Picks: Disappointing Films
Dinosaur, dir. Disney Films (USA). I knew something was wrong when the third parent led the third child out of the theater about 30 minutes into this film. Dinosaur was dark, violent, and unremitting in its flatness of character and plot. The only thing that kept me in the theater was the beauty of the visuals. I know that Siskel and Ebert used to say, "Review the film you saw--not the film you wished you had seen." But in this case, I am tempted to suggest that the film could have been much improved if the following had been agreed upon: 1) reduce the dialogue dramatically; 2) use actors whose character voices will NOT remind us of whining and clueless teenagers from Southern California; 3) focus the plot on the joy of being a dinosaur in the age of dinsosaurs; 4) bring back the density of action and humor that abounded in films like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid; 5) end the film with the meteor shower (an impressive feat of animation!) and have the dinosaurs survive (temporarily) and begin a long march to happier hunting grounds. That way the children would feel relieved (they made it!) and the adults would sigh and realize (not for long!). Any film that would scare little children like this film did is simply not worth it.
Goya in Bordeaux, dir. Carlos Saura (Spain). Carlos Saura loves dance. I remember watching Tango (1998) and being borne away by the beauty of some of the dance numbers. But in that film eventually I tired of the repetition and Saura's inflated sense of the profound. The same can be said of this film, Goya in Bordeaux. I quickly tired of the slow-paced storytelling and the lack of drama. The old artist, Goya, is living out the last of his days in Bordeaux, France, and he recalls his past and his special love. Now and then a dance number begins, and Saura lets it play out to its bitter end. The dialogue is inflated, pushing the limits of realism. The stage setting is intentionally non-realistic. This approach, using light to alter the moods of the interiors, is more suited to the stage. After a while I began to realize that it is Vittorio Storaro's hand (as cinematographer) and not Saura's hand, as director, that determines the fate of this film. Storaro can light a set better than most--no arguments to that claim. But he tends to overdo the stylization of lighting to render character, mood, and theme. I simply grew tired of the film and was ready for it to end (December).
Meet the Parents, dir. Jay Roach (USA). Humor is a funny thing. This film was supposed to be filled with humor. The audience I was part of was blessed to have a good laugher as a part of the audience. He laughed long and hard several times. But his laughter was no infectious. Most of the people laughed to be polite. After all, this was supposed to be a comedy. When you watch a comedy you are supposed to laugh. But the jokes fell flat, and I kept asking myself, "Why am I not laughing? I have a great sense of humor! I love to laugh! Then why am I not laughing?" Then I realized: laughter depends upon comic timing. In this film the timing was not quite on track. The gags played out too slowly. The dialogue took too long to get to the funny parts. The reaction shots were mistimed or a beat too long or in the wrong place. You know, a person could look here or look there. Perhaps it was the dialogue. Perhaps it was the timing. Perhaps it was the editing. All I can tell you is that I sat there like a stone. I was stunned. I am watching Bob DeNiro and Ben Stiller and they are not funny in this film. The only faulty acting was done by Teri Polo, who played the fiancée, the daughter. But her problems may stem more from how her part was written than how it was portrayed. The more I think about it, the more I blame the film for trying to duplicate the humor found in There's Something About May (1998). In that film Mary was a perfectly naïve, optimistic, pert and bouncy, sensitive young woman. Perhaps the writers of this film had Mary in mind in the character of the daughter. But they did not pull it off. Ben Stiller was in both films, of course; but he was only funny in Mary. Why? That's the question that bothers me. Meet the Parents was a film that had two separate identities. The first 3/4 is the Mary wannabe, and the last quarter is a heartfelt comedy about a father who learns the error of his ways and does all he can do to make his daughter happy. I think the second part (last quarter) should have been more consistent with the first 3/4. In other words, the problem in this film was that the father (Robert DeNiro) was not nearly as nasty enough. He should have been brutal and unrelenting for real--instead of trading simplistically on the tough-guy associations the audience has with DeNiro. If he had been rawer and less sympathetic to begin with, then the ending would have been a better fit. But that's not the film I saw. The film I saw was a flop. (October)
My Dog Skip, dir. Jay Johnston (USA). It's a sad state of affairs when the best actor in a film is a dog. I tuned out of this film about 1/3 through it--after a boring scene in a cemetery where the main character, Willie, spends all night with his dog Skip. That was supposed to be the scene that set the hook for the viewer. Instead, it fell flat and was downright boring. Here's the problem. Dogs can't change. They are always interesting, they are always photogenic, they are always cute. Dogs are a constant. Children change. Children become more interesting. Children develop character. But that equation was not followed in this film. The little boy who played Willie was not the right actor for the film, and--even worse--the little boy did not sufficiently change in character to become more compelling and more interesting to viewers. I was always delighted to see the dog Skip on camera. Images of the dog satisfied. Willie's parents, his three little friends, his little girl friend, the mysterious neighbor who comes back from the war a coward--these folks were flat and uninteresting. Oh, but that dog. Now that was a different story.
