Bad Movies and “Bad” Movies
February 20, 2011

Troll 2

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The trailer for I Am Here….Now is totally hypnotic, absurd, and weirdly compelling. But just as compelling is the backstory as transmitted from Hadrian Belove to Andrew Sullivan to the readers of the Daily Dish:

One of our in-house guys cut a really hilarious trailer for Neil Breen’s latest crazy fucking masterpiece of accidental weirdness. The trailer itself is hilarious. If you don’t know him, writer/director/actor/caterer Neil Breen is a real estate agent in Las Vegas who self produces these indescribable movies, casting his friends from the biz…total outsider madness. This guy is so different he has four dots in his ellipses.

For someone like me, this is a genuine find. See, I’m a bad movie buff. A connoisseur of crap, if you will. And recent cinematic history hasn’t been all that kind to my unholy obsession.

Don’t get me wrong: there have been some really positive trends for the terrible movie. Film and editing equipment is getting cheaper every year, especially shitty film and editing equipment. Same goes for visual effects: an aspiring director can create whole worlds on his desktop computer, especially if he doesn’t mind if those worlds are lodged somewhere in the darkest recesses of uncanny valley. It’s easier than ever for a budding auteur with outsized ambition and microscopic talent to scrape together a few thousand, cast some reluctant family members (or non-union actors), and immortalize their hilariously fucked-up vision in celluloid.

That’s where we got The Room, to name arguably the most towering achievement in bad movie history. And it looks like this very same trend has now blessed us with I Am Here….Now. The casual observer might think that the awful film is going through a bit of a renaissance, and she wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But there’s a flipside: for every Troll 2, we now have to sort through five Transmorphers: slick, self-aware productions cobbled together by a professional cast and crew at the behest of a cynical producer. It’s getting harder and harder to find the real crap in this sea of fake crap.

I blame Snakes On a Plane. This was the first mainstream attempt to produce a so-bad-it’s-good B-movie that was wholly cognizant of its badness. Not a truly bad movie, but a “bad” movie. A smirking, ironic commercial pitch to our baser instincts. The difference between the intentionally bad Snakes On a Plane and, say, the great British satire of 70’s genre television Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is that whereas Darkplace is a clever, affectionate riff on a specific period and field in pop culture, Snakes On a Plane is just deliberately half-assed and uses its own half-assedness as a selling point. It promises to invite us in on a joke that isn’t really much of a joke at all.

In other words, there’s no ambition. The only ambition is to flatter our sense of taste and savviness for long enough that we’ll fork over some money. Compare that to The Room, whose trailer promises a film “with the passion of Tennessee Williams.” What makes a movie like The Room so fascinating is the enormous gap between what it tries to be and what it is. Something like Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus can’t compete because it is exactly what it tries to be and can’t stop reminding the audience of that fact.

The recent wave of fake-bad movies is really just another example of how businesses have screwed us all by co-opting irony for commercial purposes. It’s a testament to the dark, hollow place we’ve found ourselves in that television commercials can become enormously popular in their own right simply by commenting on how stilted and hollow television commercials are. Or as David Foster Wallace put it in his essay E Unibus Pluram:

What explains the pointlessness of most published TV criticism is that television has become immune to charges that it lacks any meaningful connection to the world outside it. It’s not that charges of nonconnection have become untrue. It’s that any such connection has become otiose. Television used to point beyond itself. Those of us born in like the sixties were trained to look where it pointed, usually at versions of “real life” made prettier, sweeter, better by succumbing to a product or temptation. Today’s Audience is way better trained, and TV has discarded what’s not needed. A dog, if you point at something, will look only at your finger.

The great thing about a genuine, genuinely ambitious, bad movie is that it tells us something about a real human being’s desires and fears, albeit unintentionally. The Room is as much a movie about half-mad misogynist Tommy Wiseau as it is about poor, cuckolded Johnny. House of the Dead isn’t a story about zombies but a story about a deranged German ex-boxer who somehow cobbled together the financing to adapt some old third-rate arcade game. What is Snakes On a Plane about?

That’s why I’ll continue watching the true disasters, the movies that at least tried to fly before crashing to the runway. I want bad movies, not “bad” movies. You can keep your fucking quotation marks.

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August 24, 2010

From the movie Synecdoche, New York, which I saw for the first time tonight. If you want to know what the movie’s like, read Roger Ebert’s excellent review, which comes closer than anything else I’ve seen to accurately describing the experience. All I can really add is that this movie’s clearly not for everyone. But if it’s for you, then you’re going to find yourself shaken, even moved, in a rare way.

It worked for me. If you like the embedded scene—which, in some ways, is a sort of mission statement for the whole film—it may work for you too.

