Tag Archives: film

Eating Raoul

Eating Raoul

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Since the Video Vortex rental outfit at Alamo Drafthouse Raleigh opened back up recently (and I started working at the theater), I’ve been sifting a bit through their collection. It has given me the chance to catch up on some films that wouldn’t be terribly budget-friendly to get on streaming or digital rentals, and who doesn’t love the nostalgic joy of flipping through countless VHS and DVD cases? One of the first things I knew I wanted to dig up was Eating Raoul, a cult classic dark comedy from Paul Bartel that got a Criterion release a while back.

Eating Raoul is, on paper, a movie I expected to like. I first heard about it when I watched and wrote about the fantastic Chopping Mall many years ago, which features the lead characters from this film in what could probably be called inflated cameos. It popped back onto my radar more recently for a couple of reasons. First, I have been watching through Star Trek: Voyager, and Eating Raoul was the major debut of main cast member Robert Beltran. Second, I recently watched Fresh, a controversial recent feature that treads on some similar conceptual ground.

Eating Raoul is a dark comedy – a genre I usually appreciate – about eccentric characters who snowball into executing an increasingly absurd string of murders to pay their rent. There is definitely a class-conflict, “eat the rich” theme to the screenplay, which is usually fun to see. At first glance, it sounds like it has some common DNA with one of my favorite old-school b-movies, A Bucket of Blood: Roger Corman’s skewering of art criticism and culture.

All of that said, to my surprise, I did not particularly enjoy Eating Raoul. The tone of the film is exaggerated and cartoonish, which could theoretically work if it were employed with a conscious purpose, but it doesn’t seem to have one.  I expected the movie to have something to say: there is certainly plenty that it could say if it wanted to cut any deeper than than the surface level. It invokes themes like classism and misogyny (its strongest moments are inarguably Woronov’s), but the movie doesn’t dedicate the time to making a particularly coherent statement about these themes through the characterizations or plot. Because none of the characters are grounded in reality, it makes social criticism difficult to weave into them: these people are looney tunes, so what could their actions and experiences say about our tangible world? While it isn’t impossible to use highly exaggerated characters for meaningful critique, it takes some finesse. 

Going through extant criticism of the film, I agree with some of Roger Ebert’s musings about it, particularly in respect to its tone and pacing:

“Eating Raoul” is one of the more deadpan black comedies I’ve seen: It tries to position itself somewhere between the bizarre and the banal, and most of the time, it succeeds…Problem is, it’s so laid-back it eventually gets monotonous.”

Honestly, there were more than a few moments where I felt like it leaned a little too hard into the banal to the detriment of the bizarre, which had the runtime flowing like cold molasses. I will say that I liked the performances from Woronov and Bartel, but nothing around them really worked for me. The love triangle that develops isn’t terribly compelling, and the action is all pretty predictable and repetitive. The whole work came off as simultaneously mean spirited and without a directionality for its barbs. It is a sea urchin of a movie, indiscriminately pricking anything that comes into range. 

More than anything, I think I was disappointed with the execution of an interesting story concept. Particularly today, when the value of human life is so trivialized, selfishness aggrandized, and economic stratification so pronounced, a film about preying on people to pay the rent seems like it could resonate.  I was hoping that this would be more of a prescient gem on a reassessment, but I don’t think time has actually done it any favors. 

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Ivy On Celluloid: Emergency

Emergency

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In today’s return to Ivy On Celluloid, I’m going to take a look at a brand new flick: Emergency, set to release on Amazon Prime on May 27. 



The plot of Emergency is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Ready for a night of legendary partying, three college students must weigh the pros and cons of calling the police when faced with an unexpected situation.

Emergency is adapted from an acclaimed short film of the same name that won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018. In 2020, the feature-length screenplay was featured on the Black List – an annual list of unproduced screenplays deemed of exemplary quality by film industry insiders.  The team behind Emergency is led by director Carey Williams, who has done a fair amount of directing and editing for television and short films. The screenplay was penned by K.D. Dávila, who has written for the shows Salvation and Motherland: Fort Salem, and is notably a Princeton University graduate. The film was shot by Michael Dallatorre, who has worked on a handful of notable films like Brightburn and the recent Foo Fighters horror flick Studio 666

As I always check with Ivy On Celluloid features, I was curious what campus or campuses served as the filming location(s) for the film. The best I could come up with is that all of the filming was done around the Atlanta, GA area – a metro with a number of higher education institutions. Once the movie is available on Amazon, I’ll see if the location(s) are specifically mentioned in the credits. For now, I’ve tried to cross-reference some of the buildings in the trailers with campus photos from nearby institutions, but that honestly hasn’t narrowed it down much. While the shots in the trailer don’t look particularly urban, and the fictional institution’s setting appears to be suburban, that doesn’t necessarily rule out urban campuses like Georgia Tech: some creative shots can pretty easily disguise one setting for another.  That said, I am fairly confident that the architecture isn’t consistent with Georgia State University, and the color of the buildings doesn’t look right for Oglethorpe University. I’m not sure if the production would have traveled as far as Athens to use the University of Georgia, but it certainly isn’t impossible. Other possible locations include Emory University, Spelman College, or Morehouse College, as well as any of the other institutions in or near the area. 

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The university that serves as the primary setting for the film is a fictional predominantly white institution called Buchanan University. While no real college bears that name, there was a short-lived Buchanan College in Missouri from 1894-1905, after which it was converted into a high school. From the depiction in the film, I think it is fair to assume that Buchanan University is a significantly-sized and possibly public university given the vibrant Fraternity activities presented. Also prominently featured in the plot of the film is the very real Princeton University, a renowned Ivy League college located in New Jersey. 

A minor detail that shows up early in the film is the presence of a blue light emergency tower on the Buchanan University campus – a real-life campus staple that is often omitted in current-day college films. 



One of the earliest sequences in the movie takes place in a “Blasphemy and Taboos” class, in which the white professor gives a lecture about the power of the “n-word” while featuring the word on a projector screen and using it multiple times throughout the speech. At the end of the lecture, she singles out the two leads (Kunle and Sean) – who are also the only two Black students in the class – to share their thoughts. Ultimately, neither character objects in front of the entire class, though they discuss the incident between themselves both before being called on and immediately afterwards. Kunle notes that the content of the class was “on the syllabus” with a “trigger warning,” and brainstorms potential curricular justifications for the lecture, while Sean is categorically outraged by the incident.

There is a lot to dive into with the entire sequence. First, while I couldn’t find a course with the same title – “Blasphemy and Taboos” – there are certainly many real courses with similar content. The University of Utah has a Linguistics course titled Bad Words and Taboo Terms which is “an introduction to linguistic study through the lens of taboo language.” Notably, the course description itself has a de facto trigger warning for potential students, stating “students sensitive to obscene words are discouraged from enrolling, as are students with only a prurient, non-scholarly interest in taboo language.” The University of Washington has a similar course titled Swearing And Taboo Language. Western Michigan University has offered a Communications course titled Communicating about Taboo Topics, which relies on “discussion-based study…to address sensitive subjects that are typically off-limits to speak about…matters pertaining to race, death, sex, religion, and other subjects.”

Unfortunately, the legality and ethics of the use of the “n-word” by professors in a classroom setting is a persistent current issue – there are so many instances of this occurring that I couldn’t possibly cover all of them. