Category: Film/TV reviews

The good, the bad, and the so-bad-they’re-good

n0h

“That movie is so bad, it’s good.”

We’ve all heard this saying, so much so that it’s almost become a cliche. Many films enjoy cult classic reputations strictly based on the fact that they’re bad-but-entertaining. Frequently, these films have a niche-market value to them which the filmmakers can use to their advantage, marketing it in an effort to win over people with ironic senses of humor. More often, the cult classic status happens completely by accident. These movies are also frequently low-budget affairs that are inadvertently sabotaged by their writer or director’s lack of experience, talent, or money.

At the end of the day, these audiences recognize that these films lack any value or substance. Most so-bad-they’re-good films become classics well after the fact, once they develop an underground DVD/Blu-Ray following. A lot of them belong in their own sub-category, specifically for the variety of hilarious movies starring, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Nicolas Cage.

mv5bmtm1otuzotm2ov5bml5banbnxkftztcwmzyxndy3na-_v1_uy1200_cr8506301200_al_

Arguably the best known so-bad-they’re-good films are Troll 2 (1990) and The Room (2003). I’m not going to get super in-depth about the plot (or lack thereof) in these movies, as that information is readily available online and has been hashed and rehashed by numerous critics (especially on YouTube). Still, I’ll go over the basics of these films and include as much relevant information as I can without spoilers.

To me, there are three types of so-bad-they’re-good movies:

THE ENTERTAINING ONES

Troll 2 and The Room both work for me, because their plots are incredibly nonsensical and nothing in the movie is realistic. The Room is, ostensibly, a romantic drama/love-triangle tragedy about San Francisco banker Johnny, his fiancee Lisa, and his best friend Mark.

Troll 2 is an even stranger movie, featuring no trolls (they’re goblins), having no connection to the original Troll film, and being made in America by a crew that spoke Italian exclusively. Also, the film’s poster has nothing to do with the film itself. (Confused yet?)

There are two separate reasons for why these two films are the way they are, and both are related to cultural differences.

  • The writer/director/producer/star of The Room, Tommy Wiseau, has gone to great lengths to hide where he is from in various interviews. None of his co-stars had the slightest clue as to where his bizarre accent originated, where he grew up, or even how he got the $6 million to finance the making of The Room. But Wiseau’s enigmatic nature helps lift The Room to larger-than-life bad movie status. The Room works so well because of Wiseau’s broken English and his complete lack of understanding of how Western culture works. It’s the perfect example of a movie that fails miserably in what it’s trying to do, but does so in a blissfully unaware and almost innocent way. It’s the perfect storm of awkward, confusing insanity.
  • Troll 2‘s filmmakers aren’t quite as beloved, because their motive for making the film was genuinely confusing. Husband-and-wife team Claudio Fragasso and Rossella Drudi, both Italian nationals, shot the film in rural Utah. The entire crew, except for the production designer, spoke little to no English, and the inexperienced actors had very little idea of what was actually going on and how they were supposed to say the words on the page. Since Troll 2 is ludicrous in nearly every way, one would expect that the filmmakers would have a tongue-in-cheek attitude about it and take the so-bad-it’s-good status to heart. But Fragasso and Drudi have never gone back and admitted that the film was – for lack of a better word – trolling (obvious joke is obvious). Infamously, Fragasso even crashed a cast reunion for Troll 2 after the movie achieved cult classic status; he heckled the cast members and hurled insults at them before security removed him from the venue. It’s also worth mentioning that the movie’s producer, Joe D’Amato, was notorious for making poor quality exploitation movies purely for a paycheck.

Still, in spite of the motive for making them, both Troll 2 and The Room work on nearly level, particularly in plot holes, over-the-top acting, nonsensical dialogue, and general WTF moments.

THE BAD ONES

Two other notable movies that have attained cult classic status are Foodfight and Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

  • Foodfight was made on a $65 million budget. The film was directed by Lawrence Kasanoff and was originally supposed to be released in 2002. Foodfight was intended to be a satirical parody with anthropomorphic food icons representing such brands as StarKist Tuna, Mr. Clean, Count Chocula, etc. But the film hit numerous snags in securing the licensing for the product placement, and at one point, the entire film’s animated assets were stolen from the studio. Foodfight lumbered around in production hell before getting released in 2012, when many of its stars (Eva Longoria, Charlie Sheen, Christopher Lloyd, Hilary Duff) were either washed-up or irrelevant.
  • Meanwhile, Birdemic: Shock and Terror was an indie film released in 2010 by writer/director James Nguyen. A Vietnamese immigrant who was long fascinated by Hitchcock films, Nguyen could only shoot the film on weekends due to his day job and many of his actors being unavailable. The result is an appallingly-bad film that is frequently listed as one of the worst ever made.