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Iron Man 2
May 9, 2010

Entertaining, but not really up to the standards of the first movie. At its best, it’s another jaunty entry in the always entertaining Robert-Downey-Jr.-is-a-charming-fuckup-who-eventually-redeems-himself-through-witty-banter canon. The pace in the second act is surprisingly ambling, giving plenty of room for the requisite bantering and somehow not feeling too busy despite the plethora of characters and references they had to pack in. You can almost hear the screenwriters in a back room somewhere doing lines and screaming, “And the Black Widow! Shit! We need to introduce the Black Widow before the Avengers movie comes out!”

(Speaking of the Black Widow: Did they just decide it wasn’t worth even trying to get Scarlett Johansson to do a Russian accent? Granted, Johansson was, like, six when the Cold War ended, but taking away her background as a Russian defector turned her into just another bendy super-spy in a catsuit.)

But despite the plot’s creaky machinations, it was just nice to see good actors with good chemistry do good work. It’s a sad state of affairs when a big-budget blockbuster can be noteworthy just for having characters with personalities, but that’s where we are. Robert Downey Jr. and Gwenyth Paltrow have great chemistry, although the latter spends so much of the movie alternating through various stages of livid, with no real room for sexual tension, that the inevitable climactic kiss feels more like another item on the checklist than an organic moment. Mickey Rourke is suitably menacing, Sam Rockwell is funny if sort of one-note, Samuel L. Jackson is extremely Samuel L. Jackson, and Don Cheadle is such an abrupt upgrade from Terrence Howard that it’s like if Christopher Nolan had replaced Katie Holmes with a young Marlon Brando in his second Batman movie.

Point is, they all turn in solid work, at least until the third act. That portion of the movie is just a bunch of explosions and CGI metal crashing into each other, a sustained jackhammer of spectacle designed to beat you into a stupor over the course of fifteen minutes or four hours or however long it lasted. There’s not much in the way of mounting tension, because the big finale already starts dialed up to 11; and as a result, the whole thing feels less like a climax than like director Jon Favreau suddenly remembered he had an explosions quota to fulfill.

The fact that I got such a kick out of the Captain America shield’s little cameo (diminishing returns though with the post-credits Thor shout-out) really drives home this movie’s greatest strength and greatest weakness: the Easter eggs and clever asides are significantly more satisfying than all the sort of blah plot stuff.

Joss Whedon’s The Avengers
April 14, 2010

As a Joss Whedon fan I’ll fully admit that the concept lends itself to parody (and self-parody), but I am cautiously optimistic. For one thing, Robert Downey Jr. is going to make a twelve-course meal out of those snappy Whedonisms, so that alone will likely be worth the ticket price.

But beyond that, there’s another reason why I think the Whedon pick was a smart move. Making a good The Avengers movie is a tricky balancing act in that you’re dealing with two audiences: one that’s familiar with all the characters, and another who is going to be introduced to many of them–or at least their cinematic incarnations–for the first time. With the first ten minutes of the movie Serenity–based on, as most of you should know, the beloved and prematurely canceled TV space opera Firefly–Whedon demonstrated that he could introduce a bunch of previously developed characters and relationships in a way that both catches up newcomers and avoids boring fanboys and -girls with clunky exposition.

Seriously, those first ten minutes are a wonder of economical storytelling. And that’s one trait The Avengers will require in spades.

UPDATE: By the way, I should credit Shani of PostBourgie of providing some of the inspiration for this post. And while we’re on the subject of potential for self-parody, if someone spontaneously turns evil, or falls in love with a Skrull or something, I’m going to be pissed. I do, however, fully encourage Whedon to play up the homoerotic tension between Captain America and Bucky.

And Thor and the world.

Yes, George Lucas Actually Went There
April 11, 2010

And no, you didn’t imagine it.

Just a reminder.

A Heartbreaking Work of Accidental Genius
February 26, 2010

I am unreasonably excited for tonight’s NYU Local field trip to a screening of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Ever since I first saw the movie this summer–well, actually for several months before I saw it–I’ve been nursing a growing obsession. Because while this might not be the worst movie ever made (I maintain that the throne still belongs to Robo Vampire), it could very well be the best worst movie ever made.

When I try to describe its appeal to others, I tend to throw around the phrase “accidental genius” a lot. Of course, that’s a misnomer; isn’t all genius accidental? The difference is that in this case, the director/writer/producer/star seems to think his baby is absolutely brilliant for reasons that not only diverge, but run completely contrary to why it’s so good. He thinks he’s making some grand statement about humanity, but what makes this movie so fascinating, and so worth rewatching, is how much he is really revealing to us about his own crazed psyche.

So my advice to first-time viewers of The Room is this: don’t just take it at face value. Watch it as a meta-film, where the main character is actually Tommy Wiseau. If you do that, you’re basically watching a completely different movie; instead of a shitty, unintentionally funny drama, it becomes a genius dark comedy about a poor, deluded, tormented soul who thinks he’s making the next Citizen Kane.

