5 Specific Things Great Directors Can't Get Right
To describe great Hollywood directors, we often use terms like "inspiring" or "revolutionary" or "When are you gonna make Jaws 5, you ass?" Very rarely do we call them out on their flaws, because they became great on the basis of not having that many. But those flaws are there, and they're usually so specific that we don't notice them until they start happening a lot. Think about how ...
Quentin Tarantino Can't Direct Himself
Tarantino is a divisive figure in cinema, but one thing can't be denied: He has style. Well, as a director, not a human being. And sure, it might be the performative style of a really good DJ who's chopped a thousand influences into a flowing rhythm of his own, but it's style nonetheless. But he loses allll of that style whenever he decides to put himself in front of his own cameras.
Since Tarantino's already an outsized cartoon of a person, it smacks of vanity to inject himself into his own films. But more importantly, he doesn't seem capable of giving his own performances the polish and care that he lavishes on the Michael Madsens of the world. It's not just about demanding more from his own line readings, but how they're shot.
What the fuck is that? In Pulp Fiction, a movie full of iconic imagery and great monologues, he has easily the worst of both of those things, spending the entire time in a boring-ass mid shot without particularly good lighting. Now compare that to even a static image from Christopher Walken's legendary "uncomfortable watch" monologue.
Look at that. Careful warm lighting (standard movie shorthand for flashback), shot from below to indicate that the first-person POV is that of a child, presenting the valuable object in the foreground but keeping the speaker in focus. It's a wonderfully composed scene, and it makes you wonder why Tarantino, a guy who loves seeing himself on screen, doesn't seem to bother.
Can you imagine if some random actor had told Tarantino, "Oh, I'm going to use the world's most fake accent for this scene for no specific reason"? Tarantino the director would have shut that shit down.
We're not even saying he should ban himself from acting altogether. The guy can be a competent actor ... when directed by someone else. In From Dusk Till Dawn, his bro Robert Rodriguez directed him into a memorable psychopath / sex offender, even getting a little pathos out of the guy. And from the director's chair, Tarantino can get great performances out of seemingly anybody. But when directing himself, he grades on a curve.
Judd Apatow's Dialogue Scenes Seem To Last Forever
For many of us, Judd Apatow shaped the annoying jokes of our teenage years. Did Steve Carell yell it during the chest waxing scene in 40-Year-Old Virgin? So did we, unable to realize that what's funny in a movie is not funny when it's repeated 40 times in your friends' basement. Moments like that make Apatow films great. Actual lengthy dialogue sequences, though? An entirely different story.
Somehow, a guy as funny as Apatow creates certain exchanges that make you feel like you're in a line to Hell. Take this scene from This Is 40 -- a movie that we're almost certain was constructed entirely out of deleted scenes from a better movie. This one features comedy powerhouse Leslie Mann, comedy legend Albert Brooks, and two kids whom we're quite unfamiliar with. The discussion is a little over two minutes long, which you'll realize can feel like forever when people are just standing around, rambling about nothing.
Mom: "Why don't you guys go play? You could build a fort."
Dad: "Remember the Alamo?"
Mom: "Have you ever built a fort, Wendy?"
Other Girl: "Like on Facebook?"
I goes on like that, hitting those same beats, over and over. We don't know if this is a scene where Apatow let his actors improvise (as he almost always does), or if it's just due to the fact that the cinematography has all of the liveliness of corpse rolling off a sofa. Everyone stands perfectly still; there's nothing that takes advantage of the fact that film is a visual medium at all. It feels aimless, like a person who announces they're leaving a party and then just hangs out in the doorway.
Or take a gander at this scene from Funny People, which is a pretty good movie, and watch how, over the course of two minutes, it takes what could be sharp, likable characters and grinds them down by not letting them shut the fuck up ... again, filmed using the most perfunctory shots possible.
Some of this is just Apatow's filmmaking method of planting the camera and allowing the performers to improvise for long stretches until comedy occurs (often filming several options for every joke, which also means you can't have characters move around much in the course of the scene), and then stitching it all together in the editing room. Apatow collaborator Paul Feig's movies (like the infamous 2016 Ghostbusters reboot) tend to have the same problem. You can imagine either of them in an editing bay, watching Melissa McCarthy or Seth Rogen improvising for minutes on end and saying, "We can't cut this! It's gold!"
Christopher Nolan Has A Problem Explaining His Themes
To put it simply, Christopher Nolan is a dope-ass world-builder. Whether it's the grim grandeur of a decaying Gotham City, the fantastic folding worlds of Inception, or the cosmic marvel of Interstellar, he knows how to turn cinema into immersion. And his movies are filled with contemplative themes ... themes that he absolutely refuses to deliver with any subtlety whatsoever.
Take his breakout feature, Memento, which is a great film with cool philosophical explorations into reality and perception. But there's also Joey Pants straight up telling you what the movie's about like he found its cheat sheet.
"So you lie to yourself to be happy, there's nothin' wrong with that. We all do it. Who cares if there's a few little details you'd rather not remember?" Any smart viewer will understand this simply by watching the events of the film play out, but Nolan is too afraid that we won't get it.
