Category: Film/TV reviews

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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Stanley Kubrick’s esoteric last hurrah finds the audience absorbing the public and private lives of Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman). The couple have been together for several years now and consider themselves to be very happy, but at the NYC cocktail party of a wealthy patient of Bill’s, some potential cracks begin to show themselves in the marriage.

Bill reunites with Nick, an old medical school colleague who has since decided to pursue a career as a jazz pianist. Bill is also later occupied by a medical emergency upstairs, where his host’s girlfriend nearly overdoses on a speedball. Throughout the night, both Bill and Alice are approached when they’re alone – Alice by a middle-aged Hungarian man, and Bill by two young models. Both resist their respective advances.

The evening after the party, Alice asks Bill if he had sex with the two models, to which Bill reassures her that he didn’t. However, he is disturbed when Alice subsequently reveals that years earlier, she had come dangerously close to having an affair and willingly fantasized about such an encounter.

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Bill wanders around the streets of New York, distressed and disillusioned. He has an exchange with a prostitute, but eventually refuses to cheat after becoming ashamed and embarrassed. He then runs into Nick again at a local jazz club and discovers that Nick has a special engagement planned for the rest of the evening in which he must play piano blindfolded. Curious, Bill wants to see for himself, but Nick becomes terse and objects to Bill getting involved. Eventually, he relents and gives Bill the information that, in order to attend the event, he has to wear a costume, a mask, and must also have a verbal password to give when he arrives.

Bill’s web of intrigue eventually becoming a mysterious and harrowing journey into the underbelly of New York, potentially discovering disturbing truths about himself in the process and endangering both his marriage and his life.

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Eyes Wide Shut is a film by the legend himself, Stanley Kubrick. He’s long been a personal favorite of mine, but I had long resisted watching Eyes Wide Shut based on its reputation as an impenetrable, long-winded, bizarre film, as well as my general distaste for Tom Cruise’s filmography. Nonetheless, I gave in and gave it a watch about a month ago, and I genuinely enjoyed it.

The film’s unusually laborious production process rivaled even that of The Shining, Kubrick’s 1980 epic horror film. Eyes Wide Shut holds the Guinness World Record for the longest continuous film shoot (nearly 15 straight months), with two supporting cast members – Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Leigh – eventually leaving the production due to other acting commitments. Another actress, Vinessa Shaw, was initially contracted for two weeks of filming, but ended up working for three times that. Kubrick’s notorious perfectionism led to numerous script changes and an acute attention to production design and cinematography.

Speculation swirled about Kubrick’s film, which was adapted by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael from the novel Traumnovelle by the Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler. Kubrick had first considered adapting Schnitzler’s work as far back as the early 70s, when he was searching for a novel to make into a film in a relatively short timeframe and on a tight budget (he made A Clockwork Orange instead). Still, this pet project of Kubrick’s had long fascinated him as an exploration of both fears and sexual desires.

By the time Eyes Wide Shut‘s production finally got off the ground, the elusive, enigmatic Kubrick hadn’t made a film in a decade (1987’s Full Metal Jacket) and many assumed that he had retired from filmmaking altogether.

Tabloids buzzed when it was revealed that then-real-life husband-and-wife Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman would be starring in the film, with some speculating that it would be “the sexiest movie ever.” Kubrick, therefore, was smart about marketing the film, revealing very little, even in press kits and production notes.

(Side note: It’s worth mentioning that despite the potential titillation of seeing a real life celebrity couple nude on film, and large amounts of plot devoted to sexual issues, Cruise and Kidman never have sex onscreen. “No one familiar with the cold precision of Kubrick’s work will be surprised that this isn’t the steamy erotic thriller a synopsis (or the ads) might suggest,” remarked TV Guide at the time of the film’s release.)

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Once filming was finally completed, the lengthy post-production process began on Eyes Wide Shut, with Kubrick as involved as he had been an any of his previous films. On March 1, 1999, Kubrick screened a cut of the finished film to Kidman, Cruise, and a group of Warner Brothers executives, all of whom were very happy with the result. Six days later, the 70-year-old Kubrick died suddenly of a heart attack while in his sleep at his home in England. The film was released 151 days later.

