Sunday, July 31, 2011

Worst of the Worst: #1, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever

And so we come to the end of the journey, 647 days after I first saw Rotten Tomatoes' "Worst of the Worst" list and 643 days after I watched the first movie, A Sound of Thunder.  We'll get to a post-mortem on the quest in a couple of days, but first, there's one more movie: the single worst-reviewed movie of 2000-09, according to Rotten Tomatoes, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever.

Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever is a movie about a person named Ecks fighting a person named Sever.  Okay, not really.  They barely actually fight.  This confused me because I proclaimed loudly as the movie began that, as the movie subtitled "Ecks vs. Sever," there was no way that Ecks and Sever would ever join forces to fight against a common enemy, especially since both are played by the two biggest stars (by far) in the movie.  Alas, Ecks and Sever only nominally fight, in that Ecks fires like two of the approximately one google bullets fired during the movie at Sever at one point.  I suppose Ballistic: Ecks and Sever vs. Evil Rich Guy would be a stupid title.

Lucy Liu is Sever (no first name), a super agent for an American defense agency, who is really good at shooting people and then beating them up by kicking really close to their face, but never quite connecting, even though they fly backwards.  Antonio Banderas is Jeremiah Ecks, though he is consistently referred to in the second half of the movie as Jeremy Ecks, a super agent for the FBI, who we are told is really good at shooting people, but he doesn't really fight all that much in the movie because Banderas isn't as good as an actor at martial arts as Liu is, I think.  Notice that both are American agents, yet everything happens in Vancouver and nobody cares.  Everyone else in the movie is there to be shot, beat up, or both, except for Ecks' wife and her son.  We learn that Ecks thinks his wife is dead, but she's married to the bad guy, but then she just goes right back to Ecks anyway in a scene involving dolphins swimming behind a darkened room.  The dialogue in that scene -- and all scenes -- is delivered at a whisper.  I thought that the Netflix stream was messed up, but it wasn't; I had to turn the TV way up to hear the speaking, but the explosions were at regular volume, so my ears went from bleeding from the loud explosions to hurting from straining to hear the actors speaking.  I can only assume they whispered to make the many, many, many explosions sound that much louder.

So, yes, there are explosions every two minutes, there is a series of events that is called a "plot," there are words put together that are called "dialogue."  There is even a long fight scene at the end between Lucy Liu and Ray Park, two accomplished martial arts actors, in which they barely touch each other, are lit badly, and the director's insistence on cutting between shots every three seconds leads to no continuity of the action.  Of course, that no continuity is right in line with everything else in the movie, so I guess it works.  All of this combines to make a real head-shaker of a movie.  All of the choices made with the movie (assuming someone was actually thinking about this purposefully), from the story to the editing to the acting to the sound to the camera work and so on, combine in a way in which one can understand why this would stand atop the heap as the #1 worst movie of the decade.


It's just not that bad.  It's bad, absolutely, but it's not #1 bad, for two reasons.  One, Banderas is just a good freaking actor.  He has nothing to work with here, but he has such screen presence that he makes it so that not every second is awful.  He's delivering crappy lines to bad actors, but he's delivering them in a way that makes sense.  Also, I tried to envision some of the lines as coming from Puss in Boots, and that helped.  Two, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever is hilarious.  I've written about how some of the movies on this list are painful to watch, but that's just not true of this one.  It is a mess in such a way that I was laughing out loud for most of the movie.  The goofs in the stunts where it is clear that nobody is actually touching anyone else during fights.  The moment where a guy gets shot and everyone runs to put pressure on his chest, but you never see a bullet hole or any blood (and later find out that he's totally fine because the bullet missed his heart by one centimeter).  The constant explosions that led to the $70 million budget (it made less than $20 million at the box office).  I particularly enjoyed watching the guy who played Curtis on '24' in every scene he was in; he perpetually looked either confused at the direction or angry to be in the movie.

