In this reviewer’s opinion, a truly bad film having been completely misconceived at its inception and often poorly executed by its director, Steven Spielberg. The potentially interesting and compelling story of one of the most important and complex characters in American history, not to mention a small skirmish known as the American Civil War as potential backdrop, has been completely bypassed in favour of a plodding and predictable dissertation regarding the passage of The Emancipation Proclamation (the 13th Amendment) through congress.
Interminable scenes showing cabinet discussions in unnecessary detail, with particularly undue emphasis placed upon the voting by each and every senator (two of whom are factually incorrect), replace what should be a comprehensive depiction of Abraham Lincoln the man. Not only should this portrayal provide some insight to the tumultuous events of his Presidency, but should also include at least some details of one or more of his early life, his influences, his legal and political career, his troubled relationship with his mentally ill wife (Mary Todd), the establishment of “Greenback” currency to brilliantly fund the war effort (while maintaining the relative health of the economy under trying circumstances), and especially the no doubt agonizing decision to send his fellow countrymen to war in a conflict that would eventually lead to the deaths of 750,000 soldiers, and inevitably causing untold further civilian casualties.
Issues of states rights, sectionalism, protectionism, and economic, industrial and territorial disputes that were equally important causes for the civil war are also glossed over or ignored, and so is Lincoln’s known at least partial ambivalence to the issue of slavery itself, which some would argue was not only not as deeply held as depicted, but was likely a mere pretext for initiating war with ulterior, if quite probably patriotic motives.
Daniel Day-Lewis gives one of his most mesmeric performances as Lincoln, and remains the sole reason for watching this tedious misfire. Nevertheless, even his considerable acting talents must contend with a script that reduces Abraham Lincoln to a ponderous automaton, nearly devoid of humanity. Spielberg has also promoted a pervading sense of claustrophobia with so many interior dimly lit scenes, which are then not counterbalanced by enough external depictions of the battlegrounds, nor the cities in wartime or the broader society to give the senatorial machinations much needed context at least, if not lending even a modicum of the epic quality and majestic sweep to the proceedings as one might expect in such a complex story from a pivotal time in history.
Among many mishandled moments in the film, an initial scene near the battlefront where Lincoln is sitting engaged in a highly unlikely casual conversation with two black soldiers, both of whom speaking with Ivy League accents using meticulous grammar, and sporting gleaming white “Hollywood” teeth which seems not only patently improbable and ridiculous, but completely artificial and terminally “politically correct”. To crown a comprehensively inglorious display by both scriptwriter and director, the finale is a litany of missed opportunities, dealing with Lincoln’s assassination merely by reporting on it second hand, rather than a scene, perhaps from Lincoln’s perspective, of his last moments of life, in what is perhaps the second most famous political assassination in history. I would therefore rate “Lincoln” as the most over-rated film of all time, as it is rare that so highly praised a film misses so many opportunities for drama, insight, emotion, human interest or historical accuracy.
Massively over-hyped, ultra-expensive Sci-Fi opus that was billed as the “Star Wars” of its generation. Unfortunately, Avatar fares particularly poorly in comparison to this popular film icon, being merely a highly derivative and somewhat predictable CGI-laden spectacle, devoid of the mythic qualities, complexities of plot or the nuance of character development found in its predecessor.
The ludicrously named “Unobtainium” is the supposed raison d’etre for a rapacious humankind to strip-mine with impunity the pristine environment of the distant, verdant planet of Pandora. In his depiction of the creatures who inhabit this planet, James Cameron draws far too heavily (and cynically) on native American culture for comfort, and his Gaia-worshipping neo-pagan hippie pseudo-philosophy in the central premise of “connectedness” with the planet of indigenous “peoples” presents a woefully naïve and idealized view of “noble savages” being pitted against ruthlessly evil capitalist exploitation.
Cardboard cutout, generic character types abound, with the chief villain Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) particularly being a one-dimensional caricature of a mindlessly bloodthirsty military killing machine consumed by hatred and blood-lust, whose sole purpose is to kill as many of his adversary as possible regardless of the justification or the morality involved.
Needless to say, Avatar was incredibly popular at the box office, which bears testament to the falling standards and expectations of a jaded and completely uncritical viewing public, rather than any auspicious merit in the film beyond its special effects and its pre-publicity.
#3: Wolf of Wall Street
Director Martin Scorsese’s dramatisation of the rise and fall of Wall Street stockbroker, Jordan Belfort, is merely a lurid and gratuitous exercise in justification of an amoral narcissist, unrepentantly running roughshod over friend and foe alike. The film veers dangerously and deliberately away from a much needed penetrating analysis, toward an adolescent and leering celebration of unbridled hedonism, taking unseemly pleasure in forensically and extensively detailing the pleasures of rampant drug use, fetishism and orgiastic sexual exploitation.
The film is also a relentlessly misogynistic work in which women are purely perceived sexually and are routinely used and discarded, or are victims of serial sexual infidelity. This film’s narrative is thus totally devoid of moral context, failing to give any balancing insight into the plight of the innocent victims of Belfort’s criminal stock speculation activities.
