Sunday, March 30, 2008

Terribly Terrible

The ceaselessly charming Mr. Queenan has an article in The Guardian about his search for the worst movie ever. I for the most part agree with him; however I like the idea that the worst movies can be found by the same means as the best ones.

I agree that a truly terrible movie, first and foremost, must start life as an attempt at being a good movie. This is what makes Showgirls so app(e)a(l)ling: genuinely, every step of the way, Showgirls quite plainly thinks it is being a good movie. And the harder it tries, the better it isn't. Points two and three are variations upon this theme: the movie cannot be ridiculously obscure[1] and it cannot be a deliberate attempt at making the worst movie ever. This is basically a restatement of point 1, but Queenan fails to touch upon why this is a philosophically satisfying set of criteria.

The best way I know of for judging a movie is to gage the nobility of its intention, then ask how fully it realises this intention. Groundhog Day is a genuinely great movie because it aims to explore Nietzchean principles of eternality through Buddhist ideals of Enlightenment and Christian tenets of selflessness; but it also aims to make you laugh at Bill Murray stepping in a puddle repeatedly, and it does all these things very ably[2].

The reason Meet the Spartans was not embraced as an all-time terrible movie - and the reason Troma pictures are never as celebrated as, say, I Know Who Killed Me or Catwoman - is that, perversely, according to this simple means of judgement, they're actually perfectly okay movies. They set out to be bad movies, and then arrive as bad movies. Their intention is supremely lazy, but in fulfilling it, they exempt themselves from the canon of truly agelessly abysmal movies. Nobody is going to champion Scary Movie 2 as king of the heap of cinematic excrement, because that's exactly what it wants, and so fuck it.

My own nomination for Worst Movie Ever has long been Ken Russell's Crimes of Passion. This beats out other contenders for reasons both Queenan's and my own: while I don't know whether I would rather watch Crimes of Passion again than The Fellowship of the Ring or King Kong, I would sit through the former with a dumbfounded amazement that someone would make this movie and nobody would stop them; whereas the latter movies also provoke in me Queenan's "sense of dread .. a fear that [I] may one day be forced to watch the film again" only because they are so powerfully, life-alteringly boring[3].

Neither Crimes of Passion nor Tears of the Sun (another contender) generated the powerful prerelease dread mandated by Queenan, but I wonder about this one. Who can forget the negative hype generated by New Zealand's least favourite movie ever, a movie that I will fight tooth-and-nail against my countryman to defend as Perfectly Good? But my own opinions notwithstanding, this is also a movie that catapulted its makers and stars into a stratosphere that, in some cases, may have been almost as harmful for their careers as the oubliette to which Michael Cimino was banished.

(Cimino, auteur of Queenan's pick for Worst Movie Ever, had another movie released - a movie to which perfectly hot properties Mickey Rourke and Oliver Stone were also attached - a mere five years after Heaven's Gate. The director of New Zealand's Least Favourite Movie Ever has only just finished shooting his next movie, slated for release twelve years after becoming king of the world with the movie everyone said would sink him. Also, he shot the picture in New Zealand, so apparently we like him okay as long as he brings the moneys).

I would argue for Tears of the Sun on the inclusion of any bottom-hundred list, though, because it fails so dismally at articulating its vile message - a fairly repulsive 80s-throwback White Man's Burden vision of foreign policy elucidated much more skilfully by Sylvester Stallone of late - while also consistently failing to be in the least bit entertaining or artistically interesting. There is nothing at which it succeeds, and if it did succeed at anything it tries to do, it would still only be as good as Meet the Spartans, because everything it tries to do (with the possible exception of putting Tom Skerritt back on screen) is repugnant.

But you don't walk out of Tears of the Sun wanting to kill it. My brother and I have a long-standing agreement, actually, to just agree that Tears of the Sun never happened. You walk out of Tears of the Sun feeling like a bit of a chump for having given it your time and money.

Whereas you walk out of Crimes of Passion deeply, passionately wanting to find everyone who did anything on it, and slap them about the face, and ask them, "What will you do? How will you erase the unspeakably twee theme music of this movie from my head; how will you stop me hearing it, and remembering the scene in which a man straps buoys to his feet and jumps up and down and spurts milk from his mouth, proclaiming himself The Human Penis? If you cannot allow me to unsee your movie, how on God's green earth will you make it alright for you and I to live in the same world, after what you've made me watch?"

It involves real people. It aims to do something. It fails so dismally at that something, and after all's said and done, its aims aren't even particularly noble or, hell, particularly difficult to reach. Any number of Shannon Tweed movies achieve every day anything Crimes of Passion could reasonably have hoped to do, and everything Shannon Tweed has been in is fairly unmitigated crap.

