Remember When Movies Were Good?

Probably 15 minutes or so into one of the latest Netflix blockbusters, a satirical hammer to the skull about disasters that human beings so blithely and comically ignore — ha! climate change, ha! silly politicians, ha! the pitfalls of sudden fame, ha! a comet destroying Earth, ha! we’re such dunderheads — I knew that we were in trouble.

It wasn’t simply that no one in the room was laughing at the film. Though, yeah, no one in the room was laughing. (Satire is supposed to use humor, no?) I kept looking at Mary Jo. She was long-faced silent watching Leonardo DiCaprio (^) and Jennifer Lawrence trying to pull something out of the stinker Don’t Look Up. I glanced over at Luke. He was, predictably, engrossed with something on his phone. I’ll admit; I forced out a chuckle here and there. But, dammit, it took some effort.

The main issue wasn’t the movie being unfunny and predictable. Although … yeah. The issue is that we knew it would be. We knew that this film, despite its huge budget (more than $100 million) and its star power (Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Mark Rylance, and a lame, lame, lame Jonah Hill stumble through it, too), would be like so many that we’ve viewed at home over the course of the past two years. Uninspired and unsurprising. Underwhelming. A waste of time.

And, of course, we watched anyway. What else are you going to do on a cold winter night in late 2021?

What makes so many of these Netflix movies — to be fair, it’s not just Netflix — so unwatchable? They boast big-name actors and directors and even bigger budgets. They’re marketed better than beer on an NFL broadcast. There’s certainly enough of them, in this era of constantly churned-out “content.”

Being a writer of sorts, the answer seems simple enough: The scripts are lousy. So many are hackneyed. They’re unoriginal. They lack imagination. As such, they provide few moments of what a good movie should: surprises, delights, emotional connections. Scares, tension, thrills, laughter, tears. Instead, they resort to what has worked in the past. But, given as much as we’ve seen in the past couple years, that stuff just isn’t working anymore.

Maybe we’re becoming more sophisticated as an audience. Maybe we’re asking for too much. Or, maybe, in a rush to make a buck or a bil off a captive audience, moviemakers are producing crap.

Could be all that, I guess. But, boy, we’ve seen some stinkers:

Don’t Look Up (Netflix)
Not to be, like director Adam McKay, too hammer-to-the-skull, but a “comedy” or a “satire” without laughs is kind of neither. That’s this film’s biggest fault: The script is unfunny. Achingly so. David Fear in Rolling Stone: “‘Don’t Look Up‘ is a blunt instrument in lieu of a sharp razor, and while McKay may believe that we’re long past subtlety, it doesn’t mean that one man’s wake-up-sheeple howl into the abyss is funny, or insightful, or even watchable. It’s a disaster movie in more ways than one.”

Extraction (Netflix)
This Chris Hemsworth action thriller was an early pandemic watch, so it’s fading, finally, from memory. But I remember enough. What it could have been was a great chance to feature a post-Thor Hemsworth in something other than an action flick measured solely by its body count. What it ended up being is an action film with a lot of well-done action, a lot of dead bodies, a throwaway relationship between star and kid to make it all seem more than it is, and just another meatball in the middle. Hemsworth has shown he’s more than that. Not in this film.

Red Notice (Netflix)
Another movie with seemingly everything going for it — including a huge budget and three box-office big shots in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Gal Gadot, and the now-grating Ryan Reynolds — that never came close to its promise. Pathetically predictable, this jewel thief caper leaves viewers to stifle their yawns as the film’s “crazy” twist ending lands with a splat. The script is exactly what you’d expect, full of Reynolds throwaway pop culture one-liners (Deadpool in a tux!), The Rock’s puzzled and chiseled noggin, and a lot of shots of the long-limbed Gadot. Sample dialogue, between Johnson’s cop and Reynolds’ thief:
REYNOLDS: I’m not used to using these stupid things, and I’m not used to working with a partner.
JOHNSON: We’re not partners. This is a marriage of convenience.
REYNOLDS: I want a divorce and I’m keeping the kids.

Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in The Irishman.