Scorsese seems inordinately in awe of Belfort’s lifestyle, even going so far as to present his eventual jail term as nothing more than a brief time out playing tennis at a “resort”, rather than showing any harsh penal punishment suitable to the callous disregard for the law and for others that Belfort serially displayed throughout his life as a Wall Street trader. Scorsese even goes to the trouble of glossing over Belfort’s eventual betrayal of his friends to the FBI by fabricating a scene in which Belfort tries to warn his puerile and annoying best friend that he is wearing a wire (in order to protect him from exposure as complicit in illegal acts), when in reality the real life Belfort acted purely out of self-preservation when rolling over on all of his co-conspirators at the first opportunity to lighten his own sentence.
That such a film has served to further enrich the convicted felon Jordan Belfort through the sale of film rights, while simultaneously propagating a highly whitewashed version of his “story” (with an undeservedly sympathetic portrayal of the facts) is particularly galling, and unfortunately merely exemplifies Hollywood’s sorry history in acting as serial apologist for narcissistic individuals, and in glorifying gratuitous drug taking and lionising criminal behaviour.
Overblown and episodic soap opera notable for its abrupt shifts in tone, likely due to the artistic guidance and supervision of three separate directors during its making (George Cukor, Victor Fleming and Sam Wood). Excellent performances by Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh cannot make up for deficiencies in the plot, nor an insipid performance from Leslie Howard, or even a nauseatingly pious Olivia de Havilland.
The film also takes an overly romanticized and nostalgic view of the slave owning southerners, and is filled with caricature portrayals of many of the subordinate characters, especially those of colour. The set pieces are indeed brilliant (the burning of Atlanta, the wounded soldiers filling the town square, etc.), and it contains many powerful and even iconic scenes between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, but overall, while a very good film, GWTW falls short of the accolades and universal acclaim accorded it, even allowing for the passage of time.
An epic film in scope, but one that follows an uncannily similar template to GWTW, in that its set pieces are generally excellent and well handled, but some connecting scenes and the character development often leaving much to be desired, with some scenes bordering on farcical.
Decent performances from Leonardo Di Caprio (certainly too young to be remotely believable in the role however), and especially from a luminous Kate Winslet enliven the romantic angle of the somewhat hackneyed plot, but the film is fatally undermined by ludicrous scenes such as Billy Zane’s character roaming through the sinking ship attempting to shoot the young lovers in a fit of jealousy, or shortly thereafter when his offsider, played with exaggerated villainy by David Warner, frames Di Caprio’s character for a robbery he didn’t commit and then allows him to remain handcuffed in the sinking ship in order to murder him, for reasons which would seem elusive given the scale of the disaster that was unfolding, not to mention the lack of any personal motivation whatsoever for him to so spitefully consign our hero to such an awful fate.
Similarly, a rather trite monologue by Bill Paxton as he ponders the “significance” of finding the Titanic’s wreck only undermines the intended effect, while Gloria Stuart ultimately throwing the much-treasured jewel overboard at the finale completely strains our capacity to suspend our collective disbelief.
#6: The Sound of Music
A highly saccharine and completely contrived concoction. The film concerns a virginal ex-postulant employed as a governess (Julie Andrews) and falling into dewy-eyed romance with jut-jawed Austrian widower Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), while caring for and nurturing his seven motherless children, singing away merrily to the backdrop of picture-postcard alpine scenery, and frolicking among the edelweiss. When the Nazi’s come to power and are hell-bent on recruiting the good and noble Captain to their cause, the family are forced to flee en route to a concert in Salzburg, to escape their homeland and start anew abroad, away from the tyranny of Nazism.
The musical numbers are certainly memorable, the scenery beautiful if somewhat idealized and the escape, such that it is, has mildly chilling moments of suspense. Nevertheless, Robert Wise’s hugely successful film remains cloying and artificial, with infuriatingly idealized depictions of the family and their story, which could have withstood a more authentic depiction without resorting to excessive sugar coating or predictable stereotypes. The film remains notable for its inspiration for the Mel Brook’s comedy “The Producers”, including especially its hilarious parody of Broadway musicals, “Springtime for Hitler”.
#7: Saving Private Ryan
Wildly over-praised and over-hyped film is the third dealing with the subject of WW2 by director Steven Spielberg, and it is probably his least effective, being the most derivative and the most contrived of the trio. “Saving Private Ryan” is fatally undermined by its implausible premise, that a troop of soldiers are assigned to “rescue” a soldier, through the heart of German lines during the Normandy invasion no less, because his four siblings have all perished during the war and thereby provoking not only fear of adverse publicity that another death in the same family would cause, but also demonstrating compassion for a mother’s circumstances in losing so many children in the service of her country (a narrative borrowing liberally from the real life story of the Sullivan family in the Pacific theatre of WW2 operations).
