These are films that I either suffered through, or whose trailers assaulted me while waiting to see something else.
Not So Bad Once You Get to Know Them
These are two individuals who made careers out of dehumanizing others. Yet, we're supposed to sympathize with them because one was a repressed gay man and the other a woman who faced off against men and is now suffering from Alzheimer's. Fuck them both. There are many legitimate ways to approach biopics about interestingly evil people (e.g. Downfall), but a liberalized understanding is not one of them.
I've previously expressed my horror at seeing simple 2D cartoonish figures rendered in photorealistic 3D detail. Who needs to count the black lines in Scooby's iris or see the snot dripping from his nose to get into the plot? But this grotesque disfiguration has really reached its aesthetic nadir with Spielberg's adaptation of the comic famous for its clear line style, HergÃ©'s TinTin. Rather than believe Spielberg can't see how hideous these deformed monsters look, I suspect that this kind of adaptation is really a simulation of a live action adaptation. Ultimately, it's a portent of a later stage of the technological revolution in which actors and much of the old film crew will be out of a job. A perfectly realistic CG star can't join a union. Of course, that'll only happen if they can digitally create the voices, too, which brings me to why the Muppets are dead and should not be brought back as zombies. Maybe Gallagher and Sam Kinison can be safely simulated by a close relative, but there is no muppet without the original muppeteer. Kermit and Fozzie might look the same, but they're obviously defective clones, being revealed as recovering stroke victims upon opening their mouths. (Not that I've ever been much of a fan of the Muppet movies, which tend to identify more with the lame humans than the characters of interest.)
While neither of these films is going to be on the American Nazi Party's must-see list, they continue a certain racist tendency in Hollywood filmmaking where all race relations are filtered through white consciousness. It's hard to frame minority struggles within a heroic plot since said struggles tend to be collective, working against oppression through attrition. But Hollywood loves heroism, so they use tricks to accomplish the heroic arc. One such framing device is the journalist (e.g., Cry Freedom or any number of American-made films about African struggles). The struggle won't be resolved at the end, but the audience feels a comforting closure from the journalist getting out alive and/or reporting the tragic story to a snoozing public. Another device is to use a person of privilege who heroically uses his or her privilege to help the oppressed minority in some way. This allows the audience a feeling of uplift at the edification of the privileged in spite of the fact that there's not much edification in just being oppressed (e.g., Schindler's List). Set in the early 60s, The Help combines both of these strategies, effectively reducing the Civil Rights movement to an inspiration for a bunch of black maids to help a well-to-do Southern belle write their story. What's noxious here is that the focus of the film isn't the subject of liberalized belle's story, namely the plight of black maids in the South at the time, but her success in getting the story published. Why not a story about the black maids without the white frame?
Cowboys & Aliens provides a likely answer: liberal modern white people like to feel good about themselves. In their entertainment, they feel better in retrofitting their own contemporary moral views onto the less liberalized past. As I've already argued, instead of questioning whether the American Indians wouldn't have better reason to side with the alien Other, thereby bringing into question just how much the modern white audience is or would've been really against white hegemony back in the 19th century, the film lets us off the hook by assuming the Indians would've naturally found common cause with the whites. The white heroine of The Help functions in much the same way as this fantasy of the evil other that negates our differences: i.e., a way of patting ourselves on the back for accepting our common humanity with no actual challenge to how we might've actually acted in such highly racist circumstances.
There was a line of Star Trek: The Next Generation books that all took place on the holodeck. The advantage for Trekkies was that they never had to leave their little simulated microcosm to experience any other type of literature. Potentially, some work-for-hire writer could just place the beloved characters into any genre and, voilÃ , they have some hack's version of the classics filtered through a TV-reading level. I don't know if they're still making those, but we do have something like its music equivalent, Glee. Of course, the show and movie barely cover what anyone could reasonably call music classics, but if you ever wondered if Journey had any kind of soul, just listen to the simulation. Is The Rocky Horror Picture Show just too much in reality that people now need a more controlled, sanitized version existing within the Glee-Matrix? This is homogeneity masquerading as heterogeneity. It's the aesthetic equivalent of living in one those prefab small towns that are nothing more than malls with condos. Corporate-sponsored pseudo-individuation for people who would've swallowed the blue pill.
Contagion approaches the society of spectacle from the opposite direction, by showing us the pragmatico-scientific benefits of converting the private into the public. Getting used to having our images taken by all those cameras, with Big Brother becoming naturalized by the willful projection of our daily lives through Twitter or Facebook mediation, might someday save lives. Or, if it doesn't stop a mugging or the spread of a disease, the global panopticon will at least tell us whodunnit. No, that's not a good reason for giving up privacy, nor is it a good reason for seeing this film. Millions died, but the filmmakers mistake a MacGuffin for the point. It's Day of the Dead without the zombies, but missing the existentialism of Garfield Minus Garfield.
The only thing more mundane than a drama about some life-altering disease (e.g., 50/50) would be that drama without the disease.
... and Some Truly Awful Action Films
I already shared my distaste for Captain America and Priest. Otherwise, these films look like shit (Suckerpunch and Green Lantern being the ugliest by far) and couldn't come up with one non-generic action sequence among them, so 'nuff said.
Transcendence: Magnets, How Do They Work?
