I recently saw three critically acclaimed films that no one cares about anymore.
Bridge of Spies (2015):
Bridge of Spies is the most mediocre film I have ever seen–a shame considering that the story itself is a good one. Tom Hanks is James Donovan, an insurance lawyer who is asked to defend Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy put on trial in 1957. Donovan is then whisked away to East Berlin where he has to negotiate the release of an American student and spy pilot in exchange for Abel. But any potential the story had is tossed in favor of the obvious and boring. This is because Spielberg has to remind us in nearly every scene that despite our righteousness against the Reds we were engaged in spy tactics and rigged trials as well. From the cartoonish judge to a police officer who scolds Donovan for defending a dirty Commie after someone shoots up his house, all the characters Donovan has to contend with aren’t really characters, but obstacles. The movie only appears to be critical of the actions of the U.S. during the Cold War, but its indictments are shallow for a majority of the characters are stereotypes. Spielberg had a great opportunity to explore the hypocrisies of the U.S. government and, as well, the psychology of Donovan, but instead he just ends-up being like every righteous, yet humble of course, Tom Hanks character.
Love and Mercy (2014):
In contrast, Love and Mercy does a decent job of depicting its subject. The film focuses on the life of former Beach Boys leader and “pop genius” Brian Wilson. We get a better sense of who Brian Wilson was as we witness two of the more well-known narratives surrounding his life: Wilson in the mid-sixties (portrayed by Paul Dano) working on Pet Sounds and Smile and in the eighties (portrayed by John Cusack) as a middle-aged man drugged-out and brainwashed by his psychotherapist and guardian Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). The acting and writing is for the most part solid, but the problem is that the film dwells on only two ideas–Brian Wilson’s deterioration amidst his burgeoning creativity, and his abuse at the hands of father-figures such as by his actual father, the insecure Murray Wilson, and the sociopathic Landy–without going much deeper into those ideas. As a result, despite the film being well-executed, there is also a flatness to everything. In addition, while the two narratives are interwoven, they don’t really mesh all that well despite their thematic similarities. There’s also a staleness to Wilson’s depiction in the sixties. Not only is it an area of his life that we are aware of and have seen numerous times, the story of the musician suffering for his art is something that has been done over and over. As well-executed as it is the story isn’t approached in a unique way, as a consequence there really isn’t much gained from viewing, especially if you’re already familiar with the history of the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson. Brian Wilson in the eighties might be a weaker story, but at least it’s a side to Wilson that hasn’t been done to death. Overall, Love and Mercy is a solid film and likely one of the best rock biopics out there, but despite weaving two different narratives, it’s kind of bland. But it could be worse–it could have been directed by Spielberg!
Out of all of the films, Boyhood was probably the best, however, that doesn’t mean it’s as great as critics claimed when it came out. Seriously, remember when everyone was just frothing at the mouth over this thing? Now nobody talks about it. But that doesn’t make it a bad film. I’ve put off seeing Boyhood for a while because I anticipated that it was just another “gimmick” film, the gimmick being, in this case, the film’s production which took place over 12 years so we can see the actors age alongside their characters, particularly the main character who we watch from ages 6 to 18 when he heads off to college. However, the gimmick actually does serve the film well. The problem is that the movie is three fucking hours long. Perhaps the length is due to Linklater not wanting to make the age-shifts too jarring. The length could also be due to Linklater wanting to give each time period within the main character’s life equal weight. The movie isn’t about any particular moment or time during the boy’s youth, but rather about the film’s macro, how the moments accumulate and develop the boy and his family.
This, however, goes into another flaw, and a bigger one at that: the movie is just about the kid’s development. There is no grand, underlying idea. All we’re invited to do is peer into the life of this kid, which is a positive in many ways as this approach eschews the Hollywood convention of placing plot over character, but it’s also a negative in that we’re not allowed to do anything deeper than to peer. It’s as if the movie is bones laid upon a dissection table. We get a good look, but we’re not given anything more. Linklater’s approach allows us to see that the character is real by witnessing various moments of his life, and we can empathize with him, but we’re not given a deeper “in” to his reality. In some ways, we learn more about the kid’s mother, both from her arc and from pieces of dialogue, especially her final lines she imparts as the kid heads off to college. It also helps that Patricia Arquette is a far better actor than the actor who plays the boy. It’s ironic that the subject of Boyhood ends-up being the film’s least interesting character.
But, despite the film’s uniquity, its uniquity is largely shallow. The trajectory of the film matches that of many coming-of-age films. Perhaps this is unfair as any film about a white, middle-class boy often follows a similar path (grows up, goes to college,) but there are ways to circumvent this, such as choosing to emphasis different things, or connect ideas an interesting way. Boyhood becomes almost like any other coming-of-age tale, albeit one that is, for the most part, well-done and watchable. It doesn’t fester in cliche, and while the beats that it shares with similar films, are allowed to be approached more organically, the movie also doesn’t do much to differentiate itself. It doesn’t comment on what these moments actually mean or how they affect the child internally. They just are. Boyhood is still a pretty good film containing some great moments, but since there really isn’t much to grasp onto those moments quickly pass through the mind. Still, it’s an enjoyable experience for the most part. I don’t care about anything.