Quite a few people ironically enjoy and appreciate these films; I hate them. Why is that?

For a film on a $65 million budget (slightly above average for a studio film), Foodfight‘s animation is atrocious in every way. The characters are beyond obnoxious, and nearly every joke misses its target. In addition to the obvious product placement, Foodfight also has genuinely creepy moments, highlighted by a bizarre amount of sexual innuendos and references to Nazism. Yes, this was intended to be an animated children’s movie.

Birdemic might be the most technically incompetent film ever made. It features the bad movie staples of a lousy script, lousier acting, and gigantic plot holes, but the film is a completely different nightmare on a technical level. Sound comes in and out of scenes like a punch to the face, the camerawork is incredibly amateur, and the visual effects are so laughable that I’m convinced a 13-year-old could do better on Adobe AfterEffects. The film is also rife with preachiness about environmentalism, as the killer birds of the film’s title are said to have been caused by global warming and fossil fuels. No, I’m not joking.

birdemic

I’m not going to fault anyone for liking these films ironically. But both Foodfight and Birdemic, to me, represent the worst, most cynical level of moviemaking. I don’t know Larry Kasanoff or James Nguyen personally, but based upon their reputations and the interviews I’ve seen with them, they’re unprofessional people who don’t have the personality or the skills to make successful movies. Both men’s entire reaction to their films and their lackluster defending of them show them to be lazy, cynical, or like they made their movies for a prank or because they lost a bet.

It shouldn’t take a genius to figure out that in order to make films, you have to be passionate about making them. I’ve made short films in the past, and I can guarantee you that it’s not all sunshine and roses; Murphy’s law always applies, and everyone has to be on top of their game every day of shooting.

Even if you aren’t a filmmaker, as an audience member, you should be willing to watch films that are made with the proper effort. There’s certainly a time and place for bad movies, but it really irks me when I see directors and writers who seem cynical, lazy, and defeatist from the get-go.

THE BAD/ENTERTAINING ONES

There are many films that fall in the bad AND entertaining category. Here are two:

  • The 2006 remake of the 1973 horror classic The Wicker Man looked good on paper, starring Oscar winner Nicolas Cage and being directed by Neil LaBute, a filmmaker known for making unsettling and harsh thriller movies. But in the end, the film was a massive box office bomb and received extremely negative reviews from audiences and critics alike.
  • Samurai Cop was released in 1989 and was almost instantly forgotten. A micro-budget film made by the late Iranian director Amir Shervan, the film wasn’t even released theatrically and generated a cult following on its later VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray editions. Samurai Cop is essentially piggybacking off of genre tropes of the day, most notably Beverly Hills Cop and the Lethal Weapon franchise.

Samurai Cop and The Wicker Man are very different films. The former was a misguided low-budget adventure of an Iranian national trying to replicate American action movie success. The film is known for its terrible editing and audio dubbing, and has some ludicrously choreographed action scenes. But it works for me, because it’s insanely entertaining and funny, even though the technical flaws are blatantly obvious.

Meanwhile, The Wicker Man was an ambitious effort to adapt a bona fide horror classic into the modern day. While the movie is poorly plotted and the characters in it make baffling decisions, it is lifted by – who else? – Nicolas Cage.

Cage has made many good movies and many horrible movies in his career. But he seems to have a unique level of staying power for someone who has starred in box office bomb after box office bomb. Very few actors can be consistently entertaining while acting in bad movies, and The Wicker Man is a prime example of this effect. Even in an otherwise terrible film, Cage entertains you and makes you cry with laughter.

b8699f80a6be1e6f98a5b00cb7371d63e0834a162219f06596f9c4de2b52be98

Bad movies are basically a tutorial for anyone interested in making or critiquing films. And normally, it’s nothing too intricate or complicated. Most bad films are bad for fairly simple reasons – an unfocused script, a complicated plot, bad acting, stilted dialogue, or simply a director who is inexperienced, unaccountable, or both.

I have a very basic rule of thumb when it comes to evaluating films: don’t be a hater unnecessarily. I’m definitely not the only one who hates the Star Wars prequels, but I doubt I’ll just say “they suck because they suck.” I could earn lots of points from fanboys and fangirls by criticizing specific things or spending too much time on something that people love to hate, but I usually won’t.

