On the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast, William “Bibbs” Bibbiani discovered he has a twin brother, accidentally murdered his butler who secretly was his uncle, and had an affair with a woman he thought was Victoria, but was actually Anna – not really dead – secretly come back in disguise to sow discord amongst the Bibbiani family, and get revenge for Theo Bibbiani's embezzlement that led to her ruin. I, meanwhile, overcame alcoholism, and befriended a local homeless man, giving him a job in the stables. It looked like he was a kindly fellow, until I learned he was only manipulating me to get to Baroness Caroline, the ultra-rich teenager girl living upstairs, who is ripe for exploitation. I threatened to expose him, but he revealed the incriminating photos of me and Bruce and Jessie planning a heist and having a threesome. Tune in next week to see more of our drama!
I also reviewed Movie 43, the rather loathsome comedy anthology film that is currently failing at the box office, and enjoys a lamentable 4% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The only reason the film is not at 0%, it seems, is because of Michael Sullivan's review from the Washington Post, and the review written by friend of the podcast Alonso Duralde. The film is pretty awful, although I think I was one of the only critics (aside from the two just mentioned) who admitted that it had one or two mild titters. I think most have to certainly admit that it wasn't hateful or offensive like the recent A Haunted House, or the recent oeuvre of Adam Sandler.
More than anything, I was impressed that an anthology comedy film even got made. The genre of anthology comedy is a largely moribund one, not celebrated since the days of The Kentucky Fried Movie. There have been anthology comedy films since then, but they have been few and far between. I don't know why. As Buddy Hackett once said “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and a comedy setup will likely remain funnier the less time you take to set it up. I'm surprised, actually, that fewer comedy filmmakers aren't drawn to this approach. Rather than take four or five flimsy premises and stretch them into four or five feature films, why not make four or five 15-20-minute films, and release them together? Can you imagine a single film that was a compilation of 20-minute versions of Jack & Jill, That's My Boy, Just Go With It, Grown-Ups, and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry? I know for many that sounds like a ripe slice of Hell, but given the limitation of time, perhaps each of the films would be reduced to its funniest elements. That's the hope anyway.
This happens often, right? You see a movie, and wish that it had been boiled down to its base elements, and presented in a mere 20-30 minutes, rather than sucking upwards of 2 ½ hours from you life. Indeed, it could be argued that most films could ostensibly take less time. I usually prefer that a film play out however long it needs to (be it a mere 90 minutes, or a full 190), but often, most films feel like they could be trimmed. In many cases, they could be trimmed down to near-nothing and actually have a greater impact.
In the spirit of that idea, here are a few films that, I feel, would have played better as short films.
The Lorax (dirs. Chris Renaud, Kyle Balda, 2012)
Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat (dir. Bo Welch, 2003)
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (dir. Ron Howard, 2000)
This can apply to any feature films that are based on a children's novel under, oh, 100 pages. Dr. Seuss was a master of brevity, couching his bizarre characters in simple sing-song rhymes and pleasantly bizarre drawings. His books were intended for readers under the age of maybe 10 at the oldest. How do you pad such simple material into a 90-minute feature film? As the above examples have proven, badly. The stories of Dr. Seuss are not globe-spanning epics full of rich complex characters and mind-shattering detail. They are clever and musical pieces of playful nonsense poetry. At best (as in The Lorax), his books are gentle parables for doing good deeds. They are not supposed to be full of chases and jokes and coiling dystopian cityscapes. Scale those movies back to, oh, 30 minutes, and you'll have legitimate film classics like, well, the original “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” TV special.
