In 2011, two films were released about the same topic: Having a sex-buddy that you weren’t actually dating. If you’re confused, I wouldn’t worry about it, as it’s not really a thing anymore (if it ever was). But it was enough to get this Wikihow page on “How to Start a Friends-With-Benefits Relationship,” which is pretty fantastic:
The photos are kind of perfect:
Nothing terrifying about this guy!
Anyway, I digress. No Strings Attached was released in January:
And Friends with Benefits was released in July:
At the time, the easy joke was that they’re both the same movie, but I disagree, and it’s nagged at me for quite some time. I’ve always preferred Strings, but I recently watched Benefits and was reminded of how awful it is. The Ringer did something similar, but honestly, I kind of got lost. So, I’ll break it down into four different categories.
Are there better things I could be writing about? Oh, absolutely. Am I going to prattle on about this for 800 words instead? You bet!
FATHER OF MINE
Both movies prominently feature the dads of the men in the family. In Strings, Kutcher’s dad (the excellent Kevin Kline) is a wealthy producer famous for some 80s show that spawned the catch-phrase “Great Scott!” Kline steals Kutcher’s vapid girlfriend and spends the movie trying to make amends with his son. It’s genuinely entertaining, but the subplot also moves along smoothly with the main story. Kline pops up sporadically, adds a few laughs, and then smartly disappears.
What’s the father plot in Benefits? Let’s see…oh right. Timberlake’s dad (the excellent Richard Jenkins) has fucking Alzheimer’s disease. Yeah, that doesn’t work. That is the opposite of a proportional response to the main story. A subplot like that overpowers the narrative is like making macaroni and cheese and then adding a cup of A-1 sauce to the recipe. WHAT?!
It doesn’t help that the whole point of the disease is to teach two valuable lessons:
I mean, if you can think of a better way to show those fairly common movie themes other than a horrifying degenerative disease in the midst of Kris Kross lyrics and dick jokes, I’d love to hear it!
And how did they resolve it? Timberlake decided to bravely not care what other people think because life is short. It looks like Timberlake’s sister is still going to take care of her father in L.A., and his father is still terrified/frustrated at losing his mind. Seriously the whole thing comes off as Timberlake isn’t at all concerned about the mental disappearance of someone he loves. But Timberlake eats lunch at an airpot without wearing pants and is okay with it so…yay I guess. Hooray for happy endings!
Strings wins out again on the character roles themselves. Mila Kunis is flat-out funny (watch Forgetting Sarah Marshall again sometime) as is Justin Timberlake (pretty much pick any of his sketches from SNL). The problem isn’t those two, it’s who those two are playing. Kunis is the woman who wants to believe in love and eventually finds the right guy, and Timberlake plays the guy who’s afraid of commitment.
Yawn. We’ve seen this before. Strings wins out handily because you swap the traditional gender roles – Portman is the career-driven doctor who’s just looking for recreation and terrified of falling in love, and Kutcher is the arty creative type who doesn’t understand why Portman doesn’t want to just date already. That simple flip makes everything significantly more interesting.
Some will say that Benefits is okay with those roles because they’re actually spoofing romantic comedies…
Yeah no. You don’t get to openly mock the roles and rituals of a traditional rom-com by playing directly into them. You don’t get to mock the neat, tidy, happy endings of a romantic movie and then that suddenly gives you permission to do the same thing. You’re not winking at the camera, you’re re-appropriating something else and using the structure as your own. A simple, ham-fisted chunk of dialogue is not a cure-all, no matter how many punchy one-liners you throw in.
DATING? MORE LIKE DATED!
Look, all technology eventually becomes outdated, and so you learn to ignore the media references (there are entire Seinfeld episodes could be solved with a single cell phone). But here, Benefits pretty much triples down on the trends of the day. Branded content! Guerrilla marketing! Flash mobs! Horrendous street art that’s supposed to be similar to Banksy! More flash mobs! It’s seriously painful to watch and will continue to grow more culturally out of touch.
Strings really doesn’t rely on trends that much. He works on a High School Musical type of show, but it’s hardly a lynchpin to the story. Other than that, the technology is minimal (cell phones are about it) and the references aren’t tied to a single set-piece. If anything, the movie does a nice job at creating its own world of clearly-established friendships and an alternate pop culture where Great Scott! exists. The jokes revolve around that and therefore can never go out of style. It’s kind of genius.
And that’s really the bottom line: No Strings Attached is thoroughly enjoyable and, dare I say, a bit underrated. If you’re looking for a funny film with a romantic tilt, avoid Friends with Benefits, it’s not worth your time.
It’s that most wonderful time of the year where we are lovingly surrounded by Hallmark Christmas movies. Around this time, I’m swamped with comments and letters from people arguing that all Hallmark Christmas movies are the same, that you throw a love story together, pepper in some holiday activities, throw together a soundtrack featuring covers of Christmas classics, and TA-DA! Instant classic. Well I’m here to tell you that I love Hallmark Christmas movies, but only if they’re made correctly. It’s a far more delicate process than most people realize. And there’s no better example of this than Hallmark films starring Lacey Chabert.
She’s been in plenty Hallmark Christmas movies – seven to be exact. But as you can see from that list, none stand out as classics. This is surprising. Chabert is charming and her performances are good; the only reason for the near-success of films like Matchmaker Santa is her presence. This is not true of all “celebrities” that grace us around this time every year.
CONTROVERSIAL STATEMENT: Candace Cameron Bure thinks she is somehow above the lowly Hallmark Christmas movie, and that’s why her movies are so consistently inadequate. There, I’ve said it. I’m outrageous.
Anyway, I really don’t think Chabert is the problem, I think it’s the stories themselves that are holding her back, proving once and for all that Hallmark Christmas movies are more complicated than some paint-by-numbers formula. And I’m here to demonstrate that to you.
Hallmark Christmas movies (abbreviated from here on as Hallmark Christmas movs) fall somewhere on what I call the Hallmark Christmas Continuum™ which measures good-bad vs. bad-bad. Simply put, Hallmark Christmas movs are going to lie somewhere between The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (endearing, wonderfully sincere, and the perfect amount of sappiness) and Christmas Bounty (a movie so bad and void of charm I cannot believe it was made), with A Christmas Song sitting right in the middle.
Making a good Hallmark Christmas mov is not a science, it’s an art, and simply dropping a skilled actress (or an unskilled actress) into a tried and true storyline does not automatically mean the movie will be a success. Scholars call this the Chabert Conundrum, and it’s something that will likely be studied at length once I write and release my bestseller, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Gender, Spectacle, and the Hallmark Christmas Movie Phenomenon.” ***Future Amazon link goes HERE***
To prove this, look no further than Lacey Chabert’s struggles in her 2014 near-miss, A Royal Christmas.
Royalty and Hallmark Christmas movs go together like eggnog and Goldschläger. Last year’s A Crown for Christmas was easily the standout of the season, and as for A Princess for Christmas…well, it’s one of the best. Gaze upon perfection!
The royal Christmas treatment is a Hallmark staple with good reason. It combines a fish-out-of-water story with a rags-to-riches story, resulting in an over-the-top Christmas. So many hyphens! But seriously, it’s a gold mine. You have an unlikely romance between two people from different worlds, and when the audience needs a break from the love story, they get to vicariously explore a world of ballrooms and gowns and feasts and kindly servants who don’t resent them for some reason.
This is why A Crown for Christmas works so damn well and why it’s already spoken in the same breath as Annie Claus is Coming to Town and A Boyfriend for Christmas. In Crown, Danica McKellar works as a maid who is hired to be a nanny by some butler guy to work for a young king in a made-up country. The cast has great chemistry, there’s a real sense of magic, and it hits the predictable beats in a lively manner. As far as McKellar’s work goes, this is far, far superior to her dreadful downer of a movie, Love at the Christmas Table.
So it’s a can’t-miss storyline, right? Think again! Last year’s Once Upon a Holiday tried to keep the royalty part but reverse it. The princess ditched her obligations and hid among the citizens of New York City. The result: boring, boring, boring.
Even when you include the castle, things don’t necessarily go well, which brings us to our movie discussion.
On paper, A Royal Christmas should be a slam dunk. Chabert plays Emily, a blue-collar seamstress from Philadelphia (no relation to the gang) who is dating some dude named Leo who turns out to be the prince of Cordina! Hey, we’ve all been there AMIRITE?! Emily is whisked away for Christmas in a fake country, but she’ll have to deal with a displeased mother and a fanciness she’s not used to back in Philadelphia (for the sake of your health, do not take a shot every time she references Philadelphia). Again, on paper, everything seems good:
But there are definitely some problems with the plot that bring it all crashing down, so much so that even Chabert can’t save the movie. What problems specifically? Allow me.
You can see the same kind of pitfalls in this year’s Chabert vehicle, A Wish for Christmas (not to be confused with A Christmas Wish and The Christmas Wish, both of which are equally bad). Again, I point this out to people who feel that all Hallmark Christmas movs are created equal. It’s much more nuanced than that. All the stars must align or else it doesn’t work. For more evidence, look no further than 2016’s Hallmark lineup, which, to be perfectly honest, has been a disappointment (Mistletoe Promise is the only one worth mentioning, whereas 2015 had hits like Crown for Christmas, along with some enjoyable ones like Ice Sculpture Christmas, 12 Gifts of Christmas, and I’m Not Ready for Christmas).
Anyway, here’s the trailer for A Wish for Christmas:
On the surface, they’ve done everything right. You’ve got a noteworthy star in Lacey Chabert (who is totally fetch), and an intriguing premise that promises to demonstrate the true magic of Christmas. But again, there is a narrow margin for success, and the formula only gets you so far.
The idea that Chabert is going to start standing up for herself is an interesting one – most Hallmark Christmas movs focus on what could have been (A Snow Globe Christmas is a good example – a budget Family Man knockoff). Unfortunately, here the plot fizzles out quickly. I commend The Hall for generally keeping its movies moving, but here the secret gift simply can’t hold up for 90 minutes. It’s just not that interesting or impactful, and it doesn’t adapt as the story moves forward.
Chabert stands up for herself at work, which works well. Then she stands up to her boss’s boss on the phone. Uh, that’s fine. Then she stands up for herself to…the manager of a rental car place. Ugh. She does this a couple of other times but it never really builds to anything. The bravery never extends beyond being politely insistent (it’s never rude or over-the-top), which you really need here. Moreover, we don’t get to see her enough before she gets the wish granted by Santa. So, with no real context beyond a few words of dialogue, there’s nothing to compare her with, and so it just doesn’t seem stark of a shift in character.
But the cardinal sin: They forget about the love story. The love story! Hallmark Christmas movs should do this at their own peril (look no further than Battle of the Bulbs for a cautionary tale). What’s especially strange is that this is billed as a love story, and all the pieces are in place. She’s on a road trip with her attractive boss – plenty of opportunities for the car to run out of gas, get in a minor accident, the two of them get lost…nothing but options for the writers. Instead? A totally predictable trip, which gives us plenty of time to spend with…his parents. His parents! Now we have to watch some kind of dysfunctional relationship between this dude and his father. Hey, Wish, nobody cares. We’re here to see these two crazy kids fall in love! If the father and son reconcile over Cat’s in the Cradle, that’s fine as a bonus, but we shouldn’t have a third of the movie revolving around that. That should all be happening against the backdrop of these two ending up together forever, thanks to the magic of the holiday season.
I digress. All of this goes to demonstrate that good Hallmark Christmas movs are surprisingly rare, and should be treasured and treated as such.
One final note: Please, Hallmark, please give Lacey Chabert a good script! She’ll take care of everything else! If you need me to write it, I’m willing to cut my fee in half for this noble cause.
I have a confession to make: I love Hallmark Christmas movies.
Like, I really, seriously love them and forward to them all year long. I think at one point I liked them ironically, but now I just absolutely cannot get enough. They’re so simple, so uniform, so predictable…and yet so utterly enjoyable. Every year, on T-Give, we watch the Hallmark film, Love at the Thanksgiving Day Parade, signaling the start of Hallmark Christmas movie season!
The good ones have many of the same elements. In order for a Hallmark Christmas movie to be successful, you need a love story, an enemy (but who doesn’t take up too much screen time), a known actor who can carry the story, kids who aren’t essential to the plot, Christmas music in the soundtrack, and (if at all possible) snow.
Make no mistake, there is a huge difference between a Hallmark Christmas movie and a Lifetime Christmas movie. Generally speaking, Lifetime Christmas movies don’t move too far away from the regular line of Lifetime original movies, almost all of which thrive on tragedy. That formula simply doesn’t work for these types of Christmas movies. For example, the depressing film A Christmas Wish (not to be confused with The Christmas Wish, though both are bad) focuses on a homeless family trying to escape an abusive husband/father. Sure, the last eight minutes are uplifting, but that’s not enough to make you want to sit through the previous 80 minutes of sadness. Hallmark movies, in general, get it. When you press the “Guide” button on the remote, Lifetime films tend to have “Romance: Drama” next to these titles, while Hallmark movies tend to be listed as “Romance: Comedy.” It makes all the difference.
That said, there are exceptions. Of the fifteen movies ranked here (I had meant for this to be a top five list, but…), four of these movies are not from Hallmark (two from Lifetime, two from ABC Family). However, they capture the spirit of the Hallmark Christmas movie experience.
Last note: To fully enjoy the Hallmark Christmas movie experience, I suggest hot chocolate with a bit of peppermint schnapps, or some delicious eggnog (adding Bailey’s is fine, but adding Goldschläger or Fireball Whiskey is an absolute game changer). So curl up under a blanket, bask in the glow of the Christmas tree, and throw on one of these gems. You won’t regret it!
Is this a controversial choice for making it into the top 15? Apparently! Yahoo named it the most insane ABC Christmas movie ever made, which is crazy-talk considering Christmas Bounty is on the list, which is absolutely the worst Christmas movie of all time.