Does that mean that some films don’t deserve to be ripped to shreds? No. But I feel like a lot of people don’t actually bother to explain their rationale for not liking a movie. You can chalk that up to people having knee-jerk emotional reactions in general, but as serious film-goers, we need to be the best critical thinkers there are. That doesn’t mean we have to go into a feature film and break down the good and bad in every frame, but it’s still a useful guide for anyone who loves movies and how they’re made.

I hope this blog has helped you, not just to evaluate and appreciate so-bad-they’re good movies (and the different types thereof), but also to approach any film with a slightly different mindset. Cheers!

Manhattan Night (2016)

mv5bmjqwmde4nzq5n15bml5banbnxkftztgwnzm0nda3ode-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_

Based on the novel by Colin Harrison, Manhattan Night follows Porter Wren (Adrien Brody), a newspaper columnist who’s not particularly excited about his future. His paper’s publishing company has been bought out by a foreign billionaire, and he’s dissatisfied with his domestic life, despite his loving wife (Jennifer Beals) and two young kids.

Porter encounters Caroline Crowley (Yvonne Strahovski) at a cocktail party one night; she is the gorgeous young widow of Simon Crowley, an enigmatic film director who died under mysterious circumstances. The seductive Caroline manages to get romantically involved with Porter, partially because she believes that he is the only one who can solve the case of her husband’s death. However, she’s hiding a dark past, and her late husband has left behind dozens of video memory cards that could point to possible clues. Caroline implores Porter to look through the video files, and most of them lead nowhere. Still, what Porter discovers or doesn’t discover could come back to hurt him, his career, and his family.

960

I had modest expectations for Manhattan Night (I rented it on Redbox). I’ve long been a big fan of Strahovski’s work in both film and TV, and I think Brody and Beals are also extremely talented individuals. I had heard about the film (and the novel it was based on), but was surprised to see that the studio gave it a straight-to-DVD release at the last minute, as opposed to a theatre run.

Considering that straight-to-DVD films are normally bottom-of-the-barrel garbage, I was skeptical that a film with a solid premise and an acclaimed source novel would be given that treatment. Apparently, Manhattan Night received mixed to negative reception, so I was trying to factor that in, as well.

Manhattan Night does succeed in several different ways – the performances are solid all-around, the script is (mostly) good, and I was very interested in the storyline. There are some fairly suspenseful moments, and I felt like director Brian DeCubellis gave the film a real sense of neo-noir mystery about it. I also really enjoyed the cinematography.

However, the film is not immune to a lot of romantic thriller pitfalls. I hesitate to call Manhattan Night an “erotic thriller” because, frankly, that genre can go die in a fire. With that being said, the film does have a couple of plot twists, many of which are hit-or-miss, and the ending was anti-climactic in a lot of ways. Don’t misunderstand me – it’s not laughably bad or eye-roll-worthy, but I did feel let down at the end of the film.

I do believe that these actors did their best, and I don’t think that Manhattan Night deserved the straight-to-DVD treatment, but there were a lot of moments in this film that just didn’t work as well as they could have. And I get it – a lot of books have situations or sequences that really don’t translate to the screen as well as they could. That’s why a lot of book adaptations don’t achieve the same level of acclaim as the source material – this is universal and applies to all sorts of cinema genres.

Manhattan Night certainly has its moments, and I don’t regret seeing it at all, but this film could have done a lot more with the best-selling material it had, and some of the more emotionally weighty scenes just weren’t executed as well as they could have been.

Rating: 6/10

Directed by Brian DeCubellis

Screenplay by Brian DeCubellis

Based on the novel by Colin Harrison

Produced by Brian DeCubellis, Adrien Brody, and Steven Klinsky

Director of Photography: David Tumblety

Music: Joel Douek

Editor: Andy Keir

Starring Adrien Brody, Yvonne Strahovski, Jennifer Beals, Campbell Scott, Steven Berkhoff

Rated R for sexual content, nudity, violence and language.

Wolf Creek (2005)

poster_3119

Two British tourists, Liz and Kristy, join their Australian friend Ben on a road trip through the outback. After a brief stop at the eponymous Wolf Creek meteor crater, the trio’s car breaks down. They’re eventually discovered by Mick, a charming, jovial bushman who offers to repair their car and tow it back to his place at no charge. With few options, Ben, Liz and Kristy spend the night and plan to leave in the morning and be on their way.

Brace yourself: what ensues can best described as The Hills Have Eyes meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the outback.

image-w856

It may seem like a clichéd premise, but Wolf Creek is a very solid indie horror film. After watching the film, I looked it up on IMDB and was astonished to discover that the budget was only $1 million dollars (roughly $1.5 million Australian dollars). Writer/director Greg McLean knows how to construct a tight, intense film, and Wolf Creek tends to steer clear of many of the genre pitfalls. Let’s face it, most of us have preconceived notions about what “low-budget horror” means. Some, like Saw and The Blair Witch Project, work very well, but many others do not.