Slumdog Millionaire (dir. Danny Boyle, 2008)
Danny Boyle's Bollywood production won the Academy Award for best picture, and was lauded heavily by the world's critics, so what do I know? I do feel, though, that the film's high concept would have played better in less time. The premise, in case you don't know, was that a poverty-stricken uneducated Indian boy managed to win big on India's version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” by tapping into his own personal memories, which just happened to coincide with the trivia questions he was being asked. Each question he was asked was accompanied by a flashback. Of course, the flashbacks get longer and longer as the film progresses, and we get to know the young boy intimately well through his memories and old friendships. There is also some rigmarole about how he may be cheating. The film did work just fine, but I feel that a lot of the exposition could have been dropped. The flashbacks could all have been maybe one or two minutes apiece. The final run through the streets back to his lost love could have been the centerpiece still, but the romance itself could have been merely hinted at. The final embrace would have told the whole story. I guess Bollywood productions are known for their length, and Slumdog Millionaire was only 120 minutes, which is brief by Bollywood standards. Perhaps it was a short film already. Just a long one.
Looper (dir. Rian Johnson, 2012)
I like the premise of this film. In the distant future, the mob can only hide bodies by sending live people back in time to be assassinated by a specialized team of assassins called Loopers. Loopers, however, will have to eventually assassinate their older selves in order to help the mob cover their tracks. The film is largely about how our hero Joe is given the slip by his older self, fresh back from the future, and how he must track down his older self before causality is messed up and the mob gets too pissed off. The film is high-concept, stylish, and has some good scary moments. It does, however, have way too much story in it. Old Joe has a reason for wanting to escape (other than not wanting to die), there's an odd additional premise that there are superpowered psychics in the future, and there's an entire extraneous storyline about needing to protect a young boy with superpowers who may or may not be an evil dictator in the future. As a result, much of the film felt padded to me. A slick and trim and clever sci-fi premise that was made less slick and trim. Turn this into a 30-35-minute film, take away all the nonsense about psychics, focus on the chase and the relationship between the Old Joe and the Young Joe, and the film would have been even more effective for its efficiency.
The Green Mile (dir. Frank Darabont, 1999)
Based on a serialized novel by Stephen King, The Green Mile ran a whopping 189 minutes in theaters. It was nominated for several Academy Awards, and was intended, I think, to recall the celebrated The Shawshank Redemption, snubbed at the Oscars five years previous. The film is about a gentle prisoner on death row in the 1930s who possesses the divine gift of healing people with his hands. The drama comes from the prison guards on death row, who don't want to kill this gentle man, even though he has been convicted of murdering a child. The prisoner is a black man, adding a racial parable to the proceedings. Did this film need to be 189 minutes long? No, it did not. Indeed, I feel the film, however detailed and deliberately paced it was, could have benefited from less detail. We didn't need the bully prison guard. We didn't need the botched execution. We didn't need the flashbacks. The entire film could have taken place in a single setting, and would have been just as brilliant.
Thinking about it, if you were to reduce The Green Mile to a 30-minute film, you'd have an excellent episode of “The Twilight Zone.” Note to screenwriters: take any random episode of “The Twilight Zone,” expand it well past any sort of reasonable length, and Hollywood will buy that puppy in a second.
There Will Be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson is an excellent auteur who knows exactly what kind of story he wants to tell each time he makes a movie. All of his films have been copiously lauded by critics and film students, and most have been nominated for numerous awards. The one thing he still hasn't mastered, however, is pacing. Punch-Drunk Love notwithstanding, each of his films feels, through certain sequences, bloated and self-indulgent. Some of them even drag. I love me some Magnolia, but I feel the film could have been trimmed from its 188 minutes. I don't know what I would have cut, but it felt long. His 2007 economic parable There Will Be Blood, however, most certainly didn't need to be 158 minutes, and was just aching to be shorter. I sensed there was a perfectly decent 100-minute flick somewhere in there.
Thinking further, however, I think the film's largely ambiguous message could have been achieved (and perhaps even made a lot clearer) in about 20 minutes. The film seems to be largely about how being specifically morally bankrupt can lead to success, and how much of America's current economic thinking seems to be based on that brutal immorality. We could have sped through Daniel Plainview's ascent, maintained his tempestuous relationship with the local pastor, left in how he abandoned his child, skipped over the part with the long-lost relative, and still had a hard-edged and brutal flick with the exact same message. We would have lost some of the gorgeous photography and contemplative music, but we would have had, perhaps, a better movie.