Ballistic is about as poorly-made as any big-budget movie I've ever seen, but the fact that it made me laugh means that it was at least a little bit entertaining, even if it wasn't in the way the film makers had planned.  Movies that are made poorly are one way to decide what is "worst," but I think the best way is that entertainment value.  If you really get nothing out of a movie, it's worse than a movie from which you get even a little bit.  So Epic Movie or Meet The Spartans, which were a big zero on the entertainment scale?  3 Strikes or Master of Disguise or Merci, Docteur Rey!, which were net-negatives in terms of how they made me feel?  All are worse than a movie that made me laugh.  If this film were a spoof of a no-plot, all-action movie, trying to be bad, it would actually succeed in ways that any number of SNL action-spoof movies have not.  Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever may very well be the worst put-together movie I've ever seen, but it's not the worst movie, and not even that close to it.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Worst of the Worst: #15, Alone In The Dark

The ninety-ninth and penultimate movie I have to watch on Rotten Tomatoes' list of the worst-reviewed movies from 2000-09 is one I was saving.  I had intended to watch it for months, but I knew I'd be disappointed if I watched it too early in the process.  There are movies on the list that fit into certain categories and I tried to deal with those categories in kind.  So, the ____ Movie category (Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, et al)?  I tried to get that the hell out of the way as quickly as possible.  Ditto, any period dramas.  I waited quite a bit longer with the three Larry the Cable Guy movies before I could steel myself.  But, from the second I watched Bloodrayne (the only movie that I've watched twice so far), all I wanted to do was watch Uwe Boll movies.  The controversial German auteur had four films on the list and they are glorious.  He has so little care for the quality of his movies -- for good reason in some cases -- that the viewer must simply sit back and laugh and laugh and laugh.  All are ultra-violent with little plot and inane dialogue.  Most of his movies -- and all that were on the list -- are based on video games, which is already a wasteland genre for cinema.  So, I saw Bloodrayne and loved it and House of the Dead and kept rewinding scenes because they were so funny-bad and  In The Name of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale and thrilled to the bad music and worse casting.  And I wanted to watch Alone In The Dark so, so badly, but I didn't.  I wanted more of Dr. Boll's brand of genius to look forward to.  After all that, the verdict: Alone In The Dark is disappointing.

I don't doubt that it's the worst of the four movies on the list.  Mostly, it's just really boring.  So much of the movie is so dark -- the monsters in the movie are hurt by sunlight, even though they inexplicably come out into the sunlight at the end -- that you don't get the graphic gore of Boll's other movies.  What little plot there is is so confusing that the movie starts with a ninety-second scroll/narration to explain the story, setting a sleep-inducing tone.  Tara Reid is so bad that Boll excised her scenes from the director's cut, but she's bad in a "Well, yeah, it's Tara Reid, so who cares," sort of way.  The dialogue is all exposition, so it's less funny bad than tune-out bad.  Everything in the movie screams, "Yawn."

There are some funny moments.  At one point, a soldier falls into a pit and the rest of the team searches for him by calling out his name, which was -- wait for it -- Marco.  I have never before prayed so hard for Joel Hodgson or Mike Nelson and crew to be with me when I was watching a movie, because it ended up sounding lame when I called back, "Polo!"  The CGI is Ray-Harryhausen-technology-esque.  The movie has a load of obvious continuity errors and one famed goof, when one of the soldiers is killed but as the camera focuses on her body she lifts her head up right before the scene cuts.  It's not a total loss -- it is, after all, an Uwe Boll movie -- but it is mostly forgettable, which Bloodrayne, for instance, is most definitely not.  I freaking love Bloodrayne.

I'm still happy that I saved Alone In The Dark, because I am so fascinated by Dr. Boll and his films.  It was much more enjoyable than the #2 movie on the list, which I watched a couple of days ago.  I also don't intend to stop watching bad movies forever when the list is finished and that especially goes for Boll's oeuvre.  The list, however, will be finished soon.  Stay tuned, tomorrow, same bad time, same bad channel.  Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Worst of the Worst: #2, One Missed Call

I'm not a fan of horror movies.  In some cases, it's because I just can't take them.  Case in point, I've never been able to watch The Exorcist all the way through, even after reading the book.  In most cases, it's because horror movies tend to be pretty poorly made.  The makers think the shocks will make up for skimping elsewhere.  Case in point, Saw, through which I laughed and laughed and laughed because of the bad filmmaking.  I do like some horror movies and those tend to be the ones that are better made, but not too scary.  Sort of "horror lite."  The ultimates are, of course, John Carpenter's brilliant Halloween and the Spielberg-driven Poltergeist, but when it comes to more recent movies, I'm looking at The Sixth Sense, The Ring, and Final Destination.