The production design, costume design, and cinematography of Eyes Wide Shut are all outstanding. The cinematography captures a genuinely eerie atmosphere a lot of the time and builds mystery and suspense very methodically in a way that few films do. Kubrick pioneered the use of controlled natural lighting in Barry Lyndon and does the same in Eyes Wide Shut. Most obviously, there’s the glow of a Christmas tree in almost every room (the movie takes place during Christmastime in New York, not Vienna during Mardi Gras, as depicted in Schnitzler’s novel).

While the slow pace of Eyes Wide Shut may alienate some viewers, I felt like it wouldn’t have worked any other way. There are some occasions, especially early on, where the deliberate actions of the characters aren’t always believable and sometimes feel unnatural. However, I found Cruise’s character to be generally relatable and sympathetic, and the terror that he experiences at various points in the movie does feel well-crafted and creepy in the best ways.

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There remains a debate about whether Eyes Wide Shut was completed the way Kubrick had intended. The director was known for making both major and minor changes to his films up until the last minute, so whether Eyes Wide Shut was released 100% according to his vision is unknown.

Here’s what we do know:

  • Former Kubrick collaborator Michael Herr (co-writer of Full Metal Jacket‘s screenplay) said he received a phone call from Kubrick four days before his death, where he said that he had some misgivings about technical issues, particularly with color, sound, and music, but that the studio was happy with the result.
  • Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s executive producer and brother-in-law, said that Kubrick was very happy with Eyes Wide Shut, as did one of the film’s supporting actors, Todd Field, and Kubrick’s daughter Katharina.
  • Garrett Brown, who invented the Steadicam and worked with Kubrick on The Shining, said he considered Eyes Wide Shut to be an unfinished product: “I think it was snatched up by the studio when Stanley died…it was three months before the movie was due to be released. I don’t think there’s a chance that was the movie he had in mind. It’s a great shame, because you know it’s out there, but it doesn’t feel to me as if it’s really his film.”

For what it’s worth, Warner Brothers insisted several times that Kubrick had turned in the final cut of the film before his death, and agreed to collaborate with Kubrick’s estate on actual completion of the film based on Kubrick’s production notes (although they did alter some sexually-explicit scenes to ensure an R rating). It’s generally believed that any further changes that Kubrick wanted to make were purely technical in nature, mostly centered around sound mixing, color correction, and other things that would not have necessarily needed his immediate input.

Certified “fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes at 74%, Eyes Wide Shut was generally regarded as one of the best films of the year and was particularly acclaimed by Roger Ebert, who dubbed it “a worthy final chapter to a great director’s career.” The film performed averagely at the US box office, but did very well in Europe.

As I’ve mentioned already, Eyes Wide Shut is slow-paced – building mystery and suspense in a deliberate, sometimes plodding manner. However, this film very much rewards the patient viewer and even earlier scenes that don’t seem important end up coming full-circle later on. If you’re in for the ride, Eyes Wide Shut is chilling, compelling, and bizarre in all the ways that you expect a Kubrick film to be.

Combining the visual spectacle of Barry Lyndon, the slow-building tension of The Shining, and the abstract, open-ended storytelling of 2001Eyes Wide Shut is a terrific achievement and a suitable enough ending to Kubrick’s sterling career.

