5 'Meh' Directors Who Do One Thing Better Than Anyone Else
If there's one thing that's certain on this big blue marble, it's that Hollywood is no meritocracy. There has never been a more wretched hive of mediocrity and outright lack of talent than modern filmmaking, and that's including certain space cantinas. Directors can have movie after movie somehow greenlit and shoved into theaters, despite being overwhelmingly recognized as being terrible. But even the worst directors in the world don't get there out of nowhere. Each of them has some special hidden move, like Pokemon who make bad movies.
Kevin Smith Is Great At Monologues (And Terrible At Dialogue)
There was a time, long ago, when "indie movie" meant some hopeful nerd, who usually worked in a mysterious place called a video store, pulled together what resources they could, maxed out their credit cards, and put all their knowledge of film into action. At that time, it seemed like Kevin Smith might be the great, mouthy hope of New Jersey. He was a scrappy kid from the Tri-City who made his own movies using his stoner buddies and a brain seemingly programmed with Star Wars trivia.
That time was 1994, a lost golden age of flannel and giant cell phones. In the 23 years since, Smith has shown himself to rely on sophomoric humor as a crutch for actual comedic timing, uninspired mise-en-scene that has barely moved past "keep the camera lens pointed in a steady direction," and a dangerously increasing tendency to willfully self-indulge:
Exhibit A, your honor.
Worst of all, for a director who made his name chronicling the lives of lower-middle slackers through conversation, he's garbage at dialogue. Listen to any clip of two people talking in his films. Go ahead, I'll wait. Try the conversation 36 seconds into this clip:
No, that wasn't two Speak & Spells droning about Superman with no knowledge of the rhythms of conversation, that was dialogue Kevin Smith wrote on purpose.
The One Specific Thing:
On the other hand, Smith is really, really good at monologues. Not (and this is an important distinction) dialogue; if you get two people talking in a Kevin Smith movie, it sounds like they're reading off the back of cereal boxes until the next dick joke comes around. But he really has a talent for pausing a movie and letting a character sink into a long, uninterrupted story, like Tracy Morgan's elaborate hypotheticals in Cop Out or a gripping emotional moment from Genesis Rodriguez in the absolutely execrable Tusk, a movie inspired by a dumb joke he made on a podcast. And of course, the speech he delivers as Silent Bob in Chasing Amy (an admittedly decent movie).
In Mallrats, the unexpected airplane story seems like it's building to something remarkable. It feels like it should be the climax of the movie, but it's not; it's not even the climax of that scene. It's just a long speech about a dude jerking it on a plane. And yet it's riveting, not just to the audience in the film, but to us, the watchers of the watchers themselves.
Smith, for all of his faults, has a genuine and deep talent for writing speeches that pull you out of the movie and into another emotional place entirely. Like somehow, it just has the weird, wondrous Kevin Smith power to suck you in that his actual narratives and command of the screen utterly do not. It actually makes a lot of sense that Kevin Smith has pivoted into a second career lately as a podcast host and all-around pop culture raconteur; he's just not as good as making films as he is at speeches.
Roland Emmerich Makes Great Horror Scenes (In Non-Horror Movies)
Roland Emmerich makes big, dumb films like very few people can. They tend to be grandiose, usually taking place on a global scale, like 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, and Independence Day, a movie that taught us the horrific consequences of electing Bill Pullman president.
His movies also usually involve global disasters, and trend towards good old-fashioned USA! USA! USA! jingoism (a little strange, considering he's German). They're all bluster and shoddy science and explosions.
The best speech any president, real or fake, will ever deliver.
The weird part is that all of his movies, while being highly specific to his interests, also come off as incredibly generic. He's lukewarm, and thus filmgoers spit his films out (except for the scenes with Will Smith and/or Jeff Goldblum, those are pretty tight).
The One Specific Thing:
For a guy who specializes in worldwide disaster movies that tend to involve landmarks being destroyed and incongruously happy endings, Emmerich is really, really good at injecting creepy horror scenes right in the middle. For example, this scene from the very same Independence Day. Up until this point, ID4 had largely been a movie of big explosions and Will Smith quips, and then suddenly this? Straight up body horror, with carapaces exploding and Brent Spiner being turned into a hoarsely whispering puppet man.
And then there's how Dolph Lundgren dives into bleak gore whenever JCVD isn't around in Universal Soldier, stalking through a refrigerated 18-wheeler, gouging out eyes and wearing a necklace of human ears.
"Need an ear?"
And here, how Godzilla becomes a slow measured crawl, in an otherwise loud, boring-ass movie. Then it suddenly explodes in a classic jump scare; and it's probably one of the most effective scenes in an oeuvre stuffed as it is with numerical pap like 2012 and 10,000 BC. He seems to have missed his calling as the next John Carpenter. Instead, he became the actual Roland Emmerich.
Brett Ratner Is Great At Goofy Contentious Friendships
Brett Ratner is what happens when your high school guidance counselor takes up alcoholism and becomes a Hollywood director.
Basically, an Entourage character come to life.
He directs middling, forgettable films for stars that do okay at the box office, but bomb with critics and are swiftly forgotten. Ratner isn't remarkably bad. He's bad in the way a retired old man takes up woodworking in his garage to kill the boredom, but he only has enough skill to make birdhouses. He just takes scripts for projects like Tower Heist, The Family Man, and way too many Rush Hours, and turns them into a cinematic blah.
