Way back in the stone age, when I was starting to pick up HTML and CSS, I looked at a lot of websites to learn good web design. The problem is that looking at a well-designed site doesn’t really tell you much, since (ideally) the user experience is seamless. Enter the brilliant WebPagesThatSuck.com, a great teaching aid. It really is possible to learn good design by looking at bad design. As an aside, I find that about half of the film agent, manager, cast, crew, vendor, and production company sites I’ve visited this year (and that’s a LOT) suck. All apples-to-oranges comparisons aside, if you can’t communicate clearly in a static, relatively inexpensive medium, why should I do business with you in a fast-paced, capital-intensive one?
Likewise, you can learn a lot from looking at films that don’t quite work. It’s also a rather empowering experience. When I see The Seventh Seal or Dark Knight or Stalker, I think “why should I bother making movies, I can’t compete.” When I see one of the films below, I think “maybe I have a chance.”
Stealth (2005), USA. dir. Rob Cohen
The Story: Three NAVY “advanced project-type” pilots (Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel, and Jamie Foxx) try working with an unmanned, autonomous robotic drone. Gee, a super-intelligent machine built by the military-industrial complex, behind the wheel of a heavily armed hypersonic aircraft – what could go wrong?
The Good: The performances are solid. Joe Morton and Sam Shepard do their best with underwritten side roles. The politics of the film is more complex than you might expect. The action is well shot and cut together so that you can actually follow it, and the depiction of high-tech warfare is believable (though servicemen have commented on how unbelievable it is; the main point is that I bought it). And, yeah, Jessica Biel is hot.
The Bad: The first thirty minutes of the film feel simultaneously rushed and aimless. It’s almost as though too many writers were brought in; or that forty-five interesting minutes of footage got cut down into thirty “for pacing”. What gets shortchanged is the character development. This is rather critical, since I’m supposed to care about these three pilots who are, after all, raining heavy damage down on people from the sky. The geography makes absolutely no sense. And some very interesting ideas about whether war would be “better” with the machines in charge of it are brought up… and then tossed aside like parsley.
Why Watch It: If you’re working on something that involves effects and/or action scenes, the editing and camerawork in this film is good. You can actually SEE where the planes are in relation to each other and to the action at hand. The suspense of the last half of the film builds up steadily. A lot of technical detail is relayed very quickly. The actors – who are often criticized in reviews – actually do a good job, considering they spent most of their time sitting in a fake cockpit surrounded by a greenscreen.
The Road (2009), USA. dir. John Hillcoat
The Story: Think The Road Warrior. But without the cars, battles or excitement. Boy and Man try to keep their shit together during the apocalypse.
The Good: Viggo Mortensen is amazing as always. Whenever the focus is on him and his son the film feels assured. His emotional/moral struggle between defending them from evil and joining in with it is riveting to watch. The film is well shot and the sound design well done.
The Bad: The film tries to force emotion on us through distracting music, sweeping vistas full of unnecessary CGI, and a rather incessantly downbeat tone (the film has been color corrected to the point of being nearly monochromatic). The film would have worked better if hadn’t tried so hard. Also, there’s no sense of progression – each bit of evil encountered feels pretty much like the last one. On an intellectual level, I get it – as T. S. Elliot said, the world really would end with a whimper instead of a bang. But unlike Elliot’s poetry, I didn’t care about the whimper any more than I would have the bang. The result is that I felt distanced from the film at the precise moment that I should feel engaged with it.
Why Watch It: The value of silence. It’s very difficult to create a quiet tableau without the scene sliding straight into boredom. It also demonstrates the power of good preparation on the part of the actors. There’s very little in the script to indicate Viggo Mortensen’s family history, education, or profession before the collapse. He and Hillcoat had to create (either together or separately) some kind of backstory for the character.
Greenberg (2010), USA. dir. Noah Baumbach
The Story: The older fuckup Greenberg (Ben Stiller) house-sits for his younger, successful brother while the latter and his family visits Vietnam. He falls for said yuppie family’s personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), and tries to get his life together while reconnecting to people from his past.
The Good: Stiller and Gerwig work well together, and their scenes are tense and interesting to watch. Stiller injects a lot of sympathy into an otherwise unlikeable character. Gerwig is great – the camera is always finding its focus on her. The writing is solid.
The Bad: It’s not terribly much fun to watch the passive-aggressive Stiller act hostile to everyone around him. The film feels a little lost (and not in a good way) about who it should be focusing on – Florence or Greenberg. Her struggles are more compelling and interesting. The film seems to be trying to say something about two generations of people who haven’t found their groove, but what is it exactly?
Why Watch It: There are many good visual choices here, especially considering how dialog/character-driven the film is. The scenes between Florence and Greenberg are cut very sparsely, which puts more weight on the actors to keep the tension going – which they do well.
What To Take Away From This…
If there’s anything good that these films share, it’s that they are all well produced on a technical level. One can argue with how well a specific effect or shot worked, but the crew were clearly doing their jobs. This should give directors and producers both confidence and pause. Confidence because given the right incentives (ie. cash, credit and/or creative input), you can get a crew for your film that will do a good job. Pause because that’s not what separates an “okay” film from a really good one – that’s still your job.
On the flip side, these films have one flaw in common: a failure to fully engage the audience on an emotional level. This doesn’t necessarily mean the scripts were failures; we’ll never know how good or bad the first “greenlit” draft was before the producers, director, cast, and the studio executives’ dog handed in their notes. In the case of Stealth, someone – or more likely several someones – decided to rush through the first act of the film. The writing, acting and editing – all things you can blame the director for – are subpar until the second act. The singular vision conveyed in The Road straightjacketed the film. I wanted more – what did Mortensen’s character do before the collapse? I felt like I was eating a cookie made from potatoes. It might have been good for me but I wasn’t exactly enjoying it and it felt like it was missing some ingredients.
Greenberg had a rather meandering plot and a difficult-to-like hero (who isn’t even anti-hero material). At some point I was seriously wondering why anyone else in the film even bothered talking to him. I actually wanted his story to pause so we could follow Gerwig’s character around some more (interestingly, the film opens on and spends the first five minutes or so with her).
There’s no magic formula here, and it’s always easier to criticize than to build anew. What would you have done differently for each film? What are your “almost-there” movies?