The claustrophobia of the film is what makes it work. It’s a distinctly Aussie setting and story, and Wolf Creek really does capture both the raw beauty and forbidding nature of the outback. It’s clear that something like this could actually happen, and the filmmakers were, in fact, inspired by a string of grisly murders which occurred in the outback in the late 90s.

The outback is basically a character in this film, and the audience is drawn into the sheer, extreme isolation of a place where, if you go missing, you’re presumed dead – either by the elements, the wild animals, or (in this case) a deranged bushman.

The acting and writing are pretty solid. Nathan Phillips, Cassandra Magrath, and Kestie Moressi (who play Ben, Liz, and Kristy respectively) are all good in their roles. The opening scenes are a mixed bag in terms of character development, however, and sometimes, the dialogue doesn’t feel completely organic early on. Nothing’s overly awkward or stilted, but sometimes the chemistry isn’t 100% believable. Still, as the film gains momentum and the characters get in over their heads, this becomes only a minor footnote.

hero_eb20051222reviews51220004ar

I should note two things that might turn off the average viewer, regardless of whether or not they’re a horror buff.

First, the film is unconventional in terms of building suspense. Wolf Creek intelligently eschews the reliance on cheesy jump-scares or overtly creepy music, instead building suspense methodically and deliberately.

Secondly, Wolf Creek has some serious psychological violence and torture, some of which is offscreen, but there’s plenty of gore and the film’s brutal, grindhouse-style violence leaves very little to the imagination. The film has a low body count by horror standards, but the violence is still very raw and intense. Make no mistake, Wolf Creek is disturbing and twisted, and the in-your-face terror can be truly nightmarish.

Despite the tight shooting schedule (25 days) and tiny budget, McLean chose to shoot the film entirely in chronological order. Like Texas Chainsaw, the film is advertised as being based on true events, but this is mostly false. Real-life outback killers Ivan Milat and Bradley Murdoch were the primary inspirations for the character of Mick, but Wolf Creek is not based on any one event. Fittingly, one of the locations for the film’s pivotal scenes – an abandoned rock quarry – was the actual site of a murder several years prior; this actually prompted a brief protest from local residents who thought the film was deliberately exploitative (the film crew set the record straight in due time).

I digress. Wolf Creek is an unsettling, disturbing indie horror film that actually works very well for the most part. If you’ve got the stomach for it, I recommend it.

Rating: 8/10

Written and directed by Greg McLean

Produced by Greg McLean and David Lightfoot

Director of Photography – Will Gibson

Music – Francois Tetaz

Editor – Jason Ballantine

Starring Nathan Phillips, Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi, and John Jarratt

Rated R for strong gruesome violence, and for language.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

hacksaw_ridge_poster

In the midst of one of World War II’s most horrific and bloody battles, an unconventional hero stood out.

Hacksaw Ridge tells the incredible true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), a medic who saved over 70 lives in the Battle of Okinawa. The catch? Doss was a devout Seventh-Day Adventist who was a conscientious objector, refusing to carry a weapon. He brought numerous men to safety under constant threat of enemy fire and ended up becoming the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The film’s opening act shows us Doss’s quaint life growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of rural Virginia. A scrawny young man with southern charm and good manners, Doss is interested in studying medicine – though that may or may not be in an effort to woo pretty nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). Doss also relies on his faith to get him through difficult times, including an often contentious relationship with his father Thomas (Hugo Weaving), a WWI veteran who suffers from PTSD and alcoholism.

When WWII breaks out, Doss believes it’s his duty to serve, but as a pacifist, he refuses to carry or fire a weapon. Not surprisingly, this causes tension when Doss goes through basic training, drawing the ire of his drill instructor, Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) as well as the mockery of the soldiers in his unit. Both Howell and Capt. Glover (Sam Worthington) attempt to get Doss discharged via Section 8 (psychological instability) but are unsuccessful. No would-be soldier has ever graduated from basic without getting weapon-certified, and they don’t want Doss to be the first.

Eventually, Doss is sent to a military tribunal, and things look pretty grim. But Thomas Doss ends up going to bat for his son, with the help of his former commanding officer. In the end, Doss is allowed to serve on the front line without using a weapon. Afterwards, Doss marries Dorothy in a brief ceremony and is then sent overseas.