The One Specific Thing:
Ratner is great at throwing characters together and having them bicker back and forth while something much more dangerous is happening all around them. That's not a fluke, it's a skill; he can basically distract from ostensibly the most exciting thing on screen and turn it into an entirely different, funnier kind of scene. For a guy who comes off in interviews like the physical embodiment of too much Drakkar Noir, Ratner really gets goofily contentious relationships. Like the way this fight in Rush Hour plays out:
Notice at 2:30, when the tension entirely stops, just so Chan and Tucker can pull goofy faces at each other. And it works. It's the same reason he can somehow make these two adult men arguing about their fathers seem somehow heartwarming:
And this moment from Tower Heist, as a group of men trying to pull a criminal scheme get bogged down in a petty arguments and made me realize I'd always wanted to see someone call Matthew Broderick a bitch.
And this one from Horrible Bosses, where three guys in a hotel room can't stop arguing, and somehow make you forget that this is a movie that considers the height of humor to be Colin Farrell in a bald wig.
Mild chuckle, at best.
His version of Hercules, starring Dwayne Johnson, is utterly forgettable, and yet has this scene in which Ian McShane gets angry because the Rock just saved his life. For all his faults, Ratner is amazing at making arguing friends seem magical on screen, instead of like the worst part of your Friday night out.
Michael Bay Directs Assholes To Greatness
A "Michael Bay" film needs no particular explanation. If you're alive in the 21st century, glorious as it is, and have the ability to read this article, you have undoubtedly experienced the feeling of self-loathing and vicarious awesomeness that comes from watching one of his works.
But here goes anyway: if Bay directs a film (or is even tangentially involved), you're going to end up with a nonsensical, glossy mess of action scenes and scantily clad women. Bay famously came up directing music videos and commercials, and it shows. He's never met a logical consistency he couldn't overwhelm with a huge explosion, and he's never met a Megan Fox that he didn't convince to bounce up and down on a trampoline. And sure, it's self-referential. Suuuuuure it is.
He made a cameo in Mystery Men dressed as his spirit animal, a frat boy.
He's basically the guy who indulges the worst aspects of action movies, and then pushes them to a ludicrous degree. He directs trash, plain and simple.
The One Specific Thing:
He's fantastic at turning dumb, lunk-headed jerks into the most interesting thing on screen. For one, he directed Mark Wahlberg and the Rock into two of their best performances ever in Pain And Gain, while never losing the fact that they're idiotic assholes. There's a true talent to that; in a technical sense, Bay is a crafter of grotesques. He makes people who should be too repugnant to want to spend time around absolutely fascinating for brief periods of time.
If you've never seen it, this about sums it up.
By some kind of filmmaking alchemy, he managed to turn Will Smith into a raging dick in Bad Boys, which belies what an entire generation was taught via the lessons of Bel-Air. He makes no bones about the fact that both of these guys are unpleasant to listen to and be around, and yet a movie focused around them undeniably works.
Martin Lawrence, on the other hand ...
Or in Armageddon, when he has a whole team of dumb jerks act like jerks the whole time. Why would anyone want to watch that? It's easy to be harassed by a group of roughnecks; literally walk anywhere in any city in America, and it's bound to happen within a few blocks. If it doesn't, try wearing a fancy hat or something. They hate that.
And yet, they're fun. Just to be clear, Michael Bay isn't humanizing these a-holes in a Scorsese-ian kind of way, or plumbing their depths. He just somehow makes watching them enjoyable, which is its own weird, rare kind of brilliance.
Zack Snyder Has Mastered Wordless Exposition
People hate Zack Snyder for a lot of reasons, some of which are justifiable. His films are criticized for being overly flashy, absurdly self-serious, and generally being exercises in style over content. He took Superman and turned him into a guy who breaks necks, just because it's gritty and dark, man (never mind that it's actually canonical, that's a different story). He sucked all the self-awareness from Watchmen, and he's obsessed with slow-motion violence, like a preteen describing something cool he imagined while in the throes of Ritalin.
"And then, and then, and then ... daddy, listen! And then ... his pee pee was blue! Hehe! *Zack scampers off*
Snyder is the newest mutation of what his predecessor and peer Michael Bay set in motion in the early '90s; a filmmaker unconstrained by narrative or classic filmmaking technique, creating worlds defined by excess and scanty female costumes more than storytelling or art. And that's as may be, but he is undeniably great at ...
The One Specific Thing:
Damn, but Snyder knows how to present exposition in a concise, non-talky way. A piece of film criticism that borders on truism is "show, don't tell" and Snyder has mastered that to a degree that Hitchcock could learn a few things from. There's a true art in setting a scene without having to say a word. For example, there's the credit montage from Watchmen which catches you up on an entire alternate history in the time it takes Bob Dylan to sing a song:
The intro to his remake of Dawn Of The Dead lets you know the carnage is global in one quick burst. It was his very first feature film, and his ability to tell a story through (nearly) silent cuts was already there.
Or how Sucker Punch gets you to the plot without a single word being said. That's not because there's no depth there; there's an entire tragedy that's been unfolded in Snyder's much derided imagery, more than most filmmakers could unpack in a whole film. Of course, the film that follows is pretty much a collection of video game cutscenes, but that just emphasizes how good he is at this one specific thing. Maybe even only this one specific thing, but dang, he's pretty good at it.
Nathan Kamal lives in Oregon and writes there. He co-founded Asymmetry Fiction for all your fiction needs
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