In this article, I share my opinions on 4 films I did not enjoy watching on cross-country airplanes in September and November of 2018.
As context, I traveled a lot for work and took full advantage of the in-flight video content as a means to relax, learn, and enjoy films I normally wouldn’t dedicate 2 hours to unless it fit my schedule perfectly (like stuck in a window seat for 5 hrs at night and not tired). On the plane rides, I watched several content in part or full, including (in approximately this order):
- Just For Laugh Gags episodes (part)
- Friends episodes (rewatch)
- Death of Stalin (full)
- Sorry to Bother (part)
- Mr and Mrs Smith (part)
- The Post (full)
- 500 Days of Summer (part)
- Star Wars IV (rewatch, part)
- Dunkirk (full)
In this article, I review the films I watched for the first time and did not like; two of which I watched to completion. Those films include:
- Sorry to Bother (part)
- The Post (full)
- 500 Days of Summer (part)
- Dunkirk (full)
Sorry to Bother You (2018)
I did not like this film despite being very excited to see it when I saw the trailer and willing to buy a ticket if not for watching Black Klansman instead. Sorry to Bother looked bizarre, driven, and told from a under-appreciated black point of view. In addition there was respect and intrigue around the lead Lakeith Stanfield. Lakeith was solid in at least two other productions I’ve seen him in (in this order): Get Out, Atlanta pilot, and the War Machine trailer. Ironically I’d seen him two times before my noticed experience of Get Out: in Dope (on a plane in 2015) and Straight Outta Compton (in theaters).
From the list of films I’ve cited above, it’s clear that despite being a cis white male, I’ve been keeping up with some important minority lead productions. I loved or respected a bunch (Get Out, Black Klansman, and Straight Outta Compton), and others I disliked (Atlanta, Dope).
Sorry to Bother You was an uncompelling bizarre and dispassionate production with no narrative direction in sight, no expectation built or tapped into, and a seemingly casually racist point of view (you have to act stereotypically white in order to succeed in the world) which I kind of got over watching the trailer.
Uncompelling: The story follows a poor black man who lives in his uncle’s garage, unappreciatively, who is caught lying about his work history to get a job as a telemarketer but is hired because those lies showed initiative. From there, it follows some backstory on the kid and his girlfriend then transitions into him rising the ranks of the job to chase the dream of being like a specific black baller who’s part of the in-crowd of high-paid employees. Here’s what made it boring to watch: First, Lakeith. There’s something to be said about leads who drain the energy off the screen with their nihilistic, depressive posture and bitch-face: Bill Murray, Kristen Wiig, Lakeith Stanfield, and to lesser degrees Ryan Gosling, Zooey Dechanel. A character who doesn’t care about something and has no clear goals in the narrative (aside from the default human motive of survival) is not compelling narrative. It can be relateable to some individuals. Played right, it can even be comedic at the expense of laughing at those characters. But by default, they’re not compelling. And to many goal-oriented individuals, they’re disgusting. Viscerally regurgatory to watch. Who wants to watch a passionless character who bitches at his uncle when his uncle asks for two-month late rent with the understanding that the Uncle likely won’t kick him out of the garage. Unfortunately, this is exactly the type of character Lakeith plays. The kind of defeated individual who’s succumbed to the nihilistic reality of life: survival. Who can barely hold his head up and defensively avoids smiling so as to not allow his expectations to go up. I personally don’t have time or care for characters like this. And from a story telling point of view, I check out. We all know that the character must have some arc, and too often bad screenwriters think that the goal is to make the lead as unlikable as possible so that any improvement of character at the end of the film that makes the audience relate to them empathetically is a story telling win for the filmmaker. I see this trick a mile away and check out. The story teller is forcing me to watch a character I don’t like for 90 minutes so I can maybe like them in the last 30. I’d rather watch compelling characters from page one. Unfortunately, Lakeith’s character and especially his performance is obnoxious and a chore to sit through. And it’s only after this film that I accepted that truth about his acting range. That’s his character in all films he plays. It’s fine as a bit piece since he wreaks it with every frame he’s on screen so the filmmakers have less work to do. But as a lead, it’s the worst idea ever. It’s this film that made me recognize why I was intrigued by his performances (because they’re so quickly authentic) but also why I don’t care for him anymore. However, I might have got past problem if the narrative thrust were better too.
Bizarre: Much of the film was pretty authentic, but then every now and then a supernatural or stylized element would kick in and you’re left wondering. What the hell was that about? And not in a good way. Sometimes it felt like it would make for a more visual story telling experience that they could slap into a trailer or use as the talking-point to get people to talk about the film. Sometimes you wondered if it was meant to keep the audience wondering if he’s seeing things. But nothing was so clear as to appreciate the departure from the norm. I’m not spoiling anything for those watching the trailer to know that at times, the protagonists or phone-callers who are black “talk white” on the phone with actual white people dubbing the lines over the faces. David Cross (Tobias Funke in Arrested Development) narrates one person while a seemingly green 20 something actor ham-up the over-privileged super-happy suburban white man another time. When it popped up in the film, it wasn’t funny, or innovative. It was just distracting and felt unnecessary. And to some degree, it seemed racist. Of course, I didn’t feel offended because it’s a privileged stereotype they’re propping up, not the racist KKK killer stereotype. I felt more pity for the filmmakers who thought this would be edgy and/or effective story telling or even “cool”. Then later they also have his desk fall into the homes of the people he’s calling. Again, it was a clever visual trick, which never paid off. Possibly because I exited early. but to be fair, there was nothing compelling about it. No expectation or explanation I could come up with would make the gimmick feel like it was worth the money they must have spent on it. Especially when the narrative is so thin right now.