Provocatively conceived, gorgeously shot and masterfully executed.” —The Chicago Tribune

“A dead-serious film about sexual yearnings, one that flirts with ridicule yet sustains its fundamental eeriness and gravity throughout. The dreamlike intensity of previous Kubrick visions is in full force here.” –The New York Times

“Finally a film that is better at mood than substance, that has its strongest hold on you when its making the least amount of sense.” –The Los Angeles Times

“As rich and strange and riveting as any journey Kubrick has taken us on.” –The Seattle Times

“Thought-provoking and unsettling.” –James Berardinelli

 

Rating: 8/10

  • Directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick
  • Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael
  • Inspired by Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler
  • Executive Producer – Jan Harlan
  • Director of Photography – Larry Smith
  • Editor – Nigel Galt
  • Music – Jocelyn Pook
  • Starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Todd Field, Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson, Rade Šerbedžija, Vinessa Shaw, Sky du Mont, Leelee Sobieski, Alan Cumming, Leon Vitali
  • Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug-related material

Gallipoli (1981)

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The year is 1915, in the thick of the Great War. In the remote outback of Western Australia, a young aspiring sprinter named Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) leads a simple life on his family’s farm. His hard-charging uncle Jack (Bill Kerr) helps him train against other local farmboys, but the young Aussies soon grow concerned over the war halfway around the world, and they all hold varying opinions on whether it’s worth fighting for their British overlords or not.

Archy signs up for a sprint at his town’s annual athletics carnival, where his primary competition is the charismatic Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), a recently unemployed railway worker from Perth who places a bet to win the race. When Archy defeats him, Frank is bitter at losing the prize money, but they soon make peace. Lacking any substantial money, the two decide to catch a train to Perth in order to enlist in the ANZAC (Australia-New Zealand Army Corps) campaign.

Along the way, we begin to see the differences in the two men’s approach to enlisting. Archy is the optimistic idealist, believing that he has an opportunity to fight on behalf of his family and to serve Australia in the best way he can. Frank, an Irish-Australian, is more skeptical of the British Empire’s goals in WWI. Archy unsuccessfully tries to persuade Frank to join him in the light-horse brigade, but Frank instead joins up with some of his old railway buddies in the infantry. The young Aussies depart their ordinary lives back home and ship off to Cairo.

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Once in Egypt, Frank and Archy end up reuniting and are soon sent off to the Gallipoli Peninsula, where other ANZAC detachments are attempting to retake the territory from the Ottoman Empire’s forces.

The main objective of the campaign, ostensibly, is to secure a narrow strip of land called The Nek, but there are conflicts among the ANZAC commanders and the British Colonel Robinson. The once-innocent Aussies begin to get discouraged and jaded about their roles in the fight as the casualties mount and an uncertain outcome looms.

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This film is, to some extent, unusual for a war movie. For starters, there aren’t enough epic World War I films out there (the only other one that I’ve absolutely loved was 1941’s Sgt. York). And there’s a reason for that in this case, as both Australia and New Zealand hold WWI as more important to their history than WWII.

Also, while Gallipoli‘s battle sequences are very well-shot and acted, they don’t necessarily overwhelm the film’s overall message or take center-stage. Gallipoli is a coming-of-age story of both the characters in the film and Australia itself.

As mentioned previously, the young boys in the film hold a wide range of opinions on the war effort. They don’t really know why they’re fighting, only that they must, and the film shines much light on why the Gallipoli campaign failed. Still, in the midst of terrible losses and wartime atrocities, the character of the ANZACs shined through.

The campaign, therefore, served as a major catalyst for Australia to assert itself as its own country, as opposed to just a major chess piece for the Brits to use in their own wartime efforts. The camaraderie of the ANZAC troops was on full display, as they showed many of the qualities that, to this day, Aussies value.

In modern times, both Australia and New Zealand celebrate ANZAC Day on April 25th; it’s their equivalent of Memorial Day. In addition to being a federal/bank holiday, nearly every city and town in both countries holds a sunrise ceremony and a moment of silence.

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Gallipoli is historically relevant as one of the primary films in Australian new wave cinema, marking director Peter Weir as a prominent leader in the movement (He went on to direct such international blockbusters as Witness, The Truman ShowDead Poets Society, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).

Not surprisingly, Gallipoli only made a major financial impact in Australia. Filmed on only a $2.8 million budget, it went on to gross nearly $12 million at the Australian box office. Gallipoli was a major critical success in America, despite only grossing $5.7 million there.

It was also a major starring vehicle for then-relative newcomer Mel Gibson. Only 24 years old at the time, Gibson used Gallipoli as a springboard to establish himself as a serious dramatic actor as well as a budding action hero. Gibson and Weir also later collaborated on The Year of Living Dangerously in 1982 and are still considered pivotal figures in modern Australian cinema.

I really enjoyed Gallipoli, and it’s not just because I’m familiar with Australian culture. Like any good war movie, it’s simultaneously entertaining, inspiring, and bittersweet.

It’s worth mentioning that there are several historical liberties that are taken, specifically considering the British role in calling the shots in trench warfare. There are certainly some inaccuracies, and the filmmakers have admitted as much. Still, Gallipoli succeeds largely in what it attempts to do, and is considered one of the best Australian films of its time.

Rating: 8.5/10

  • Directed by Peter Weir
  • Screenplay by David Williamson
  • Story by Peter Weir
  • Produced by Robert Stigwood and Patricia Lovell
  • Director of Photography – Russell Boyd
  • Editor – William Anderson
  • Starring Mel Gibson, Mark Lee, Bill Kerr, Harold Hopkins, Robert Grubb, Heath Harris, Tim McKenzie, Ron Graham, Charles Yunipingu
  • Rated PG

Benny & Joon (1993)

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Orphaned as children, Benjamin “Benny” Pearl (Aidan Quinn) and Juniper “Joon” Pearl (Mary Stuart Masterson) live in a modest house in Spokane, Washington. Benny owns a local auto shop, while the timid and mentally ill Joon lives vicariously through various hobbies such as painting. Her challenges sometimes cause headaches for Benny, but he remains very protective of her.

Joon plays a poker game one night with Benny’s friend Mike, who is hosting his shy, quirky cousin Sam while he’s in town. Without Benny’s knowledge, Joon loses her bet in the game and Sam has to stay with her and Benny. Benny is upset with his sister’s actions at first, but Sam’s quiet charm eventually wins him over, while a budding romance ensues between Sam and Joon. Maybe both Benny and Joon can find happiness on their own terms….

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Despite its quirky premise and odd mix of drama and comedy, Benny & Joon received positive reviews and did well at the box office in 1993. It remains notable for its numerous references to silent films (the character of Sam has an obsession with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin) and for its soundtrack, which features worldwide folk-rock hit “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by the Scottish band The Proclaimers.

However, beneath the on-the-surface quirkiness and Johnny Depp being Johnny Depp in the best possible ways, this film is a genuinely heartwarming domestic drama. It’s about mental illness, which is frequently a topic in film that’s treated with kid gloves, so to speak. But Benny & Joon does accurately show how mentally ill people struggle, succeed, and everything in between.

Benny loves his sister and wants the best for her, even though she drives him crazy, but he’s convinced himself that letting her stay at the house all the time is the only way to keep her out of an institution. Eventually, Benny wants a personal life that doesn’t always revolve around taking care of Joon, and the film captures their struggles well. It’s only when Sam comes along that Benny begins to see a world where Joon can be happy and fulfilled. Sam has plenty of challenges himself, as he lacks social skills and frequently struggles to read, but he likes what he sees in Joon and wins her over with his whimsical charm and light-hearted attitude.

At the same time, however, Benny & Joon doesn’t take the easy way out. It’s not a dark, depressing, melodramatic take on the domestic issues that arise from mental illness. Nor is it an overly-cheesy empowerment anthem for people who’ve experienced tragedy and loss. Instead, Benny & Joon takes a lot of different themes and repackages them in a fun, quirky way with a good dose of drama, romance, and comedy sprinkled throughout. The film identifies a weighty issue and treats it in a way that few movies do, and that alone deserves brownie points.

Rating: 8.5/10

  • Directed by Jeremiah S. Checik
  • Written by Barry Berman and Lesley McNeil
  • Produced by Susan Arnold and Donna Roth
  • Starring Aidan Quinn, Mary Stuart Masterson, Johnny Depp, Julianne Moore, Oliver Platt, William H. Macy, Joe Grifasi
  • Rated PG for thematic elements, a scene of mild sensuality and brief harsh language.

