How to Almost Ruin a Film
Every now and then, I come across a film that for some reason or another simply begins wrong. Perhaps it begins with a narrator explaining that a particularly unbelievable summer changed his life, or maybe it starts with a bit too much foreshadowing. There are also films whose climaxes are simply too predictable or ask you to believe something that defies logic. Here are a few movies that I lump into these categories.
Beginnings That Potentially Ruin Films:
Borat: Cultural Learning of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
If you’re going to make a film that is intended partially to show American ignorance of other countries, then you cannot show what the people are willing to believe about Hazakhstan to be true in the beginning. The opening scenes in Borat establish several facts within the context of the movie: The Kazakhstan in the film is an underdeveloped place, Borat has inappropriate relationships with family members, and his experiences with the world have been severely limited. In this context, the reactions of the “real” people who encounter Borat are completely understandable.
James Cameron’s 1997 film begins with two of the most overused clichés in film. First, there’s Bill Paxon’s greedy treasure hunter. It’s not hard to predict that he’ll have had a change of heart by the end of the film. Second, there’s Gloria Stuart as the elderly Rose. By showing her, the film removes two key dramatic elements. We know she survives the sinking of the Titanic, and we know that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character does not. The fact that Titanic is advertised as a romance makes it too easy to predict how his character dies.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
I’m frequently reminded that not many writers in Hollywood know how to establish believable relationships. In Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a womanizing neurologist played by Daniel Day Lewis is attracted to a somewhat odd woman in a swimming pool. After one meeting, during which they hardly talk and don’t sleep together, he returns to Prague. Sometime later, she shows up at his door, something most people would be a little put off by, but not the doctor. Soon they’re living together despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to be that crazy about her or to know her very well. The rest of the movie details the ups and downs in their relationship, but without establishing a reason for them being together in the first place, I had a hard time caring whether they stayed together or broke up.
No amount of superb acting or political intrigue can make up for the fact that the first fifteen minutes of Ridley Scott’s Oscar winning film give away the entire film. Once we see Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus and Connie Nielson’s Lucilla discussing what they’re going to do after their father dies, we have a good idea where the film is going. We’re not wrong, either.
Films That Just End Wrong:
I’m pretty sure that a serial killer on the FBI’s most-wanted list - not to mention one missing a hand and apparently so well-known that there are websites devoted to him – would be able to board a commuter plane. The book avoided this problem because Hannibal Lecter had had plastic surgery. Producers of the film changed that so that Anthony Hopkins could still play Lecter. By doing so, however, they removed a key element that would have made the film more believable.
I’m aware that Ray Charles had a hand in the final version of the script, and perhaps this is exactly what he said happened. However, I’m simply unable to believe that Ray Charles kicked his drug addiction after having a conversation with his deceased mother and brother.
Kenneth Branagh’s otherwise fine film ends with what can only be explained as a character moving in slow motion while another character moves at warp speed. As Derek Jacobi’s Franklyn Madson leaps through the air to complete his mad revenge scheme, Branagh’s Mike Church, wounded and bleeding from having been shot, somehow has enough time and energy to move to the side, grab a large glass sculpture of a pair of scissors, and move it into the exact position for Madson to land on. I’ve seen the movie several times and still can’t explain how he’s able to do it.
I’ve always felt that Spike Lee’s film should have ended right after Malcolm X is shot. Instead, it ends with people all over the world standing up and proclaiming themselves to be Malcolm X. Some called this part powerful. I wasn't one of them.
To me, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List should have ended with Oskar Schindler driving away toward an unknown future. It would have been a powerful, logical ending. After all, we’ve already seen the evidence of his good deeds.
The Sword of Doom
This is one of the few films that really has no ending. The image simply freezes. We left to wonder if the blood-thirsty, possible insane samurai is victorious or not. While this technique may be affective if done well, the ending of The Sword of Doom is abrupt and jarring. It is not a nice feeling and may make viewers wonder if the time and emotion they had invested in the rest of the film were really worth it.
As always, I welcome your thought on the matter.