The initial framing sequence veers toward a mawkish sentimentality replete with bucketloads of heavy-handed flag waving symbolism. This is then quickly followed by the landing on Omaha beach, an admittedly impressive 20 minute supposedly “real time” interlude of thunderous barrages, where the full horror of war, death and destruction is filmed in gruesome, fly-on-the-wall detail that remains the highlight of the film. Historical inaccuracies of the depiction of the landing aside (and these are numerous), America’s allies are given barely a mention, being relegated to mere bystanders in the conflict, with the sole exception of one derogatory remark in passing that cast aspersions upon the capabilities (or lack thereof) of the British General Montgomery. Meanwhile, their German adversaries are depicted throughout the film as either incompetent and disorganized fighters (nothing could be further from the truth), or as mindless psychopathic killers without even a hint of morality or humanity.
Such a lack of any insightful perspective into the vicissitudes of war, or nuance in depicting the similarities of the experiences of soldiers on both sides of the conflict (compared to “All Quiet on the Western Front”, for example), as well as its exclusively American-centric viewpoint (complete with prominent Stars & Stripes flag-waving at the beginning and end of the film), gives the film an overly jingoistic tone and presents a somewhat two-dimensional outlook that is largely unsatisfying to discerning viewers looking for a more well-rounded, objective and thoughtful treatise on WW2 and the soldiers fighting in it.
The latter part of the film, while no doubt professionally filmed, is fairly derivative, predictable, and not especially memorable or distinguished. The film therefore pales in comparison to its contemporaneous companion piece, Terence Mallick’s “The Thin Red Line”, which has intellectual depth and an emotional resonance that “Ryan” fails comprehensively to match.
#8: Forrest Gump
Overly sentimental, and at times exploitative morality tale with a problematic message is, despite its rather mindlessly entertaining trappings, a largely empty vessel of vacuous homilies and sweeping generalisations in trying vainly to capture a broad 30 year era of American history through the eyes of its intellectually impaired protagonist. Forrest is in some ways quite an endearing character, but is essentially incapable of learning or forming emotional connections with anything he does, and his character is by turns either irritating or unbearably cloying. This perception is thanks mainly to some heavy handedness in the script, that seeks too readily to milk emotional responses out of its audience that are not always proportionate or warranted by the action taking place, and often straining for significance where there is little or none.
Competently made, at times brilliantly edited and somewhat ingeniously packaged, Zemeckis’ film contains the germ of a good tragi-comedy, but instead of being insightful and showing Forrest’s character grow through the action of the film, he is content to have him portrayed as a frustratingly passive and intransigent cipher, a blank canvas swept along by the events that surround him without ever questioning or engaging with them. As such, the film is very much like a box of chocolates, superficially pleasing but leaving one feeling guilty afterwards, and finding one’s hunger for something more substantial largely unsatisfied.
#9: The Shawshank Redemption
The highest rated film on the IMDb database, this paint-by-numbers prison yarn packs in every genre cliché from the “Defiant Ones” to “Escape From Alcatraz” to “The Big House” to “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” into one solid, workmanlike yet otherwise unexceptional prison film.
Even though “Shawshank Redemption” is hardly ground-breaking (and no doubt derivative), it does boast strong performances by Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, sharp dialogue and reasonable production values. It is, however, undermined by some glaring plot holes that strain credibility, with a caricature religious bigot in the shape of a corrupt Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), but most notably by the rather repellent notion of prison guards portrayed uniformly as brutal villains while the violent rapists and murderers in Shawshank Prison are made to appear as delightful rogues or reformed saints.
The absence of any racial conflict in the prison also appeals as particularly far-fetched, while the witty and erudite dialogue from otherwise illiterate prisoners appears false and rather contrived. All in all, it is a reasonably proficient and entertaining film that is wildly overpraised by those who are otherwise starved of quality cinema for a more reasoned and well-rounded perspective.
#10: Pulp Fiction
A relentlessly incoherent pastiche of old gangster movie clichés, dressed up in modern garb and blessed with dialogue that is at times undoubtedly mordantly funny, but mostly is defined by endless annoying prattle which diverts off into various tangents that distract from any semblance of plot thread for audiences to follow. Ground breaking after its own sloppy and non-linear fashion, and spawning many inferior and often downright awful imitators (for which alone it could possibly stand condemned), it is perhaps a little too smug and self-satisfied with its “coolness” for its own good, and its casual violence loses its shock value after the first reel and becomes somewhat tiresome as the movie rambles its way to its eventual conclusion.
Some scenes clearly stick in the mind, especially Thurman and Travolta engaged in their dance at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, and the heroin overdose scene to name but two, and its endless referencing of old Blaxploitation, Kung Fu or classic movies, potboiler crime fiction or other popular culture icons can become a bit wearing after a while, the whole film coming across as too preconceived and attention seeking to warrant the accolades effusively accorded it.
As such, Pulp Fiction is no doubt an influential film that shook up the staid 1990’s Hollywood approach to cinema literacy, however I for one found its somewhat unique take on the genre to be an intellectual blind alley that left little leeway to expand upon further, as evidenced by Tarantino’s increasingly dwindling cinematic legacy subsequent to this film, which along with “Reservoir Dogs” remains his signature success.
Other Notable Nominees include:
Scent of a Woman