The greatness of The Sixth Sense goes without saying; it's less a horror movie than a great movie that is based in the supernatural.  Final Destination is just fun.  The first one is well-made (the others are crappy, but hilarious) with the right amount of character development to make you actually care if something happens.  Also, the first twenty minutes or so are plain riveting.  The Ring is a touch scarier, but still has solid acting and an interesting plot.  I remember watching that and having my phone ring in the middle.  If my wife, calling me, knew any better she could have whispered, "Seven days," and I'd have run screaming out of the apartment. The Ring is based on a Japanese movie and its success meant that more American remakes of "J-Horror" films would be coming.  Hence, we have the 2008 remake of the 2004 Japanese film, One Missed Call.

Let's review.  Final Destination has elaborate, visually impressive death sequences and worthwhile characters.  The Ring has a creepy premise, good acting, and some decent scares.  One Missed Call is remarkable because it does its best to be Final Destination meets The Ring, yet it has not one of those things that either movie has.  There is no redeeming quality in One Missed Call and there are no scares.  It is so minimalist in what it brings to the cinematic table that its eighty-six minutes of run-time seem somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty-six minutes too long.  It is a movie that is neither scary nor funny with a weak premise, no character development, and a lazy ending.  In other words, it has all the charm of an eighty-six minute Saturday Night Live sketch.

There are a bunch of students at the psych ward of a medical school.  I think that's what they were supposed to be.  One by one, their phone rings with a weird tone and they never pick it up in time.  When they look at their phone, it says, "1 Missed Call," and has a date and time in the future.  When they listen to the message left, it has their voice right at the time of their death.  Then, at the appointed times, they say the same thing as on the message and either fall in front of a train or get impaled on a girder or get strangled to death by a demon (I think, that scene was confusing).  Ed Burns is the streetwise detective whose sister was the first victim of the phone calls and when our main character, one of the girls, tries to find out what's going on before she's killed, he helps her.  The cops tell her that nobody had any messages on their phones, but somehow Ed Burns has done research and figures out where the call to his sister was coming from.  They use it to track down the family that had a kid that died who is haunting the phones, blah blah blah, but it makes no sense because the kid had a cell phone that was too big for her being so young and how could Burns track down a cell phone to the foster home for the sister of the dead kid who owned the phone.

The plot makes no sense, but it's not helped by insulting dialogue delivered by actors who don't give a crap.  It's also not helped because we jump right into the phone calls and deaths and therefore don't know who any of the characters are and, therefore, really just don't care about anything.  Girl falls in front of train?  People die all over the world all the time, kid, so I can't work up the sympathy.  I can feel bad for Sonny Corleone when he's in the tollbooth because I know who he is.  You, guy who was in one scene and died in a ridiculous fashion that tried to be Final Destination but fell way short?  Meh.  The dialogue is so lame and the acting so bad that the entire movie feels like what I've been told the acting parts of porn are like by people who have seen those sorts of movies.

The sorts of movies I like to watch do not generally include spirits -- even those created by special effects that look like they were written in Basic -- or hauntings.  I'll take a comedy or a war movie or mob movie.  You can keep your possessed cell phones and your nanny cam teddy bears that are supposed to be creepy, but not nearly as creepy as a really creepy teddy bear.

Two left and they're both at home.  One I've been saving for pure enjoyment, the last Uwe Boll movie.  The other is the #1 worst movie of 2000-09, according to Rotten Tomatoes.  It's just a matter of days. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Worst of the Worst: #63, Yours, Mine & Ours

This being the remake of the 1968 Henry Fonda-Lucille Ball film, this time starring Dennis Quaid and Rene Russo, two likeable stars.  Quaid is a widower with eight children.  Russo is a widow with ten children.  They were high school sweethearts and Quaid has moved back to their hometown to become head of the Coast Guard Academy.  Yes, Quaid is military and by-the-book, while Russo is a disorganized wild child.  Will they ever fall in love?  They do, and quickly.  They decide to become a family, but the kids have other ideas and band together to sabotage the relationship.  I gather from a close analysis of the IMDB plot synopsis that this differs from the original, where the kids just had trouble getting together.

I'm betting that, unlike this modern one, the original is not just a mashup of as many slapstick jokes as can be fit into eighty-seven minutes, with Quaid ending up with his face in goo multiple times and kids either having a paint fight or hanging out of a window every other scene.  Quaid and Russo are not easily hateable, but the kids are so annoying and the realization the kids come to towards the end is so lazy that they completely overshadow the passable leads.  Sort of like, say, if it were Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt?