About 30 minutes in, I looked at the clock and wondered: where is this film going? and Why do I care? As best I could follow it was about a poor depressed black kid discovering the world of the whiteys. Maybe the setup of this kid was exactly the arc of the film, once he knows how to “act white” he can be black AND be happy, without being white. Why do I care? As best I could gather: because it’s important to understand the black experience. And more importantly, the depressed black experience. I think it’s more important for depressed nihilistic people to see the film than me. So without the stakes increasing in 30 minutes, and without a clear expectation put forth by the filmmaker, I was out.
Ironically, it’s taken me the remainder of the film to write up this summary. But that hour is beneficial to me and to you hopefully. Insightful in some way.
The Post (2017)
Steven Spielberg. Wow, was this film flat. Whatever acting praise people projected onto this film was not rational and personally biased. I felt no performance stood out and all performances were good enough to support the solid storytelling. This was my first Meryl Streep movie and she’s just as unimpressive as she seems at awards shows. Yes, she has poise and presence. She’s a strong independent and classy woman. But she’s that in every role, and that’s not good acting.
There were several problems with this film, but let’s address the most pressing: It was aimed at being a response to Trump’s attack on journalism. Meant as a rallying cry for supporters of free-speech and praise for the institutions that fight against tyranny of any part of the government. It was meant to be the All the President’s Men of today. By the end of the film I was supposed to cry for the actions taken by many or by few who acted out their beliefs to defend journalism and free-speech. Unfortunately, it did not do that.
I’m not sure if it was because it didn’t go far enough or because we knew the whole film that it was a left-wing political machine movie trying to avoid the fact (what’s more Hollywood than Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep?). Or because it played more like a documentary than a character study. I personally feel it didn’t go far enough in any one emotion. There were themes of women fighting for power and people around her (mostly men) supporting her vision and believing in her (despite corporate, primarily men, pressures of her paper being owned by the public). Girl power! And then there were themes of journalism. Journalists willing to go to prison for exposing the TRUTH about those in power. And about entire Newspaper companies willing to be sued by the president for releasing government papers with careful redaction. And finally about all the newspapers in the U.S. publishing parts of the document after the NYT is first sued and then the Washington Post risks being sued by publishing other parts.
But the film was not compelling and did not deliver on drama. It was cold and felt like it was trying to be as impartial as possible so as to be important. The narrative also followed two to three stories and it was unclear until the midpoint, which one was the driving narrative. It wasn’t until the midpoint that the stakes for any protagonist were pressing. Until then, you just saw a journalist steal the papers, then the NYT publish them (with the Washington Post, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, missing out on the story, then Nixon suing the NYT. Then the Post spent time trying to find the paper themselves, and we’re on a mini-story following Bob Odinkirk. And finally, they get the papers, and I feel like post-midpoint is when they were finally faced with real stakes: Should we publish these finding. And the whole final act followed lawyers fighting with Hanks, and Streep (as president) deciding whether she wanted to publish (and risk her and her father’s company, her legacy, and a pending corporate buy out). Of course, she finally gains the courage to take the risk five minutes before the end of the film and it ends on a montage of everyone else following suit, the supreme court ruling in favor of the NYT, and hints at the Watergate scandal (the premise All the President’s Men).
Unfortunately, I didn’t have any expectations as to where the film was going and why I truly cared about any individual player. The stakes were low for 60-90 minutes of the film and when it came time for real intra-personal conflict, it happened five minutes before the close of the film. At that point you don’t care for any character yet.
Another potential explanation for my problem, aside from the stakes staying low with multiple potential protagonist threads running in parallel, was how fast it moved and how much exposition was being dumped for the first hour or more of the film. It felt like a documentary trying to add some drama through worried or combative performances. On that note, there’s not a scene in the film that was BAD. The camera moved fast, the people moved fast, and the scenes moved fast. But there wasn’t a scene in the film that was great, though I can remember one in particular because I was studying the staging of the camera and actor’s movements more than following the narrative.
I was expecting to get to the end and have the pace and exposition culminate to a very poignant hopeful triumphant feeling of the underdog and the people prevailing over tyranny, but I got nothing. Despite it seemingly trying so hard to be that. Hell I would have settled for a T2 style statement of theme that I can walk out on: “If a Terminator can learn to be more human, maybe we can too.” But I think it ended on text of a newspapers, maybe even white text on black of the following history. However it ended, I don’t remember and remember being so disappointed.