But I digress. Snowglobe is under-appreciated film takes some chances and should be rewarded for those risks. First off, the lead is not a White actress, and you don’t see a lot of diversity in these types of movies (apart from the one outrageous friend of course). Almost as importantly, she’s wishing she could arrive in an idyllic winter scene inside of a snowglobe (like the movie title!), and when she arrives, she realizes the “flawed” reality of her everyday life is actually pretty great—impressive considering most Hallmark movies are striving for that perfection. It’s a truly unique approach that sets it apart from the rest of the Hallmark Christmas movies. The movie falls apart a bit in the third act, but overall it’s a fun contribution to the holiday lineup.
If you think about this one too long, you might just think that Santa Claus is a real jerk. However, you’ll be too busy being captivated by romance to focus on much else! Holly (probably not her name) was told by Santa Claus when she was like 8 years old that she would not fall in love for 20 years (again, kind of a jerk move). The story jumps ahead those 20 years, and the only man in her life is her loser ex-boyfriend who just became the editor of the newspaper (great time to get into print media, Ted!!) and a hotshot lawyer who she doesn’t realize has a heart of gold. Guess which one she ends up with! The entire premise is built around the lawyer love pretending to be someone else (because she thinks the lawyer is a jerk), and so we have to deal with the ultimate reveal and forgiveness, but it’s a fun (if predictable) ride.
This one is enjoyable, but the horrible body double for her big skating scene will stay with you forever.
This one should be automatically disqualified because it features a teacher (“Professor Farnsworth”) who saw Dead Poet’s Society one too many times. In the opening scene, Farnsworth sends his boarding school students on a scavenger hunt that leads them to a boiler room, where he emerges dressed up as a coal miner in order to teach these kids about Charles Dickens. He talks to them for three minutes and then class is over. No wonder he’s so popular! I often wonder how the “fun” professors like this handle a lesson plan that calls for comma usage.
Anyway, I digress. Farnie stays back to oversee a few students who stay behind over Christmas vacation—one of whom is a real troublemaker who doesn’t believe in helping others. Farnie helps the kids, but in the process learns a little something about seizing the day…and perhaps even to seize an opportunity at love with another teacher. If you want to know more about the movie, you can always check out this inexplicable three-page press release detailing the entire plot.
Kenneth’s blind almost-girlfriend from 30 Rock stars in this delightful romp through Christmas tropes with a healthy dose of magic sprinkled in. Annie Claus (daughter of Santa and Mrs.) is ready to learn about the world outside of the North Pole, and Los Angeles is where her heart (and a dart) led her to begin that journey. A nefarious elf hires an actor (played by someone who appears to be the lovechild of Kevin Bacon and Casper Van Dien) to trick her into falling in love, but will he be a match for the toy store owner who also played love interests in Desperate Housewives and Greek? Maria Thayer fully commits to the innocent, naive, but hopeful daughter of Santa Claus, and it’s a nice twist on the standard Santa Christmas movies.
Special note: This is one of the rare films where a child plays an important role but doesn’t annoy the audience to death in the process.
This movie is a bit of an odd duck in its bizarre message, but it pulls you in. A tabloid reporter with questionable ethics and fashion sense is hoping to cover a rich, wealthy family for her paparazzi magazine, but when her car runs out of gas, she must don a wedding dress to stave off hypothermia. While walking for help, she meets the son of the aforementioned family and, over the next few days, realizes that they might not be all bad. Incidentally, there is also a brother of the wealthy love interest who is going to propose to the ex-boyfriend of the wealthy love interest, so in her defense, it would have made for a good story.
SPOILER ALERT: At the end, the family ends up buying the tabloid so it can’t print things about said family. As far as free speech goes, this is…not…ideal. But it’s so ridiculously over the top that all you can do is chuckle.
This is a series that has gotten steadily worse (Call Me Mrs. Miracle was good, Mr. Miracle was an outright disaster), but the first one gets it right. Jimmy Van Der Beek (before his amazing turn on Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23) stars as a father who is raising two boys on his own, but they are a bit of a handful. Fortunately, a guardian angel by the name of Mrs. Miracle is there to help him wrangle those two trouble-makers…and just maybe help him find his one true love! That love is working as a travel agent (kids, you might need to look up that profession), but she has some of her own issues with family that need to be worked through.
Incidentally, JVDB plays a widower, but they do a nice job balancing him missing his wife and him moving on (similar to The Wishing Tree). Most Lifetime Christmas movies focus on that grief for the first hour or so. That said, Hallmark, while great, is not perfect – The Christmas Ornament is an example of succumbing to sadness at the expense of focusing on the magic of Christmas.
The incomparable Kristin Chenoweth took one look at this script and decided to throw the movie on her back and carry it toward the finish line…and she did just that! Chenoweth is a hotshot public relations guru in New York City when her professional and personal lives come crashing down. She strategically retreats to a job in a small Montana town where she learns that life in the country isn’t so bad. Her professional career gets a boost from her idea for a major fundraising venture: A sexy calendar of men on the local search-and-rescue team (hence the title). But while she’s not looking for love in Big Sky Country, she might just end up falling for a mountain man after all!
Don’t undersell the scenery in this one (and I’m not talking about the dude eye candy). Whenever I watch 12 Men, I have the strong urge to move to Montana. Gorgeous!
Here’s a time-tested Hallmark storyline: A woman going home for the holidays finds a stranger to pretend to be her boyfriend…but then they unexpectedly fall in love! Now I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t this just the plot to Holidays in Handcuffs? Basically yes, though Handcuffs is a kidnapping whereas Engagement is a scheme (which, oddly enough, makes it more plausible than Handcuffs). Engagement is the superior film, thanks to shifting venues, decent acting from secondary characters (I would totally watch a movie about her friend who finds a surfer-lover), and just enough schmaltz make this a Grimm-Odenweller staple. The miscellaneous characters help move things along, and there is actual chemistry between the two leads (something that can be lacking).
Also, the over-annunciation of the lyrics, “In excelsis deo” in a piano duet of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is worth the price of admission, as is realizing that all of her newspaper stories are roughly 250 words long.
When a recently-widowed mom makes a surprise visit to Boston using some sort of primitive Air BnB house swap, the real surprise is that her daughter went south for Christmas break. But the realer surprise is that the brother of the reclusive author (JD’s brother from Scrubs) whose house she is staying at has a crush on her…and she might just be falling for him too! Meanwhile, the author is staying at the mother’s house as per their house exchange. But the mother’s friend shows up to surprise the mother, only to find an eccentric author who can’t write women. Will she help him write his book, despite his insistence that he doesn’t need anyone else in his life?
This is different than the typical Hallmark Christmas movies (though most of these are, at least to some extent), and it’s kind of genius. By having multiple stories going (the daughter has a bit of an arc as well), it keeps you from getting bogged down in any one plot. It definitely keeps things from becoming stale. And while the Boston storyline isn’t nearly as interesting or entertaining as the author storyline, it all works.
This one is way better than it has any right being. Amy Smart re-lives the same Christmas Eve day over and over again, trying to get it right. It’s not terribly original (A Christmas Wedding Date tried this idea…but failed), but here it works. Along the way she meets love interest Zach Morris, a couple of newfound friends, a kindly neighbor, and a stepmother who Amy didn’t realize had her best interests at heart. I think my favorite thing about this movie is how it’s basically trying to make the perfect Hallmark movie, but it keeps having to add elements (Now add an ex-boyfriend! Now add a troubled teen!). Spoiler alert: She succeeds in creating the perfect Christmas Eve! Oh, and keep your eye out for a visual representation of each of the 12 Days of Christmas each time she re-lives the day (e.g., partridge in a pear tree, nine ladies dancing, etc.). I only caught a few this time around, but next year, I’ll witness them all!
This movie should be annoying. It should be obnoxious. It should be 90 minutes of eye-rolling and exasperated sighs. But it’s actually a delight! This is a textbook case of a celebrity coming on-board and just running with it—way to go, David Hasselhoff!
This is only one of two(!) Lifetime original movie on the list, and it’s worth the exception. For this film, an exasperated mother hires a Christmas consultant to plan the holidays for her family…and maybe learn a little something about love and forgiveness along the way! And while this one takes a tragic turn toward the end (it is a Lifetime Christmas movie after all), the sadness is very much short-lived, and given the amount of levity in the film, all is forgiven. Also, I about died laughing at the appearance of the gingerbread man. You’ll see!
Alicia Witt is a national treasure, and it’s criminal that the movie she’s “known for” on IMDB is that Two Weeks Notice debacle. She was fine in A Snow Globe for Christmas, great in Christmas at Cartwrights (where she dresses as Santa Claus…even though she’s a woman!!!), and I’m sure she’ll be wonderful in I’m Not Ready for Christmas (which has a premise that sounds a lot like Liar, Liar). But she is pure magic in A Very Merry Mix-Up, a film where Alicia is traveling to meet her fiance’s family but accidentally goes home from the airport with the wrong family. What?? Yes! And when she’s there, she starts to fall in love with a guy (budget Paul Eisenstein, right down to the voice) and his family, and they like her as well. Of course, the switcheroo gets figured out, and she heads back to the correct family…but is it the right family? I saw this one for the first time last year, and the fact that it shot up the list so fast establishes it as a staple for years to come. Pay attention when she tells the tale of people frozen in time. You’ll see!
Roger Moore is serviceable here, but this is one Hallmark movie where a relative unknown actress really sells the movie (just like A Christmas Kiss). The plot itself is as old as time—a woman (I forget her name, but she gets eaten by that underwater dinosaurbeast in Jurassic World) is living an average life when she ends up with her two cousins at a castle…because they’re suddenly royalty! The trio tries hard to fit in with the formal atmosphere, but they’re not afraid to take some of the starch out of that stuffed shirt! The kids love it, and MosasaurusBait is hesitant…at least until she finds the man how her dreams in this modern fairytale. Incidentally, here is a great example of what differentiates a typical Hallmark Christmas movie from a typical Lifetime Christmas movie. In the movie, the two kids are with MosasaurusBait because their mom (her sister) and dad were killed. Lifetime loves suffering (just ask Love at the Christmas Table or Home by Christmas). Meanwhile, rather than moping around for half the movie and throwing (non-love) obstacles at the main characters, here the protagonists are at the castle 13 minutes into the movie.
I don’t start watching Hallmark Christmas movies until Black Friday, because I’m not a damn animal. But this year, my wife was out of town for Halloween weekend, I was kind of feeling down that Sunday about going back to work—like, I was legitimately bummed out. So what did I do? I went to Starbucks, grabbed a chai tea latte, and I went home to watch A Christmas Kiss. And it was pure magic—it completely changed my mood. In this movie, a young woman named Wendy is the assistant for a famous interior decorator (and maybe party planner?). This famous designer is dating the sixth Baldwin brother, and he gets trapped in an elevator with Wendy and they kiss. She’s wearing glitter make-up so he doesn’t recognize her (????), and later the designer assigns Wendy to design Bradley Baldwin’s Christmas party. But he doesn’t know Wendy is the woman he kissed with whom he has fallen in love! It shouldn’t work—especially without a celebrity to help with the heavy lifting—but it does.
Everything in this movie works: the premise (a free-spirited man stranded at an airport who needs a place to stay), the love interest (a successful workaholic single mom trying to find the perfect Christmas for herself and her son), the enemy (snooty but clueless soon-to-be fiancé of the aforementioned single mom), and the fact that none of it could have happened without the magic of Christmas. Henry Winkler plays the uncle (who’s “more like a father”), and I swear his commitment to the movie just raises everyone else’s game in terms of their performances. It’s one of the better examples of the protagonist having an existing relationship where you can actually understand why she’s with him (even if you’re rooting for the traveler). I seriously watch this a couple of times a season, and it is pure magic. Here’s how much I enjoy this movie. I own the DVD (DUH!)…but I also have it DVR’d in case I’m comfy on the couch and want to fall asleep to the dulcet tones of Henry Winkler’s New York accent. Seriously.
Also receiving votes: Naughty or Nice (boring, but the finale is amazing), Nanny for Christmas (too reliant on child actors), All About Christmas Eve (featuring a Diana DeGarmo concert?!), Help for the Holidays (sorry River, but you don’t have the charisma to carry a movie), Christmas Cupid (kind of a bummer since the protagonist is dead), The Christmas Ornament (focuses way too much on mourning – kind of a bummer, could have been great), Matchmaker Santa (it’s just okay), Holiday High School Reunion (it’s barely okay), Mistletoe Over Manhattan (too many unnecessary obstacles), Holidays in Handcuffs (some great body double ice-skating work, but…and I realize how this sounds…it’s too unbelievable)
Never. Not even once: On Strike for Christmas, A Bride for Christmas, Battle of the Bulbs, It’s Christmas, Carol!, Love at the Christmas Table, Christmas Lodge, Let It Snow, Home by Christmas, Christmas Caper, Hitched for the Holidays, A Christmas Wish, The Christmas Wish
It’s that amazing time of year again when the leaves start to turn, the weather starts to change, Saturdays are for football – well, at least the last one is true in the South. But the best part about the fall is being able to watch fantastic scary movies (no bad ones!) during the months of September and October. I’ve written about Rocktober before, but I wanted to clarify what makes a Shocktember movie and what makes a Rocktober movie, and everything in-between.
Few things in life are more important than understanding the difference between a Shocktember movie and a Rocktober movie. Don’t think so? Let me ask you this, hotshot – would you watch Halloween the first week in September, like some kind of animal? Exactly. So I’m here to explain how to categorize these films.
First and foremost, here is the Shocktember.Rocktober.Master.List, which includes movie times so you can fit some of the shorter movies in on a weeknight.
Shocktember movies basically fall into two categories: Creatures and zombies. I don’t want to get into a huge debate about it, but yes, I consider the infected souls in 28 Days Later/28 Weeks Later to be zombies. Other than that, Shocktember encompasses any creature unusual in origin, size, number, or ferocity. Some standouts include:
The Descent: Duh. I’ve written about The Descent a lot (here and here, and I’ll probably be writing another entry soon), but only because it’s absolutely, completely brilliant. Following a tragedy, five women get trapped underground in a cave, only to find out they’re not alone. I consider this to be the best horror movie ever made, and the creatures don’t even show up until 47 minutes into the film.