Don't believe me? Start the movie, oh, 45 minutes in. Have you lost that much?
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
Witney seems to think this conversation began with his review of Movie 43 on this week’s B-Movies Podcast – come back next Friday to find out if Lady Von Van Der Vaughn ever reunites with her lost debutante stepdaughter, kidnapped by Libyan radicals but now their leader – but it actually dates back much earlier in the episode, when I talked about Virtually Heroes. This Sundance Film Festival entry, produced by Roger Corman, was about a pair of video game characters who become self-aware and try to rewrite their scripting. Yes, it sounds a lot like Wreck-It Ralph. I didn’t like Wreck-It Ralph as much as most people (not that I hate it, mind you), and that movie has some of the same problems as Virtually Heroes. In both cases, the concept sounds good on paper, but expanding it to feature length creates major problems once you actually sit down and start piecing together the underlying narrative.
Wreck-It Ralph is about a video game character, his social status and occupation decided for him at birth, who embarks on an epic adventure to come right back where he started, having not so much broken free of the fascistic shackles of his culture as he has settled for being appreciated for doing the crap job nobody else wants. Ah, the magic of Disney. Meanwhile, Virtually Heroes suffers from a circular narrative – playing through the same levels over and over again, with subtle variations – which gets dull after a while, but more importantly, the film raises complex questions about the nature of the character’s lives and fails to answer them. How they know they’re in a video game, who the hell is playing this thing and what happens in the “real” world when they break the game’s rigidly-defined boundaries are all questions Virtually Heroes never even touches upon, and with so much time spent spinning film’s wheels, I found myself more interested in those answers than whether the hero would get the girl or not.
I’ve said this in conversations about Virtually Heroes, and actually meant to say it in my review (a late night dash, that one was), but the concept would have worked better as a short film. In a short the concept could have driven itself, encouraging audiences to enjoy the consequences of the set-up without so much breathing room that our minds can go idle, and start wondering about all the details that the writer either couldn’t bother to think of, or decided weren’t important to the story they wanted to tell. Well, I had enough time to decide these things were important to “me,” and I suspect the film would have been better if I hadn’t been given the opportunity to think for myself.
There are a lot of films that feel pretty damned padded, as Witney mentioned, due to increased running time expectations. Watch the original Frankenstein sometime. That movie gets a hell of a lot done in 70 minutes. It’s full of plot, character and thematic intrigue. There’s no fat on its bones. No time to ask questions the film can’t answer. A lot of filmmakers these days could do with an exercise in efficiency. So I have also picked out a handful of films that I feel could have made their points in significantly less time. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences set the standard for a “short film” at 40 minutes or less. That’s plenty of time to convey everything Virtually Heroes has to say. Or Wreck-It Ralph for that matter.
As I looked over the list of films released over the past few years, jogging my memory to come up with examples, I was repeatedly forced to remind myself that I was not simply coming up with films that I wish were shorter they didn't have to waste so much of my time. I sure as hell would have appreciated having to sit through an hour less of Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, for example. No, these are all films with good ideas – some of them are even good movies as they are – that simply could have been more efficient. Get the clippers out.
Crash (dir. Paul Haggis, 2004)
A lot of people love Paul Haggis's Crash. It won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, for instance. I am not one of those people. I find it a frustratingly overplayed guilt trip about racism that, ironically, winds up affirming as many stereotypes as it actually succeeds in subverting, and declaring the film “ironic” merely describes the problem instead of solving it. (The conclusion to Ryan Phillipe’s subplot, for just one example, is as cheap as it is insulting.) But what I am willing to admit is that, deep within the fractured narrative, there is at least one good storyline, in which Matt Dillon’s racism is revealed during a routine traffic stop with Thandie Newton. He takes the opportunity to sexually harass her, nearly destroying her marriage with Terence Howard. Then, later on, Dillon is the only officer capable of saving her from a deadly car crash.
