Saturday, December 2, 2006

They're Well Known

Since I shot fish in a barrel last post, I thought I would aim for a sacred cow with my next post. Actually, 25 sacred cows, as this is my list of the 25 most overrated movies of the past 26 years (everything since 1980, which I guess is technically 27 years, but whatever). In order to determine what exactly is a highly rated movie, I looked at the Academy Award nominations, the AFI top 100 list of nominations, Cannes prize winners and IMDB's top 250. Obviously some highly regarded movies might not make these lists, but then how overrated could they be? Just about every Oscar winner could be listed as overrated, so for the record I haven't seen Terms of Endearment (1983), Out of Africa (1985), The Last Emperor(1987), The English Patient (1996) or Chicago (2002) ; so, probably a few of them would be on the list if I bothered to watch them.

Dances with Wolves (1990) - Oscar Winner. - So boring, so heavy handed, so long. This movie won for being very obviously about the exploitation of Indians and thus it made people feel good about themselves to vote for it. See Crash for further examples.

Forrest Gump (1994) - Oscar Winner. It beat out Pulp Fiction for Best Picture and enabled assholes to yell "Run, Forrest, Run!" anytime they saw someone running (hey, I was 10 when this movie came out, it was a major pet peave at the time). The plot is endearing, even if it is a dumbed down, historical version of Being There. However, the political message of the movie is not only overbearingly conservative, but, it goes the extra mile by making liberals the product of child abuse and, consequently, making liberalism a inflicted psychological disorder. The twin fates of Forrest, the good hearted man who went to war and became a millionaire, and Jenny, the whore who protested, eventually got AIDS and finally found redemption by getting pregnant, reinforce the most repressive concepts of gender, race (Forrest was scorned from the Black Panther Party, but Bubba's Mammy gets a big pile of money from whitey to rescue her from the plantations in Alabama), class and justice. There is even a funny commentary on John Kerry's political career, since the anti-war speeches that launched it were successfully replicated by a mentally handicapped man. If you are the sort of person who roots for America like it is your favorite football team, then this is the movie for you, otherwise it's an embarrassment.

Braveheart (1995) - Oscar Winner. Famous for its "ultra realistic" battle scenes that look like they were filmed by someone having a seizure. Grossly historically inaccurate, with a scene chewing villain without a speck of humanity and a script of thunderous lines, it is a solid action flick that got a Golden Statue because people were unwilling to vote for a movie about a pig. It did feature Sophie Marceau looking incredibly sexy in period clothes, so that is something.

Titanic (1997) - Oscar Winner. I make the case that this is the worst movie ever to win Best Picture, with its only saving grace being its relative lack of ambition. Sure, it cost 200 million dollars, but at least we didn't have to wade through an obvious message- unless the message is ships don't do well when they hit icebergs (thank you Paul Haggis!). It is a straightforward, weepy love story, with a huge action section jammed in the middle (or maybe the love is jammed around the action, I mean you could make Titanic without Jack and Rose, but not without the ship sinking). It's your basic summer blockbuster that made huge sums of money by having enough romance to get the girls and some nudity and violence for the guys. There are two problems: Hollywood rewarded the movie with a Best Picture Oscar for making a lot of money and the screenplay is simply terrible. The meandering plot includes a boring frame story that serves to distance the viewer from the real story- culminating in the heroine throwing away a priceless jewel in an act of selfishness that presumably is an attempt to pay tribute to her lost love by making the people looking for the jewel suffer- and, best of all, a sequence involving the Billy Zane chasing and shooting at our starcrossed lovers as the Titanic is sinking! In short, this movie features terrible dialogue, mediocre acting, and a miserable plot, but at least they went for realism by building a big, big boat. To be fair, this movie doesn't make a lot of "best of" lists anymore.

American Beauty (1999) - Oscar Winner. This actually was my favorite movie for years. Most of the characters feel alienated and unfulfilled, and the broadly anti-suburban motif really resonated with my wannabe-edgy teenage mindset. I didn't watch the movie for a couple of years and then came back after actually learning a little about film and to my surprise A.B. had tarnished in the meantime. The central plot of the middle-aged Lester waking up from his malaise and realizing his life is unhappy and inauthentic is completely betrayed by his adolescent response to this epiphany. Lester doesn't like his job, wife, car or body, so he starts smoking weed and working at a fast food restaurant, he buys a muscle car and idolizes one of his daughter's friends. Just like the creepy drug dealer next door finds incredible beauty in a plastic bag, the movie finds the antidote to modern alienation in living like a 16 year old. No wonder it was my favorite movie back then.