Neither of these religious films requires much commitment to the traditions in question, Christianity for The Tree of Life and Buddhism for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. That is, the religious question isn't about doctrine, but the mystification of life, what tends to be called spiritualism. Both films attempt to conjure up the transcendent in quotidian living as the eternal questioning without an answer. The former is in the register of awe (juxtaposing the cosmic and microcosmic to middle class life in Texas) and the latter, contemplation (nearly still life depictions of Boonmee's family, both alive and dead, at a dinner table, at his bedside or watching TV in a hotel room). Why is there something instead of nothing? What does this something mean? Why do some brothers die while others live? Why is there a guy in cheap ape suit at the dinner table? To appropriate McLuhan, the question is the answer. Or, in the words of the Insane Clown Posse:
Pure magic is the birth of my kids
I've seen shit that'll shock your eyelids
The sun and the moon, and even Mars
The Milky Way and fucking shooting stars
I see miracles all around me
Stop and look around, it's all astounding
Water, fire, air and dirt
Fucking magnets, how do they work?
No one was tempted to reference Martin Heidegger to defend "Miracles" from the media lashing that went on last year (I did find this juggalo existentialist referred to as the Heidegger of the movement, though), but isn't ICP saying the same thing as Terrence Malick in Tree of Life? Scientific facts and reasons are a form of domination; a child-like wonderment is the authentic existence. Grace over nature. Apichatpong Weerasethakul makes the same point formally. Uncle Boonmee's interminable, flat, static scenes of people talking about not much of anything (when they're talking at all) are supposed to elicit mystery. As J. Hoberman says, "The movie doesn’t mean anything -- it simply is." Just like water, fire, air and dirt. Plots are bad, and semantics, evolution or special relativity are dominating plots, hegemonic discourses. Salvation comes through mystical revelation. Being reveals itself. Only positivists would mock white rappers in clown makeup.
In War Horse, the audience cares about World War I only as it pertains to the life of a horse. In We Bought a Zoo, the audience cares about the animals only as the dramatic locus for typical familial difficulties. Unfortunately, what's interesting about wars isn't the animals and what's interesting about zoos isn't the humans.
To quote LBJ, "the ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there." Each of these comedies promotes its own brand of stupidity from opposite ends of the standardized political spectrum. Hall Pass is, as I've already covered, a comedy for the depressed upper middle class where love and family have been reduced to exchange value. It says that no matter how much commodification has replaced all human ties, the joke is on the lower classes, because you have more of this than they do. Thus libertarian utopianism, where the best of all possible worlds is already here -- optimism being the hope that there's someone below you on whom to spit. Our Idiot Brother accepts that the capitalist reduction is the rational way of life, so insists that knowledge is immoral, cupidity can only be resisted through a bubble of stupidity. (I remember back in the 90s having to explain who Al Gore was to a nuevo-hippie sprout farmer.) The titular brother is an idiot Gandhi, leading by example his three avaricious and scheming sisters (the kind of women who marry the assholes in Hall Pass). He trusts everyone (even a uniformed cop who wants to buy some dope) despite being constantly fucked over. They'll all come around eventually: A revolution through ignorance, with change to occur one moron at a time. These films together map out contemporary political debate in the States.
The two greatest dads in the whole world die. One leaves behind an automaton which can only be activated by a missing heart-shaped key, while the other leaves a key without the lock into which it fits. Suspecting some encrypted, posthumous message, their respective sons have to go on a search. After which, the former has brought more than the robot to life and the latter has unlocked the post-racial heart of post-9/11 New York. The heart expands with sentiment, then stretches some more. The left ventricle weakens, causing fluid to back up in the lungs. One day you're coughing blood into toilet paper, the next, complete cardiac arrest. For the rest of your life, you'll need an artificial heart, which requires a reduction in activity. Excitement will have to be monitored, or you just might die.
The quirk is genre filmmaking's version of exotica. Exotica is the appropriation of folk music from around the world into a form that allows the listener to feel as if he's transcending cultural barriers while remaining within his own. Martin Denny and Les Baxter are examples from exotica proper, but today the same sort of pseudoindividuation exists in the obsession with psychodelica and garage rock from around the world -- only, in the latter example, it's actual foreigners supplying the Western-styled version of their own traditions. But it matters little who the producer of the music is, just that the product is being sold as alterity based on its connection to what the consumer is already comfortable with. Thus, when Wong Kar-Wai has one of his protagonists in Chungking Express quirkily eating large quantities of canned peaches that expired on the day his girlfriend broke up with him, the viewer is supposed to feel he's in the presence of art, not some hackneyed genre film short on ideas.
Bellflower is yet another movie about a breakup. That's all there is to it, really. It's supposed to feel like something else -- maybe an independent art film -- because the lovers do quirky things like driving to Texas for low-grade barbecue on their first date, or the protagonist and his best friend are obsessed with the Mad Max films so much that they make a flamethrower to put on top of their rebuilt muscle car in preparation for the ironic apocalypse. They say "dude" a lot. They probably took some screenwriting classes and are the kind of guys who use terms like "big reveal." The dystopia comes in a fugue state, where the forlorn hero envisions the death of his friends and lovers. "Dude, what the fuck is going on!?!" Then it's revealed that, oh, yeah, he's feeling really sad, because a girl cheated on him, and we're watching yet another film about a breakup.