For no reason other than I’ve been noodling around with it for a while, it’s my pleasure to present a chronologically-ordered list of:
Ten Staggering Flaws in Otherwise Brilliant Movies
(my apologies for the lack of stills/videos – I was shocked how hard it was to scrape up even a jpeg for some of these)
A Night at the Opera (1935), the romantic B-plot
It’s not the only great Marx Bros. film tarnished by a wedged-in love story at MGM’s insistence: see also A Day at the Races. But never before nor after was such exquisite comic material – the stateroom scene and the contract scene are among the best moments in the Marxes’ film canon – strangled by such a milquetoast romantic lead as Allan Jones’s Ricardo, who frequently stops the movie dead in its tracks for three or four or five minutes to moon over Kitty Carlisle (which, okay, who wouldn’t?). It’s enough to make you beg for Zeppo.
A Star Is Born (1954), CinemaScope
When I complain about the anamorphic widescreen cinematography of George Cukor’s greatest feature, I’m not arguing that he and DP Sam Leavitt don’t know how to frame a composition with the then-newfangled technology – they clearly do, unlike generations of filmmakers who grew up with ultra-wide aspect ratios. What they didn’t know was how, functionally, the CinemaScope process worked: which led to more shots than you’d like to think with wonky focus, or terrifying, stretched-out faces (Judy Garland looks pinchy and froglike as often as not). It’s not, in the grand scheme of things, a disastrous problem; but once you’ve noticed it, you can’t un-notice it.
Touch of Evil (1958), Charlton Heston
Forget what you learned in Ed Wood: far from being forced upon an unwilling Orson Welles by Universal, Heston was actually attached to the project first, and it was at his suggestion that Welles was brought on board. But that doesn’t make his performance any better: and the fact that he’s the least convincing Mexican in the history of brownface is almost incidental to the crushing mediocrity he brings to the table. From his ghastly reading of the line “Do you realise I haven’t kissed you in over an hour?” at the end of the movie’s beloved opening shot, it’s all halting, stilted moments of mechanically campy expressions and inflections, a terrible contrast with all the noir grotesques that otherwise populate Welles’s great thriller.
Psycho (1960), Dr. Richman explains it all
Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous, influential, and iconic film batters the audience up, down and sideways for most of its running time, so it’s probably just as well that we get a little cool-down before that immaculately creepy final monologue. But why oh why did that cool-down have to come in the form of a police psychologist (Simon Oakland) expressing in the most blandly clinical terms just how fucked-up Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) was? We got it already, thanks, and the hours-long five-minute denouement serves only to suck nearly every scrap of energy from one of cinema’s greatest shabby little shockers, right at the bottom of the ninth.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Mr. Yunioshi
“MISS-A GORIGHTREE!” It’s one thing to have a troublesomely chauvinistic characterisation of an old Japanese man in an American movie from the ’60s – regrettable, but not inconceivable, even at that late date. But to cast Mickey Rooney as that Japanese man? And to have him deliver every. Single. One. of his lines in the same shrieking Engrish tones? It turns a delicate romantic confection into a racist nightmare the likes of which Nazi-era Germany could hardly match; small wonder that director Blake Edwards has felt compelled in later years to publicly apologise.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), the music
Atmospherically shot by the great Conrad Hall, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford falling easily into some of the most playful chemistry between two men in cinema history, this quirky neo-Western comedy purrs along with enviable perfection – until Burt Bacharach’s hideously anachronistic score crops up. The song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”, with lyrics by Hal David, is the absolute worst moment in the film: the song matches the narrative not at all, and the scene it accompanies doesn’t serve any purpose other than getting the song into the movie. Almost as bad is the montage following Butch and Sundance from New York to Bolivia: a gaudy, bouncy jingle that’s too slapsticky by half makes it seem more like a clown family’s home movies than a wistful adventure-comedy about the death of the 19th Century.
The Godfather, Part II (1974), Kay’s abortion metaphor
An almost unbearably subtle character study and investigation into how American capitalism devours men’s souls, Francis Ford Coppola’s even-better sequel to an already great film purrs along like a finely-oiled machine, until it hits the incredible pothole of a sequence that has rightfully entered the Bad Movie Dialogue pantheon:
Michael, you are blind. It wasn’t a miscarriage. It was an abortion. An abortion, Michael. Just like our marriage is an abortion. I didn’t want your son, Michael! I wouldn’t bring another one of you sons into this world! It was an abortion, Michael! It was a son Michael! A son! And I had it killed because this must all end!
Diane Keaton, at the very height of her powers, almost manages to sell this apocalyptically ham-fisted speech. Almost.
Beauty and the Beast (1991), Plotholegate
Go ahead, take some paper and a pencil, and try to work it out: how long is Belle in the Beast’s castle? The evidence of the A-plot suggests at least two or three months (from the beginning to the end of winter), while the equally-long B-plot of Belle’s father trying to rally the town against the Beast – who lives either several days or an hour away, depending on how you interpret various scenes – cannot possible take place over more than about four days. If you can get around all of that, here’s the graduate-level problem: according to all the evidence we can discover, the Beast was about 11 years old when the fairy first cursed him. Discuss.
Minority Report (2002), putting a bow on the ending
In the last ten years, it’s become something of a running joke that Steven Spielberg can’t end his movies, but the problem has been a bit overstated. A.I. has a much cannier ending than detractors give it credit for; the terrible, way-too-happy conclusion of War of the Worlds is over in just a second, like getting a shot or pulling off a band-aid; and Munich suffers from a misjudged idea (the sex scene) that’s sweetly idiotic but doesn’t harm the rest of the film much. But I will offer no defense of the last few moments of Minority Report, which not only goes to fairly absurd lengths to tie up every last loose end, it also indulges in some of the worst hackneyed sentimentality of the director’s career, culminating in an unforgivable final shot implying SPOILER that it doesn’t matter if your son died, you and your ex-wife can just get back together and try again. It all comes perilously close to undermining all the thematic resonance of the entire film that precedes it.
Million Dollar Baby (2004), fun with white trash
One of Clint Eastwood’s finest works as a director combines religious iconography, character study, film noir attitude, and a brutally stripped-down aesthetic sensibility in the creation of a harrowing vision of the triumphs and sacrifices that must be made in the name of familial love, even an ad hoc family like the one the film depicts. Then the circus comes to town:
The worst part is that the excellent character actress Margo Martindale is always going to have to live with this being the most widely-seen role of her career.