The second half of the film focuses on the Battle of Okinawa itself. The film’s title is taken from the rugged ridge that Doss’s unit must take in order to secure the island and reclaim it from Japan. Doss, considered a coward by everyone else around him, must put both his faith and all his physical abilities to the test in order to save those around him – as well as himself.

4fa105a0-738e-0134-188c-060e3e89e053.jpg

I saw Hacksaw Ridge a few weeks ago in LA. When it was finished, the theatre sat stunned in silence for a good 10 minutes before getting up and leaving.

That’s the kind of reaction that acclaimed director Mel Gibson was going for. The 60-year-old Gibson takes the director’s chair for the first time since 2006’s Apocalypto, and the results are nothing short of breathtaking. As a director, Gibson holds nothing back, and cinematographer Simon Duggan paints a vivid picture of the bleak, shell-shocked Okinawa landscape. Make no mistake, this movie is VIOLENT, and Gibson throws us directly into the action and never lets go.

This film has an outstanding performance from Andrew Garfield, who portrays Doss with earnestness and conviction. The film succeeds as both a harrowing retelling of Okinawa and as one man’s struggle to remain faithful and dutiful despite persecution. The real Doss was humble and mild-mannered, and Garfield nails it. It’s a very vulnerable performance, and I have no doubt that Garfield will get nominated for his fair share of awards.

Hacksaw Ridge was actually in the works for some time. Several prominent members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church had been trying to get Hollywood producers to bite on this project for years, but it was never fully realized. (It was even rumored that Hal B. Wallis, legendary producer of Casablanca, was once interested in making a film about Doss.)

In fact, the real Doss – who died in 2006 – was not a fan of Hollywood movies and saw no benefit in adapting his own story to the screen. He didn’t want to be immortalized or mythologized as a larger-than-life figure, rather just as a good Christian man who performed his duties.

Hacksaw Ridge is also, to some extent, a paradoxical statement – in that it’s a brutally violent war movie about a pacifist. While just as gory as previous Gibson films like Braveheart or ApocalyptoHacksaw Ridge is also a bit of a departure for Gibson because the protagonist never engages in any sort of violence. Either way, that specific paradoxical statement lifts the film and helps it become a larger-than-life story about courage and conviction. In the end, Hacksaw Ridge is an outstanding achievement and one of the best films of the year.

Grade: 9/10

Directed by Mel Gibson

Written by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan

Produced by Terry Benedict, Paul Currie, Bruce Davey, William D. Johnson, Bill Mechanic, Brian Oliver, David Permut, and Tyler Thompson

Starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Rachel Griffiths, and Hugo Weaving

Rated R for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence, including grisly images.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

mv5bmjawnda5nzewm15bml5banbnxkftztgwmta1mduynde-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_

Four vampires – Viago, Deacon, Vladislav, and Petyr – share a flat in Wellington, New Zealand, where they struggle to adapt to the 21st century. All four of them are hundreds of years old, but they mostly resemble normal humans (with the exception of Petyr, who appears much older). As vampires, they avoid the deadly sunlight and instead roam the streets of Wellington at night in order to search for prey. But they can’t get into the fancy clubs in town, they bicker over the household chores, they feud with local werewolf gangs, and they’re socially awkward around most humans.

In an effort to acclimate to everyday life, the vampires also have a human friend, Jackie, who helps them by running errands during the day. Jackie wants to become a vampire herself, and is secretly annoyed that Viago & Co. don’t change her into one. One day, Jackie lures her ex-boyfriend Nick to the vampires’ flat so they can feed on him. Nick escapes at first, but is bitten by Petyr, the much-older vampire who lives in the basement and exhibits aggressive tendencies.

A couple of months later, the vampires have accepted Nick into their group, but he struggles with the transition from human to supernatural being, even randomly confessing his true identity to club-goers. Nick’s human friend, Stu, is a computer programmer who introduces the vampires to modern technology, but he seems oblivious to the fact that his new friends are vampires.

Hilarity ensues as the vampires run into deadly werewolves, police, and vengeful ex-girlfriends, discover the power of email, go clubbing, and remain blissfully unaware about the world in which they’ve fallen into.

635604801531600159-phxdc5-6jdx7sj8bc8gl6kpjuz-original

This film is straight-up hilarious. What We Do in the Shadows was the brainchild of filmmakers Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi  – who served as actors, writers and directors – and was based off a similarly-themed short film that the two had made in 2006. Waititi is one of New Zealand’s most prominent filmmakers, while Clement is best known for being the co-creator and co-star of HBO’s cult classic comedy show Flight of the Conchords.

