Thursday, 12 December 2013

Greatest Movie Disappointments (Top 3 )

No. 3: Ripley’s Game (2002)

I have read Patricia Highsmith's original novel and I have seen the movie versions with Alain Delon and Matt Daimon. I love all three, including the countless differences between them, and I find Tom Ripley's character immensely fascinating, in a way even inspiring, though quite a bit chilling as well. I understand this movie – Ripley's Game – was based on a later novel by Highsmith, another instalment in the Ripley franchise, first published in 1974. This I haven't read. But I do hope it is far better than the screenplay.

It goes without saying that John Malkovich is a fine actor who would make a terrific Tom Ripley. If only he had a fine script to work on! The story here is perfectly idiotic; a five-year-old kid wouldn't buy such illogical behaviour. You want somebody dead, and whom do you hire for the job? A terminally ill and completely inexperienced picture framer. Give me a break, will you! The rushed action and the pedestrian dialogue only make the plot more incoherent – if that's possible at all.

What can one say about the cast? It’s probably unjust to blame the poor fellows. Nobody can pull off such trash convincingly, right? No, not quite. The novel was in fact filmed as early as 1977 under the title Der amerikanische Freund (1977). The story was pretty much the same preposterous crap, but the picture starred two fabulous actors, Dennis Hopper and Bruno Ganz, who did a truly great job and made it almost believable. Not so here. With the possible exception of Malkovich, the acting is hilariously inept. Who was this cruel person who lied to Dougray Scott that he could act at all? Any piece of wood will do a much better job.

The only thing this movie counts on is shock value. This it has. All murders – and there are many of them – are shown is the most graphic way possible, including a lovely scene of garrotting. So there is a good deal of pancake syrup around and the audience, provided that it's mentally deficient, is happy. For the sophisticated who are keen on higher pleasures, there are a few steamy soft-core scenes.

All in all, a stupendously dull and worthless movie: stupid story, weak acting, lots of unnecessary blood and gore. Even the visual side is drab to the extreme. The rating of this movie and the positive reviews it gets baffle me no end.


No. 2 The Big Sleep (1978)

This must be one of the most horrible remakes ever made. I don't have anything against remakes in general, provided that the new approach is fresh and convincing enough, and that one thinks carefully before doing again something that has long become a classic. Neither is the case here.

The only redeeming quality of this version of The Big Sleep is that it keeps much closer to Chandler's chilling novel than the classic with Humphrey Bogart. In 1978, it was possible to show on the screen nudity, drugs, pornography and violence quite unacceptable in 1946. But this is – let me repeat – the only plus of this version. Everything else is embarrassingly inferior to the original – either the book or the movie.

To begin with, moving the whole story to England is truly preposterous. Chandler is far too hard-boiled for the prudish Britons. Seldom have I seen a better illustration of the huge difference between the English and the American mentality. I no longer wonder that Americans and British insist on being cousins, instead of brothers and sisters.

Second, Robert Mitchum is insufferable. The man is stupendously dull! Pretty much all of his lines are delivered in a way that makes you think he would fall asleep there and then, or has just been woken up perhaps. After Humphrey Bogart's debonair and charming portrayal, it is truly unendurable to watch Mitchum's tired and tedious performance. I understand he stepped in the shoes of the famous sleuth in other movies, too. I do hope he improves vastly on this soporific mess.

The rest of the cast is entirely indifferent. The only sparkle comes from the very young Oliver Reed who does manage to convey something of the sinister character of Eddie Mars. The Sternwood sisters, whatever their English first names were, are laughably inadequate to their parts. The sensual charm of the elder has gone on holiday (and boy, is she plain!), and the nymphomaniac infantilism of the younger one is grossly exaggerated beyond any reasonable limits.

Last but not least, the direction, the cinematography and the adaptation range from passable to dismal – with a strong prevalence of the latter. Though the script is fairly close to the novel in terms of events and violence, it omits much too much of Chandler's (mostly) brilliant dialogue. Apparently, as I said, it's much too tough and slangy for the fastidious crime buffs on the other side of the Atlantic.

In short, watching this junk is a sheer waste of time. Much better read the novel or see the 1946 classic with Boggie and Bacall, or both. The old movie differs from the novel is quite a few ways, including a much more light-hearted atmosphere, but on the whole it is infinitely superior to the so-called remake.