Black Water: While Rogue (another crocodile movie also on the list) is more action/horror, Black Water is suspense/horror. Both are great, but unlike the raucous ending of Rogue, Black Water keeps everything relatively grounded. The story is simple: Three individuals on a crocodile tour get trapped in a mangrove tree out in the middle of nowhere, with a crocodile trying to kill them. It is wonderful.
The Ruins: This is one where you either buy into the premise (which is admittedly far-fetched) or you do not. I do. Trapped in the jungle on top of ancient ruins (hey!), five friends have to try and survive while something is trying desperately to kill them.
Don’t you forget about: 28 Days Later, Rogue, Shrooms, Last Winter
“Cusp movies” (a term coined by my excellent wife Claire) are horror movie films with a sense of humor; an homage to the genre. These movies have an awareness of what makes a horror film, and they generally mix humor with suspense. They’re called cusp movies because they need to be watched during the last week of Shocktember and the first week of Rocktober. Some standouts include:
Cabin in the Woods: I don’t know about it being the “best horror movie of the 21st century,” but only because The Descent exists. It is absolutely brilliant, chock full of horror movie references while simultaneously explaining, skewering, and embracing the entire genre.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon: Set up as a horror movie documentary where student journalists interview a killer, the movie is a delightful, clever feature that does a great job of explaining the structure of a horror movie. The script is brilliant, but Nathan Baesel’s performance carries the movie.
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil: It’s a funny, smart case of mistaken identity with two actors who escalate the (already excellent) material to an underrated film.
Don’t you forget about: Severance, Dog Soldiers
Rocktober movies can basically be boiled down into two concepts: Slashers and the supernatural. This is where you get a lot of your classic psycho-murderer films, so no point in listen the staples (Halloween, Friday the 13th, etc.). I wrote about some Rocktober movies you shouldn’t miss, but here are a few standouts that you should definitely check out.
It Follows: When one of the best TV/film critics around says it’s the “scariest American horror movie in years,” you should set your expectations accordingly. The film is uncomfortable, unrelenting, and a wonderful allegory for how we think about sex in this country.
The Babadook: Remember when Todd VanDerWerff said that It Follows was the scariest American horror movie in years? Yeah, that’s because The Babadook exists. An Australian horror movie, this film gets inside your head. It’s legitimately creepy, and builds suspense like few movies can.
House of the Devil: Watch this movie. Watch this movie. Watch this movie. Released in 2012, this horror film takes place in the 1980s, and…wow. It feels like the entire thing was shot in 1986 and they just found the footage a few years ago. All you need to know is that it involves devil worship, a babysitter, and incredible suspense.
Don’t you forget about: Halloween (duh-doy), Night of the Demon, Trick R Treat, Paranormal Activity, House of Wax
The weekend is a great time to catch up on horror movies, but let’s face it: sometimes you’ve got stuff to do! This is where the background movies come in. Generally speaking, background movies (like Troy, any Rambo film, Inside Man, etc.) are films designed to be watched while you’re doing something else. A great background movie is entertaining, but not too entertaining – something where you can look up every once in a while to watch a scene, but you don’t have to stare at the screen. The main rules: Nothing too intense/interesting, and no subtitles.
It’s no different for horror movies. Here are a few standouts that don’t stand out too much:
The Burning: Released after Friday the 13th, even if you’ve never seen this movie before…you’ve seen this movie before. It hits all the beats of a slasher film because it was one of the first. After an incident at summer camp, a maniac returns to exact revenge (sound familiar?). The deaths are creative, the killer is actually a bit sympathetic, and it features a very young George Costanza.
Friday the 13th – Part III: Speaking of Friday the 13th…yeah. The fact that this entry in the film was ranked 9th (!!!) in the series is inexcusable. It’s an absolute blast. The acting is horrible, the storyline is muddled, and the subplots are bizarre. But every once in a while, you look up just in time to see a blatant example of 3-D filmmaking (the axe is comin’ right at you!). It’s a perfect background horror movie.
Joy Ride: Until things totally fly off the rails at the very end (which is still wildly entertaining), this movie is way better than it should be. This makes for a great background feature because you can look up every once in a while for an fun sequence, and you can look back down before thinking, “Wait a minute…” Incidentally, if you ever get ahold of the dvd like some kind of dinosaur, there are four alternate endings (and the one in the cornfield is actually better than the version that appears on-screen). Just make sure one of the times you look up is when Walker and Zahn are in the hotel room – that scene belongs in a much better movie.
Don’t you forget about: Wrong Turn, Scream, Psycho
The tricky part about Shocktember/Rocktober is that there really isn’t a place for science fiction films. I love Time Crimes more than most (because it’s an amazing film), but it’s not a fit for fall.
Having said that, there are two movies that I make room for in the movie schedule:
The Thing: This John Carpenter film is timeless, thanks to its claustrophobic atmosphere and practical special effects. While it’s technically sci-fi/horror (the Thing is an alien), quite frankly, it’s too good not to have in the rotation.
Alien: Speaking of too good to exclude, this film has it all. It’s majestic, it’s suspenseful, it’s innovative, it’s exciting – I just have to watch it. No need to watch the director’s cut, as Ridley Scott actually said the only reason he released that format was so it could be released on the big screen again. Having said that, the director’s cut of Aliens actually provides a lot of important exposition that really enhances the story. Now you know.
Congratulations, now you’re ready to embrace these two months of glory.
Whatever you choose to watch, make sure to use this amazing Spiced.Apple.Cider recipe! Let it simmer in the crockpot all day, and pair with a hot bowl of chili.
Now get moving – you have a lot of work to do.
I love movie trailers.
An awful movie trailer is something we remember because it’s just that: Awful. Maybe it was boring. Maybe it gave away the ending of the movie. Who knows? We just remember how awful it is, or forget it immediately.
A great movie trailer is memorable, not merely as an advertisement, but something that can stand on its own, even after watching the film that is being previewed. It truly is an art.
I try to incorporate what I love into class when I can, and the movie trailer seemed like a perfect opportunity. As part of broadcast journalism, students must create compelling, competent stories that encapsulate hours worth of interviews, footage and research in about a minute and a half. Plus, I needed them to get practice using Final Cut Express, so much so that they’re not thinking about editing at all–only content.
So the idea was simple: Have students watch a movie and edit it down into a trailer that is 2-2:30 minutes long.
When I initially came up with this idea, I had wonderful visions of wildly creative trailers where students could use their imaginations and create something amazing. Just like some genius did by re-imagining The Shining:
Unfortunately, the reality of technology makes this difficult. One of my friends taught a class on the movie trailer and had students edit together whatever trailer they wanted. Unfortunately, this meant that he had to upload about 20 different movies so that the students would have the raw footage to edit. If you consider it takes about 2-4 hours to convert movies to the proper format, and then another 1-2 hours to render the footage in Final Cut so you don’t have to re-convert it every time you open up the movie…well, that means anywhere from 60 to 100 hours of time just getting the movies in the proper format. Ugh.
So, I decided to limit things a bit so students could just select from a few films.
The key was that they still got to be creative which, in early journalism classes, can be tough. Hell, anyone can have students exercise their creativity in “Feature Writing” or “Opinion Writing.”
So, as I was saying, for this assignment students had to create a movie trailer. It had to be one of these three films: Planet of Dinosaurs, Kingdom of the Spiders, or Frogs.
Why these three movies?
2) These three are all available to view for free on YouTube, which means I don’t have to share one library copy or waste time watching three different films in class. Fortunately, thanks to the magic of the Information Superhighway, these are not like your typical YouTube films where they’re diced up into 10-minute increments (Millenials don’t have time for that!), but rather the complete films:
3) I didn’t want any students to be at a disadvantage. Let’s say I assigned students to create a movie out of The Shawshank Redemption. Maybe some students have never seen it (for shame), but for others it might be their favorite film of all time. That really wouldn’t be fair to students who haven’t watched it (or have only watched it once). This way, all the students start out on equal ground: They’ve never seen any of these films.
So I assigned this project and, a couple of weeks later, I had a dropbox filled with movie files.
These were my student trailers that really stood out. Even when there were some imperfections, I could still tell what the students were going for.
This first trailer is for Planet of Dinosaurs and it’s pretty straightforward, but he does a great job using the movie’s dialogue with music from a few different movies:
This next trailer is from the movie Frogs, which is a 1970s movie about man v. nature where nature fights back! Again, an overall solid piece where she incorporates great scenes from the movie with a good use of dialogue. The music is a bit familiar, but I think it works:
This next one was inspired by the fantastic Watchmen trailer. This is another trailer for Kingdom of the Spiders, this time with music. I appreciated the creativity. As you can see, the music fits and, at times, synchs up perfectly:
And this last one is also a Kingdom of the Spiders trailer (they just couldn’t get enough of the Shat!). He used the eerie music from the excellent, wildly depressing Requiem for a Dream. I wish the editing would have gotten crazier and more frantic as the music took off, but I love what he was going for here and thought the trailer was excellent:
The assignment served its purpose. I’ll be honest–the students weren’t thrilled about watching the actual movies (I’ll have to teach them to appreciate movies ironically), but they had a good time editing down the movies, exercised some creativity, and are completely comfortable with the editing software. I’m considering it a mission accomplished!
Even though flatscreen TVs have made entertainment centers all but irrelevant, many of us still want items around the TV. Maybe it’s because we want to advertise who we are, maybe it’s so the TV just doesn’t sit alone in some sort of living room limbo. Hell, maybe we just don’t want to walk to the other room every time we want to grab a dvd.
For Claire and me, it’s a minimalist approach with a low TV stand and wall shelves surrounding it (thank you IKEA!). We engaged in a lively debate about what would go on the shelves, which mostly went like this:
ME: How about we put some of my dinosaurs on the shelf!?
Good times! But Claire knows of my love for movies, and so I was put in charge of figuring out what movies to display. I don’t want to exaggerate, but this might be literally the most important task I’ve ever done in my life.
I don’t know the exact number of dvds I have, but I have two large dvd racks (one for monster movies, the other for the rest) that still can’t hold all of my movies. You might be in the same situation. Obviously, you can’t put them all on display in the living room (believe me, I asked), so how do you decide what to display? How did I come up with this incredible display?
Follow these tips, and you’ll have people staring at your dvd collection throughout the fancy dinner party/murder mystery/first date.
Your movie collection says more about you than anything else (at least to other movie lovers). Therefore, you must include some movies that absolutely need to be included. For me, I knew I couldn’t have my movies on display without including King Kong (the extended edition which includes the swamp scene) and The Descent (which I write about from time to time).
No one wants to saunter up to your movie collection to be greeted by a single genre (at least not for your main display). It kills the conversation, eliminates intrigue, and pegs you as a one-trick pony, someone who has a sophisticated action-adventure palette but is lost when it comes to drama. I have everything from sci-fi (Dark City, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek) to westerns (The Magnificent Seven, Unforgiven) to drama (The Usual Suspects, Heat, No Country for Old Men) to comedy (Hot Fuzz). Throw some variety in your grouping. And, as a bonus piece of advice, make sure you mix up the actors/actresses as well. Brad Pitt is fantastic, but we don’t need to celebrate the man’s entire collection.
We get it, you like Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones (not including the fourth one), and Star Wars (not including the prequels or the Ewoks). So does most everyone else. So why are you wasting our time? Most of the movie series you would want to buy are widely acknowledged as popular, great films, so there’s no need to state the obvious. Plus, space is at a premium, and the bulky packaging of these movie sets (with their booklets and extra dvds) isn’t helping you. If the original theatrical release of the original Star Wars trilogy is ever released in high def, I might make an exception.
You might want to try and hint at a series, but only if the film can stand alone. As you can see, I include Casino Royale because it shows that I am an avid James Bond fan, but also because you don’t have to watch every film before it to understand what is happening. It transcends the series, whereas other films (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Godfather trilogies) are pretty reliant on the others.
Yes, you’re very refined and cultured. But part of the reason you’re displaying movies is to connect with visitors, and if all you have is obscure Czechoslovakian films, then the conversation stops cold (and the eye-rolling probably gets revved up). Limit yourself to one or two (maybe even three or four, though that’s pushing it) to sprinkle into your collection. For me, it’s Battle Royale and TimeCrimes (Princess Mononoke is also on there, but it’s voiced by American actors, so it could go either way). The more appealing, the better. Royale is a fantastic movie (as evidenced by this clip), but not as mainstream, and so it’s something to talk about. If you’ve put your collection together correctly, when people see a movie title they don’t recognize, they’ll ask you about it (because they’ve agreed with your other films–otherwise why are they inside your house?).
This is your living room, not the Disney vault (no Song of the South release date Walt?). Like the foreign films, throw in one or two, and then move on. Along with Princess Mononoke, I also threw in WALL-E (I defy you to find a children’s film with imagery as powerful as the first 10 minutes of that movie…and no, the heartbreaking montage from Up doesn’t count). For me, if I put Aladdin up there, I’d have to put The Little Mermaid up there, along with Beauty and the Beast, Lion King…
You can’t find someone who is going to agree with every movie you love. Hell, even my buddy Jared (pictured here) and I only had 99% agreement when Netflix still allowed friends (granted, that was with 3000+ movies, but it still was not 100%). So you need to take some risks. No one’s going to get to upset with The Shawshank Redemption or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but Brick, The Thing, and Lost Horizon probably turned a few heads.
Hopefully your movie collection is evolving, maybe you even have a few movies that didn’t make the cut that you feel sorry for, or it might just be that you want to change things up. Get a rotation going and just trade out a few movies every once in a while. Next up on my roster is Iron Giant, The Lookout, Oldboy, and probably Mackenna’s Gold. For me, it keeps me interested and makes sure the movie selection doesn’t become stale. Plus, if you have frequent guests, they might even notice that you replaced a few movies! You know, it’s never happened to me, but there’s still hope for you!
At the end of the day, it’s your movie collection, and you’re allowed to include some left field picks. For instance, I included Commando. Is it because it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen? No, of course not. But it is the best worst movie I’ve ever seen, and I felt that it deserved to be on display. Just make sure it’s a bold pick that you can defend, and you’ll be the talk of the town.
Now, go re-organize your movie collection!
Not having the autumn around can be tough. The leaves don’t really change in Texas, nor does the weather (except for an errant haboob every now and then). But I know that the fall has truly arrived when Rocktober starts. What is Rocktober? Great question!
Rocktober is an annual tradition where my wife and I watch as many quality scary movies as possible during the month of October. And it rocks!
Now, this isn’t a competition. We have a list of movies we try to get through, but it doesn’t always work. Stuff happens. Deadlines, grading, the Community Halloween episode–if we don’t get to all the films, there’s always next year (or, for some, next month–The Orphanage is always good).
So what do you need? Only three things.
1) Nighttime. The Birds and Scream should be the only scary movies you should watch during the day. The rest of the year you have plenty of time for other movies. Make time for Rocktober.
2) Apple cider. If you can, find a great recipe (start with real cider, not that apple juice they market as cider at the grocery store), and let that beast simmer in the crockpot. If you need a recipe, here’s the one we use:
• 8 cups apple cider
• 1/4 – 1/2 cup of brown sugar
• 6 inches of stick cinnamon
• 1 tsp whole allspice
• 1 tsp. whole cloves
Put the dry materials in a spice bag, and enjoy.
3) The movies. For all of you who want to play along at home, here is the list of films. Unfortunately, I do draw the line at some films. For example, I like having zombies represented on the list (Night of the Living Dead), but I don’t want to spend the entire month on them (especially those that *technically* aren’t true zombie movies, such as 28 Days Later). As for pretty much everything else, it’s just a matter of preference. Add or take away what you wish.
I would, however, like to mention three specific movies that you might want to be sure to include. You don’t need me to tell you that Halloween is a masterpiece, or that The Thing is one of the greatest horror films of all time. And by now I’m sure you know of my unmatched adoration for The Descent (you should–I talked about it here…and here too). But here are three that you might have overlooked:
Trick ‘R’ Treat: This one was actually not even released in theaters, but it should be a permanent addition to your Halloween line-up. I actually watch it the day before Halloween (both the day and the movie). It’s a series of four stories, all taking place on Halloween. It’s dark, but has dark humor. It’s very aware of its audience, but doesn’t mug for the camera. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but has some genuinely scary moments. Oh, and it features (among others) Anna Paquin and Brian Cox. Show your friends–you’ll look like a genius.
Night of the Demon: It’s strange that when I talk about horror classics, I tend to forget about everything pre-1978. Night of the Demon was released in 1957 and it stars Dana Andrews as a scientist who debunks the supernatural, but is faced with a series of mysterious deaths (think the premise of The Reaping but without the heavy-handed religious message. And the horrible ending. And the awful pacing. On second thought, don’t think of The Reaping.). The plot might not sound like anything impressive, but the acting and the atmosphere make for a truly unsettling film (without any gore).
House of Wax: Yes, the original is a classic, but I am more and more impressed by the remake each time I watch it. Yes, I am aware that the critics do not feel the same way I do. But here’s my take: House of Wax is the complete opposite of the modern horror film because it starts off horribly but gets better and better. I realize that the film was basically a vehicle to see Paris Hilton killed off, but after the first 20 minutes of what can laughably be called character development, the plot really takes off and there are some great scenes. Rocktober is a 31 day event–you’ve got time.
Here is the list, in no particular order. Enjoy.
– Trick R Treat
– Friday the 13th
– The Shining
– Nightmare on Elm Street
– The Ring
– The Orphanage
– Blair Witch Project
– House of Wax
– The Changeling
– The Thing
– The Orphan
– Let Me In
– Behind the Mask
– The Mist
– Dog Soldiers
– Last Winter
– Paranormal Activity
– Night of the Living Dead
– Night of the Demon
– The Omen
So, every once in a while, I like to live-blog a movie as I watch it. I wasn’t going to for Battle: Los Angeles, but I was complaining about it so much that it seemed only natural. I should warn you that I started blogging about 20 minutes in, so it starts abruptly.
For background (according to IMDB): “A Marine Staff Sergeant who has just had his retirement approved goes back into the line of duty in order to assist a 2nd Lieutenant and his platoon as they fight to reclaim the city of Los Angeles from alien invaders.” Rottentomatoes has Battle: Los Angeles sitting at 20% with the Top Critics (who the hell would care about the other critics?), and rightfully so. It’s all kinds of stupid, as you’ll see. Let’s get this over with.
• Oh look, the dorky redheaded kid is a virgin AND he vomits. For the rest of my life, I will always remember dumb-looking soldier #4.
• They’re walking down a smoky street and they can’t see. The suspense is killing me—what if something happens to one of the 15 interchangeable main characters??
• Ah, the tension is broken because it was a dog. I’ll bet that’s totally all it is and none of these people are going to be killed. This is like Horror Movie 101 for Dummies.
• And an alien fires an explosive device and kills a couple of Marines. Shocker.
• A little tip to all you directors out there—battle scenes that are entirely shot with medium shots and close-ups are painfully difficult to watch. There are these things called establishing shots and a long shots, both of which can be used to give some kind of bearing for the audience so we know where the hell the characters are in relation to one another. You taking notes, Michael Bay? Share them with whomever screwed up Quantum of Solace—I don’t care enough to look it up.
• That’s it—shake the camera even more! “Wow! It’s like I’m right in the middle of the battle too! It’s so realistic!
• No worries. Aaron Eckhart got them out of that nasty situation. Aaron, what the hell are you doing in this movie? It seems like the role was meant for someone else. Like John Cena.
• Oh no, one of the Marines isn’t with them. So they’re going to go find him. Oh shit, it’s the dumbass redheaded kid! How could I forget about him??!
• And he just spilled laundry detergent all over himself. Shouldn’t there be like wacky music playing whenever he’s on-screen?
• He found an alien! And they killed it together. Ummm…yay?
• Oh gods, Ana Lucia is here. And she’s sassy! “I didn’t get here just because of my good looks.” ZING! Wait…zing?
• Now they’re searching a police station that is deserted…or is it??? Probably not.
• Nope, they found civilians…including kids. You know what improves every action movie ever? Kids. Just ask Jurassic Park.
• The helicopter took off and left Eckhart, Lucia, and some others (including the kids!). Then the helicopter was destroyed by aliens. Subtle, daring message about how you shouldn’t leave kids behind to be killed. But will America listen????
• This thing is like paint-by-numbers. Now two Marines are arguing about how it’s no one’s fault that the chopper blew up. Apparently, they lost some good men up there.
• Aaron Eckhart wants his commanding officer to be more assertive. Aaron Eckhart is The Decider!
• Now we’re being introduced to the kids. The director has officially given up on having us care about the main characters and hoping that some kind of paternal instinct will kick in and deep down we’ll care about the children out of some evolutionary obligation. Nope. I don’t want to sound like I’m exaggerating or anything, but I would rather see the entire human race extinct then suffer through crappy kids thrown into movies.
• I am absolutely amazed at how much movies like this cost to make, and yet how stupid the alien special effects look. District 9 cost a fraction of this budget, and it looked (and was) absolutely badass
• And the little girl is coloring. Do you get it, people?? She just wants a return to normalcy!
AUTHOR’S NOTE: You’ll notice a bit of a jump here. I’m dead serious: I nodded off. Yeah, I did. Los Angeles is being destroyed, and I was bored to sleep. Let’s see if I can dive back into the action and somehow pick up this oh-so-complex plot.
• More running through the streets. Yawn.
• And now the kids are running.
• And the firefight continues. Jesus, I don’t think I’ve ever been this bored watching a movie filled with explosions.
• The civilian man grabs a gun and is shot. But not before taking out an alien. So easy, a civilian can do it!
• You know, movies with quasi-incompetent aliens aren’t scary. Alien aliens? Scary. Predator alien? Scary. Hell, even Independence Day aliens were badass in their own way.
• Now the lieutenant is decisively dying. But he’s dying bravely like a MAN, so I guess it’s okay.
• Seriously, he shouts out “Hoo-rah” over the radio before he dies. I never understood the phrase, “War is hell” until I watched this movie.
• Now everyone’s sad. Well, not everyone. I’m nodding off again. Come on Josh, you can do it!
• Now Aaron Eckhart is in charge. I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.
• The civilian is dying and makes the Marines promise to save his son. Save me instead.
• They see news footage of a ship and determine that must be controlling the aliens. If they destroy that ship, the humans win!
• They’re back at the airfield, but everyone has been killed. Seriously, I’m not even joking—they could somehow kill me on-screen (hopefully via CGI), and at this point I would just kind of shrug my shoulders in relative indifference.
• The kid is holding onto the hand of his dead civilian father. Just imagine how much more I could care if: 1) I had the slightest clue who the guy was 2) The kid could act 3) The writers gave me a reason to care about this person other than the fact that he wasn’t an alien trying to destroy Los Angeles 4) The kid could act
• God, the kid is “crying” because his dad died. Well, it looks like laughing, but I think that’s supposed to be crying. Man, if I didn’t hate the aliens for destroying half of Los Angeles, I certainly hate them now for killing ol’ Whathisnuts! Think of the children!
• Aaron is delivering a soulful speech to the kid that starts off, “Marines don’t quit.” Was this guy really in Thank You For Smoking?
• You know what’s better than a stirring monologue? Another one that follows roughly 45 seconds later. Totally effective.
• Holy shit! Eckhart knew one of the Marine’s brothers who died in another battle. Eckhart rattled off the dead guy’s serial number or whatever. Tears were shed. Eyes were rolled.
• Ana Lucia after running over aliens: “They’re going down like bowling pins!” Is that an actual expression?
• An alien just landed on the hood of her Humvee. She shot it and the head exploded, spraying slimy stuff all over her. Ana Lucia: “I got that nasty stuff all over my mouth!” Guy driving the Humvee: **laughing** “You let him do you on the first date??” I literally almost vomited. Was this movie written by like a computer or something? It has all the necessary elements—textbook, really—but nothing seems to fit together. Seriously, that was disgusting.
• They’re evacuating. Throw those damn kids out of the helicopter and salvage this movie.
• Seriously, say “civilians” one more time. We get it, you’re Marines.
• Now they’re going to recon where the alien headquarters might be, in the hopes of taking out the alien drones so the military can win. In second grade, I wrote a 14-sentence story about a blue whale that learned how to walk so he could play with dinosaurs. This movie makes that look epic in comparison.
• Alien ambush!!!! But the Marines killed them. You know, for as grave a threat as these things are supposed to present, these guys don’t seem to have too much trouble killing them.
• Now they’ve found the main alien ship that, if destroyed, will win the war for the humans. Again, I have to go back to the invincibility of aliens being directly related to the how scary they are. Entire race being immobilized because one ship is destroyed? Not scary.
• Oh noes! They killed that one nameless Marine!
• The aliens have a tank-like thing…that was destroyed by a grenade launcher. How in the hell are these creatures winning the battle?
• Ana Lucia kills another alien. I should have been counting how many aliens this ragtag group of misfits have killed. It’s a lot. I mean, there are like, what, 5,000 aliens? Maybe? Seems like a decent-sized army could make short work of them.
• The Marines are trying to destroy the ship by calling in air support by using a laser-targeting device. They have to put the laser beam on what they want the missiles to hit. I’m sure it’s supposed to be dramatic, but it looks like a gigantic slide projector. QUICK! SOMEONE LOOKS AT THESE PICTURES FROM ALCATREZ ISLAND! SEE? THERE I AM IN A PRISON CELL! NOW THERE’S MY SISTER IN A PRISON CELL! NOW HERE’S ANOTHER SHOT OF US BOTH IN THE PRISON CELL!
• The last missile brought down the ship, and now all the aliens are dead. For realsies. All gone.
• Generic congratulations from a generic commanding officer.
• Wait a minute—did that officer just say “Hoorah?” Are these Marines? Why didn’t they hint at this earlier in the movie?? I had no idea!
• Ahhh, and even though the Marines are supposed to take a break, they’re going right back to the front lines. This is like boot camp porn. And that’s the end. Thank god.
As you know by now, I have an absolute love for monster movies. I used to hit up the now-defunct “Saturday Movie Matinee” video store at the Richland Mall in the bustling megalopolis of Mansfield, Ohio, and I would stare at shelf after shelf of classic (and not-so-classic) monster movies. With limited funds, I would pore over each box, making the tough decision between Island of Terror and The Land Unknown or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (colorized!) and It Came From Outer Space. It was fantastic.
Yet, every once in a while, I would strike gold somewhere else, normally in some discount bin at Meijer. My prize finds were UHF (granted, not a monster movie, but still a classic) and One Million Years B.C. (not to be confused with One Million B.C., starring Victor Mature), and I always kept my eyes open. On one such adventure, my eyes caught an intriguing movie box, featuring scantily-clad women in futuristic costumes fighting a gigantic Tyrannosaurus Rex. Check it:
Not as scandalous as the overseas version, but honestly the idea of people fighting dinosaurs was enough for me. Plenty of dinosaur monster movies exist, but for every One Million Years B.C., there are plenty of craptastic ones (Dinosaurus, King Dinosaur, Lost Continent, People That Time Forgot, The Lost World…). I had high hopes about Planet of Dinosaurs, and to be honest, they were met..eventually.
This movie is, by all measures, an utter disaster. It uses stop-motion effects for the dinosaurs…even though the movie was made in 1978. The actors look (and “act”) like 1970s porn stars. The script is horrible, there is way too much walking, the electronic musical score is almost overpowering, and the plot is pretty cliche. Hell, it’s so bad that the MST3K guys even riffed on it (and did a fantastic job).
And yet, despite its ineptitude, I kept coming back to watch it again and again. Hell, I still own the original vhs I purchased forever ago, the dvd that was released, and even the 30th anniversary dvd (though, through some sort of error, the dvd cover reads “20th anniversary edition“). There is just something about this movie, and if you’re a fan of campy adventure, I think you’ll feel the same way.
Let’s start with the effects. They’re actually pretty great. Check out these dinosaurs:
And speaking of effects, don’t forget that Planet of Dinosaurs has one of the greatest death scenes of all time:
Now, almost at the opposite end of the spectrum is the acting. Some people have blamed the script, but when you watch the movie…well…it’s pretty obvious. Sure, the plot is borderline cliche, but so are 90 percent of all monster movies. It’s a traditional storyline: Group is stranded, characters suffer suspicions/doubts about one another, the group bands together against a common foe, and ultimately the characters achieve harmony with themselves and their new environment. And, for me, that traditional storyline works, especially when you consider that the group is stranded on a planet of fucking dinosaurs! BAM!
