[This post is full of spoilers]
Recently I found myself debating my fellow blog contributor (the esteemed Mr. Scott) about the 28 Days Later ending. He is okay with the theatrical version (of course he is), while I most definitely prefer the alternate cut. I am not here to further debate him on the matter (he is wrong anyways), but to present another list, if I may.
You see, it is my contention that the alternate ending is what makes Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic thriller go from great to all-time great, from almost perfect to perfect. Without the alternate ending, the film is still awesome and something I would easily recommend everyone see, but with the more poetic, cinematically satisfying alt take the film reaches another plateau altogether. I no longer recommend it to people with a caveat about the less than stellar ending. Instead, I recommend it with instructions on when to go to the menu screen and watch the film cross the finish line properly.
But what of films that don’t have alternate versions? What about those movies that you really like but hesitate to call classic for one reason or another, films left out of the discussion because of something so irksome yet so small that it doesn’t ruin the movie but holds it back nonetheless, caveat films with no solution. Here I will list the top ten movies that missed it by that much and how I would fix them. The films are ordered by how much I like them and not by how frustrating my gripes with them are.
What works: The film is a nice debate between science and faith as one woman searches for intelligent life in the outer reaches of the cosmos. Jodie Foster is solid in the lead role. Matthew McConaughey isn’t awful. The special effects are pretty cool. There are some great moments of tension involving the signals from space. It’s a cool premise and Zemeckis does a fine job making a sci-fi drama out of it. Plus, there’s the awesome scene where Jake Busey bombs the shit out of the first machine, which is still one of my all-time favorite cinematic explosions.
What went wrong: To paraphrase South Park, you sit through 2 hours of movie just to find out the alien is her god damn father (insert vomit). It’s a really big let down to say the least. All the suspense is gone and replaced with gooey drivel. And not only is there no actual alien, the abomination that we do get goes on to give some stupid speech. It’s like the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still only lame.
Solution: I get the desire to implant a message into this movie, but most of the film plays off the tension and the ongoing debate about what to believe and why. Again, faith vs. science. But the Salvador Dali dreamscape complete with fake father is the wrong way to do it. They should have simply cut the whole wormhole traveling scene completely and have the audience see what the rest of the characters see. She drops through the machine and splashes down, that’s it. Then Foster can spend the next 10 minutes trying to convince everyone that she did in fact experience something. Some would believe her and others wouldn’t. It would be ambiguous for sure, but totally in line with the film’s themes.
What works: The suspense is killer in this film. Shyamalan is really good at framing things with his camera to get the most tension out of a scene. For 90 plus minutes I was on the edge of my seat. Did I just see an alien? Was that an arm? When are they coming to get me? Don’t even get me started on the home video scene. I was as scared as, if not more than, Joaquin Phoenix at that moment. The music is also brilliant, evoking Psycho and The Twilight Zone. The movie also has room for questions of faith amidst the evil alien invasion (kind of like Contact).
What went wrong: Well, also like Contact, we meet an alien and just like Contact, it sucks. The CGI is terrible. It’s very fake looking and not scary at all. If it would have done something terrifying like, I don’t know, kill somebody, then it could have overcome its lackluster appearance, but instead it just sways from side-to-side a little. Oooooooh, scary. Watch out kids, he has some kind of gas that doesn’t really do… anything. Oh yeah, they’re allergic to water so they die pretty easily too. I’m okay with the “swing away Merrill” bit. It’s not great, but it’s not as annoying as pussy aliens invading a planet covered in the one substance they can’t touch.
Solution: Same as Contact, don’t show the aliens. The brief glimpses throughout the movie are plenty enough to keep us scared. I would have had the survivors come out from the basement, look around, find nothing, maybe a fake scare, and then the TV comes on and explains how there was a battle to end all battles throughout the night and that we won but the war has just begun. Mel Gibson and Joaquin exchange looks. Joaquin says something about needing to join the fight and Mel says something like “Godspeed Merrill.” The End. You avoid showing the aliens, or even defeating them so easily, and you avoid “Swing away,” but keep the restoration of faith. Or maybe just make the aliens more dangerous and harder to kill next time. Just a thought.
What works: This is one of those indie Sundance films that manages to overcome the clichés that come with indie Sundance films. Zach Braff wrote, directed, and starred, doing a great job in each capacity. Natalie Portman is some kind of wonderful. Peter Sarsgaard steals every scene he gets his hands on. The soundtrack is one of the best of the last 10 years. Almost every shot feels thought out and perfectly executed, like a thousand snap shots of Braff’s life. The film is basically The Graduate for the 21st century.
What went wrong: The end fell flat for me. Braff’s character decides he loves Portman and she’s changed his life in only a few days but he still has some personal shit to sort out first. So he leaves on a jet-plane, don’t know when he’ll be back again. All this I’m fine with, but then rather quickly after taking his seat on the plane, he changes his mind. He runs back to Portman, he doesn’t want to waste any more time without her. He has a great final line, “What do we do?” And the beautiful final shot is of them kissing as the camera pulls away. The problem is the decision to come back is unmotivated and rather fast. It seems the only thing that makes him change his mind is the song playing, with the lyrics “let go… jump in…” but he can’t hear the music, so why does he change his mind so suddenly?