Gladiator (2000) - Oscar Winner. Won in an incredibly weak field that featured another movie on this list, two foreign movies (those sure aren't going to win) and Traffic, which should have won by default, though movies like Momento and Snatch were better that year. This is a more exciting version of Braveheart, with even more violence and Joaquin Phoenix playing the role of scenery eater. It has a great score and the speeches definitely give you that warm and fuzzy feeling, but ultimately it is an action flick about "honor and glory". Specifically, the honor and glory of killing everyone in the way of your quest for revenge, making this a period version of Death Wish (a badass movie in its own right, though certainly not an Oscar winner). At least Braveheart was about how the English are evil and soulless, while Gladiator just demonstrates how effective the death penalty would be as a deterrent if it was executed (punny) with swords in front of a big crowd.

A Beautiful Mind (2001) - Oscar Winner. Russell Crow pulled off his second dupe in a row with this by the by the numbers drama that managed to beat Gosford Park and the first Lord of the Rings. Someone at the academy likes a good twist (see the nomination of The Sixth Sense), since all this move had not much going for it was the revelation that *SPOILERS AHEAD* he was crazy *END SPOILERS* (did I mention that Rosebud is the sled?). This is fine fare for boring night, but a best picture? Not even close.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) - Oscar Winner. I really enjoyed the first two movies and this one was awesome for the first three hours and fifteen endings. I realize that the movie won because of the strength of the entire series, the special effects and the huge piles of money, but come on! This was a kid's movie that was yawn inducing for the last hour. The series is incredibly popular and should have taken all that money as its own reward, but it got greedy and it got overrated.

Crash (2005) - Oscar Winner. - In his acceptance speech for "Best Original Screenplay"PaulHaggis said the following: "Bertolt Brecht said that art is not a mirror, but it is a hammer. Not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer in which to shape it. So I guess this is ours." In other words, Haggis used his bully pulpit to bludgeon us to death with the never before seen message that some people are racists! Haggis takes no chances that we might not catch this subtle theme, so he has the characters say expressly that, in between demonstrating it over and over again. Beyond that, I hate that this movie won over Brokeback Mountain which ultimately fell victim to its own success, despite having a much more interesting message (the high cost of keeping homosexuality private), a far more moving conclusion and superior cinematography and acting. Crash's win is proof positive that the Academy Awards are just the best attended television event of the year and have no credibility at choosing the best movie of any given year.

Kagemusha (1980) - Palme d'Or Winner. I had no intention of attacking this movie, until I saw that it won the grand prize (no, not the Grand Prix, that is second place...) at Canne's. I think this movie is insufferably boring and plays even longer than its 3 hours since almost nothing happens in the movie. Kurosawa's body of work is untouchable, but this smells like a lifetime achievement award, like the Oscar Marty is going to get this year for The Departed (which I loved). This is a beautiful movie to look at, with a full palette of gorgeous colors in scenes of wading through rainbows of paint and legions of different colored flags aligned and blowing in the breeze. Unfortunately, sometimes scenes take several minutes to set up while we see soldier after soldier march into position. This movie could be trimmed down an hour without losing a scene or line of dialogue. Only a renowned master like Kurosawa would be allowed to make a movie this fat.

The other 15 tomorrow.

Makes me wanna smoke crack

I watch a lot of television, though not as much as I did when I had On Demand, HBO, Showtime and DVR in college. I do manage to avoid two of the most popular types of programming: procedural dramas and reality television, with a few exceptions, all of which are on MTV.

MTV is a tough channel to defend, as it is perhaps the single most evil influence on our society, only al-Qaida and Islamic fundamentalism even running a close second. A short list of MTV's crimes: perpetrating the careers of people like J-Lo and Jessica Simpson, who sap the collective IQ by broadcasting stupidity like anti-intellectual Tokyo Roses; celebrating being rich and wasting money ("My Super Sweet 16") and purveying the culture of being famous for being famous ("Laguna Beach", which is also is about the rich wasting money and tops that by being ephebophilic to anyone over 18 who watches it). But worst of all, MTV created reality television with "The Real World" in 1992 and in the process became the forefather of everything from "Temptation Island" to "The Swan".

Most MTV reality shows, or any reality show on any network, follow this simple formula: put ridiculous people together in ridiculous situations and encourage them to overact to any perceived slight or affront (bonus points for getting them drunk too). Shows like "The Real World" boil people down to specific stereotypes (conservative, thus bigoted, southern white girl; flamboyantly gay black man; girl with emotional problems stemming from bad childhood; angry black man; angry black woman; angry white man; angry white transsexual who wants to be an angry black lesbian...) that the people on the show seem to constantly try to live up to, rather than escape from. MTV screens these people with a professional psychologist before hand, to ensure they really are crazy and find out which cast will be the least compatible, and thus the most entertaining.

In Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman says that he thinks everyone in the world became like people in "The Real World" after the third season. Before "The Real World" he viewed people as individuals, but after the third season he realized that everyone is just like someone from the show. In other words, despite being incredibly inauthentic, "The Real World" is more real than real life. His tongue may be firmly in his cheek, but that idea isn't that far fetched in a society when the media tells us who we are supposed to be both expressly- in Miller commercials that tell us what men are allowed to do (evidently men are supposedly to live in constant fear of accidentally acting like a homosexual)- and subtly by demonstrating how idealized men and women act on television. A generation of people raised by the television would naturally have role models on the silver screen and even as we laugh along with the laugh track, we learn how to behave. The guys get laughs for being dumb animals who only know about sports and hate all things feminine, including art, literature, or education (examples: Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor and Dan Conner). The women, meanwhile, are either domestic foils or portrayed as crazy or baby obsessed for laughs (Lucille Ball is the archetype, while shows like "I Dream of Genie" or "Bewitched" just reduce the women to cartoons). Obviously there are many exceptions, but those shows are the successful exceptions that prove the rule. A deeply flawed show like "Sex and the City" became a huge hit just by showing women as rational, self-sufficient adults unafraid of their own sexuality. A show like "the Real World" is the next logical step in the other direction: true life role models demonstrating how to be a young, hot, sexually active alpha male or female. Unfortunately, those role models are picked for being emotional unstable and filling out a tank top or wife beater and have about as much credibility as role models as the average professional athlete.

All that said, MTV is incredibly watchable, at least in small doses. One of my friends theorizes that the producers' of MTV programs make them with the express intention of appealing to two audiences, the very dumb, who can only appreciate it at face value, and the people who ironically appreciate how ridiculous everything is. I don't believe that MTV producers make shows like "My Super Sweet 16" with the express intent of exploiting the brainless greed of teenagers, and if they do, that is worse than just making a show about quarter of a million dollar birthday parties. I choose to believe that most MTV shows are well crafted junk TV, the equivalent of a microwave dinner from Jean-Georges, delicious but ultimately unsatisfying.

So, why do I watch MTV? First, because I have watched it for a long time and I will keep doing something I don't like for a long time, but I won't start doing something unless it is immediately compelling. It is a lot easier to quit smoking if you never start. Second, the shows are always on and I sell my free time cheap. Even if MTV is evil, its shows are more entertaining than anything that has ever graced the screen of 80% of my basic cable channels. Shows like “True Life: The Jersey Shore”, are so unbelievably funny that they have to be seen to be believed. Serious or not, exploitive or very, very exploitive, when MTV nails it the results are stunning and some people just deserve to be made fun of. Third, and most importantly, MTV is a reflection of what is going on in mainstream youth culture and sometimes I need to look in the mirror and realize how far I haven't come. I, and my like-minded compatriots, create a distance between the caricatures on MTV and ourselves based on an assumption of mental superiority. Sure, I am smarter than the Tommy, the meathead looking for love in the clubs of the Jersey Shore, but am I doing anything better with my life? Just watching a show like that begs the question, if I’m really so smart then why do I spend all my time watching him on MTV?

Friday, December 1, 2006

Do you all like my looks?

Here we, and by that I mean me, are. I vociferously read blogs, but thus far, resisted starting one of my own because I couldn't stand the thought of promoting it or eventually abandoning it after my friends mocked it behind my back for being mediocre. However, since college ended I have lost most of my outlets for intellectual discourse about the things I spend my time doing- namely, watching television and movies, attempting to read a book a week, following sports and generally complaining, we called it critiquing, everything in sight. In a completely unrelated coincidence, I haven't really been around marijuana and people who consume it, though according to a commercial I recently saw that means I should have seen a spike in time spent ice skating with girls and mountain biking. Unfortunately you don't have to smoke weed to waste all of your time.

That is what this blog is ultimately about, I spend all of my time doing things that can only by the most generous of definitions be termed "constructive," but I think that fiction is important, perhaps more important than non-fiction, at least in the arts. In fact, when I see people who never read novels and only watch documentaries, I generally assume that their world view is as big as pin. Documentaries in any form can tell us about the world, but great fiction can tell us about ourselves. That is what the lid of my Snapple can said anyway. I want to think very hard, or at least as hard as I can while still listening to music and playing Snood, about the things that entertain me and hopefully one day people will read this and tell me I am wrong and we can have a conversation.

As a counterpoint to all the heart on my sleeve stuff, I will point out that the last time I wrote a column it advocated banning booze to encourage drinking and not trusting people who didn't do drugs. The point being, I don't take myself too seriously and I always value humor over content. So let's see how long I can keep this up!