Seriously though, the acting is rough, but the intent is there. Listening to the commentary track (yes, I am that fond of this movie), you hear about this group of people who just wanted to make a movie and, by goodness, they did. Only one of them was a trained actor (and he hams it up something fierce), they acknowledge all of their mistakes, but again the intent was there.
At the end of the day, I think it comes down to the fact that I have weaknesses for dinosaurs and for adventure movies. Quick, name five great dramas. Easy, yeah? Five great comedies? No worries. Five great science fiction films? Please. But five great adventure films? Tricky. And I’m not talking about action/adventure, I mean true adventure, 1950s serial-type adventure. You have Raiders of the Lost Ark (which I have talked about before) at the top, a few decent contributions (e.g., Romancing the Stone, Tarzan) and a bunch of crap. Planet of Dinosaurs swung for the fences. It was a pop-up to center field, but the exhilaration was there. And dammit, at least they tried.
Given the recent political developments and this being a hectic time of the year, I’ve had trouble coming up with something interesting to write about (unless you want me to write about grading woes or sit there and listen to my post-election soul quietly weep). Then, one of my friends inadvertently (or was it vertently?) reminded me of a long-forgotten feature: The Underrated Movie. Thanks Kenneth.
As I stated in my previous Underrated Movie entry on Pitch Black, this is not about mainstream films or award-winning movies. These are movies that unjustly slipped by moviegoers and critics alike, and they deserve better. Today’s underrated movie: Mackenna’s Gold.
Starring a slew of icons and a Western formula on steroids, this is a film all about adventure. Gregory Peck plays a marshall who stumbles upon a map that leads to the legendary Canyon del Oro (Canyon of Gold). However, he runs into an old nemesis–a thief and murderer played by Omar Sharif who wants to find the canyon for himself and also exact revenge on Peck for arresting him. Unfortunately for Omar, Greg had burned the map. So, the marshall becomes his hostage (if Gregory doesn’t lead Omar to the gold, Omar will kill his other captive–an attractive woman!) until they reach the Canyon del Oro. On the way, they run into the cavalry, Apache, and American Indian spirits, along with Telly Savalas, Lee Cobb, Burgess Meredith, Edward G. Robinson, Eli Wallach, and a number of other stars.
Mackenna’s Gold came at the tail end of the Western heyday. Made in 1969, the days of John Ford, John Wayne, The Magnificent Seven, and Shane were long-since passed, but the spirit lives on in this movie.
So why do I love this movie? Why has it made it through my childhood into adulthood relatively unscathed, despite my dangerous levels of cynicism? Quite frankly, it’s because Mackenna’s Gold is SO Western and SO over-the-top that it bypasses absurd and achieves greatness.
Let me walk you through the various scenes in Gold. From a hidden box canyon hideout, the characters are ambushed at an old well by the cavalry, travel to a secret oasis, are pursued by the cavalry through the mountains and desert, and get chased by Apaches down a river before finding a secret canyon practically made of gold. Oh, and of course there were also gun fights, plenty of hand-to-hand combat, high-speed horse chases, betrayal, love, hate, and a mother-fucking earthquake. For reals.
Everything in this movie is spectacularly big budget, in the grand tradition of the Western epic. Check out these locations from the film:
As you can see, it’s all grandoise, and it’s all wonderful. What makes it especially fun (beyond the fact that it tries so hard to entertain us) is the wild disparity of quality within the movie. You’ll have one shot of a sweeping vista that captures the vastness of the Old West, and five minutes later the actors will be sitting around on a set that looks like it was swiped from The Three Amigos. You’ll see a wonderful action sequence that is both tense and exciting, but the next frame is a shot of tiny, poorly constructed models. And, of course, every once in a while you’ll have some 1970s-esque camera effects to just add to the cheesiness.
I don’t discuss this to be a jerk. Honestly, it’s this kind of thing that makes the movie that much more endearing. Sure, it has some cheesy effects, the run-time is a bit long, and some of the actors look exhausted. But it also has some great sequences, an adventurous spirit, a stellar cast, and a compelling story. But, most importantly, it has heart, which is a staple of the Western and something that is sorely lacking in many films today.
This is the problem when you get so caught up in user comments as a way to try and connect with your audience in the laziest way possible. The result? Utter pablum.
The most recent example of this comes from Entertainment Weekly. As evidenced by my posts, I absolutely love movies, and I thoroughly enjoy articles discussing them (the Onion‘s AV Club and Den of the Geek are consistently intriguing). So, imagine my joy when I saw EW’s article entitled “20 ‘Classic’ Movies You Call Overrated.”
Now this had potential. It’s the ultimate Internet argument article because you can argue over what is considered a classic and whether or not those movies are overrated. That’s gold! Well, at least it is in theory…
See, much like when CNN reads Twitter posts out loud as a way of establishing some sort of coolness/technology credibility with its nonexistent young viewers, many pieces are doing the same thing with reader comments. Because, you see, this isn’t really an article at all–it’s just what you get when you Google “classic movie” and “stupid.”
Check it: For Lawrence of Arabia, here is the insightful commentary on the Oscar-winning film:
“Growing up, I loved watching old movies and heard this to be epic. Was never on TV, couldn’t find it to rent. Finally came on PBS, commercial-free. I was so excited. I fell asleep 3 times. Every time I woke up, just more walking on sand. — mlk”
No, that’s not a comment from the article, it is the article (at least the part about Lawrence of Arabia). First off, someone alert the fucking press, because Martin Luther King, Jr. is back from the dead! Secondly, that’s it? That’s your critique? It was boring? Nothing about the acting, the pacing–just that it was boring?
Here’s another, this time for “The Wizard of Oz“:
“Totally agree about The Wizard of Oz. Those flying monkeys made me flee the room screaming as a child; still hate that movie. — HarrietMck”
First of all, Harriet, what do you totally agree with? I’m confused. Secondly, what exactly is your critique? The monkeys made you leave the room…when you were a kid. So do they still scare you? Is it just the bad memory?
This is lazy “journalism” at its worst. Now I’m wishing I worked for Entertainment Weekly–hell, I can do this!
Here’s my newest article (this time without the obnoxious slideshow):
11 “Good” Movies You Call Crap
11. Forrest Gump – Lame
10. Star Wars: Episode 1 – Stupid
9. Erin Brokovich – Awful
8. Transformers – Dumb
7. Armageddon – Dreadful
6. Twilight – Piss
5. The Village – Repulsive
4. Ocean’s 12 – Idiotic
3. Spiderman 3 – Rough
2. One Missed Call – Vapid
1. Crash – Foolish
Pulitzer Prize, here I come!
Yes, I will continue to analyze this movie because it is absolute genius. And yes, this entry is designed for people who have seen this movie before–spoilers galore.
As I said, I have analyzed this movie before, and I have written pages and pages on The Descent. But I cannot stop until I solve the mystery. Again, enough cannot be said about this film. Nothing is wasted in this film – every line of dialogue has a purpose and every shot is necessary. The characters themselves are rich and this is one of the very few films to feature a nearly all-female cast (typically the closest thing Hollywood comes to an all-female cast is The Women). Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that for a character to count, (s)he has to speak at least three lines of dialogue. By that definition, this cast is comprised solely of women. But can you think of any others? By that same definition, an all-male cast is relatively easy to find: The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, First Blood, Patton, Shawshank Redemption… That’s just one of the many things that makes this film so unique.
Of course, what’s perhaps most interesting (as we’ve discussed before) is what truly happened in this film. Last time we talked about the possibility of Sarah being in the hospital and dreaming everything, the possibility that she murdered everyone, and the possibility that she remained trapped in the cave.
Let’s discuss this further.
After the bitchin’ car wreck, Sarah wakes up in the hospital, attached to a variety of machines. She pulls the sensors off of herself and the camera focuses on the heart monitor, which reads as a flatline (naturally, since she removed the indicators). Then things get really interesting. Sarah walks out into the deserted hallway and turns around in time to see the lights turning off, slowly overtaking her as she runs away. Darkness, as we will see, plays a key role throughout the movie.
I think you can make a decent argument that Sarah never actually leaves the hospital room. She remains in a coma and the crawlers slowly kill off her friends (which represent part of her psyche) until none remain and she dies right there.
Her friends could easily represent her psyche–just look at the roster:
Beth – Loyalty, friendship
Sam – Innocence
Juno – Adventure (or “the id”)
Rebecca – Responsibility
Holly – Sexuality (could easily be adventure as well)
But, to me anyway, the idea that it was all in her head feels like a cop-out of a movie–while we’re making it “all just a dream,” why don’t we hit on all the cliches and give some character amnesia. Brilliant!
No, The Descent deserves better than that.
I believe that Sarah did leave the hospital room and, a year later, she was reunited with her friends. Then, during a caving expedition, they were trapped, she slowly went insane, and savagely murdered everyone in the group.
As any good horror movie would do, this is hinted at in the dialogue. Early on, Rebecca warns that down in the caves, “you can get dehydration, disorientation, claustrophobia, panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations, visual and aural deterioration.” When Sarah first sees a crawler, Juno is frantic in trying to convince that it’s Sarah’s eyes that are playing tricks on her.
Furthermore, watch Juno whenever she sees Sarah near the end of the film – Juno is clearly terrified.
The most damning piece of evidence occurs at precisely 1 hour 20 minutes into the movie. Sarah has just been born again hard, emerging from the pool of blood and ramming a horn into a lady crawler’s head before braining another crawler with a gigantic bone. Victorious, she stands on a rock with her torch in hand, takes a deep breath, and screams as loudly as she can. The film then cuts to Juno, Sam, and Rebecca who are startled by the scream. However, this is where it gets nuts. The scream is NOT Sarah’s, at least not the one they hear. The scream is continuous, but as soon as the shot cuts from Sarah to the remaining members of the group, it changes into the screech of the crawlers.
In case you couldn’t follow that, here’s the video clip:
So, if I’m correct, the group is trapped by a cave-in, which pushes Sarah over the edge. Driven mad by the situation, by the darkness (which the girls warned about), and the death of her family, Sarah kills her friends before settling down to die underground (either by her own hand or by the elements over time).
This is where the faces come into play. Remember talking about the faces? They’re everywhere in the movie. Some are obvious examples:
While others are less obvious (like the eyes hiding behind Sarah when she awakens from a nightmare in the cabin:
See the eyes?
These shots bothered me to no end, because I couldn’t figure out what the faces represented. This last time watching it, I realized that it wasn’t about faces; it was about the eyes. The eyes represent a point of view, a way of explaining to the viewer through whose lens we’re watching the events unfold. I argue that, after Sarah goes insane, we (the audience) start seeing the events through two different points of views: Sarah’s and everyone else’s.
Every time we cut to shots of the crawlers attacking the other women in the group (Juno et al.), that’s Sarah’s warped vision of what’s going on–her mind’s coping mechanism for understanding what’s happened to her friends. Every time Sarah enters the shot, the viewpoint switches.
Don’t believe me? Look at the utter horror on Juno’s face when she sees Sarah for the first time since hearing her scream:
Throw in the fact that Sarah spends the last part of the film covered in blood, and the fact that we see Sarah kill Beth and Juno, and I feel like this “mystery crawlers” theory has some merit. Sure, we see the crawlers when she’s fighting with Juno, but, no damage is done to either woman. It’s the confrontation between those two women afterward that determines Juno’s fate.
Another reason that Sarah may have been killing people was because of her daughter. What? Yes. Her daughter.
What I noticed the most this time was the constant presence of the image of Sarah’s daughter. In the film, there are no fewer than four shots of Sarah’s daughter (after the girl has died) holding a birthday cake (they had spoken of her upcoming birthday in the car). She only appears when Sarah is unconscious, most of the time after falling and hitting her head. Specifically, these occur when Sarah is in the hospital, after Sarah is almost trapped in the tunnel, after she falls into the pit (before seeing Holly), and at the end of the film. There is also another spot after Holly breaks her leg where Sarah hears her daughter’s laughter and pursues the sound (this is the first time she sees a crawler)–not technically a sighting, but the daughter was involved.
In one intriguing shot (after Sarah runs away from the alleged crawler, falls down, and hits her head), she has another vision of her daughter. But, as you can see, her daughter literally transforms into a crawler:
Assuming the daughter is a representation of Sarah’s psyche, this might be a marker for when her mind split.
Now, the other times we see the daughter, young Jessica is blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Here is a screen shot of the cake flashback:
Notice the five candles? How about the five friends? This film is far too good for that to be a coincidence. Especially given the last shot. Prepare to have your mind blown.
And here is a shot of the cake that appears at the end of the film. Notice anything different?
Six candles! BOOM!
So what’s the significance? For me, I think it goes back to the basics. Before you blow out your birthday candles, you make a wish. I think that, in Sarah’s mind, her daughter (Jessie) was wishing to be reunited with her mom. In order for that to come true, the candles all had to be blown out. There were five candles, and each represented one of her friends. One by one, Sarah snuffed out those candles by killing her friends. In the last shot, there were six candles. As Sarah sits across from the image of her daughter, you can hear the crawlers screeching in the background. The sixth candle is Sarah (evidenced by the fact that she is the only one carrying around a torch), and she’s about to kill herself to finally be with her daughter.
We assume these shots are interrupting the film. Could it be that, as far as Sarah is concerned, the movie is interrupting these shots? She needs to get rid of her friends in order to be with her daughter. This would suggest that her friends were either killed off in her mind or that Sarah literally killed them all in the cave.
Again, this is an interpretation, not the interpretation, but it’s one that I think is worthy of this film. What a masterpiece.
You know, I complain so much about The Blind Side I sometimes forget I’ve never seen it. I’ve seen the publicity-hype around Sandra Bullock to snare her the Oscar, I’ve seen the trailers, and I’ve read my share of reviews (this one is particularly good). But I’ve never actually seen the movie.
