The Shortlist: 8 ‘Classic’ films that aren’t.

I’d just like to say in advance that I’m well aware of the overrated lists that troll the Internet and this is in no way a contrarian or comment-whoring post; these are 100% my feelings and I welcome and encourage debate… as long as it is kept civil and intelligent, as all film chat should be. I also don’t have a specific countdown agenda for these films, so they’re listed pretty much in the order they came to me. And I would have included Birth Of A Nation (Griffith, 1915), but I fell asleep during it so don’t really feel qualified passing judgement, having not seen all of it. It’s not a bad film per se, just depressingly overlong and outdated in its attitudes. Right, on we go…

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) / Aliens (James Cameron, 1986) [Main Picture]
Rightio, lets start the sacrilege on a double note with two of the most popular sci-fi’s of all time. Fact is, the Alien franchise didn’t really get interesting until Fincher’s Alien³ (1992) which – especially in Assembly Cut form – is a fascinating feminist text which also adds the theme of organized religion, and for the first half plays like a deep-space noir, with Ripley carrying around some genuine emotional baggage. The first film is a blue-collar thriller in space, but it lacks true atmosphere and tension, instead trading in predictable jump scares and unsurprising plot-twists. The practical effects are brilliant, sure, but Ripley didn’t really become a strong, iconic female hero until she shaved her head and went commando – she spends the latter half of Alien running around in her underwear for gods sake, and it’s almost as boring as the false character mechanics that came before. Aliens is even worse however – overlong and indulgent, it’s a badly scripted bore with some of the most crass, unlikable characters ever committed to celluloid. The tension building is weak and like the first I can really only recommend the effects work. The plot is wafer thin and even the action is routine in comparison with The Terminator (1984) and True Lies (1994), Cameron’s superior films. Bloated beyond belief, it’s a tragically overrated film.

Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004)

Hang on a second, I’ve got soap in my eye. Yes, it’s of the operatic kind, because this wishy-washy sentimental drama is one of the worst Hollywood films of the last ten years. It’s a film that wears its heart on its sleeve and then proceeds to punch you in the face with the attached fist until you understand that RACISM IS EVERYWHERE AND IT’S REALLY, REALLY BAD! Thanks for telling me Paul, I’d never have known. Except that this isn’t a real portrait of racism, it’s racism from the point of view of a privileged screenwriter who sets up contrived scenarios for his characters (read: ciphers) to essay the audience on why colour and creed should transcend prejudice. Except that all the characters (read: ciphers) are broad clichés and can in no way be taken seriously – I mean, did anyone recover from the laughing fit induced by that blanket scene? It’s a mawkish, heavy handed piece of crap with absolutely nothing to say and its reputation as a modern classic baffles me. Coy TV slush, and that’s treating it kindly.

Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983)

Where the love for this overblown cartoon has come from I’ll never know, but I’ll take a guess at nostalgia. I first watched the disco-tastic Scarface four years ago and could scarcely believe how dated it looked; so cheesy and bright, sweary and extreme. The original is hardly a sacred cow either – indeed, one scene sees a gangster walking out into a mid-combat bullet ridden street to pick up a dropped tommy gun. Realism, it seems, was never at the heart of this tale. But Oliver Stone’s self-indulgent screenplay and De Palma’s bloated direction really hurt the piece, and the less said about Al Pacino the better. Many say that his overacting period came later, with The Devil’s Advocate (1997), but for me his whole career consists of overacting. Here he shouts and groans and hoo-hahs with a thick accent and facial contortions that would make Jim Carrey on Broadway with The Muppets blush. It’s awful, and his famous “say hello to my little friend” delivery is the stale icing on an overrated cake that left a very, very sour taste in my mouth. Worst of all, it’s just plain boring.

