Friday, March 27, 2009

Shitty Movies By Great Directors, Episode 4: Steven Spielberg's "1941"

I suspect that I'm not going to have a lot to say about Steven Spielberg's 1941, because my complaints about the film generally boil down to the same thing over and over again. We'll get to that later; first let's talk about Spielberg's body of work.

Spielberg may be my least favorite of the directors I'll cover in this column. Which isn't to say I haven't loved a lot of his movies, I am classifying him as a "great director" after all. I just don't think his output has been as consistent as the other directors we've gone over. Wedged in his filmography, between admittedly numerous and noteworthy good and great films, are some unremarkably decent films (Hook, Catch Me If You Can, arguably Minority Report), several mediocre misfires (AI, The Lost World, The Terminal), and a beloved classic that I like but have never been a huge fan of (Jaws). And he has made at least one other irredeemably shitty movie, War of the Worlds, which I seriously considered writing up but had to disqualify because it actually seems to be well liked by the majority of people. Despite the objective fact that it sucks ass. It's probably for the best that I don't write it up; it's such a perfect example of dynamic filmmaking paired with an embarrassingly awful story/script that my post would probably end up too much like my post for What Lies Beneath.

Still, I'm not going to deny that the man is a genius. Even a mediocre Spielberg movie tends to feel like an achievement on a technical level. The man knows how to tell a story visually. My personal favorite of his is probably Munich, because I think it represents the perfect combination of his blockbuster skills (it is a superb thriller) with his artisitc and intellectual sensibilities (it's the most moving and effective movie I've seen about our post-9/11 concerns about war, revenge, terrorism, etc.).

In a four way tie for second place would be the Indiana Jones series, even my least favorite of which kicks the balls off the vast majority of films that pass for "event" movies. (And no, I'm not referring to Crystal Skull as my least favorite, asshole). The rest of his best stuff tends to be a mix of movie magic/delight with strong suspense/thrill-ride overtones (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Duel, hell even E.T. is kinda intense at times).

I used to be a huge fan of Saving Private Ryan. Over the years I think I've slowly realized that it has a greatly flawed script that relies too much on silly coincidences and the overstatement of dramatic themes, but I still love the performances and the relentlessly intense and convincing staging of the battle scenes.

That's the thing about Spielberg, his best films are just so fucking exciting. Lots of movies, lots of good movies, it's easy to tune out during or not pay close attention to. But when Spielberg is on his game, his movies command your undivided attention. You sit forward in your seat, your heart rate increases, you don't want to miss a second. Maybe sometimes it's just empty spectacle, but when the spectacle is this great why does it need to be anything more?

The problem with 1941 isn't that it's an empty spectacle (although there's no denying that's what it is), it's that it confuses spectacle with comedy. Over and over again. In every scene of the movie. This is a sprawling, nearly 2 1/2 hour long epic WWII comedy with a cast of I'd say at least 20 major characters, but there is scarcely a laugh in it. Where most comedies have jokes, 1941 has explosions and gun fire and large set pieces involving choreographed dance routines and full-scale riots. It's presented in a manner that suggests it's supposed to be funny, but I'll be damned if I could find the humor.

It's perplexing to me that this mess was written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. They wrote my favorite movie of all time, Back to the Future, and the humor, structure and complexity of its screenplay is a monumental part of why. It's tightly constructed, perfectly paced and jammed full of little jokes and clever references, hidden details that reward multiple viewings. 1941 is a big, sloppy mess, with a plot that drags on, filled with too many characters to keep track of and a load of needless tangents.