So, I figured it was time. I am going to type my thoughts while I watch this movie. I should warn you that there is no hint of objectivity here–just sarcastic Joshua T. being bitter at a movie. Oh, and this movie is over two hours long, so this may be a lengthy entry.
Okay, let’s get started.
• Oh, good, the writers awkwardly managed to work in the phrase “blind side” a whopping 3 minutes into the film. Hey, that’s the name of the movie!
• What a lame-ass stretch to show the infamous Theismann/Taylor tackle and then paint it as something other than a pathetic YouTube/Boomer shout-out.
• Obligatory drive through the “bad part” of town. OMG, a lingerie store??!! They must be in the ghetto!
• Maybe this is just Larry Liberal talking, but these shots of suburbia are far more disturbing than the so-called projects we just saw
• BAHHH! You’re right, movie. White people are crazy! Have you ever noticed how White people drive cars like this but Black people drive cars like this? Cutting edge humor.
• Sandra Bullock finally shows up! Chew some scenery, girl from Speed 2!
• Crikey, that kid has spoken eight words and already I’m annoyed.
• Jesus, we learn “Big Mike” can write, but even the White teacher reads it aloud for him. He entitled it “White Walls.” Do you get it people?? Symbolism! I’ve seen more subtlety in a Michael Bay film.
• The kid has a name–Shawn Jr. He’s giving Big Mike pointers on how to be nice to girls. Stellar.
• In case you were curious, we’re 18 minutes into the movie and Big Mike has said exactly 20 words. Shawn Jr., who we met like 3 minutes ago, already has more.
• It’s possible that this Shawn Jr. lowered the bar so drastically that Bullock’s performance was Day-Lewis-esque by comparison. Right now he’s decked out in a full-length American Indian headdress. He’s the second-most offensive stereotype in this movie.
• Sandra Bullock doesn’t swear. I’m sure that won’t be a running joke/dramatic speech later on
• But the gym is closed, Big Mike! BAM! Sandra Bullock: P.I.!
• Bullock glares (stares thoughtfully? What the hell is she trying to convey?) at her husband (Tim McGraw/Shawn). Tim: “I’ve seen that look many times.” Yeah, so has anyone who has seen any Sandra Bullock movie ever. She’s got the acting range of Hayden Christensen.
• Oh, her husband sleeps on the couch when he’s bad. No doubt who runs this household!
• Of course they have a book of Norman Rockwell paintings sitting on their coffee table. Who doesn’t? Nothing like being beat over the head with clunky metaphors. It’s about CONTRAST, people!
• Wow, he folded the sheets. Diamond in the rough indeed!
• Big Mike is sitting at the dining room table while the family is watching football! WHAT??! Now Bullock has brought them all into the dining room too. Man, they can learn a lot from this guy. This is what family is really about. Seriously, I’ve seen less heavy-handed writing in a Danny Tanner monologue. Keep ’em coming, Blind Side. I’ll keep throwing out references if you keep doling out this bullshit.
• Hesitation by the daughter, but then she metaphorically takes Big Mike’s metaphorical hand to say metaphorical grace metaphorically.
• Oh ZING! Bullock is taking Big Mike shopping because he “obviously doesn’t know how.” She’s so outrageous! She’s saying what everyone is thinking!
WORD COUNT: It’s 30 minutes into the movie and Big Mike, who so far has been in practically every scene in the movie, is up to 36 words. Seriously. That’s okay, Blind Side. Let’s just let Whites characters talk about racism–what could a Black character possibly have to offer?
• Ahhh, Big Mike doesn’t like to be called Big Mike. He prefers to be called Michael.
• Oh PG-13 ghetto–you are terrifying. Loud music and people sitting outside??! Take that, Hamsterdam!
• Shopping for clothes. A purple shirt on Michael? Sandra, what were you thinking?? You know what they need? “Pretty Woman” playing in the background. Kind of an homage to Julia for her bullshit Oscar.
• Oh, but don’t worry–he has picked out a shirt that they’re not showing the audience, and Sandra seems incredulous. Oh, man, when they show that shirt, it’s going to be outrageous!
• Here comes the pay-off…OH NO! A striped shirt that is gold and maroon? I’ll bet the audience was rolling for hours.
• Sandra talking with her haughty Southerner housewife friends. I’m sure this will end well. Jesus, is everything in this movie a walking cliche?
• Oh good, they’re talking about Sandra’s interest in the “projects” with disdain, suggesting that she’s just taking on another “charity case.” (And yes, the character in the movie used scare quotes). Oh, and Sandra’s already indignant. How could they possibly be saying these kinds of things? My god, she’s been living with a Black man in her house for almost two days and she just drove him to his place on the so-called wrong side of town. She’s so much more enlightened than they are.
• They’re looking over Michael’s scores and, after testing in the third and fifth percentile in everything else, he tested in the 98th percentile in “protective instincts.” Ummm…they test for that? In the 8th grade? God, I’d love to see those questions.
WORD COUNT: 40 minutes into the film and we’re at 85 total words that Michael has spoken. Awesome. Seriously, the guy has been in every scene except for the shots of the teacher’s lounge, Sandra and Tim talking in their bedroom, and Sandra’s scene with the school counselor. 85 words.
• Fantastic–Shawn Jr. is suggesting that his dad (Tim) donate leftover food from their restaurant franchises. All those employees, all the people he consults with, and all this time all Tim had to do was ask his son. His ridiculously annoying son.
• And now for some product placement at Borders®. Where they find a book. A book they used to love. Ferdinand the Bull. Let me assure you, America, I’m positive that this isn’t some heavy-handed metaphor and I’m sure this will never be mentioned again.
• Michael sees someone at the restaurant where he just worked. Someone Black. But that person wasn’t eating there…he was working there!
• And it’s his brother. Seriously. His brother. What a small, contrived world.
• Seriously, that was his fucking brother.
• Now they’re back at her house, and Sandra Bullock is reading Ferdinand the Bull to her family. And Michael is laying there too, listening obediently.
• Move ahead to Tim and Sandra in the bedroom. PG-13 sex. Hot.
• Family portrait at Christmas and Michael’s not in it. Oh, I’m sure Sandra will have something to say about that.
• Yep, she did. And a freeze-frame of the family picture with Michael. I’m sure it’s heartwarming, but all I can think is the Christmas card at the end of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” Season 6. What a good show.
• And we’re back to the Southern housewives at the hoity-toity restaurant. And they’re making comments about Michael. Uh-oh, Sandra’s getting offended. “Is this some sort of White guilt thing?” one of them asks. You know, that’s actually a valid question. Anyway, Sandra scolds them and responds, “I don’t need you to approve of my choices, just respect them.”
They apologize. One asks, “Isn’t it amazing that you’re changing his life?” Sandra’s writers reach into their Hallmark bag and pull out, “No, he’s changing mine.” *vomit*
And now one of them asks if Sandra is worried that Michael is going to rape her daughter. Sandra sneers at her and says, “Shame on you.”
You know what, Blind Side? Shame on you. This scene offends me on so many levels it hurts my brain.
Go to hell, Blind Side. Racism in the United States is a ridiculously complex issue encompassing practically every facet of our lives. It is everywhere, and…brace yourself…it’s not just people who are in the KKK. Shocking, I know. It’s something that needs to be explored and discussed, but this piece of shit film actually shuts down the conversation. It completely glosses over issues of wealth and poverty in exchange for some trite epiphany about Michael never owning a bed. It belittles the education discussion by suggesting that if teachers only tried harder, it would make up for the massive disparities that students of color experience. And, worst of all, it depicts racists as thoroughly unlikable people who we can spot a mile away and avoid. They act like they’re better than everyone, they’re hyper-privileged, and they are completely disconnected from reality. This way, suburbia-types can shake their heads in disapproval, reassured that racism is safely segregated in the 1960s and maybe elite social circles in the South. Vindicated! Whew! That was close! Now they can go back to talking about “urban youths,” the “bad part” of town, and talking about how stereotypes exist for a reason. Way to go, Blind Side. Build up that straw man and then burn it to the ground. Oh, and get that Black guy to shut up! We came to see Sandra tell it like it is to racist caricatures!
WORD COUNT: We’re at 50 minutes and Michael has spoken a whopping 154 words. Wow. To put this in perspective, in broadcast news the average speaker talks at around 130 words per minute. For reals.
• Oh boy, the daughter (whose friends have mocked Michael because, you know, everyone in the South is racist) is warming to Michael. She sees him pushing the girls on the swings.
• Wow, that happened quickly. She defies her friends while studying in the library and defiantly walks over and sits with Michael. METAPHORICALLY! Take that, society! Defiance is not just a city in Ohio!
• You know, whenever Sandra walks on-screen, I am just blown away that she won an Oscar. Seriously.
• And we’ve hit the football scenes. But there are problems. Michael doesn’t know anything about football. Seriously. Not a thing. And I’m not talking “girlfriend stereotype from a beer commercial” clueless, I’m talking “aliens from another world who never discovered competition” clueless.
• And now he’s distracted by balloons. Seriously. Balloons.
• Sandra sure has some sass. But she’s insightful! Michael doesn’t want to hit anyone…because he’s Ferdinand the Bull! Just like the book they casually pounded into the script earlier! This is officially no longer a movie, people. It is a film!
• Dear gods, Shawn Jr. is in charge of training Michael. I liked this racism better the first time I saw it, when it was called The Toy.
• Do they still make training montages? Apparently so. I liked South Park’s much better.
• And now they’re going to adopt Michael. I think the problem with this movie is that it’s too much like real life.
• Hey, it’s a sassy Black woman in a Hollywood movie! How uncommon!
• Sandra is indignant that the State would let her adopt Michael without even asking Michael’s mother! What a horrible loophole! I can’t believe it even exists! I’m sure it’s not for any logical or serious reason.
WORD COUNT: One hour into the film, and Michael has said 186 words. I really can’t even believe this.
• “Mrs. Orr, you’ll always be Michael’s momma.” You can cut the condescension with a knife.
• Now they’ve adopted him. And Michael said something funny! If there’s something more awkward than child actors laughing, I don’t know what it is
• Shawn Jr. is using condiments to learn about football plays.
• Now Shawn Jr. is singing “Bust a Move” with Michael in the car. And they’re in a car wreck. It looks like the kid will be fine, though I was kind of hoping his voicebox would be temporarily disabled (for about another hour or so)
WORD COUNT: One hour ten minutes into the film, Michael has said 228 words (though about 20 or 30 of those came singing “Bust A Move” with Shawn Jr.
• Michael can’t play football. They need Coach Bud Kilmer out there! (or, better yet, Coach Lance)
• Sandra Bullock explaining how to protect the quarterback by equating the team with her family is easily the most condescending, contrived, idiotic thing I’ve ever seen on film. Utterly unbearable. You know, I saw clips of this in the trailer, but I had no idea how bad it was going to be. This is weapons-grade stupid.
• And now he knows how to play the game! Cinematic gold!
• Racist fan in the stands! That’s right, Sandra–“sticks and stones!”
• Racist football player on the field!
• Holy shit, it’s the aforementioned fan’s son!
• Sandra called her coach on the sidelines on his cell phone. She’s so outrageous!
• Don’t worry, America–she told off that stupid fan. But Shawn Jr. pointed out the “sticks and stones” comment. Oh, Shawn Jr.!
• Racist player is racist! And so are the refs! But coach stood up for Michael. And now Michael will protect him too! But not before Sandra’s voice echoes in his head. Literally. Ugh.
WORD COUNT: 247.
• Don’t worry, White people. Michael took the racist football player out of the game. We’re safe from the racists!
• Another montage of SEC coaches. This is a really long movie.
• Now Michael needs to get the grades. But he’ll have to make all A’s or else he can’t play college football.
1) <sarcasm>Yeah, because the SEC has been really stringent with academic standards and football.</sarcasm> “If Michael doesn’t pass his ethics class they won’t even consider him for USC!” If he’s the world-beater like they portray him, I’m sure a team would make it happen.
2) Timmy McGraw suggested that he go to a junior college, but Sandra wisely points out that “most inner city kids who go to junior college drop out in the first year.” Yeah, Sandy, because Michael’s life is exactly like that of other inner city kids going to junior college. Idiotic.
• Kathy Bates: tutor. You know what this movie needs? Another White person spouting knowledge!
WORD COUNT: One hour 30 minutes into the movie, and Michael has said 256 words. Using the earlier estimate, if he said his lines in a row, it would almost be 2 minutes. If someone pays me thousands of dollars, I’ll watch this movie again and count Sandra’s words.
• In case you’re wondering, Shawn Jr. just sat down with Michael and Nick Saban. The scene with the three of them takes exactly 45 seconds. Nick Saban says about 80 words. Shawn Jr. says about 45 words. Michael says 0. My 130-word estimate may have been way off.
• More football. You know, when the movie is about an individual and not a team, football scenes are incredibly boring.
• The coaches are all pitching their offers to Shawn Jr. Phil Fulmer getting fired was apparently not the low-point in his career.
• Now Sandra (a huge Ole Miss fan) is giving the inside track to the Ole Miss coach. She actually said that, on one of the recruiting trips, she said they “took him to a titty bar” and “he had nightmares for weeks.” She advised the coach to take him to a movie “but not Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he’ll just cover his eyes the entire time.”
My GODS, this movie is going to extremes to make sure the Black man doesn’t scare audiences. Give him a fucking personality! Must everything be absolutes? The family is unnaturally perfect, Michael is a puppy, and racists are loud and obnoxious. The fact that this movie is being touted than anything other than a Lifetime Original Movie is a crime. Seriously, put Penelope Ann Miller in Bullock’s role and that baby’s airing after the Jessica Lynch Story and a Mary K. Letourneau event!
• Who thought this kid was a good idea? It’s Hayden Panettiere in Remember the Titans all over again.
• He chooses Ole Miss. Wow, that was suspenseful.
• Isn’t this movie done yet? Crikey, it’s like watching Transformers 2.
WORD COUNT: One hour 40 minutes into the film, and Michael is up to 259 words.
• Tim McGraw…breaking down “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Interspersed with shots of Shawn Jr.
