[21 January 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Every December and January, we are inundated with them. Critics compile their annual bests and worsts and then the arguments begin. Favorites fail to find their way into mainstream awards season contention while outsider choices are chiding for being too fringe or foreign. Before long, a consensus builds, creating bookends to a film year where, for the most part, most movies were just mediocre. As a professional, I always tell people that my job is not some sort of gift from the Fates. Instead, it’s about 20 fantastic films, an equal number of nauseating pieces of junk, and about 200-plus examples of motion picture patchiness. Imagine if your career had such clear cut highs, deep level lows, and examples of unending everyday drudgery. Suddenly, we’re no longer looking at a dream, but a nightmare, a never-ending cycle of subpar or should-have-been titles that, for some reason, couldn’t drag themselves out of their own aesthetic ennui long enough to be anything other than average.
With that in mind, we will beginning a new tradition here at SE&L. Instead of a mere best of or worst of round-up every cinematic year, we will be handing out a new annual acclaim, The Mediocrities. These aren’t the year’s champions or chumps. Instead, these are the films that couldn’t find a footing, adding something the storyline didn’t need to be there, or squandered the talent and material at hand to turn potential into a pox. Again, some of these films will be found on other’s best/worst assessments. A few may even raise an already cynical eyebrow. For us, however, these were the disappointments, shoulder shrugs replacing high fives with gushing given over to a true sense of a wasted opportunity. Your mileage may vary, but in the end, these ten titles promised us something they eventually couldn’t deliver and it’s too bad really. Great films are just that. Bad ones make you question you career choice. The Mediocrities, on the other hand, just try you patience and, in the end, fail to fully realize their often lofty aims, beginning with…
As his supposed swansong from filmmaking (or, at the very least, feature filmmaking), one time indie icon Steven Soderbergh decided to do his best Hitchcock imitation, and the end result was an intriguing if ultimately disappointing thriller. It’s not just that the twist takes a lot of suspended disbelief to accept, but the entire film seems built out of leftover elements from far better efforts. As with most members of the Mediocrities, however, the actors almost salvage the situation. Soderbergh’s direction is also solid, if stolen from the Master of Suspense himself, resulting in a kind of entertainment “meh” this new year-end category will come to be known for.
Right before its big reveal, Mama was a serviceable thriller—nay, perhaps an even excellent horror film. Yet if there was ever an otherwise engaging effort let down by a stupid decision over the ending, it was this one. Thanks to producer Guillermo Del Toro, who believes that every movie needs a smidgen of whimsy and a dose of heartache to make it work, we get a sadly underwhelming specter with a backstory worthy of a Dickens novel. By attempting to pull at our heartstrings, the geek god and his creative crew instead pull the rug out from under us.
The original Kick-Ass worked because it told a simple origin story. We learned how our hero, his ex-buddy turned villain pal, and his new friend Hit-Girl all became ‘real life’ comic book characters, and the narrative dealt specifically with their individual struggles. This time, the filmmakers add in at least a dozen new characters, determined to give each one their own specific pitches. The end result is so overstuffed, so overflowing with unnecessary asides and subplots that the main narrative thread never comes alive. Instead, it just lays there, inert and uninvolving.
You can almost tolerate the lack of characterization, the missing ancillary star power (apparently, with Brad Pitt in the lead, you don’t need another name actor on the marquee) or the hyperactive action sequence style of filmmaking mistake Marc Foster. But if you are World War Z, Paramount’s troubled Summer tentpole, do you really need to forget… the zombies!?!? Oh sure, there are throngs of CG humanoid ‘things’ that swarm like excuses for more and more super computer processing capacity, but until the tacked on finale (reconfigured after audiences hated another last act all out Russian battle royale), there’s no real undead threat. Boo!
It’s easy to point out that The Way, Way Back is no Descendants. It’s better to say that it’s not even in the same league as that amazing cinematic celebration of life, death, and family. Granted, the presence of one Mr. Clooney could make even the most mediocre material acceptable (cue: The American) but here, without Alexander Payne for support and without proper perspective, writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash fall, and fall hard. They rely on caricature instead of character, and without a strong central lead, we become lost in wave after wave of forced wacky.
If you ever needed proof that one thing, one unexceptional and rather mediocre thing can ruin an otherwise promising film, look no further than this entry. No, it’s not fledgling novice feature filmmaker Don Scardino. No, it’s not the miscast Steve Buscemi or the left with nothing to do Olivia Wilde. It’s not even a barely there Jim Carrey and his personification and interpretation of the entire Chris Angel/ David Blaine school of Jackass ‘magic’. No, the one bad apple in this otherwise promising comedy is its star, Steve Carell. Frequently very funny and winning when working within a worthwhile conceit, he is horrible here.
At its core, 42 is a film about breaking down the race barrier in professional sports. It’s about Jackie Robinson and his struggles against prejudice and personal angst towards the beginning of his legendary career. Too bad then that, aside from one amazing scene, this movie is frightened of its subject matter. When Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a more strident statement against bigotry in America and the Black experience overall in this country, you know your movie is making a mess of history. Try as it might, this is a middling film of iconography instead of insight.
If yelling and scenery chewing were considered drama, and not high camp, this adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize (?) winning play by Tracy Letts would be the Schindler’s List of dysfunctional family films. No one here has an inside voice, or anything worthwhile or new to say. Instead, it’s all confrontations, coincidences, and contrivances. Maybe on the live stage this material felt real and raw. Here, with the name cast all trying their best to outdo each other, the results reek of glorified grandstanding and a deep desire to grab as much Awards Season attention as possible.
With its cast of Oscar winners and nominees, its slow burn style of suspense, and its genuinely engaging premise, Prisoners should have been an early awards season contender. So why isn’t it better? Why does it feel so flat and flawed? Well, for one thing, it takes too long getting to its numerous points. At 153 minutes, the movie feels overlong and unnecessarily dragged out and there are so many plot holes and narrative manipulations that, by the end, the movie has no choice but to try and return morality to the mess. Instead, we just grow angry and irritating by its pretentions.
At the beginning of The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone and his collection of once-were action heroes take on a band of bloodthirsty pirates. After a few catchphrases about the situation, the Geritol gang pulls out their various weapons and puts these desperate men out of their misery. In some ways, director Paul Greengrass could have used some broad, bloody spectacle. Captain Phillips is so insular, so locked in the littleness of its narrative, that it never achieves the kind of heartbreak epiphany of the filmmaker’s other fact based effort. All suspense is slowly drained out of the experience as we watch the formulaic face-offs repeat themselves over and over.