In an unusual move, Clement and Waititi spurned studio involvement, raising a minuscule budget of $1.7 million entirely on Kickstarter and recruiting numerous colleagues to participate in the film.

What We Do in the Shadows was shot entirely in Wellington in September 2012; despite the small budget and mockumentary setup, Clement and Waititi got their money’s worth when filming started. They shot over 120 hours of footage, which included numerous improvised takes. The duo eventually assembled three cuts – one focused more on story and plot, one focusing on comedy, and one final cut which was an amalgamation of the two. The original script was 150 pages long, but much of it was left unused, in a deliberate effort to keep dialogue spontaneous, humorous, and improv-friendly.

Shadows had a limited release, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014 and earning critical acclaim, before landing in its home country of New Zealand (as well as Australia) in June of that year. It didn’t premiere in US theatres until early 2015, but managed to strike a chord with American critics as well. The film ended up with a stellar 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Many critics favorably compared the film to Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, the 2004 British zombie-comedy that also had a limited budget and release, but managed to become a smash hit and a cult classic. Clement and Waititi deserve all the credit in the world for being funny, creative, and original. Make no mistake, What We Do in the Shadows is a charming, hilarious take on modern-day vampires. I highly recommend it.

“A bracing reminder of how the right burst of energy and style breathes fresh ideas into a genre threatened with creative exhaustion.”

The Chicago Sun-Times

Shadows takes what could have been a one-joke sketch and turns it into a very funny, and occasionally even touching, take on brotherhood and friendship.”

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“If we see two or three more comedies this year that know what they’re doing the way this one does, it’ll be a very good year indeed.”

The Chicago Tribune

“Desperately funny.”

–The Telegraph

“The best comedy of the year.”

The Guardian

Released 2014

Written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi 

Produced by Taika Waititi, Chelsea Winstanley and Emanuel Michael

Directors of Photography – Richard Bluck and D.J. Stipsen

Editors – Tom Eagles, Yana Gorskaya, and Jonathan Woodford-Robinson

Starring Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Blugh, Ben Fransham, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Jackie van Beek, Stu Rutherford, Elena Stejko, Rhys Darby

Rated R for bloody violent content, some sexual material and language.

Why Revenge of the Sith is the only good prequel

ep3dvd

If you know me, you know I love Star Wars. So I decided to do a brief piece about why I enjoy Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and why I believe it’s the only good prequel in the Star Wars canon.

Now, let me say first that I wholeheartedly agree with the majority of Star Wars fanboys and fangirls when I say that the prequels are vastly inferior to the original trilogy. I could rant all day about how George Lucas became a smugly incompetent douchebag who deliberately surrounded himself with yes-men while he alone took full creative control over the prequels. I could also explain how Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Episode II: Attack of the Clones are mediocre films that don’t answer nearly as many original trilogy questions as they could have, and for the most part, flat-out suck.

Let me also say for the record, that as a kid, I saw the Star Wars films well after the fact, and completely out of order at that. Obviously, I was vaguely familiar with the characters – what kid doesn’t recognize Darth Vader’s suit? – but I didn’t actually see the entire saga until I was 10 or so. I saw Attack of the Clones at age nine. Needless to say, it’s my least favorite of any of the Star Wars films and served as a pretty terrible introduction to this universe as a whole. Still, out of curiosity, I took it upon myself to watch all the other films over the summer.

Keep in mind that this was 2005. Revenge of the Sith had just come out in May, and the Star Wars series was potentially done after Lucas said he had no plans to direct any subsequent sequels. So in order to catch up with my peers and upgrade my nerd level, I had to immerse myself in the Star Wars lore.

To this day, I consider Revenge of the Sith to be a quality Star Wars film and the one saving grace of the prequel trilogy. Here are a number of reasons why:

  • It starts fast.

After the opening crawl, Revenge of the Sith wastes no time in throwing us directly into the action. The Jedi, led by Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, are leading the assault on the star cruiser commandeered by General Grievous and Count Dooku in order to rescue Chancellor Palpatine. This is a fun, action-packed opening that allows us to see a little bit of what we’re in for the rest of the way.

This is in stark contrast to The Phantom Menace, which spent nearly the first half hour talking about the Separatist movement and the Trade Federation and their threat to the planet Naboo. Similarly, Attack of the Clones wasted an insane amount of plot time focusing on the romance between Anakin and Padme, sequences which contain some of the most infamous acting and writing of the entire Star Wars saga.

Give Revenge of the Sith credit for being able to hold our interest from the get-go.

  • The characters are better fleshed-out.