• Holy crap, Michael’s paper that he wrote he read (in a dramatic voiceover) was almost longer than all the words up to this point combined
• “Way to go, bro” from the daughter after Michael graduates. Oh dialogue…so natural-sounding.
• This movie just keeps on going! He graduated! What a natural ending! Now they’re prattling on about Ole Miss and potential NCAA violations. Ugh.
• This NCAA representative is accusing Sandra and Timmy of being boosters. You know, it kind of sounds like they are. Way to go, movie.
• I think he believes what this NCAA representative is saying. Why did I ever think watching this movie was a good idea?
• And now the movie has a misunderstanding of romantic-comedy-esque proportions. OMG, Sandra said something in a tone she didn’t mean!!!1!!
WORD COUNT: Well, it’s much better this time, thanks to Michael’s narration of his paper. In one 10-minute segment (and really only a few minutes of that), Michael more than doubled his word count with 295 more, for a grand total of 554 words. Just imagine if he had been allowed to speak the whole movie!
• Christ, Timmy is comforting Sandra, and here comes the Full House music. Make it stop. This is so amazingly bad. Seriously, how in the holy hell did she win an OSCAR for this???
• Now Michael’s at a party in the Blind Side hood. Oh no! Alcohol is also attending the party! And he took a sip! I’ve been to karaoke parties that were scarier than this.
• Oh, Blind Side. Now the head Black guy (the one who was making eyes at Sandra earlier in the film) is suggesting that Michael had sex with Sandra’s daughter. Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.
Just to clarify. Just so we’re ALL on the same page, the film first creates these ridiculous cartoon racists who ask in a restaurant in front of their friends if Sandra was concerned Michael would rape her daughter. And, with that underhand pitch, Sandra knocks it out of the park, storming off with righteous indignation. But now, about an hour later, there’s actually a fucking Black character who is suggesting and encouraging this exact thing happening. This movie is so ridiculously racist I don’t even know how to handle it.
• Michael loses his temper because this dial-a-bad-guy keeps talking about doing Sandra and her daughter. But not before the bad Black guy says he’s going to “bust a cap in yo’ ass.” Because, you know, they have to use painfully outdated slang that the White theater-goers would recognize (and quote). “Hey Michael, that’s a radical shirt! NOT! Waazzuuuuuuppppppp!”
• Apparently Sandra’s accent kind of optional. Anybody can use an accent the entire time!
• And now Sandra is telling off the evil Black guy. And she said something that I’m sure was meant to be witty (Sarah Palin-style). Something to make housewives across America pump their fists in the air. Absolutely disgusting.
• Ferdinand the Bull reference. Again.
• Seriously, writers, cram in the word “family” one more time. It might have an iota of meaning left.
• And Shawn Jr. eyes some college women. Don’t worry folks, he’s straight! It’s okay to still like this movie, Bible Belt!
• I’ll be honest, I stopped counting Michael’s words. He hasn’t said a ton more. It’s 2 hours into the movie. I just want it to end! MAKE IT STOP!
• Another Sandra narration. How powerful. *Yawn*
• Oh, and what the hell happened to his brother?
• And Shawn Jr. gets the freeze-frame. Painful.
And it’s done.
That movie was Phantom Menace-esque in its god-awfulness. Remember the movie’s valuable lessons:
1) Blacks should be seen, not heard.
2) Metaphors are defiantly metaphorical
3) Stereotypes are bad, unless they bring in money at the box office.
It seems everyone has a list of Best Picture snubs, especially around this time of year. Well, “everyone’ includes me, and so here is my list.
But first, a couple of clarifications:
First off, this list does not include movies that were not nominated. There have been countless injustices for Best Picture nominations (Babe and Apollo 13 nominated over The Usual Suspects???), but if I start listing movies never nominated the possibilities become TOO endless. Plus, I’m working on that list for a later entry.
Secondly, each movie needs a replacement from the list of those nominated for Best Picture—we just can’t say a particular year didn’t have a Best Picture that year. A Beautiful Mind was a lame-ass choice for Best Picture, but 2001 was a horrible year for movies. What would you have rather selected? Gosford Park? In The Bedroom? Not every year is going to be of 1939, 1976, 2005, or 2007 caliber.
And lastly, the disparity between the actual winner and the deserved winner must be significant enough to warrant attention. I think Shane is better than From Here to Eternity, but not enough to warrant making an issue out of it.
Okay, let’s get started.
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS
I get it. It’s an epic film and it practically invented the concept of the cameo (“Wait a minute…that was Frank Sinatra. But he wasn’t listed as a star in this film!”).
But the film wasn’t that good. It was bloated, repetitious, and a bit racist. However, the real crime is that this film won…against Giant, The King and I, and The Ten Commandments. It’s like Sesame Street’s “One of these things just doesn’t belong here.” No real preference for me—I’ll take the field over 80 Days.
KRAMER VS. KRAMER
I get it. The Deer Hunter won the year before and you didn’t want back-to-back Vietnam movies winning Best Picture. You have the star power of Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman in an American Beauty parallel (some have said this is film was a continuation of The Graduate if Benjamin and Elaine had gotten married). Why wouldn’t this film win?
Two words: Apocalypse Now. Even the backstory is compelling—the monumental effort to bring the film to the screen (documented in the wonderful Heart of Darkness documentary) that included budget issues, a typhoon, and Martin Sheen having a heart attack. But forget all that – the movie itself is a masterpiece and anyone thinking this is a movie about Vietnam is sadly misinformed.
CHARIOTS OF FIRE
I get it. Following the personal struggles of two runners (one Jew, one Gentile), culminating in a single event to determine the winner…that’s based on a real story? That’s a guaranteed Oscar, as evidenced by its Oscar.
That said…Chariots of Fire: classic song…and that’s about it. It’s not even one of the top five sports movies ever made (none of which won Best Picture), let alone the best picture of the year. That honor, in 1981, should have gone to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Tell you what—instead of me doing all the work, why don’t you tell me why this shouldn’t have won. Oh, and you cannot hold the genre against it. Give up? Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.
A great action-adventure movie is like a great comedy—overlooked, derided, and incredibly rare. What was the last good action-adventure movie you saw? (if you even think Transformers 2 then you are no longer allowed to read this blog. Seriously.) Raiders of the Lost Ark was an absolute masterpiece, a relentless, thoughtful adventure that has never been equaled. Roger Ebert wrote this review of Raiders and, if it doesn’t sell you on the film’s greatness, nothing will.
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE
I get it. Solid performances and a script laden with Shakespeare references. I mean, come on—it’s Shakespeare writing Romeo and Juliet WHILE HE’S LIVING IT! BOOM! Consider your mind blown.
Yeah, watch this one again sometime. Seriously. And while you’re watching, put a little Post-It® note on the TV so you can occasionally look over and be reminded that this was selected as the best movie of 1998. For added fun, count the number of times you say to yourself out loud, “Really?” My average is 17.
Saving Private Ryan was released in the summer, but that shouldn’t be held against it. Ryan is the Best Picture of 1998, and the only movie that was even close was Thin Red Line (slow but underrated). The first 20 minutes of Ryan are undisputed genius, the closest thing to wartime captured in the cinema (<sarcasm>except, of course, the gritty war epic The Green Berets</sarcasm>). The fact that the rest of the movie is pretty damn good (carried by wonderful casting) after the soldiers stormed the beach is nothing short of amazing.
I get it. Cutting edge special effects (“Wait a minute…Forrest Gump never met the President!”), a heartwarming story, and an underrated performance by Tom Hanks (paving the way for actors to “never go full-retard”) combined to form a genuinely enjoyable movie.
The Best Picture award is not about an enjoyable movie—otherwise, Back to the Future would have swept the Oscars. Being Best Picture is about greatness, and there are few films (if any) greater than The Shawshank Redemption. There’s no way that Gump should have beaten Andy and the gang. None whatsoever. Shawshank is a gripping, powerful film about friendship, hope, and determination. Gump is a two-hour tribute to the self-importance of the Baby Boomer generation.
Notice how each one of these entries has a suggestion as to why a particular film could have feasibly been chosen? I would on this entry, but I have absolutely no idea what in the holy hell the Academy was thinking on this one. For reals.
Call me naïve, but the Best Picture should be something looked back upon as a timeless classic, something we can watch decades later and have it still move us,, affect us, or at least tell us something about that time period. I love Ridley Scott (literally!), but Gladiator was an above-average action film that never tried to be anything more. For gods sake, Scott actually forgot about the dog (named “Hell”) when he released the movie and had to throw him into some dvd alternate ending. For reals. The movie drags on for 30 minutes too long, the special effects are laughable (remember the tigers?), and the ending is preposterous (A slave fights the emperor in the Coliseum…TO THE DEATH!).
So what nominees instead? Traffic? Sure, that would have been better (almost anything would), but it never achieved its own lofty aspirations. Chocolat? Really? Erin Brockovich? Two hours of Julia Roberts playing a slightly louder version of every character she’s ever played? Sign me up!
No, the rightful winner of 2000 was a foreign film by the name of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This is a film of unspeakable beauty and whose sweet, understated storylines (and acting) were astoundingly effective. In a year of boring and bland (did you see the list of nominees?), Crouching Tiger was something radically different. Characters were flying, balancing on trees, and sky-fighting somewhere other than the matrix. And, because of the film’s sincerity and intentions, people invested themselves in it. I watched this in a movie theater in Columbus and, apart from occasional (appropriate) laughter, the audience was absolutely mesmerized. And rightfully so.
Crash (2005): Over Brokeback Mountain? News flash: When you have a story where every plotline revolves around race, it’s just as bad as a movie that ignores race completely.
The Departed (2006): Over Letters from Iwo Jima? Were you that afraid Martin would never direct another movie? The Departed is a well-done film, but if we’re handing out Best Pictures then Heat and Collateral should be up in arms over this.
Ordinary People (1980): Over Raging Bull? This one doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers other people, but they definitely have a point.
My Fair Lady (1964): Over Dr. Strangelove? I realize the Academy would never risk selecting Kubrick’s masterpiece when a safer film was available, but this is probably the most vanilla victory ever.
Three years ago, my former roommate (and current cousin) decided to hold a movie competition. We got together, ordered pizza, and each watched our submissions. Jake’s was Gymkata, a film filled with combat so bizarre that Cracked actually featured it as the best fighting style “too awesome to actually exist.” Mine was Dracula 3000, featuring Casper “Hard Jaw” Van Dien, the long-lost Coolio, and one of the most bizarre endings in movie history. This was followed by much Patron, drunk dialing, and even drunker karaoke, and by the end of the night I was the winner. I had found that year’s best worst movie.
When asked what makes a great movie, legendary director Howard Hawks said, “Three good scenes and no bad ones.” If you think of the great films out there, Hawks is surprisingly spot-on. Unfortunately, it’s easier to find a great movie than a great bad movie.
The trick is that the bad movie has to be enjoyably bad, not just bad (like I’ve talked about scary movies). As wisely discussed on the fantastic How I Met Your Mother, when people think of the worst movie ever there are two main camps: Plan 9 from Outer Space and Manos, the Hands of Fate. Both groups have great arguments, but no consensus is ever made because they are talking past one another. Watch either one a few times (without help from the MST3K crew) and it’s clear that both movies are horrible. However, Manos is painfully bad – the plot is painful, the dubbing is like watching a foreign film without subtitles, and the film itself doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do. Plan 9, on the other hand, is the best worst movie because, at some level, it’s actually enjoyable. It’s got heart. Ed Wood was clearly going for something – he just took Suck Ave. to get there. The effects are hilarious, not pathetic. The acting is poor, but earnest. The plot is ridiculous, not stupid. And as a result, the film provides an opportunity for others to mock it (in a non-resentful way).
Jake and I tend to lean more toward the Plan 9 format. So, for our annual competition, the bad movie has to be enjoyable (e.g., Commando (which I argue is the best worst movie ever made) or Death Wish 3). As an extra twist, the movie also has to feature at least one recognizable actor/actress.
My entry this year was Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, which is a gut-wrenching tale of a mega shark fighting a giant octopus. For reals! Obviously, there’s a lot more to it than that. I mean…there’s the…ummmm…I mentioned the shark, right? And the octopus? Yeah…that’s about it. Think of it like Boa vs. Python, but instead of a boa and a python, it’s an overgrown shark and a huge octopus. Awesome!
Needless to say, it’s a great bad film. It features, among other things, the giant octopus swatting a helicopter out of the air using a tentacle and it even has the mega shark attacking the Golden Gate bridge. For reals!
And, for an extra bonus, it has one of the most ridiculously awesome scenes in the history of cinema. Check it out, you won’t be disappointed:
All kinds of craziness. Throw in the odd performance of Lorenzo Lamas and the romance between characters (featuring the most erotic scene since Leslie Bibb and Joshua Jackson showered together in Skulls), and I thought I had victory all but guaranteed.
Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. While Jake was blown away by the aforementioned ridiculous scene (he just stared at me in disbelief and said, “Are you going to win again this year, you SOB?”), the movie’s ridiculousness peaked too early (that scene was within the first half-hour), and so it didn’t have the impact of my epic victory from last year: Shark Attack 3: Megalodon.
It didn’t help that Jake’s film was Howling III: The Marsupials, which was hilariously bad. Granted, it didn’t feature a recognizable actor, but that was because last year my entry didn’t contain a recognizable actor (though I maintain that the actor Ryan Cutrona was recognizable, given that he was Betty Draper’s father in Mad Men, and was also in Changeling, 24, and a commercial for Cancun). This is an ongoing feud, as it was my response to the first year when Jake said his recognizable actor in Gymkata was that the film was directed by “the director who also directed Enter the Dragon.” Nice try, jackass.
IRregardless, next year we’re back on track with actor name-recognition and bad movie hilarity. One year to find the next best worst movie. I had better get started.
Forgive the lengthy introduction, but this is not the first of these entries I hope to make.
Good science fiction is tough to track down these days. You have horror movies trying to be science fiction (and failing at both), which results in The Happening (only tolerable if you watch with Rifftrax), superhero movies trying to be science fiction (sorry, Will, but Hancock was rough), and science fiction that we all wish wasn’t science fiction (I dare you watch Hayden Christensen in Jumper. Seriously. I dare you.).