Solution: I’d say one of two things. Have him actually put on some headphones and hear a song that makes him change his mind, but not that song, perhaps The Shins, you know the song that’s supposed to change his life, the song that would make him miss Portman, and then run back to her. Or you can end the movie during the wonderful slo-mo kiss in the rain scene with Simon and Garfunkel playing. Or create some other motivation for him to get off the plane. As it stands, it feels more like a lark.
What works: Action, action, action. This film is like the opening for Saving Private Ryan but for 2 straight hours. Bullets fly, buildings explode, and the body count keeps rising. It does make some time for plot and a little bit of room for theme, but the movie is really one big action sequence with a bunch of character actors chewing up the scenery (Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Jason Isaacs, Ewen Bremner).
What went wrong: Remember that little bit of theme I mentioned, well they kind of screw the pooch with that one. Politics aside, the film has a strong message (that they push oh so subtly) about leaving no one behind. Soldiers yell it to each other, one of the main plot points involves going back into battle after fallen comrades, and the line is even on the poster for the movie. Towards the end, one soldier (Ron Eldard) is taken prisoner and after two hours of big talk about not leaving anyone behind, they do just that. The movie ends before the soldier is rescued, and then we’re treated to a post script telling us the soldier was released 11 days later. I know this is historically accurate as this is based on real events, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth since they were so gung-ho about not doing what they did.
Solution: Change history. If the real story doesn’t make for great entertainment, change it. Maybe there could have been a 15 minute night rescue mission where once again a couple of brave men step up to go back and save Ron Eldard. Anything would have been more exciting than texting us with the information that he was simply released at a later date.
What works: Setting aside arguments about political leanings and terrorism, this movie works as a taut espionage thriller. There’s a group of guys, each with a special skill set, and they have names on a list that must be eliminated, action and suspense ensue. The violence level is just right. The acting is top-notch especially from the underrated Eric Bana. And set-piece after set-piece (the first close-up kill, the hotel bombing, the raid) builds the tension more and more as the stakes continue to rise. And yes, there is a well conveyed message about violence begetting more violence and a decent shout-out to the 9/11 attacks.
What went wrong: The sex scene. Epic fail. If you don’t know, some time near the end of the movie, Bana has retired from being an assassin and he is living with his wife and child. Still haunted by what he has done and what others have done, he rolls over in bed one night and decides to fuck his wife. Sorry to be crude, but that’s what he does (there is no love is his eyes here). Whilst thrusting like there’s no tomorrow, he starts thinking about the Munich attack and Spielberg cuts to a reenactment of the final moments before the Olympic team met their demise. Then back to Bana, who looks like someone threw a bucket of water on him and called it sweat, then back to guys being shot, back to Bana still thrusting, back to bullets flying and grenades exploding… and scene.
Solution: The sex and violence connection is a big reach and is really distracting. But having Bana be haunted is a good idea. Plus, the reenactment footage is really great stuff, it’d be a shame to waste it. So, how about Bana is doing something, anything really, anything at all except having porno sex with his wife when he starts flashing back to Munich. He could be doing the dishes, walking the dog, or maybe he’s watching the news with reports of some kind of terrorist attack. Just anything other than sweat drenched, embarrassing to watch, hardcore sex.
5. Unbreakable (2000) – Dir. M. Night Shyamalan
What works: This one’s interesting because you really don’t know what the movie is until the end. It’s essentially about a man discovering he has semi-super powers. Bruce Willis is quiet and subtle in the lead. Sam Jackson is perfectly off-kilter as the soon-to-be-revealed villain. I love all the little references to comic books, like each character having a color scheme, or names that alliterate. The movie is a comic story, but it’s told realistically so the tale has a moody, slow pace that works well. I think the end reveal is great. Jackson has been searching for his opposite and in doing so has killed tons of people, lost his mind, and turned into a villain. Willis, disgusted, appalled, turns and walks away. Jackson, “They called me Mr. Glass.” Cool, pulpy, comic book, nerd-type stuff.
What went wrong: As Willis is walking away, there’s a freeze frame and text comes up over the screen. The text tells us that Willis leaves, calls the police, and that they find hard evidence of Jackson’s wrong-doings. Cut back to Jackson, more freeze frame, more text, we are told Jackson was arrested and is now in an institute for the criminally insane. It is so unnecessary and annoying; it pisses me off to no end.
Solution: Get rid of the text, get rid of the freeze frame and end with Willis walking away and Jackson saying his final line. It’s much more chilling and cool to imagine what happens next as opposed to being told flat-out. Post script’s are usually for movies based on fact OR they tell us what happens to fictional characters at some far off point in the future, not what is immediately about to happen next.
What works: This is a wonderful Christmas book and it makes for a wonderful Christmas movie. In adapting the book, Zemeckis doesn’t add a ton of extraneous plot but simply tells a fun adventure story about taking a train to the north pole. He adds set-pieces and a little more character depth, but that’s it. I don’t mind the dead-eye, uncanny valley look because the story is staged so well. The film moves along briskly and retains the heartwarming message about believing from the book. Tom Hanks out does himself, playing nearly every part including a pretty good Santa.