That’s good melodrama, damn it, which juxtaposes Dillon’s personal failings with his commitment to a greater cause, and Newton’s horrified reaction to seeing him again, as a heroic figure no less, is believably harrowing. If Crash had consisted of this storyline and nothing else, it would be an extremely impressive short. As it stands, it’s part of a frustrating tapestry of similar, heavy-handed morality plays that bring even the good segments down in a cascade of transparent, meaningless guilt.
Red Eye (dir. Wes Craven, 2005)
I’ve often cited Red Eye in my reviews, because I used it to name what I call “Red Eye Syndrome,” in which a movie contains a big twist so early in the running time that it’s impossible to market the film without spoiling it for everyone. In this case, Rachel McAdams plays a woman on a late night flight who sits next to a charming man, played by Cillian Murphy, who then kidnaps her in plain sight, threatening to hurt her father back home unless she does what he asks. It’s a nifty idea for a thriller, but overextended over the course of a feature length film, with a somewhat overblown finale making the earlier, claustrophobic thrills seem unappreciated by the filmmakers. But as a 40-minute short, with the locations limited to the airport and plane, Red Eye would have seemed like a fast-paced, clever thrill ride that could have catapulted an unknown director to stardom. Instead, it’s just a mediocre Wes Craven joint.
When a Stranger Calls (dir. Simon West, 2006)
I’m calling out Simon West’s 2006 remake on this one, but honestly, Fred Walton’s 1979 original was a classic short film ruined by padding as well. I just think that, with hindsight on West’s side, he at least should have known better. The original When a Stranger Calls opens with Carol Kane as a young babysitter, getting disturbing phone calls asking if she’s checked on the children. Eventually, as we all know by now, the police reveal that the calls have been coming from inside the house. It’s an iconic horror scenario, known to campfire enthusiasts around the world, but then it keeps going for a very long, very uninvolving time, focusing on a detective (the late Charles Durning) trying to capture the killer (Tony Beckley, of the original Italian Job) years after the fact. West’s film understood that the opening is what everyone remembered, but then stretched it out to a flaccid 87 minute running time anyway, not realizing that, at feature length, even this classic concept would quickly lose steam. Rent the original, turn it off after the prologue, and consider that the horror classic.
Skyline (dirs. The Brothers Strause, 2010)
I’ve written thousands of words on Skyline, a film that may not seem to deserve that much attention. It’s a low budget visual effects bonanza (with truly excellent visual effects, granted), that turns an alien invasion epic into a low-fi zombie movie, with survivors trapped in a hotel, fighting off hostile creatures and tearing each other part psychologically. It’s also very, very bad. The idea is sound, but the poorly motivated characters and limp plot do nothing to distract from the painfully obvious observation that Skyline feels like a visual effects demo reel that’s gotten way out of hand. As a half hour short, Skyline’s enormous plot problems and shoddy character development would have been neutralized, leaving only the basic concept – which is a good one – and the impressive effects to dazzle us.
Act of Valor (dirs. Mike McCoy & Scott Waugh, 2012)
I don’t think there’s any disguising that Act of Valor plays like a recruitment video. It’s blatant hero worship, with protagonists entirely devoid of flaws and enemies shamelessly representing every conceivable “other” in the Fox News playbook. But the Navy SEALs play themselves, which is a novelty, and the action is cool. So why bother padding it out? Instead of stretching Act of Valor to feature length, where the shoddy writing becomes undeniably apparent, why not let it play as a short, mission-based movie that highlights the real-life skills of its actors, the action sequences that the directors clearly care about first and foremost, and thus make the entire point – that Navy SEALs are cool – without risk of subverting that message by implying that these total badasses had no idea that the script sucked.