Some science fiction tempts you by starting out strong; Event Horizon had great potential and Sunshine was gearing up to be one of the best science fiction films ever made until the last 20 minutes (imagine Episode I disappointment without the suck). And then there are some science fiction films that approach perfection for the entire length of the film and receive the critical praise they so richly deserve (WALL-E and District 9 immediately come to mind).
But this entry is about underrated movies, and I’ve selected to highlight a little film released in 2000 called Pitch Black, the story of a group of passengers marooned on a planet where they struggle to survive on a sun-scorched world. Featuring Vin Diesel, the movie was met with indifference: $39 million at the domestic box office and 36% approval with the Cream of the Crop. The effects are a little dated, no one threatened to sweep the Oscars with their performances, and you won’t find this film on any Top 10 lists.
So what’s to like? What makes this movie so underrated?
With the possible exception of Vin Diesel, no actor or actress stands out in this movie. And, when it comes to science fiction and horror, that can be a good thing. Quick, name me an actor not named Wilford or Kurt in The Thing. Someone not named Sigourney from Alien? Hell, name one actress from The Descent.
A strong story negates the need for a strong performance—everyone just needs to do his/her job. Pitch Black is no different. Because no one takes it over the top, the cast fuses into a plot delivery device that is neither memorable for being good…or for being bad. As a result, the actors disappear and the characters emerge; characters without boisterous secrets or petty dramas, but with personal issues they prefer not be made public. They react to the situation, not the script, and don’t bore us with their petty problems. It is refreshing.
By far the strength of this movie, the ship crashes on a (seemingly) deserted planet. But this isn’t like most films where the surface is surprisingly like earth except with a slightly higher Nitrogen count or whatever. This is a truly alien landscape, complete with three suns, no water or plant life, and a ringed planet on the horizon. To quote one Ted Mosby, it is hauntingly beautiful, without some bullshit oasis or friendly humanoids to help these survivors out of their bind. There’s only a colony, long-deserted (though not voluntarily).
There are no flora, but plenty of fauna on this seemingly lifeless planet; this ultimately serves as the threat to the population. In a precursor to Peter Jackson’s epic King Kong remake, the creatures themselves have clearly evolved. It’s not one dominant life form, but multiple forms on different parts of the planet. There are the slugs donning exoskeletons and a phosphorescent glow nestled safe in the ground.
The winged, blue-blooded creatures who rule the skies, fighting one another after they’ve run out of torsos:
And the monsters who stalk above the ground, seared by light but immune to everything else (except for Vin, of course).
There is even evidence of other creatures who were clearly not fit to survive long-term on the surface, with huge, hulking skeletons bleached by the suns as a reminder of their downfall due to docility.
And, best of all, this is all information that we gathered as audience members. There isn’t some scientist who’s studied these beasts, some survivor who learned how these brutes think. It’s purely visual evidence, giving us the freedom to construct our own narratives. Subtlety and imagination triumph—Michael Bay fans need not apply.
Finally, some real tension. Without the stock characters that plague these monster movies, survival becomes a genuine uncertainty. The monsters remain in the dark, where our minds can create far scarier demons than any CGI bullshit. Instead of looking for flaws, we can focus on how the scene unfolds; we replace skepticism with escapism, something that is sorely lacking in most modern horror movies.
Pitch Black won’t change your life and you might not even want to recommend it to your friends. But Netflix it and you just might be pleasantly surprised.
I hate to be “that guy” and rip on a movie that I’ve haven’t seen before. So I won’t.
The movie I won’t tear into is Old Dogs, the latest winner from the dynamic comedy duo of Robin Williams (RV, License to Wed) and John Travolta (Lucky Numbers, Wild Hogs). In case you’ve been fortunate enough to miss the god-awful previews, here they are.
I’m not going to attack a movie that is essentially a giant steaming cliche, with writing that’s so tired that they actually write out the characters’ descriptions to save time like it’s some sort of a Sweet Valley High book (Jessica is a wild child, Elizabeth is studious!). For reals:
It’s like watching a preview for a Tim Allen movie – all that’s missing is a botox joke. Just to be sure, let’s run down the list:
√ Shot to the nuts (and you’re to blame)
√ Supporting actors who are funnier (Seth Green, Justin Long, zombie Bernie Mac…)
√ Fainting at the sight of kids (See!? He’s not ready to be a father!)
√ Prescriptions with unlikely side-effects consumed through a totally believable plot device?
√ When animals attack
√√ Second nut shot (“Football in the groin!”)
_ A heartfelt lesson? Only one way to find out!
Oh, but if you are feeling like watching this piece of crap, you may not want to check out this article (especially the last paragraph). BAM!
I’m not going to go on a rant about how horrible horror movies are these days–I’m not that old. More importantly, no era is impervious to criticism–for every Halloween there are 50 Kingdom of the Spiders.
That said, it seems that recent horror movies have glommed onto certain ideas about how to scare audiences, and those ideas are failing miserably. The Unborn, A Haunting in Connecticut, One Missed Call…the list of suck just goes on and on.
I think the underlying problem is that the writers and directors of these films have confused “scary” and “startled.” Being startled happens when something occurs on-screen that surprises you: someone appears in a mirror or behind a door, a dark shape moves across the background accompanied by a loud blurt from the soundtrack, or a human-like figure is shown with unusual attributes.
I’m going to geek out for like a paragraph or so. Children go through three different stages in terms of fear. From ages 3-8, kids are frightened of unrealistic, fanciful stimuli, such as monsters, mutants, or supernatural creatures; in other words, things that do not typically appear in the world. From ages 9-12 (of course, these ages are approximate and are not steadfast for everyone), children are scared of more realistic stimuli in the form of bad things (murder, abduction) that could happen to them or loved ones. Children ages 13 and over scared of more abstract stimuli, typically on the psychological level. They’re scared of physical harm as well, but overall their concerns have spread to include people everywhere. In short, the progression goes from discomfort of the initial image to a deeper fear of something bad happening to anyone, including strangers.
Looking at these recent films, it’s easy to see that they’re only accessing that first level of fear, which is normally restricted to young children. Those disturbing images of malformed victims don’t frighten adults–they startle adults. But, the more those images are on the screen, the more time our brains have to work on figuring out why this individual doesn’t look like others. The most logical conclusion (which is also most-easily reached) is that the image is fake. And, suddenly, the movie isn’t scary, just annoying and insulting.
So here are my random thoughts for scary movie filmmakers(albeit incomplete and jumbled) on how to fix the horror genre:
1) Develop tension. Seriously, it’s actually not that hard. Create a character that’s moderately likable (hell, sometimes it doesn’t even take that) and build some tension. Give us viewers some information that the characters do not have. Let us see the person lurking in the background (as opposed to a loud musical screech as a shadow rushes by in the background). Take your time. Slowly pan the camera around slowly. Let us see that something in the room has changed. Subtly give us a clue instead of beating us over the head with the obvious.
2) Enough with the mirrors. We get it–the character looks down to wash her face, she looks back up and OMG THERE’S A PERSON IN THE MIRROR!!!11!!1!!1! Yeah, you’re not even trying anymore. At least, if you do it, have the guts to play with the audience a little bit (like in the underrated Orphan).
3) Technology still exists. At some point, a meeting was held with all of the horror movie producers and directors to address the fact that it’s not 1999 anymore and everyone now has cell phones (including potential victims in the films). Unfortunately, the meeting lasted only 12 seconds, which was just enough time for someone to blurt out, “Yeah, sure, but what if they lost service?” and for everyone else to agree on the genius fix. Seriously, the “no service” solution has to be the laziest script remedy since amnesia. Unless you’re in the middle of Montana with a Zach Morris cell phone, you can get service. Period. You’re being ridiculous and you’re embarrassing yourself. Find a way to adjust.
4) Nicholas Cage sucks. Nothing to do with horror movies. I’m just saying.
5) Enough with the CGI. Did you learn any lessons from The Haunting?Â When you use CGI, it doesn’t look real. Period. And, if you start out the horror movie with CGI, most directors use the effects more and more as the movie continues, often building to some sort of epic tornado of suck, like if Carlos Mencia and Tyler Perry were hanging out at Nickelback concert. So, while the CGI effects were a bit bothersome, they become so annoying that you end up resenting the movie.
6) Kids aren’t scary. With very exceptions, kids are not scary. Giving them a bowl cut and slapping on some mascara doesn’t make them scary any more than having an old lady swearing in a movie makes it funny.
There are plenty more, but this should get you started. Work on it, Hollywood.
As evidenced by my lengthy discussion of The Descent, I love a good horror movie. There’s something about the creepiness and the ability to tap into fears effectively really fascinates me, and I’m always on the lookout for a good, underrated horror film (I’m looking at you Isolation and Vacancy). In that ongoing quest, Claire and I checked out The Strangers this past weekend, a movie I had seen advertised and, from the look of the trailer, had really strong potential. Jared was not a fan, but what does he know?
Apparently, a lot.
Strangers starts out with the claim, “inspired by true events.” Now normally this is a phrase reserved for Lifetime Original Movies or some Disney knockoff, but when you drop those words on a horror filmwellthat means something. Or at least I thought it did.
The movie’s premise is that a couple has just made it back to a house in the country after attending a wedding, only to be terrorized by strangers (Hey! Just like the title!) for no apparent reason. The first 30 minutes or so had great potential—the couple was dealing with a marriage proposal rejection (Hello worst nightmare, what are you doing in this movie?) and the setup for the scary moments was definitely effective. But what I liked most was that the director went to great lengths to kind of lay out evidence (presumably like a crime scene)—the discarded engagement ring, bloody knife, shattered car window. They even started with a 911 call about finding the bodies. It was a lot of fun trying to figure out how the police pieced together the series of events in real life.
Well, the last half hour got to be a little much. Then they tacked on an ending that was so heavy-handed it read like a seventh grade essay about hypocrisy. Then they let Liv Tyler actually live. It really went downhill fast.
Oddly enough, the movie’s real downfall occurred when, out of curiosity, I wiki’d Strangers to find out about the true events that inspired the story. Apparently, “the film was inspired by an event from director Bryan Bertino’s childhood: a stranger came to his home asking for someone who was not there, and Bertino later found out that empty homes in the neighborhood had been broken into that night.”
So, just to recap: The “true event” that inspired the story is that some people broke into some homes when no one was home? What. The. Hell. Thanks for nothing, Strangers. I award you no points, and may god have mercy on your soul.
This should speak volumes about my relationship with Claire: we watched The DescentÂ together this weekend. BAM!
As we all know, The Descent holds a special place in my heart. That was the weekend we were in Bloomington, IN, visiting Nate for Snakes on a Plane. Well, not all of us were there but, despite missing the fourth, we had a blast playing catch, grilling out, playing a marathon game of Mille Bornes, and watching one of the best horror movies ever made.
The movie is incredible. Seriously. Just incredible. The only man in the entire film (except for Scar) is impaled and killed three minutes in. The entire movie is 95 minutes long, but the crawlers don’t appear for 47 minutes. Juno’s affair with Sarah’s husband is telegraphed in three looks, each less than two seconds: Juno to Paul, Beth to Juno, and Paul, Juno and Paul again. It’s mercilessly graphic without being grotesque, gritty without being disgusting, and poignant without being cliche. It is completely, relentlessly compelling, from start to finish.
Interpretting films is a large part of my field. Bordwell & Thompson argue that there are four levels of interpretation, with the fourth (symptomatic) being the most complex, representing a manifestation of a culture’s ideology. In other words, a movie often represents a lot more than a literal translation of what is on the screen.
So, how to interpret The Descent? There are so many questions. Most notably, what’s with the faces, the eyes keeping a silent watch on the characters in the film (and, at times, the viewer). Here’s a picture of a face when Sarah enters the cabin:
And here’s another, a little more subtle. This one happens after Sarah has a disturbing nightmare and sits up abruptly in her bed in the cabin. After she lays down, this is visible (even more so in dark lighting):
These eyes are disturbing and (I would argue) deliberate on the part of the director. My friend Jared has also pointed out a face-type shape in the bullet holes on a road sign. What are they supposed to mean? Furthermore, what about the crawlers? Peter Travers of Rolling Stone openly wonders “Are they inbred mutants or the longtime grudges among the women made creepy flesh?” This point is made all the more salient by the fact that the crawlers have no vision and can only kill based on sound–fascinating in a group of friends where each has issues with the other (the affair, guilt of lying about the affair, the sister rivalry, a hidden lesbian crush) but are left unspoken.
Clearly, there’s something more than just spelunking going on here. This becomes all too clear with the theatrical ending (Juno in the car) and the dvd-release ending (Sarah with her daughter in the cave). Well, I stumbled on a review (and some miscellaneous comments) that had some interesting suggestions:
• Sarah’s friends each represent a part of her psyche
• Sarah was mortally injured in the car wreck and the film is about her “descent” into death (with Sarah mentally killing off each of her friends as she grew closer to dying)
• Sarah never regained consciousness after falling into the hole (when she was knocked out) and therefore hallucinated about all of her friends being killed. This means she woke up at the end, mentally unbalanced, and settled in to eat cake with the image of her daughter (possibly dead, possibly just giving up in order to die).
The most intriguing is the idea that the crawlers never existed. The reviewer suggested that Sarah murdered all of her friends in the cave, which would explain why she was covered in blood. The reviewer asked us to see her like we would see the lead in Carrie, an outcast pushed too far. While initially I was against this idea (hardcore against it, actually), it’s a lot of fun and has some merit. For instance, Sarah wasn’t around when the other friends were killed–she was only physically around for Beth and Juno, both of whom she was responsible for killing. Furthermore, Sarah is not hurt by the monsters and actually begins crawling around silently like one (as evidenced when she temporarily rescues Juno).
I don’t know if I completely buy any of these, and I certainly dismiss one or two. However, by taking bits and pieces of what we know, we can assemble our own take on what really happened. Ultimately, it’s what we think that truly matters. As one reviewer wrote: “That’s what makes these kind of films so much fun. They may mean nothing at all (as unlikely as that is in this case), but they so carefully lay the groundwork to believe the exact opposite, that we’re fools not to give it a go.”