What Women Want, dir. Nancy Meyers (USA). Perhaps I am being too hard on this film, but it was a waste of my time. Mel Gibson was embarrassingly bad (over-acting, over-grimacing) as the father of a teenager. Perhaps the last 15 minutes were worth watching, when he tried out for father of the year (a potential rival for Robin Williams?) and became Mr. Sensitive. But I kept wondering, as I watched earlier scenes, why this film was so boring. One obvious answer is that the timing required of comedy was conspicuously absent from this film. I did not believe the character, his dilemma, and his response to the dilemma--for a minute. The film was a Saturday Night Live sketch expanded to two hours. Now wait a minute. Of course I am being too hard on this film. It was no train wreck. There were some funny scenes. Helen Hunt was okay even though she was too easily fooled by Mel's machinations. (Why are smart people always so stupid--oh, I get it--it's to serve the plot!) Well, here's the deal. A film like this does not strive to be better. It follows a formula. Oh, let's pair Mel Gibson with Helen Hunt. Fill in the blank. Helen Hunt and _____. The film is a property. Let's get some writers. Let's have some jokes. Let's play out the skit (that he can hear women's voices.) Now let's turn it all around. He becomes Mr. Nice guy, a father-of-the-year sort of hero. Tone down the jokes. Highlight the schmaltz. There now. Is everybody happy? Memo to Hollywood: Sorry. It doesn't work (January).
Where the Heart Is, dir. Matt Williams (USA). I enjoyed the first 15 minutes of this film. I thought Williams chose a variety of interesting shots and used some interesting insert close-ups to show how the Natalie Portman character (Novalee Nation) is dumped by her beau and forced to make her nest at the Wal Mart store. Then came the night when she gave birth to her baby. She is in agony, stretched out on the floor, and suddenly (in slow motion) a figure bursts through the plate glass window and CUT to Mom waking up in the hospital and being attended to by Ashley Judd. Oh my, but right there the film went into the tank. We slipped past all of the pain and climactic action and headed for a sweet movie about a lovely young woman, older than her years, who resolves everyone else's problems while maturing in the blink of an eye into a kind of teenaged earth-mother figure. Oh, my, and then there's the one appearance of Novalee's mother (played by Sally Field). A hopeless scene, poorly written, horribly edited, with no understanding of the reality of how a low-down mother would really take advantage of her daughter. In the film Sally Field escapes with $500 that belongs to her daughter. In real life, she sinks her fangs into the daughter's emotional lifeblood and never lets go. But this is a film that will not go down a dark road. Oh, yes, there are some pseudo tragic scenes. There's the digital Tornado! Then there's the wife abuse! Then the poor brother who cares for his alcoholic sister! Oh, Dorothy, this isn't Kansas anymore! Yup, it's Oklahoma! Or at least our stereotype of Okies. And then to top it all off, there's the scene of Novalee sitting on the porch with her best friend, the Ashley Judd character. The latter tells the story (nothing like narration when you hurt for visual realization of the scene) of her husband's abuse, and Saint Novalee holds her in her arms and rocks her like a baby and tells her everything will be all right. I'm sorry, but this scene needed to be played in the other direction--older sister holds younger sister and rocks her in her arms. I couldn't believe it. Ashley Judd played a one-note role, and she did not impress. Natalie Portman, meanwhile, was as good as she has been before. She is going to be a major talent, but this film did not show off her skills. She was not credible as a woman who matured through crisis after crisis. She just did not look the part of the woman who had come so far. A last note about the acting of Stockard Channing as a tough-minded hellion of a woman who had her priorities straight. Channing continues to amaze as an actor. She fills her roles with energy and conviction. (May)
Where the Money Is, Dir. Marek Kanievska (USA). The answer: Banks. Another answer? Not in this movie. I went to see this film because Paul Newman was in it. I discovered that Paul Newman was in it, but not much more than that. One problem: Screenplay. Big problem. Another problem? The young director syndrome. By the end of this film I realized, "Hey! Watching this film is like watching a student film. You know, like a film done by a recent graduate of a film program." Then I felt better. Sure, I had the requisite low-depth-of-field photography of Paul Newman sitting in a neon-lit bar. Yes, he is still sexy in his 70s. But when the Linda Fiorentino character says, "I want to rob a bank," I checked out of this film. I had no idea why that character would say that line. Robbing a bank looked about as immoral as learning how to bungee jump. No thanks. Still, the film had some slickness to the directing, had an as-usual solid performance by Fiorentino, and it had Paul Newman. But this time, having Paul Newman was not enough. (April 20).