The movie is set just after the Pearl Harbor attack, and the plot revolves around the pervading paranoia in California that the Japanese may be planning an attack on the coast (and, as it turns out, they are). Instead of just zeroing in on one group of characters to see how they react to the situation, the filmmakers opt instead to try to cram in as many different characters as they can possibly imagine might have been involved. There's numerous soldiers, a local family that allows the Army to park a tank in their yard, a bumbling pilot, some supposedly likable young men trying to get laid, a conniving Tim Matheson trying to get laid by Nancy Allen, a submarine full of Japanese, an evil German commander, some locals playing lookout on top of a giant ferris and like a billion other people all vying for a lead role and failing. It's possible, and I'm being generous here, that a few of these characters had some potential for comic shenanigans, if only Spielberg and co. had focused in on them. Instead, no one feels substantial enough in 1941 to make an impact.

Another thing about Back to the Future: it's a charming movie with a lot of likable characters. The characters in 1941 are mostly pains in the ass. I think the film is aiming to make a lot of them lovable, mischievous scamps a la Animal House (hence the presence of John Belushi and Tim Matheson), but they end up coming off as obnoxious dickheads in the vein of Mahoney in Police Academy. Let me give you a for instance. Early in the film, in an attempt to establish a pair of young dorks (who, for a time seem like the main characters until you slowly realize that there are no main characters, only varying degrees of cameos) as likable scamps, there is a whole bit of mischief involving stealing some suits from a department store in order to have nice duds to impress some babes. A pretty basic comedy setup. Problem is, their theoretically hilarious plan to steal the suits involves the dorks setting off a phony air-raid siren in the middle of a crowded department store. Just days after Pearl Harbor.

Think about that shit for a minute. It's like if just a few days after 9/11 some guys pulled the fire alarm in a college dorm and screamed "Al Qaeda!" as a pretext for starting a panty raid. What a couple of assholes. Someone could get hurt.

Most of the scenes in the films are elaborate setups for explosions or car crashes or tank crashes or other such acts of mayhem. The problem is, none of these things are inherently funny. Perhaps the biggest and craziest of all these moments is the finale, when a Japanese submarine attacks an empty amusement park, causing the giant ferris wheel to become unhinged and roll down the boardwalk towards the sea. It's certainly a magnificent sight to behold, and it's energetically staged and clearly and comprehensibly pieced together by Spielberg. But is it funny? Not really.

Most damning to the film, the few moments of mild amusement during 1941 come not because of the elaborate set-pieces, but the occasional charm and wit of the cast. Slim Pickens, playing a farmer abducted by the Japanese, made me smile not so much because he said anything funny, but because he's Slim Pickens and he's likable. Same goes for Dan Ackroyd and Robert Stack. Spielberg and co. blew tens of millions of dollars on elaborate sets and props and special effects, and the only worthwhile parts of the film involve the basic chemistry of the cast.

If you want to get the basic sense of 1941, but you don't want to waste 2 1/2 hours of your life, see if you can just watch the opening. Spielberg attempts to poke a little fun at himself with a Jaws parody. A young, naked woman goes swimming alone. There is ominous music on the soundtrack. Suddenly, something surfaces below her! It''s... it's a submarine! And it lifts her up in the air, naked, stuck to a pole. See, the joke is that it's a sub and not a shark. You were expecting a shark because you've seen Jaws, only you're not really expecting a shark because you know you're watching a comedy. It's big, expensive and impressive looking, and never really leads to a solid laugh. That, ladies and gentlemen, is 1941 in a nutshell.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Because I'm Thorough, I Watched "Disaster Movie"

You may recall that back in July of last year my girlfriend, my brother and I marathoned Date Movie, Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans. I suspect that for them it was mainly an exercise in irony as well as a chance to laugh at something they felt superior to. And while I did the same thing, I also watched them out of a perverse fascination with the films' apparent shittiness that bordered on joy, and a scholarly interest in analyzing exactly what about them sucked so much dick. I thought maybe I'd gain some new insight into their terribleness, but it turns out that the movies were terrible for exactly the reasons I had guessed by watching their trailers.

Andy's home for spring break, and we all decided it was high time to finish what we started, and watch Disaster Movie. I suspect it may be the final film of it's type that Jason Friedberg and Adam Selzter will write and direct. America is a fickle country, and the box office returns were dismal enough for Disaster Movie that we hopefully will be spared any future entries in the series. Apparently we've reached our threshold for objectively terrible spoofs. Fool us once, Friedberg and Selzter, shame on you. Fool us four times, shame on us.