Yours, Mine & Ours may be nominally a remake of a 1968 movie, but I didn't like it the first time when it was called Cheaper By The Dozen.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Worst of the Worst (with Introduction "Why Bad Movies"): #47, Soul Survivors

Introduction: "Why Bad Movies"

On September 29, 2009, the movie website Rotten Tomatoes released their list of the one hundred worst-reviewed movies of the decade.  I was shocked to learn that I had only seen three of them.  Considering myself a connoisseur of bad cinema (and with some extra time on my hands because of a change to my regular week's schedule), I charged myself with the sacred quest of watching the other ninety-seven movies on that list.  We're now nearly twenty-two months later and I am onto the final five movies I need to complete the list.  In that span of time, the response I most get when I speak of the list is an incredulous question: "Why would you waste your time doing that?"

When I say I'm a connoisseur of bad movies, I don't mean to say I have bad taste.  I mean that I enjoy seeing where something went wrong or how bad something can go.  There can be a fine line between greatness and awfulness, probably finer than between greatness and mediocrity because awfulness can come from someone really going for the gusto and missing badly, whereas mediocrity just comes from no real effort whatsoever.  Take two comedies.  Anchorman is unquestionably a good movie.  The Goods is unquestionably a bad movie.  Seeing where Anchorman went right and The Goods went wrong (better ensemble, tighter writing, more original jokes, to name a few things) makes me appreciate the former because of the pitfalls it dodged to become great.  You can only really appreciate what it's like to feel good about something because you know what it's like to feel bad about something.  There is also no small amount of schadenfreude in seeing a team of filmmakers really, really screw up.  Train wreck cinema.

I think it's not that I'm watching bad movies that raises the "why" question, but that I purposefully set out to do it.  People watch bad movies all the time.  How many people went to see the last two Transformers movies?  People watch whatever crap comes on whatever TV station they happen to be flipping by, or they go to the theater and see the next thing that's showing, or they go see what everyone else seems to be seeing.  People watch bad movies all the time for two reasons: apathy and ignorance.  They either don't care what they are going to watch or they don't do any research and go in blind.  When watching a movie -- especially if I'm paying in the theater -- I couldn't live with either apathy and ignorance.  I have to know what I'm getting myself into.  That's not to say that I really knew what I was getting into when I started on the list; my taste in bad movies runs to the "funny bad" side of things and a precious few of these movies fit that bill.  But if you had to watch a hundred so-so movies to get to The Godfather and four great comedies, you'd do it.  Battlefield Earth and the four Uwe Boll movies make the whole endeavor worthwhile.

People waste time constantly.  I find it fairly self-deceiving when someone says, "I don't have two minutes to do X," because they probably wasted two minutes doing something else, but want to feel busy.  I'm insulted when someone says, "You must have a lot of time on your hands," because everyone has the same amount of time on their hands as everyone else; it's all about what you decide to do with it.  I've decided to not just play with my baby daughter and read and run and watch TV and play fantasy baseball; I've decided to take ninety minutes to two hours out of every week or so for the last two years to complete a goal that I had set for myself.  My question isn't, "Why did I do this?" It's, "What do I do next?"


Two of the most controversial (critique-wise) plots of TV shows in the last decade or so were both in the final season of great shows: the Kevin Finnerty sequence of The Sopranos and the Sideways world in Lost.  Both are so controversial because, as sequences that were disparate from the actual goings-on of the shows' world, one could easily dismiss anything that happened as meaningless or unearned.  In the case of The Sopranos, you knew all along that it was not "reality" (and, granted, the show had used many dream sequences before).  In the case of Lost, you had no freaking idea what was going on.  In both cases, what happened in those sequences had no real bearing on the resolution of the "real" story line; less so in Lost, but that's an argument for another time.  All this is to say that when people decide to buy into the "reality" of a story, they feel cheated if it turns out that the whole thing wasn't ever "real" at all.

Soul Survivors has a surprisingly good cast for a movie you've never heard of, including the underrated (and he's not bad here) Casey Affleck and Wes Bentley (who somehow has turned a smallish part in a great movie into being considered a respectable actor).  And that's where the good ends.  The movie is supposed to be horror, but tries to pass off weird as scary.  The movie is supposed to be edgy, but tries to pass off weird as edgy.  The movie is supposed to be weird, but ends up passing off boring as weird.  