No. 1: 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968)

Let me make this clear in the beginning: the extravagant praise usually accorded to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey I have always found frightfully perplexing. All the more so since Arthur Clarke’s eponymous novel is without any reservations among my all-time favourite books. The importance of Stanley Kubrick, however, ends with his stimulating effect over Arthur Clarke during the bizarre brainstorming out of which both the novel and the screenplay – written in parallel – were born. The complicated relationship between both mediums has been eloquently described by Arthur Clarke himself in his lovely little book The Lost Worlds of 2001 (1972). But it is the movie I am here dealing with.

Now, I wish there was other say to say it, but there isn’t. The movie is perfect crap! What exactly its classical status rests upon is an absolute mystery for me. It is a visual tour de force all right, but that’s just about the only asset it might possibly have. Except perhaps that some of its music is among the greatest ever composed; if, indeed, the movie has brought to more receptive ears the famous opening of Richard Strauss’ magnificent tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, that’s something; actually, this opening is famous more because of this movie than because of anything else, I think. As for the visual side, it is not nearly as impressive today as it must have been in 1968, of course, but it has aged surprisingly well. So much for the good sides, though.

For otherwise the movie is one failure after another. To begin with, a good many people have complained that when they saw it before the book, they didn’t understand the ending at all
; only later did the novel make it clear. This is as expected – for the ending is an incomprehensible mess. What’s worse, the pace is appallingly slow. Imagine a spaceship landing that lasts for full ten minutes, during which you can appreciate Strauss’ famous waltz An der schönen blauen Donau, another masterpiece from the soundtrack. But even the greatest music cannot make the scene less tedious. Never have I seen a movie that drags so obviously and so painfully.

The whole cast is downright horrible. Keir Dullea is the dullest Dave Bowman one could possibly imagine. He never so much as raises his voice above monotonous whisper or changes the mask-like expression of his face. The famous dramatic dialogue with HAL, one of the highlights in the book, is ridiculously humdrum on the screen. Instead of the mighty collision between man and machine you are right to expect, you get two technicians – crashing bores, both of them – who discuss the board manual. The bland fellow, whatever his name was, who plays Heywood Floyd cannot act to save his life, poor thing. Just take a look at the conversation he has with the others while they are traveling to TMA-1 or the soporific conference before that. These guys are about to investigate the first solid proof of extraterrestrial intelligence ever discovered by the human race. Yet they are discussing the matter with a sort of chatty indifference as if it were the latest baseball game. Indeed, they may well get more excited about baseball.

In short, the immense philosophical depth of the novel is completely, absolutely and overwhelmingly missing from the screen adaptation. So are the suspense, the mystique and the drama.

Apologists, who are usually quite scornful to anybody who dares to criticize their cherished masterpiece, have tried to justify Kubrick’s static and inept direction with an utmost search for realism. Spaceship landings are really very slow, astronauts really are boring people, and so on and so forth. This, of course, is tosh. Realism is just the last refuge of mediocrity; nothing more, nothing less. The novel is, for the most part, quite realistic, yet it never feels dragged or tedious. The movie does all the time. Nor do I find Dave Bowman or Heywood Floyd boring on paper. Once Upon a Time in the West is one of the most realistic and slow-paced movies I have ever seen. Yet, it is one of my all-time favourites as well. How could this glaring contradiction be? It’s very simple, really. In addition to Ennio Morricone’s beautiful score, the cast is magnificent, perfectly selected to the last cameo. Above all, when it comes to evocative power and dramatic intensity, Sergio Leone’s masterful direction is unsurpassed. Stanley Kubrick doesn’t even come close.

Surely the movie must have been groundbreaking visually in 1968 – and perhaps not only visually indeed – but what is there to keep it in the stores 45 years later I have not the least idea. I wonder how far it would have gone had it not been accompanied by the novel, first published a few months after the premiere. For my money, speaking of 1968 and thought-provoking science fiction, Planet of the Apes is a far better achievement. It’s not perfect, that’s for sure; many things in it could have been improved. Nevertheless, it delivers compelling and stimulating entertainment from the opening scene to the end credits. Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey, no matter how much it may parade as a profound masterpiece, delivers only excruciating boredom and exasperating mediocrity. I have seen it twice, and enough is enough. Over and out.

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