So if you read my posts about our original marathon, you'd have found out that, while all three movies were awful, the series seemed to improve as it went along. Not by a whole lot, but by Meet the Spartans I could at least recognize a handful of jokes, unfunny as they were, whereas Date Movie was a jokeless, incompetent mess. More noticeably, the movies improved on a technical level. As their budgets went up, I guess Friedberg and Seltzer were able to throw more money into the inematography and the editing and include better special effects, and finally came up with something that at least looked like a real movie.

So I was assuming that, following this trend, Disaster Movie would be even "better" than the last one. Not so. I'd have to re-watch Date Movie to be sure (not gonna happen), but Disaster Movie may be the worst piece of shit in the entire latrine that is the Movie Movie series. Holy shit, I was not prepared for a movie this bad.

Imagine every gripe I had about the last 3 movies amplified tenfold. There are so many nonsensical, forced references to pop culture without any apparent joke that it becomes kind of amazing. I don't know how they managed to write a screenplay this densely packed with intertextuality. You'd think they'd have stumbled upon a joke by accident at some point. No such luck.

Worse though is just how shitty the filmmaking seems this time. It came out only 8 months after Meet the Spartans. The other films came out more like a year apart, so Disaster Movie was clearly a rush job. It shows. Hell, it fucking reeks of it. It's most noticeable in the awful, awful special effects. (Amazing how a movie can cost $20 million and look like shit because that's a low budget. I mean, $20 million? That's more money that any of us will ever see in our lives and yet it's barely enough to make this movie look better than an Mad TV sketch). I can conceive of a way in which the shitty special effects could actually make the movie funnier, but here they strike a perfect balance of being too shitty to be effective while also too good to be laughable. The highlight might be when Alvin and the Chipmunks are represented by a bunch of crappy puppets. Or perhaps when Kung Fu Panda is played by a dude in a suit. Oh or when The Hulk is just a muscular dude that they painted green, although he doesn't even look as big as Lou Ferrigno. I guess they didn't have the time or money to do all these characters up in CG, but making them tangible creates a kind of cognitive dissonance that distracts you from being amused by any of it. Not that it would be funny any way.

The weirdest part of the movie is that they make a reference to No Country For Old Men, which isn't the kind of silly pop culture stuff they usually include. Anton Chigurh shows up at a party at the beginning of the movie and actually murders someone with his cattle gun. It's not funny, but it is fucked-up so I'll give it some credit.

The towering achievement of this film is it's finale, where the entire cast sings a parody of "I'm Fucking Matt Damon." Right away that's pretty fucking incredible because the song was already a joke that they did on Jimmy Kimmel's show, and then it already had been parodied on his show with "I'm Fucking Ben Affleck." I don't know how taking someone else's joke song and plugging in new names counts as a new joke. It's like doing a cover of Weird Al doing a parody of another song only you insert slightly different fat jokes or something.

Anyways, it gets even better because they have every single pop culture reference character that showed up in all of Disaster Movie sing about how they are fucking another pop culture reference. Kung Fu Panda is fucking Hellboy, Hellboy is fucking the cast of High School Musical, etc etc. It perfectly sums up this shitty series because it literally becomes a list of pop culture references. It doesn't get funnier, they don't think of any new spin on it, they just keep naming characters. It is the entire series in microcosm. I didn't time it, but I would guess that the song goes on for about 5 hours. At least it feels that way. The only thing that could have made it better was if they went through all the references they made in all four movies.

It so perfectly sums up it's own shittiness at the end that I really do hope the series ends here. I mean, even if it didn't have this ending, I would still not want them to make any more movies, but this puts such a perfect little button on the whole ordeal that it seems like the ideal place to stop. Here it is America, you paid these assholes millions of dollars to remind you about other movies you saw. Choke on it.