In each of his Batman films, the movie breaks down multiple times just so someone can explain their personal philosophy, in case we somehow weren't able to glean it from their actions. For maximum effect, here's a double dose of Batman monologuing his arc to Bane, followed by Talia monologuing her arc with Bane to Batman like some kind of weird exposition Mobius strip.
The whole citywide battle stops so she can tell her life story! "No, it is extremely important that I explain to this man why I chose evil."
But the most unforgivable instance comes in Interstellar, when Anne Hathaway's character gives a monologue about love conquering science that is basically a complete essay about the meaning of the movie and also manages to ruin it?
At one point, she says, verbatim, "Love is the one thing we're capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space." Does Christopher Nolan think that we're not paying attention to his think-y space movie? Did he add that in because he imagined we'd leave the theater saying, "Man, that was a terrible Star Wars?" We wanna know, because rarely does such a solid director give his audience so little credit when it comes to figuring out what his work is supposed to be about.
Peter Jackson Cannot Do Underwater Shots
From his cult horror classic Dead Alive, to the underrated comedy The Frighteners, to the beautifully disturbing Heavenly Creatures, to the best adaptation of anything ever The Lord Of The Rings, Peter Jackson has had a pretty solid career. Yeah, the Hobbit movies have all of the charm of watching your grandfather take a dump, but I count that trilogy as a single gigantic mistake. Generally speaking, if the film takes place on land, Peter Jackson is your guy. If it takes place underwater, the special effects nosedive faster than your expectations for a Silmarillion movie.
Jackson's special effects are primarily handled by a Weta Workshop, a New-Zealand-based company that usually does fantastic work. Remember how great Minas Tirith looked? That blend of miniatures, CGI, and actual sets has yet to be topped. But if that looks so spectacular, why does a simple underwater scene from Return Of The King look like the intro cinematic for a misguided PlayStation 1 game?
Along with a fish that's straight out of a bass fishing arcade machine in the back of a pizza restaurant, the character of Deagol looks wrong. It's as if neither the special effects guys or the computers themselves can figure out what size he's supposed to be at any time during that clip.
Slightly less awful is Sam almost drowning at the end of Fellowship Of The Ring. Sean Astin drowning is in my Top 3 Things I Don't Want To Ever Happen, so the shots are kind of buoyed by the sheer emotion of it all. But it's really obvious that he is not actually underwater, and is instead flailing around in front of a curtain somewhere. Also, the bubbles seem to have been added in a way that I can only describe as "Fuck this. I am NOT coming in on Saturday."
We've talked before about how wonky King Kong looked at times, but the best scenes in that movie (Kong vs. the three V-Rexes, the insect pit, Kong in NYC) are all great. However, the worst shot in the entire thing comes in the extended cut. In a movie in which a giant gorilla falls in love with a human woman on an island full of dinosaurs, we're asked to somehow suspend our disbelief and think that Adrian Brody is at the bottom of a swamp.
Not a single element of that feels connected to any other. The plants are designed by someone who just now found out what plants are, Brody is Skyping in breast stroke motions from a thousand miles away, and Jackson's dedicated bubble guy just got back from an early happy hour.
Joss Whedon's Fight Scenes Are Remarkably Boring
What sticks in your head from The Avengers? We definitely remember when Hulk said "Puny god" after turning Loki's skeleton into banana pudding. Or maybe you just remember that shot of the Avengers looking all heroic, which seems like it was staged specifically for the trailer and then just inserted into the film later.
How much do you recall from the battle with the Chitauri, which was the climax of the actual film? Or the fight with the robot swarm in the climax of Age Of Ultron? Nothing about the pacing or stakes conveys to the viewer that these battles are more important than the other battles. It's just more. As good as Joss Whedon is with character moments and glib comebacks, he's bad at this.
The Thor / Iron Man / Captain America brawl from the middle of The Avengers should've been a classic. After years of playground / high school / college dorm room / bar stool / internet debates about this kind of match-up, there should have been layers of creative escalation. It's a goddamned battle between a super soldier, a robot man, and a literal god!
But when it came time for the three main justice bros to duel, they got in some quips, it was over before it began, and no one was ever in serious danger. Nobody was particularly upset afterward. They should have been! Two of these people are not immortal at all -- one of them is just a regular middle-aged businessman. What if Thor had decapitated Tony Stark? It'd have been as easy as breaking an action figure. This should have been an "Oh, shit!" moment.
For those of you who don't get why Zack Snyder's fans love his movies, part of it is just this. His action scenes have a visceral punch that the early Marvel movies didn't. Whatever his flaws, Snyder's fight scenes make it very apparent that Batman wants to punch Superman's smug face right off his goddamned body.
Daniel Dockery has a truly lovable Twitter.
Yeah, it's an editing thing, but you know what might be useful? Premiere Pro for Dummies.
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For more ways even the very best sometimes go bad, check out 5 Reasons Great Directors Eventually Make A Bad Movie and 5 Oddly Specific Tropes Famous Directors Slip In Every Movie.
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