Fargo (Coen Brothers, 1996)

Uh huh, yah…“, “Uh huh, yah…“, “Uh huh, yah…“. On and on and on it goes, creeping its way under my skin. I know that everybody loves Fargo; ever since release its been the Coen film people fall over adoringly. Well, not me. See, I don’t find it clever or charming or funny. It obviously wants to be a borderline parodic noir set in snowy Minnesota, but the side of quirk it rests on is just a little too irritable for my tastes. It could be down to the weak screenplay but it’s more likely down to the central Oscar-winning (Emily Watson was robbed) performance by Frances McDormand, who just mugs and drawls her way through the film with a comedy accent. Honestly, for the amount of depth in her performance it may as well be a sketch – it’s just as broad and high strung. I just can’t get on with the film. Just when I think it’s threatening to get interesting it diverts into self-indulgent whimsy, which the Coen’s have also based entire films on. I like those films better – they know what they are.

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

You may now be getting the impression that I don’t like Ridley Scott – and you’d be right, as the dreadful Thelma & Louise (1991) can also be added to this list along with the bloated mess that is Gladiator (2000). But this is one of the most crushing of all his failures as I love Philip K. Dick’s 1968 source novel, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? I haven’t yet seen the Final Cut of Blade Runner, which many proclaim to be better than this version, but that would be damning with very faint praise. The voiceover is drastically misplaced and Harrison Ford’s delivery is bland and unengaging. The dystopian Los Angeles setting is a complete rip-off of the Art Deco design in Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis (1927) and the thematic content is stripped of all genuine intelligence; I wanted to ask myself questions about technology and intelligent design coming out of Blade Runner, not questions about why it was so dull. It drags on and on with the narrative seemingly stuck in second gear and the film even fails as a neo-noir hybrid; it’s just too over familiar.

The Last House On The Left (Wes Craven, 1972)

In the pantheon of horror classics Wes Craven’s exploitation shocker is the only one I have a real problem with. It’s not the nastiness, the grimy violence or shocking rape. No, that’s all fine and dandy. The problem lies in the way Craven feels the need to add pop music, comedy cops and chicken interludes in order to soften the impact of the savagery. The film just doesn’t have the strength of its convictions and in dealing with such a serious subject that really makes me angry. It’s like watching two different films, and tonal inconsistency isn’t so much a problem as just feeling condescended and ripped off. This story demands a level of maturity, even in exploitation terms, and the sitcom/sketch sequences really cheapen what could have been a genuine classic. It’s about time people went back and re-evaluated the much derided I Spit On Your Grave (1978), which is a stunning piece of work, and deeply affecting.

The Silence Of The Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

I think I’ve spoken about this one on a Shortlist before, but it certainly bears mentioning again. Beyond the fact that Silence Of The Lambs is about as close to reading a book as you’ll ever get without actually reading a book (that would take an essay to explain, but its down to the lazy aesthetic and condescending direction) the performances are just plain terrible. Foster is fine, if a little whispery, but watching Anthony Hopkins on full Shakespearian lizard queen mode is an embarrassing sight. He was never one for subtlety, sure, but here he’s so clearly psychopathic that if he moved in next door to you, you’d move continents. There’s just no subtlety on offer, no nuance or depth. It’s Madman 101 all the way, with glassy eyes and tongue flicks leading to eye-rolling on my part. It’s just a really boring and routine film, but professional hack Demme has certainly done worse… anyone see Rachel Getting Married (2008)?

Days Of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)

Despite the gorgeous cinematography courtesy of Néstor Almendros, Days Of Heaven completely fails to live up to its reputation. Over-reliant on exposition via voiceover, the experience of watching the film is actually more like walking through an art gallery while being read to. It’s beautiful, and there’s lots of information on offer, but the two elements don’t converge into a satisfying whole and leaves me feeling cold and detached. There are no characters in the film and between Richard Gere’s blinking and Brooke Adams’ airbrushed performance I couldn’t detect a single emotion, much less an engaging human being. The only reason to see the film is for the stunning visuals, but they can’t make up for a terribly self-important and boring void where the substance should be. For all the supposed depth I think Malick really butchers subtlety and hammers his point home, leaving us with 90 minutes of shallow but pretty pictures and some hilarious ‘acting’.

3 Comments

  1. Kyle
    4 April, 2011
  2. Kyle
    4 April, 2011
  3. pamo
    23 April, 2011