The chemistry among the cast members is handled much better than in the first two prequels. At this point in the story, Obi-Wan is a Jedi Master and Anakin is a Jedi Knight. Therefore, Anakin’s no longer a Padawan and Obi-Wan is no longer his official mentor.

In the original trilogy, the elderly Obi-Wan describes Anakin as “a cunning warrior and a good friend.” That side of Anakin is on full display in Revenge of the Sith, as he saves Obi-Wan’s life early in the film and shows his courage. At the same time, Obi-Wan is still worried about his pupil’s well-being. For instance, he’s careful to warn Anakin about the powers that Chancellor Palpatine has accumulated in the Galactic Senate.

Anakin, being unusually strong in the Force, has definitely progressed, both in terms of fighting skills and his overall maturity. In the end, of course, pride is Anakin’s downfall, which allows him to be seduced to the Dark Side.

In both The Phantom Menace and particularly Attack of the Clones, Anakin was hard to empathize with, constantly grumbling about Obi-Wan, resenting the authority of the Jedi Council, and (of course) embarking on a forbidden romance with Padme. In Revenge of the Sith, however, Anakin’s internal conflict is brought to the forefront and we get a real sense of how he, the Chosen One, allowed himself to be manipulated and turned to the Dark Side.

  • The cunning of Emperor Palpatine.

In the film The Usual Suspects, Keizer Soze (played by Kevin Spacey) famously remarked “The greatest trick the Devil ever played was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.”

The same can be applied to Palpatine in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, where he goes from Senator to Chancellor to Galactic Emperor. Palpatine uses his intelligence and charm to mislead everyone, even the Jedi Council, from realizing his evil plan until it’s too late. Early on the film, Obi-Wan is disturbed by how much power Palpatine has been given during the ongoing Clone Wars. Anakin, meanwhile, believes that Palpatine has been unfairly criticized. In turn, Obi-Wan requests that Anakin be able to keep his distance from the situation and keep an eye on Palpatine while reporting anything suspicious to the Jedi Council.

The entire mid-point of Revenge of the Sith consists of Anakin turning to the Dark Side and helping the Emperor execute Order 66, which eliminates all the Jedi (except Obi-Wan and Yoda) and establishes the Emperor as the sole authority, with Vader by his side.

Ever since the Emperor was introduced in Return of the Jedi, we were all wondering how he was able to gain so much power and turn Anakin into Darth Vader. All of these questions are answered satisfactorily in Revenge of the Sith. In my opinion, the real highlight of the film is following the Emperor as he and his new apprentice begin to put plans into motion that set up the entire original trilogy.

  • Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan.

The first two prequel films were a distressing exercise into how George Lucas could hire numerous big-name actors – Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, and Christopher Lee – and convince them to recite lines that were just cringeworthy. The one consistent highlight for me was Scottish actor Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan.

The prequels are unified by their narrative of following Anakin Skywalker, going from a poor slave boy on Tattooine to the man in the mask. But of equal importance is the evolution of Obi-Wan. Introduced as Old Ben in the original, lots of Star Wars fans were instantly curious about Obi-Wan’s origins and how he became the mentor to Luke in the original trilogy.

In The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan is shown to have wonderful skills with the Force and a keen instinct as a mentor to Anakin. Obi-Wan’s wisdom is shown numerous times, especially in Revenge of the Sith. Whether it’s warning Anakin about the Emperor or discussing how he and Yoda can bring down the Empire for good, Obi-Wan’s analytical mind is nearly as powerful as his skills with a lightsaber.

This is consistent with the Obi-Wan of the original trilogy, who first and foremost, wanted to train Luke the right way – to teach him how a Jedi thinks just as much as how a Jedi fights.

  • The lava scene and Obi-Wan’s turmoil. 

The two climactic duels in Revenge of the Sith happen concurrently. In one, the Emperor and Yoda go head-to-head in the Senate chambers; in the other, Obi-Wan and Anakin fight each other in hellish conditions on the volcanic planet Mustafar.

In the end, as most of us remember, Obi-Wan hacks off Anakin’s limbs and lets him fall down the rocky embankment to the edge of the lava, where Anakin then catches fire. Shortly before Anakin burns alive, a distraught Obi-Wan tells his former student that as the Chosen One, he was supposed to destroy the Sith rather than join them, and bring balance to the Force, as opposed to leaving it in darkness.

It’s hard not to get emotional during the dark moments of Revenge of the Sith, especially when the Jedi are double-crossed and executed or when the Emperor officially names Anakin his apprentice. But the image of Obi-Wan crying over the loss of his friend – after seeing his former student join the Emperor and destroy the galaxy – hits the emotions raw. Throughout the prequels we’ve seen Obi-Wan do so many things right in an attempt to guide and teach Anakin, but in the end, it was all for nothing.

