Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Movies to Avoid

A thread is opening up on Crooked Timber on the theme of 101 movies to avoid watching before you die, and to my chagrin, the first nomination is actually a favorite of mine, House of Sand and Fog. I agree with Harry Brighouse's assessment that it is an unpleasant film, but that's what I like about it: it kicked me in the gut, and when I doubled over in pain, it kept kicking harder and harder. By the end I was on the floor and it was still kicking me. This is what melodrama is supposed to do, even at the expense of strict realism, and House of Sand and Fog does it. How many films can say anything of the sort? How many films leave you feeling nothing? Too many.

Maybe it's the wrong brain speaking here, but I particularly disagree with Harry's take on Jennifer Connelly's performance:

[T]he only possible explanation in the circumstances is that she was severely depressed. Whatever plausibility that explanation has is undermined by the fact that, on screen, the actress has no sign at all of being, or ever having been, depressed. She seems bratty, to be sure, but not ill ... Connelly is manifestly not a depressed alcoholic, but looks healthy, happy, and well-made up every time she appears onscreen.
Healthy, yes -- physically anyway. Well-made up, sure -- this is Jennifer Connelly after all, and the film probably didn't have the budget to make her dumpy. But happy? At what point in the film did she seem happy?

I realize Connelly has her limitations as an actor, but I thought her performance in this film was quite convincing. And I say that having had no small real-world exposure to attractive, depressed, semi-functional (or selectively-functional), manipulative, self-destructive women.

I liked House of Sand and Fog a lot and recommend it.

Now, Congo -- there's an irredeemable piece of shit that belongs on any list of 101 movies to avoid. In fact, most films Michael Crichton has meaningfully touched are hours-long insults -- Congo, Twister, Jurassic Park, Disclosure. I have not seen Coma or Andromeda Strain, and don't want to; the man's talent for turning a promising premise into a heap of dung is substantial.

Trying to stick with movies that have at least some claim to seriousness, or were otherwise received well: I would also put Adaptation on the list. I hated it from start to finish.

Other nominations?


Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

Well, actually, the Robert Wise Andromeda Strain is actually pretty crackling good. They used B and C list actors which looked and acted like suitably irascible scientists and made the Wildfire lab into a design paean to Science and Technology As Hero ... so much so that the lab actually becomes a character in the movie of a sorts, a kind of avatar of that last illusion that if we Americans just threw enough American science on a problem we'd solve it in nothing flat ... or maybe a few days, if it was a really intractable problem.

Another good Crichton work was Westworld, and I'm sure you've heard of that one. Made on a budget of $1.25 mil (in those days' dollars) and it looked like a much more expensive film, which also explored H. sapiens americanus's then-bottomless faith in technology to do exactly what we told it to and to satsify whatever need we had for it precisely.

But more than anything, these two films were made by a very different Michael Crichton ... one who was hungry, who gave a crap about what he did, who was clever and entertaining and who hadn't yet begun to believe his own bullschmidt. They were entertaining in a wily way and craftily clever ... a lot of the intercom chatter in the '72 Strain was simply pulled out of director Wise's keester, inspired by the bibliography at the back of the original Andromeda Strain novel ... which Chrichton pulled out of his keester, and formatted just like a real bibliography, giving the novel the feeling of a documentary.

After that, Chrichton became famous, and rich, and stopped caring, and all his work became huge, lumbering potboilers. Sophisticated, yes. But worthless.

Treat yourself to the original Strain. You won't regret it. You'll wonder what they did with the orignal M.C. and why we're stuck with the self-satisfied twit we got.

Dale said...

In fairness, yes. I was hoping to catch the old Andromeda Strain in preparation for this new Andromeda Strain they're releasing.

And I am interested in Westworld. It's been on the list ever since Stephen Malkmus sang so achingly beautifully about it in "Jo-Jo's Jacket."

But I'll never love again if it fails me.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

And I am interested in Westworld. It's been on the list ever since Stephen Malkmus sang so achingly beautifully about it in "Jo-Jo's Jacket."

If you can, find the paperback version of the book. It's amazing for two reasons: 1) the introduction, written by Crichton, is a witty and personal view of how a first-time filmmaker (namely himself) makes a film and kind of figures out how over-his-head he is and makes the best of it. It's quite entertaining; 2) the story isn't prose, its the script that they had for the movie the day before they started filming. It includes a rather effectively-creepy scene (which didn't make it to filming) of a group of Japanese investors being given the dog'n'pony show by resort staff ... who turn out to be androids.

But I'll never love again if it fails me.

Hey, what's life without taking risks? Always travelling the safe path? Dare! Risk! Adventure a little!