How would I fix it? I’m not sure, but I think I would lean into themes and opinions more. It felt like it was trying to be impartial and apolitical to try to appeal to the right-wing populists who support Trump. Unfortunately that meant that it didn’t deliver on anything. It could have leaned into the praise of reporters of any political leaning. But focused on the female Washtington Post president maybe? And if it wasn’t going to be persuasive to the right, by being middle-ground, then it also lost those on the left by depriving them of a rallying cry film. I think it could have been so much more left-leaning or even populist leaning by throwing themes of protecting the people, or saying, this even supports KKK free speech, etc. and if it’s so true to the philosophy that a left-leaning or right-leaning newspaper with a strong point of view should be given equal power to ridicule the president, then it would have worked better. I think it suffered the Hillary Clinton campaign problem. It didn’t give anyone something to vote FOR. Hillary only gave people something to vote against. This film didn’t even give us a villian like Trump.
Especially for being a film that was green-lit days after Trump’s inauguration, film within months and released a year after Trump’s election, it was clearly meant as a response to Trump’s attack on the media, and didn’t deliver to anyone. Unpersuasive in any argument, either to get his supporters to respect the media, or to rally the left to defend the current MSM more effectively. Having said that, perhaps the film was too removed from today. Any respect for journalism then don’t equate to those who operate the MSM today. And any victories then that are lost today don’t seem as tragic. And there’s no effective fear drawn to parallels of today to make us feel a sense of loss or potential loss of a better time.
500 Days of Summer (2009)
If you thought I was brutal on Lakeith. Then wait for my opinions on the two most lackluster leads in Hollywood: Zooey Dechanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Here’s a film that’s super-pretentious and tries to take the classic rom-com tropes, address them as not realistic, and then play into them by the end of the film. A hopeless romantic falls in love with his object of desire. The film is strange with a mysterious numbering scheme that’s hard to follow. Day 1, 200, etc. Not sure if Summer is a time or a person.
But the thing is, we follow two uncompelling leads. Joseph is a loser and broken romantic who lusts after a particular woman. And Zooey is just a pretty, uninteresting object of desire. Her quirkiness and extreme introvertedness seems to be her appeal too. But her perfect skin, blue eyes, and doe-eyed allure is her first introduction and emphasis of character. She’s pretty, and nice.
But aside from the boring characters and boring performance was the try-too-hard style of the film which was lightly framed-narrative, lightly meta, and vignette-like. The tone was similar to Elf in that it felt fanciful, almost like Princess Bride too. Where the narrator gets to add a layer of destiny to the story.
About 15-20 minutes in, I was out. No real explanation I can think of. Just not my type of flick. And I’m cool with many rom coms: It could happen to you, Twilight, others. But as insight, I didn’t like: Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail.
Another completely uncompelling narrative. Almost everyone looks the same and no particular character has an emphasis or a narrative worth thinking about or emoting over. It seemed like an excuse to put flashy visuals on screen. There wasn’t much dialogue and the few that there was was difficult to follow. It started very exposition with the British pushed back to the beach. So maybe the stakes were high to start. But they didn’t feel high. A lone Frenchman escapes and tries to pass as British. A clever hook to drive the narrative to show everything going on around him. But not compelling.
I knew the premise: a group of civilians goes to save the British troops by using civilian boats too small to sink instead of huge carriers which became easy targets. But the film virtually starts with this process going on. Though it seems like it’s just one boat to start and maybe later in the story, that one boat returns with passengers to inspire everyone else to try too. Instead, it followed one boat despite the others being right behind them. My guess it to make it more personal.
The expectation set? There were none: survival. How do we get everyone off this beach? That was answered in scene one: by civilian boats. How many survive? Thats the question. Not even “Who survives.” Though I think they tried to push that question. In fact, the expectations and trajectory was so ambiguous and uncompelling that I created some without them being there. I thought the stakes would increase as we followed the civilian heroes. Instead, there was one civilian hero boat focused on. And they told the story of one pilot hero (Tom Hardy) and one Frenchman trying to survive until rescue.
Oh, and the general was thrown in there as exposition as well as a symbol of military duty.
No character was cared about. No situation was compelling conflict. No character changed emotion. Everyone was fighting for a seat on the escape vessel. Not fighting Germans.
I’m convinced the only reason anyone FELT anything in this film was because of Hans Zimmer’s scores, despite Christopher Nolan’s visuals and story. Every scene was drown by Zimmer’s score which kept the stress up at all time and crescendo’d several times through out the film to make you even more anxious. I watched most of the film to listen to Zimmer’s score, but when an hour passed and I noticed there was no compelling expectation built or a character I cared about, I started fast-forwarding. It became obvious too that my favorite track of the soundtrack (which I heard first) “Supermarine” was no going to show up as I heard it on the album. The film ended with a reveal of the slew of civilian boats, along with Tom Hardy’s character saving a civilian vessel then gliding into enemy territory to be captured. And then a white text on black summary of the outcome.
Boring. Another instance where Zimmer’s score builds an expectation for an amazing scene worthy of the music, but Nolan ruins Zimmer’s music.