The Irishman (Netflix)
This Martin Scorsese mobster tale is an overlong (3 hours, 29 minutes) self-pat on the back, proof (to the director and its starry cast) that real movie people can do work on (spit on the ground) streaming services. This actually premiered in theaters in 2019, pre-pandemic, but made a heralded debut later in the month on Netflix to pretty good reviews. (The New York Times says it has “elegiac power.”) I’m in the minority on this one. It was just too damn slow and long.

6 Underground (Netflix)
A loud and stupid Michael Bay film which, admittedly, may be redundant. With, I’m sad to report, Ryan Reynolds, who at this point should probably stick with making tequila, running cell phone companies, and staying home. This is one that I had to watch in three chunks because it was so overblown. (But I finished! I beat it! I won! I think.) This is so over-the-top lowbrow, it makes the Fast and Furious franchise look like cinéma vérité. A brilliant review by Fear, in Rolling Stone, reads in part: “This is a Michael Bay movie. It’s like someone is repeatedly poking you in the parts of your brain that register mere sensation, and keeps hammering away until a line of drool drops from your downturned lip. I get it. So do you. You’re not going to watch it. Or you are going watch it, and either decry the death of all Western civilization or pump your fists in the air. It’s another lingerie catalogue sprinkled with carnage.”

The Power of the Dog (Netflix)
Art is, by definition, subjective. This Western fable from director Jane Campion is, objectively, gorgeous. Its story is not nearly so, and only barely believable. The movie’s lead, English actor Benedict Cumberbatch, is wholly unbelievable as a turn-of-the-century cowboy with secrets to hide. (An aside: Some Brits can pull off a Southern, or a New York, or a Boston accent. Cumberbatch here sounds like he’s laboring to make every consonant that comes out of his Old West cowboy character as acting-class corny as possible. He sounds like he’s acting. And he looks like a cardboard cutout of a cowpoke. Sneer. Act tough. Walk impossibly posture-perfect and slowly bow-legged. And, for god’s sake, talk in aphorisms, when you talk at all. “Come on pardner,” he says at one point. “Open your talker.”) This is one of those films that derives whatever power it generates from its setting and its silences more than its story. But if you don’t buy into the main actor, or the character portrayed, it’s hard to buy into the film.

Triple Frontier (Netflix)
I’ve been compiling this list for a long time — I mean, it’s a pandemic-era film list — so I hope it’s understandable that I flat-out forget some details. Triple Frontier, from what I recall, is an action/heist film set in some jungle somewhere (I’m guessing South America), with some ex-soldiers vs. bad-guy drug cartel members, that is memorable for two things: Ben Affleck [SPOILER ALERT] is killed off early (I remember thinking at the time that it was probably a wise career move) and … oh yeah, it’s in a jungle somewhere.

Aniston and Sandler in Murder Mystery. Now that’s acting.

Murder Mystery (Netflix)
I know I’ve seen some decent Adam Sandler movies … let me think, let me think. And I’m almost positive that I’ve seen some good Jennifer Aniston ones. Haven’t I? Yeah I have. I’m sure I have. This bomb, which The Hollywood Reporter reports is “Murder on the Bore-ient Express,” isn’t one of them.

Spenser Confidential (Netflix)
Action, I guess, is the draw of this film. And comedy. And, sure, Mark Wahlberg can do both. But the fight scenes are just fight scenes, the reluctant sidekick just another character pulled from way too many other movies, and it all comes with yet another frustrating cliche; the wise-cracking old guy (and I like Adam Arkin). It’s all too familiar. A decent waste of time, if that’s what you’re after. But haven’t we done enough of that?

Marriage Story (Netflix)
Action films, thrillers, and comedies garner the most watches on streaming services for a simple reason: People want to get away. Marriage Story is the story of a divorce. It has some light-hearted moments, but … it’s the story of a divorce. This film in no way should be classified as a comedy, a black comedy, a “satire” (god help us), a comedy/drama, or anything other than what it is; a story of a divorce, with all the drama that accompanies it. Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver are fantastic because you can understand and hate both of them. The sidekicks, especially Laura Dern, keep this from being a total descent into depression. But it’s a story of a divorce, of hurt and hatred and selfishness and ripping free and ripping apart. If seeing a couple in pain is what you want when you’re locked away for months at a time … heck, I’ll send you a picture of Mary Jo and I watching Murder Mystery. It’s painful. But it’s less painful than Marriage Story.

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