The opening sequence has a blond girl being murdered by a guy in a mask.  Another blond girl then goes to her first weekend at college.  She loves her boyfriend but is still friends with her ex-boyfriend.  She goes to a party where the guy in the mask who murdered the first blond girl accosts her.  She throws him off, drinks too much, gets behind the wheel, and crashes into a car with the guy in the mask, throwing her into a ravine and killing her boyfriend.  She's overcome with guilt, but soon is visited by her boyfriend's ghost who is trying to save her from some supernatural demonic forces (read: guy in the mask, who randomly appears here and there) that are trying to kill her.  She is also helped by a priest, played stoically by Luke Wilson.  Yes, I realize that I do not know how to install a laugh track on a website for just that sort of line.  There's a twist involving Luke Wilson's character that you can see coming a mile away and a bigger twist at the end of the movie when (my general rule is not to "spoiler alert" this movies, because I know nobody is going to watch them) it turns out the whole thing was a dream while she was in a coma and fighting for her life after the accident.

It's actually an interesting premise for a movie and the concept saved me from really savaging the film, because it is awful.  But the dream sequence also made the entire rest of the movie meaningless because there was never any clue that anything wasn't actually happening to the main character.  In fact, the whole idea of the dream sequence where the guy in the mask is trying to kill her makes your brain hurt when thinking about the opening sequence, because there's no reason that guy would kill someone else.  It's an entire movie made for that "gotcha" moment at the end, which I figured out too early.  Sure, people might say that's what Shyamalan does, but his twist never discounts the rest of the movie, it just makes you see it in a different light. Being as critical as possible, The Usual Suspects has that kind of twist, but it a) is not a dream and b) was made with such great quality that the whole ride is enjoyable, even if you have already seen it.  It's okay to be cute, but you simultaneously have to be great to have your main story stand out on its own.  The Usual Suspects did it. The Sopranos did it. Lost did it. But that's probably why none of us have ever heard of Soul Survivors.

Four more to go.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Rewatch: 'The Social Network'

The Social Network is the perfect storm of a movie that desperately wants to be cool with accolades heaped upon it by a lot of people that desperately want to be cool.  "Oh, it's about the Facebook?  I've heard of the Facebook!  The kids like the Facebook!"  It walks away with three Oscars: Best Score (deservedly), Best Editing (not nearly as good as Inception), Best Adapted Screenplay (not a strong category for the year, but a few lines of great dialogue don't make it better written than Toy Story 3).  It's not a bad movie; far from it, it's a very good movie.  It's just not the great movie that many people tried to make it out to be.

There's an interesting plot with personal intrigue.  The plot drives the pacing, which is mostly breakneck, reminiscent in some way of All The President's Men.  There is one excellent acting performance, two very good ones, and one uneven one.  Respectively, that would be Eisenberg, Garfield and Hammer, and Timberlake.  The acting in All The President's Men is what makes it a great movie, but it's not the lack of great acting that knocks The Social Network down.  It is that Academy Award-winning writing.  There is some fantastic dialogue in spurts, but it is Sorkin's preachiness about the internet age that, in part, shows the movie to not be as cool as it wants to be.  In a key scene, Zuckerberg confronts his ex-girlfriend in a bar right after he has become famous.  She rants about how what's wrong with kids today is that they think they can put everything on the internet as if people care and that, once out there, nothing can be taken back.  Sorkin may as well have just shown up in more than just his one cameo and said that himself.  Not only would that type of character not have delivered that sort of speech in real life, but it turns into a "get off my lawn" moment in a movie that's supposed to be about kids stomping all over the world's damn lawn.

Fincher goes a little crazy with some vanity shots of crew racing that don't quite work to push the flow of the movie along (hence, my preference for the editing in Inception), but it is the ending that hurts the pace the most for me.  I grant that there was no clear ending to the story and so they had to build the frame story of the lawsuit that was not in the book.  Once again, though, there is a voice that seems outside the natural story in Rashida Jones' character.  She takes a shine to Zuckerberg in a way that is not earned.  In the end, she says that Zuckerberg is not an a**hole, even though he tries to act like one.  There is a scene, maybe two, where he seems to be softer than his exterior, but that is very fleeting.  He only cares about Facebook and maybe that doesn't make him an a**hole, but it certainly does not make him not one.

The movie is beautiful, visually.  There are some flashes of brilliance in the dialogue.  Eisenberg finished the ascent he began in Zombieland from Michael Cera wannabe to leading man.  It's a very good movie, worthy of the Best Picture nomination, particularly when there were ten nominees.  Sorkin and Fincher just don't get exactly the perfect feel for a movie about something as modern and pervasive -- and maybe even culture-changing -- as Facebook.  The movie speaks to how people who don't use the technology see the technology and that's why those people liked it so much.