If this were all some elaborate piece of performance art, I think it would be hailed as one of the greatest cult comedies of our time. But the fact that this is an actual train wreck only makes it more hypnotic, and its appeal even more enduring.

Barton Fink Would Be Pleased
February 7, 2010

I’ll have much more to say about Inglourious Basterds and A Serious Man squaring off at this year’s Academy Awards in both the Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay categories over at NYU Local later this week and next week (because of the Hebrew heavy subject matter, I’ve got my fingers crossed that my wonderful editor will let use the title “Challahwood” for the proposed two-part feature), but for now I’d just like to say that this is some uncommonly good decision-making on the part of the Academy.

Tarantino and the Coen Brothers are both known for their distinctive visual flair, yes, but they’re also writers to an extent that a lot of similarly accomplished directors are not. Watch the back-and-forth in Pulp Fiction or The Big Lebowski and notice how idiosyncratic the dialogue is–it’s not hard to nod and say “this is Coen Brothers dialogue” or “this is Tarantino dialogue”–without all of the characters’ voices blurring together. That’s a remarkable achievement in any medium. And it’s especially remarkable given how densely packed with information their dialogue can be. When, in Jackie Brown, Sammy J says to DeNiro: “What happened man? Your ass used to be beautiful,” that one line tells us things that a lesser screenwriter would have to bash us over the head with. And look at how the phrase, “I didn’t do anything” in A Serious Man becomes even more devastating each time it gets repeated. Tarantino obviously staked his reputation as a huge film nerd, but I’d argue that he shares with the Coen Brothers a distinctly literary sensibility that, more than the dense pop culture allusions, rewards multiple viewings of his best movies.

As for Best Adapted Screenplay, is there even a real choice? Armando Iannucci is a fucking genius, and every single line in In the Loop is profanity-laced poetry. The man is a master of wordplay, and it shines through even more than usual in the plot for this movie, in which some creative editing and a few ambiguous comments can spell the difference between war and peace.

The Last Space Samurai of Fern Gully
December 29, 2009

Just saw it in 3D. Everything you’ve heard is right: it’s competent and thoroughly entertaining, if also thoroughly derivative. But Christ is it pretty! The technology may be new, but the movie magic is as old as King Kong. James Cameron managed to show me something I’d never seen before (except for on the covers of prog rock concept albums), and if it wasn’t artistically satisfying, it was at least fairly dazzling. The CGI was so well-rendered that computer generated Sam Worthington ended up being significantly more life-like and expressive than real Sam Worthington.

As for the politics of it: well-meaning but bone-headed and condescending, both to the invaders and the invaded. But although much ink has been spilled on the topic, that’s not what you’re thinking about for most of the movie. Mostly, you’re just in a diabetic coma.

Worst Movie Recommendation Ever
December 24, 2009

From the checkout lady at Hollywood Video:

DUNE is awesome! So much better than David Lynch’s later stuff, when he entered that sexy-creepy phase. It’s even better than the book. I tried reading it, but it’s like this thick and has way too much information.

Merry Christmas, guys. If you’re looking for a last-minute gift for the discerning weird tales consumer, do the exact opposite of what’s suggested above. Get Blue Velvet, or Mullholland Drive, or Dune (the book). But, for the love of god, don’t get the film that both Lynch and Sting disowned. I mean, the guy won’t even disown the song S.O.S., but he’ll disown this. That’s how bad it is.

Incidentally, the reason why I bring this up is because last night my good friend Peter and I had a theme movie night where the theme was “Films that Ruin Our Favorite Childhood Sci-Fi Authors.” The other movie we watched was this:

Which is worth watching just for the third act, which includes a heart-rending soliloquy by Keanu Reeves about the joys of room service and an unexpected cameo by Dolph Lundgren as some kind of crazy Moses impersonator/luddite Tea Partier.

An American Carol
August 16, 2008

Is Bill O’Reilly’s life really so small and miserable that his only happiness comes from stamping out the mirth of others? That’s the only explanation I can think of as to why he would participate in this horrible act of violence against laughter. Here’s the trailer:

Okay, so this movie is ideologically reprehensible (it straight-facedly blames liberals for 9/11). But that’s only one of many reasons to hate this movie. To explain just how awful it is, even when you ignore the fact that it exists simply to reaffirm the twisted worldview of deeply ill people like O’Reilly, let’s take a look at it’s fictional liberal counterpart: A Progressive Carol. In that movie, conservative pundit Will O’Smiley (get it?!) is visited by the ghosts of I.F. Stone, John Lennon and FDR, who teach him the true meaning of Earth Day.

Hey, whaddya know? That movie is terrible too. And not just normal terrible – it’s a veritable shitstain on the pants of modern cinema. But why?
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