I must be getting better at managing my expectations. For there are some absent titles you will no doubt wonder about. Odds are I thought them just as terrible as you did, I just didn’t go in thinking I would get any different. The Dark Knight was just as dumb as The Dark Knight Rises, it just had a Joker to distract you. There hasn’t been a good Alien movie in a very long time and Ridley Scott hasn’t exactly been turning in gems lately either. And I don’t know what you saw in The Hobbit trailers that made you think you weren’t in for another three hours of the most toothless filmmaking on this Earth. So these are the ones that not only best let us down, they are the ones that did something much more difficult: they made us drop our guard.
1. Bully – With Bully, there’s no shortage of things with which to be disappointed. Before anyone could even see it, the MPAA rated it R and advocates were up in arms. The people that need to see it (namely the throngs of kids who love documentaries and will finally be shaken from their silence on bullying when they flock to this one) would be unable to. To counter this injustice, The Weinsteins took their ball home with them, releasing it without a rating, ensuring it would never play in more than 300 theaters nationwide. That showed ‘em.
What all this did accomplish though, was a heightened sense of anticipation. Something was going on with this bullying documentary that we all definitely needed to pay to see.
And so actually sitting in one of the lucky quarter-filled theaters that carried it could only be anti-climactic. To put it mildly. First, there was barely anything objectionable that would have made an R rating necessary. The MPAA overreacting is nothing new, but this movie was supposed to be shocking somehow to warrant all that fuss.
But all of that serves only as a set up to how inept the actual movie is. Not only does Bully fail to create empathy for any of the bullied, it might do the opposite. The main focal point is so cloying and annoying, you will be impressed by the restraint these supposed bullies show. There’s a shoehorned lesbian storyline in which all of the bullying must be imagined because the subject is by far the happiest person involved (including everyone watching.) Strangest of all, absolutely no shot can stay in focus. It gets so bad sometimes, it just has to be on purpose, but it feels more symptomatic of the general incompetence than any stylistic choice. And then, as a grand finale, after reports fall on dumb ears, the makers of the documentary decide to break pretty much the only law of documentary filmmaking left standing: THEY USE THEIR FOOTAGE TO TELL ON A KID. Never mind the lack of objectivity or the purity of the format, this goes against the very point you are trying to get across, that those in the situation have to be the ones to speak out, that they can’t wait around for parents or teachers or anyone else to notice. Unless maybe every bullied kid is going to have a crew of people recording their every move from now on. If that was their mission, they failed on getting that across as well.
2. Brave – Cars 2 was an anomaly. Pixar had been going along so well for so long, you had to shrug off a lackluster sequel to something that wasn’t their best to begin with. There was something slightly off about the Brave trailers, but only in hindsight. At the time, they seemed great, if slightly uninformative. For good measure, there was some sort of animation upgrade we were supposed to be excited about. And then there was that commotion about the new sound system that was forcing some theaters to renovate their speakers on fairly short notice. Expectations were sort of nonchalantly high. And worse than that, there wasn’t any reason to question it.
But beyond Merida’s much lauded hair, there wasn’t anything Pixar about Brave. It barely seems worthy of regular Disney animation the way that’s been going. If you had one of those people in your life that dismissed Pixar as “cartoons for children” or something similar, you had to be thankful this wasn’t the one you finally convinced them to give a chance. It is exactly what they think all of them are. Which isn’t even to say bad. But cartoon for kids would probably do just fine.
3./4. Haywire/Magic Mike – At least one of these should have been the best thing Steven Soderbergh has ever done. Which for me at least, is saying quite a lot. Each was the next logical step in the personal genre he has been bent on producing: a movie built around the particular skill of its star. Even if that star isn’t really an actor. With The Girlfriend Experience, he got an appropriately dullish performance from Sasha Grey, but what surrounded her wasn’t so far away from what he is used to doing.
With Haywire, the problem wasn’t the fighting. That mostly worked fine and was certainly stamped with a distinct Soderbergh distance and starkness. But nothing connecting the fighting made any sense or wanted to. In a typical action movie, that might not matter. But for this to happen here was not only unfulfilling, but made worse by the otherwise static style inherent in this “lesser” Soderbergh fare. And unlike it did for Sasha Grey, being unavoidably prosaic did not play in Gina Carrano’s favor.
Channing Tatum is not in danger of being dull. Neither is Matthew McConaughey. So performance should not have been an issue. But it seems as though Steven Soderbergh wants to challenge himself. It’s the only way to justify some of the cast of Magic Mike. But still, the greatest failure is what comes between the “action.” It’s as if they just let Channing Tatum dance and thought they’d worry about whatever else went on at a later date that never arrived.
5. The Master – Paul Thomas Anderson has been trying to lose me for years now, so it shouldn’t come as any kind of shock that with The Master, he finally did. With There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, even Punch-Drunk Love, I couldn’t ever be truly sure of what he wanted me to think or feel, but it didn’t seem to matter. Not totally getting it only drove me closer to it. Whatever it was. So this time I sat and waited to fall into the same trap, but the ground always held frustratingly firm beneath me.
All the usual elements appeared to be present: amazing camerawork, obsessive verisimilitude of time and place, inexplicably driven characters and weird but wonderful performances. But they do not coalesce. It’s like throwing all the proven ingredients into a bowl and neglecting to mix them. I suppose it could be sort of comforting that these things alone have not somehow been tricking me all this time.
John Carter – It was a shaky proposition from the start, to dazzle us with the story all of our most dazzling movies have forever mined for inspiration (and more.) So for it to show its weirdly tanned face here on this list means something truly terrible happened out there on Barsoom.
Compliance –Watching ‘real’ people be this stupid is what the internet and MTV are for.
Ruby Sparks – This movie wants us to be very excited about all the possibilities its premise implies, without any intention of exploring them.
Jeff, Who Lives At Home – Having a character in your movie profess a love for another movie that uses coincidence to achieve plot progression does not mean your movie’s coincidences that achieve plot progression are miraculously forgiven.
Celeste And Jesse Forever – No one is saying Rashida Jones isn’t better in pretty much every way, but save for a few comedic flourishes, this might as well be a Katherine Heigel movie.