The Nice Guys (2016)

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Private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a depressed single dad to precocious pre-teen Holly (Angourie Rice). When a famous LA pornstar, Misty Mountains, dies in a mysterious car crash, March is approached by her aunt, who repeatedly insists that her niece is still alive. While investigating the crime, March also learns of the kidnapping of Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley), daughter of a high-ranking Justice Department official.

Enter Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a rogue enforcer whose behavior can walk the line between ethical and unethical. Originally hired by an outside party to dissuade March from looking into Amelia’s disappearance, Healy actually ends up saving March’s life when March gets jumped at his home. The two reluctantly team up and try to piece together the two seemingly unrelated crimes involving the girls.

March and Healy discover that both Misty and Amelia were involved with a filmmaker named Dean, who recently died in a house fire that burned the original copy of said film with it. Plenty of twists and turns lie ahead as Healy and March stumble into an alternately hilarious and mysterious world, featuring porn producers, hitmen, conspiracy theories, and plenty of gaudy 70s outfits.

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This movie is awesome. We haven’t had a legit buddy-cop movie since the Lethal Weapon and Rush Hour days, although many have been attempted. The thing is, The Nice Guys is self-aware enough to play upon the buddy-cop genre tropes without being too tongue-in-cheek or wink-wink about it. It feels like a period piece in the best possible ways, and the film is lifted by Shane Black’s direction and the chemistry of its leads.

Speaking of which, both Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are excellent in this film, with both easily drawing laughs and sharing the screen well. They both get plenty of laughs, and I liked Crowe’s ability to do a Bronx accent. The film also features solid performances from Matt Bomer (TV’s White Collar), Keith David (CrashPlatoon) and Margaret Qualley (TV’s The Leftovers).

I was extremely impressed with child actress Angourie Rice, who really hit a home run with her performance as Holly March. I’m sure she’ll get plenty of other roles as she gets older. Gosling, in particular, was blown away by his young co-star’s dedication and maturity. “It’s her second film, and she acts like it’s her 50th,” Gosling raved.

Black, who most recently directed Iron Man 3 in 2013, had previously made a crime-caper/comedy film with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang back in 2005. Black co-wrote the screenplay with Anthony Bagarozzi and originally conceived The Nice Guys as a modern-day TV pilot – as opposed to a period piece movie – before eventually bringing it to his friend, veteran producer Joel Silver.

Silver was originally skeptical of a 70s-style film connecting with modern audiences, but he began to warm to the idea after another period piece he worked on, Sherlock Holmes, was a big box office success.

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Both Crowe and Gosling admitted that they said yes to the project simply based on the idea of working with each other.

“When I read the script, I knew that Shane was on a plane trying to convince Russell to do it, so I read it with Russell in mind,” Gosling remarked. “I just could completely picture him in the role and I had never seen him do anything like that, so the movie just immediately became so funny.”

“It was just so free,” Crowe said about the on-set environment. “Ryan and I were having a ball and at that point, we were not really aware of how other people are enjoying it, because we just focused on our own enjoyment.”

Crowe and Gosling accepted the roles within three days of each other; Black later recalled that those two casting decisions were the catalyst for getting the ball rolling on the film earlier than expected. The Nice Guys was primarily filmed in Atlanta, with some exterior shots also filmed in Los Angeles.

The Nice Guys is entertaining, fun, hilarious, and well-directed. I liked this film a lot, and I would highly recommend you see it, particularly if you like period pieces, crime comedies, or if you’re a fan of Gosling and Crowe’s previous work.

Rating: 8/10

  • Released 2016
  • Directed by Shane Black
  • Written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi
  • Produced by Joel Silver
  • Director of Photography – Philippe Rousselot
  • Edited by Joel Negron
  • Starring Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Keith David, Kim Basinger, Margaret Qualley, Murielle Telio, Lois Smith
  • Rated R for violence, sexuality, nudity, language and brief drug use

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

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.