It fails in every way Showgirls fails, and then a few dozen ways besides. It hits notes every bit as low as Alvin and the Chipmunks, and makes that movie look accomplished. In the gap between expectation and result, Crimes of Passion makes the year's worst movie, Jumper, look like The fucking Matrix.

So don't watch it then.

[1] The Shirt is by far and away the worst movie I have ever seen in every technical category; however it could never seriously be the worst movie ever made because, as my friend Patrick pointed out over the end credits, it was a movie so poor that one would need neither resources nor technical acumen to improve upon it. Which is to say, it's clearly a movie made by retards, and as such, to criticise it would be like mocking a child for not painting as well as a Real Artist.

[2] And Now For Something A Little Axe-Grindier: This, I believe, is something that can be used to separate the true classics from the mere Fucking Good Movies. Two exemplary Fucking Good Movies that are not classics are Run Lola Run and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. These are
very good movies because they aim to say something true while doing
shit-hot things within the art, and they do these things.

This is to
say that Run Lola Run and Eternal Sunshine are not, under cold analysis, as "good" as Groundhog Day (or The Shawshank Redemption or Heat), because while all these movies fulfil their aims (which is good), Lola and Sunshine's
primary aims (I would argue) are inseparable from the notion of doing
neat shit within the art, which is not as good as doing neat shit
within the species.

[3] Caveat to prevent my immediate extradition: ain't nothing wrong with Return of the King.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Rambo, or On Vigilante Flicks (Third Time Lucky)

In the stuff of ready-made film-geek legend, the director of Rambo sat in a chair marked, in eBay-ready mission-statement, “John Rambo”.

This proves doubly apt when watching Rambo. On the one hand, few actors have been so immortally linked with a role as Stallone has been to Rambo, and fewer still have embraced that bond as fervently as does he.

But equally, the gag is appropriate because this is what it would be like if John Rambo had somehow arrived in our world, and taken it into his head to direct a movie. Equal parts dunderheaded and noble, misguidedly horrific and fist-pumpingly awesome, Rambo doesn’t veer between unpleasant and vicariously righteous so much as charge bodily through both.

While mainly eschewing the winking fan-service that blunted Die Hard’s return to theatres, Rambo is unmistakably canon, in style as well as subject. However the strongest formulaic throwback isn’t to the previous First Blood pictures (a truly ballsy, timely salvo would’ve been to revisit those films’ critique of America’s treatment of her soldiers) so much as to the black sheep of 80s action: Death Wish and its vigilante ilk.

Here, the rhythm is simple: a series of violent, degenerate assaults on innocent populace and audience sensibility alike, then an orgy of retributive bloodletting in which right triumphs over wrong but emerges panting, sweating and coated in blood not its own.

No film of this ilk can ever survive scrutiny from all corners: its politics, by necessity, are those of division and demonization. Someone, however they may differ from us, has to get it in the neck. To get this formula right, a film must leave audiences with a queasy feeling of having taken part in a ritual both cleansing and less than entirely wholesome.

And John Rambo, bless his heart, has made a movie that pretty much hits the nail on the head.

[originally appeared on Flicks]

Monday, March 24, 2008

Drillbit Taylor, or On High School

Your correspondent maintains a policy of not actually believing in the existence of Political Correctness; to him it seems something of a phantom organisation that people blame whenever they're not allowed to do gross things. However, the simple fact is that ten-odd years ago, there's no gee-gosh way in heck a movie like Drillbit Taylor would've got made.

Here's a movie that presents high-school bullies not as misunderstood sympathy cases, but as stone-cold freaking psychos; a movie where the best way to deal with what is clearly a young man in serious need of psychological attention is to hire a homeless vet to beat the shit out of him. And a movie, charmingly, that devotes the bulk of its emotional resources to persuading you that if said vet ingrains himself deeply enough into proper society as to secure continued sexual relations with a gullible teacher, that probably, the whole thing can be said to have been a roaring success.

Because Drillbit Taylor is charming as all get out: the young leads all exude a precocious world-weariness, while never seeming out of place on their first week of high school. And the Butterscotch Stallion, the officially anointed Loveliest Man in Hollywood, Mr Wilson himself, is as aw-darn sweet as ever.

Much like lamented longtime cancellee Parker Lewis Can't Lose, this is a high school world in which every every minute of every day is the most important, high-stakes, life-or-death moment of your short life; and like that show, the joke is in how utter our protagonists' investment in that world is. And also like that show, one of the nicest touches is the clever little moments in which the metaphor is reversed: high school is terrifying, but the foreign, adult world is where the real insanity begins.

[originally appeared on Flicks]

Monday, March 17, 2008

Interview, or On Mediocre Theatre

Interview takes pains to be contemporary, but nothing quite sticks: words like "Google" and "iPod", rather than hiding subtly within the script as a dating device, jump out incongruously. And the thing is that, apart from these efforts, all the pic's commentary would be much more relevant fifteen years ago.