What went wrong: Two very short scenes involving music. The first is the hot chocolate song. It’s a chipper song and dance scene about hot chocolate complete with chefs and waiters flipping up and down the walls. It is short, but annoying and out-of-place in an otherwise somber movie. The other is near the end. After Santa takes off for his journey around the world, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith pops up (in CGI elf form) and starts singing some asinine song while the elves laugh and dance. It’s only 30 seconds long but takes me right out of the movie every time. One second I’m enjoying my glad tidings and cheer, the next I’m watching a distracting, old rock star try to stay relevant by popping up in a kids movie. Whatever they were going for, it doesn’t work.
Solution: So, so simple. Cut out the hot chocolate song, and cut out the rock song. All you lose is 2 minutes of run time and you save me a small migraine.
What works: One of the better, more thought-provoking, sci-fi films in recent years. It steals a lot from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, but it infuses what it steals with Boyle’s sensibilities. It’s got a great premise, the sun is dying and a team of scientists and astronauts are Earth’s last best hope at reigniting the sun. The cast is most excellent and the music is fantastic (which is always the case in a Danny Boyle film). In fact, if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve most likely heard the music as it is now frequently used in trailers and even made an appearance in this years Kick-Ass.
What went wrong: There’s a moment toward the end when the movie turns from a thinking man’s sci-fi film into a kind of sci-fi horror slasher film. Upon first viewing, it feels like 1/3 of the movie but after re-watching it’s really more like 5 minutes. Not quite as bad but still bad. You see there’s a survivor from the first mission and he makes his way onto the new ship and sabotages the mission and starts killing everyone. Suddenly the film is less 2001 and more Event Horizon.
Solution: I say keep the saboteur just tweak him a little. As it stands he is badly scarred, seems to have super-human strength, and is bat-shit crazy. Instead, he should have been a weak survivor that they find and take care of, and he should show no signs of being evil. Then when he kills everyone it will be a surprise. Like, “Why are you doing this? We saved you,” then, “God has shown me the way and everyone must burn!” You keep the same themes and same obstacle just not so slasher-y.
What works: Bruno Ganz gives the best Hitler performance ever. The film is a staggering account of the final days in Hitler’s bunker. It’s claustrophobic, chilling and dramatic material. Everything feels authentic and there’s a great sense of “you are there” that is thrilling and off-putting at the same time. It’s most likely because the movie is based on the first hand account of one of Hitler’s secretaries, Traudl Junge.
What went wrong: Hitler kills himself in dramatic fashion and then the movie keeps going for what seems like forever. There is something like 10 more minutes of shit I don’t care about. We see Goebbels kill himself and his family (super messed-up scene) which is fine, but after that, the movie is boring. The problem is it follows some of the other characters, like Junge, because they were there and they survived. The reality is we only care about Hitler (and maybe Goebbels) and once he’s gone the movie has no reason to exist.
Solution: Hitler dies, then Goebbels, cut to black. Then it would be a perfectly opportune time to use post-script and tell us what happened to all the other peripheral characters.
What works: This was oh so close to being one of Scorsese’s best movies and oh so close to securing a spot on my top 20 of the decade list. Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing as Bill the Butcher. The cinematography is great, as are the sets and costumes. It’s a fascinating story about the early days of America. There are great themes about revenge, freedom, and racism. Leonardo DiCaprio and Day-Lewis play off each other well, as their strange father-son like relationship grows. Did I mention how good Day-Lewis is? How bad-ass he is in a stovepipe hat?
What went wrong: Some might say a lot, but I’ve grown to accept some of the film’s minor shortcomings. Cameron Diaz, miscast maybe, but she’s fine. Anti-climatic ending? Yeah, but it works and gets the point across. No, what really gets me is two separate music cues.
The first is during the opening battle. The build-up to the fight is genius and the back and forth speeches from Liam Neeson and Day-Lewis are perfect. Then the fight becomes a montage and the music gets lame. Scorsese usually picks great music for scenes like this and the scene sags instead of soars because he uses bad music. The other is the final song that bleeds into the credits. It’s some U2 piece of crap and it comes in out of nowhere, loud and obnoxious (if you were asleep it will wake you up). Then the film does some soft fades of the New York skyline until we see the Twin Towers standing tall. Eck! Oh yeah, then the title pops up and jars you the same way the music does.
Solution: For the fight scene, just pop in a better song or better score, problem solved. For the end, ditch U2, and ditch the final shot of the NY skyline. They should have used a shot that was employed near the beginning. After the opening battle, the camera pulls out to a birds eye view of NY, and this is the shot it should have ended with. Maybe it turns into the modern NY but not the skyline. This way it’s a bookend and way more poetic. Add a much less intrusive song and credit sequence and you have yourself a masterpiece.
Agree? Disagree? Don’t like the movies in the first place? Think I missed a better choice? Comment and let me know why I’m wrong, but don’t mention A.I. unless you want to start a war.