the 2nd greatest mass murderer in history after Joseph Stalin) as being such a wonderful paradise after Puyi was properly tortur… I mean, re-educated. And let’s just keep looking at all the pretty visuals over and over again, and forget about questioning anything else!
- Dances With Wolves (1990): Kevin Costner goes native, while filming the vast Western Indian plains over and over, looking sorrowful, speaking the Lakota Sioux language badly, and playing their “great white savior.” And let’s also not forget that all the Lakota Sioux are always very “good” and all the Caucasians (except Mary McDonnell and Cecil B. De-Costner) are always very “bad.” Oh, and let’s also keep showing those vast plains, mountains, buffalo, Costner’s profile, etc. even more until you feel a strong urge to run to the nearest skyscraper to either (1) jump off the top of it or, (2) grab Kevin Costner by his flowing “Lassie” length locks of hair and throw him off the top of it instead!
All four of these aforementioned pictures won the Oscar that year for Best Cinematography which they all justly deserved. Unfortunately, that is the only thing they deserved. The sad thing is that three of them also won the Oscar for Best Picture along with numerous other Academy Awards. I guess that it just goes to show that for film critics and the general public at large, “A sucker is born every minute!”
Lastly, I want to mention two other smaller, non-epics, but still “pretty” awful films for special condemnation. The first one is “Enchanted April” (1991) which was a story of four dissimilar women in 1920s England who decide to leave their drab and gray rainy surroundings and rent a villa for a month in Italy. Two of them have troubled marriages, another lost her boyfriend in World War I, and the fourth, is elderly and set in her ways. They all arrive and, almost like magic, their surroundings are so wonderful that the two married women along with their husbands who arrive later all change and become gloriously happy again while the one who lost her love finds new love, and even the elderly one starts to be joyous. The end! While watching this film, between trying not to fall asleep and trying not to throw up, I noticed that maybe the two most annoying things about it was first, the inane idea that a trip somewhere sunny would solve everyone’s problems. If that were the case, the entire psychiatric profession would be put out of business. Second, the overt and distracting “pretty” visuals of the villa, the flowers, the ocean, and the sunshine where everything sparkled, and which took up so much of the viewing time were utilized to possibly try and hide the fact that this hackneyed and non humorous little film was sort of like having you sink your teeth into a delectable looking chocolate bonbon and discovering that the supposedly sweet filling inside was nothing more than a nugget of “Shit!” This film made the crap on the Hallmark Channel seem like Oscar Wilde by comparison, but hey, maybe because it’s British, they thought that it was high art! Right? Wrong!
The second film turkey was a picture that came out in the past year to great acclaim and which, unfortunately, received twelve Academy Award nominations which were the most nominations for any film in 2021. What picture was it, Dear Reader? Why it’s…
“The Power of the Dog”
“Dog” is a psychological western that tells the story of kind hearted George (Jessie Plemons) and his extremely toxic masculine brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), co-owners of a cattle ranch in Montana in 1925. When, after a cattle drive, Phil insults Rose (Kirsten Dunst), an innkeeper and her lisping effete son, Pete (queerer than a three-dollar bill), George steps in to quietly console her. Shortly afterwards Rose, a widow, and George immediately marry and Rose and her son move into the brothers’ home, an action that sets the stage for Phil’s increasing hostility towards Rose and Pete. This film was populated with fine actors and had a good performance by Cumberbatch. It also had beautiful visuals of mountain ranges, plains, landscapes, trees, rocks, blades of grass, various plant life, streams, etc. heightened by sensitive lighting highlighting the color tones of everything. If any gardeners or landscapers were in the viewing audience, they’d probably be wetting their pants in joy right about now. However, there was only one little problem with “Dog” (Dear Reader you are probably now thinking…Uh-Oh, here it comes…) it was a truly awful picture, due to Jane Campion’s gross ineptitude as a film director.
What’s wrong with it? Let me count the ways! First, Campion deliberately directs everything slow even the dialogue between the actors in her pretty little scenes. If you had to take a bathroom break while watching it, don’t worry! By the time you got back to your seat a character would still be saying the remainder of that same line of dialogue that you were starting to hear when you left to take a leak. Second, the overt homoerotic overtones emanating from Phil were obvious, but Campion was so heavy handed that she even inserted a non-subtle visual reference to painter Thomas Eakin’s “The Swimming Hole” to make a point about Phil’s sexuality. However, instead of nude boys frolicking, you now had nude Cow…boys. As my sister used to elegantly say, “You don’t have to hit me over the head with a bucket of Dog S**t to make your point!” Well, folks take a good sniff! Jane Campion just did that to you! Third, for all of these fine actors, except for Cumberbatch, none of them have any real backstory or depth so their characters are undeveloped and uninteresting. Fourth, Campion completely neglects to utilize Dog’s film score to either show a character’s emotional changes or to develop tension or suspense. Five, some of the plot developments are unbelievable or far-fetched. For example, after George consoles Rose by helping her serve the cowboys their meals in the inn, the next thing you know, they get married. Talk about a short courtship! Or Phil, after mercilessly tormenting Pete suddenly changes and starts to strike up a sensitive friendship with him. Huh??? Six, and last, besides her need to slowly show off all the pretty scenery (if I saw one more distance shot of a long road with a jalopy on it, I’d want to plant an IED on that road and blow that sucker up), her direction was so vague and oblique that by the end of “Dog,” just like for “2001,” I was saying, “What the Hell just happened?” Sadly, although “Dog” only won one Oscar, it had to be for Campion winning one for Best Director. Maybe they should have just hired Stevie Wonder to direct instead. It couldn’t have been much worse!
Usually I like mentioning what my choice for Best Picture of the year is. However, this is one time that I’m going to do something a little different. Hence, for 2021, my pick for the Worst Picture of the Year is “The Power of the Dog” …
IN A PRETTY… LANDSLIDE!!!