The cultish celebrity-worship embodied by Miller just doesn't ring true nowadays: we have Myspace and Youtube and celebrity blogging now. The world depicted in Interview is not irrelevant per se, but at odds with the celebrity 2.0 of 2008. Interview's world would have no place for a Chris Crocker or a Fall Out Boy.

The closest our world has to the rarefied stardom of Sienna Miller's character is, well, Sienna Miller - but even she made her name with actual movies, rather than the bizarre b-slasher trajectory her character is given. It's an unwieldy setup, and one that the movie will spend much of its runtime trying to justify.

While its cultural clout may be somewhat less than Interview imagines, the interpersonal meat of the story has some measure of theatrical heft to it that we may not see the likes of again this year. But this is no Tape or Hurlyburly: while Buscemi and Miller take their characters as far as they can with the plot's gnarled machinations, the fact is this just doesn't move or talk like the forebears whose company it would join.

It's not the sin of unbelievable Hollywood excess but the other extreme: these are frustratingly unfocused and ineloquent people, just like you meet every day. But we don't go to movies about those people.

Interview's characters are many things: frustrating, warm, fascinating and confounding. But unlike real people, these end up chained to a plot that wants to be ingenious but ends up just kind of smarmy.

[originally appeared on Flicks]

Friday, March 07, 2008

10,000 BC, or On Beginnings Versus Endings

“From the director of Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow”, the promos proclaim. Oh sure, they could namecheck The Patriot or Stargate or even Universal Soldier – but inasmuch as there’s a case to be made for Roland Emmerich as unsung (albeit somewhat hacky) auteur of the blockbuster age, it’s the apocalyptic trips to the brink of human extinction that he’ll be remembered for.

So there’s a pleasing symmetry in the director’s latest film taking it back to the pre-concrete streets. 10,000 BC packs an awful lot of pop-anthropological in-jokery into its two-hour runtime, much of it admirably spurious. It’s hard not to grin at a film that offers theories as to the spread of common language and tribal practise throughout the cradle of civilisation, but gives equal weight to the notion that these advances were only made possible because a human being made friends with a tiger the size of a freakin’ RV.

Eschewing the painfully vogue stylistic noodling of 300 (to which it’s nevertheless not dissimilar), but stopping short of anything as adventurously maverick as Apocalypto (as which it’s nevertheless pretty much the same damn movie), 10,000 BC maintains a pleasantly old-school restraint that you feel may serve it better in years to come. It’s also more pedestrian than those two movies, never really reaching the heights – or depths – of either.

Independence Day posited a society descending into complacency, as ripe for heavily-armed alien plunder as the Falklands. The Day After Tomorrow one-upped this thesis by making mankind the agent of its own potential demise. Does 10,000 BC, in depicting the moment The Average Guy learnt animal husbandry, astrological navigation, and agriculture, sow the seeds of those tragic flaws? Maybe so… but 12,000 years is a long period for the sequel to cover.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Jumper, or On Bad Videogames

As a trailer for the upcoming Xbox game, Jumper: Griffin’s Story, Jumper is top-notch. Providing potential players with all manner of potentially interesting scenarios, the pic wisely chooses never to actually put anything exciting in the scenes - leaving it to the player to imagine what thrilling escapades might come to pass once it’s their turn with the controller.

Gamers will hopefully accept the level at which the characters are pitched: it’s impressive in its endless supply of lazy clich├ęs (“I don’t play well with others!”), but sometimes distinguishes itself by managing to even get these wrong (“I can’t make heads or tails of it!”). The story, similarly, leaps clumsily from one tired trope to another without the slightest attempt at freshness: hopefully cut-scenes will be minimal.

A possible weak point in the game will be its antagonists: the Paladins, grey-clad everygrunts, are uncharacterised beyond some vague reference to the lazy videogame stalwart of religious fundamentalism. Would-be bearers of the narrative’s philosophical torch, they’re a horrid mess: “Only God should have the power to be everywhere at once,” intones Jackson, confusing omnipresence (a power he comes closest to wielding) with the pic’s central conceit (which might be called transpresence), whose inherent danger is never clarified.

Jumper isn’t even worthy of comparison to particularly good videogames. Forget your Vice City or Sands of Time: even the paddling-pool philosophising of Bioshock or wacked-out panache of Ratchet and Clank are leagues ahead of this.

But this is the only comparison that reasonably can be made: put alongside the pics for whose company it aims, Jumper barely looks like a movie at all. Jumper resembles Spiderman or The Matrix in the same way that Be Kind, Rewind resembles Robocop or Rush Hour: a pathetic parody, here lacking the tragicomic warmth of tribute.