In the final scenes of Revenge of the Sith, Yoda admits that he has failed and that he must go into exile, and Obi-Wan does the same. At the same time, the newborn Luke and Leia are transported to their respective planets, where we find them in the original trilogy years later.

Conclusion

There are a lot of bad things to say about the prequels, and that includes Revenge of the Sith. Say what you will about George Lucas, and by all means, say it. But I feel like he got it mostly right with Revenge of the Sith. You could say that the third time was (mostly) the charm.

The Big Lebowski (1998) vs. Fight Club (1999)

Today I’m doing a compare-and-contrast episode, featuring two films that I believe are very similar to each other: The Big Lebowski and Fight Club.

Now on the surface, you may not find that many similarities between these two films. But after digging deeper, I believe that both have a lot in common than just being late-90s cultural artifacts.

For the uninformed, let’s go over the plots of both films, starting with The Big Lebowski.

biglebowskiposter

Lovable loser Jeffrey Lebowski (colloquially known as “The Dude”) gets mugged in his home in a case of mistaken identity. Shortly thereafter, he learns of the intended victim, a millionaire also named Jeffrey Lebowski. The Dude informs his friends and bowling buddies – dopey Donnie and quick-tempered Walter – about the situation. When the millionaire Lebowski’s trophy wife gets kidnapped, the Dude is commissioned to deliver the ransom to bring her back.

fight_club_poster

Fight Club, meanwhile, deals with the unnamed narrator, who finds himself alienated in his dingy city and boring white-collar job. After meeting the mysterious Tyler Durden, the Narrator becomes involved in underground “fight clubs” as a means of relieving stress and escaping the mundane realities of life. Eventually, the Narrator gets pulled into a violent underworld which eventually threatens his life and will leave no one unscathed. It is based on the 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk.

Now, let’s compare the two:

  • Both films were disappointments at the box office, but became cult classics after their DVD releases.

The Big Lebowski grossed only $17 million in the U.S. on a $15 million budget, making it a box office disappointment for the team behind it (the venerable Coen brothers).

Similarly, Fight Club opened at the No. 1 spot, but fell quickly, and studio executives were rumored to be unhappy with the final film. On a budget of $63 million, Fight Club tanked in U.S. box offices, grossing only $37 million in North America.

However, both films developed underground followings when they were released on DVD, and to this day, both films are regarded as classics by critics and audiences alike.

  • Both films feature strange characters and non-traditional protagonists.

Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski is a likable guy – in a stoner/slacker kind of way. He seems to enjoy his life and has a laid-back demeanor that is admirable during the difficult circumstances he encounters during the film. When he’s not smoking pot or bowling with his buddies, he’s just taking life as it comes.

There’s also an eclectic mix of supporting characters in The Big Lebowski, including a nude artist (Julianne Moore), a quirky bowling rival (John Turturro), and the millionaire Lebowski’s socially awkward assistant (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

In Fight Club, the main supporting character is Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), a seductive stranger who has similar interests as the Narrator and ends up turning his life upside down.

The Narrator himself is someone who is fairly relatable. He’s frustrated with his mundane job and lives vicariously by visiting support groups for people with life-threatening illnesses. When Marla Singer and Tyler Durden enter his life, the Narrator’s existence becomes crazier and crazier to the point where he questions his own sanity. Even if the Narrator’s circumstances aren’t similar to one’s own life story, the character himself certainly is.

  • Both films feature a unique blend of genres and styles.

The Big Lebowski is basically a satirical comedy about mistaken identity, but it’s also a caper film that blends surrealism, mystery, and even some Western elements.

Fight Club is simultaneously a satirical comedy and a mystery thriller, equally humorous and intense in its subject matter. The production design and cinematography (always a staple of David Fincher films) are top-notch and suggest a more industrial action-thriller genre, but the dialogue and characters are more typical to a satire.

 

I’m sure there are plenty of other similarities between these two great films – but these are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head. If you haven’t seen either of these flicks, I highly recommend them…they really hold up under scrutiny and deserve repeated viewings.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Directed by Joel Coen

Produced by Ethan Coen

Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, David Huddleston, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reid, John Turturro

Rated R for pervasive strong language, drug content, sexuality and brief violence.

 

Fight Club (1999)

Directed by David Fincher

Produced by Art Linson and Ceán Chaffin

Screenplay by Jim Uhls

Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk

Starring Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf, Jared Leto

Rated R for disturbing and graphic depiction of violent anti-social behavior, sexuality and language.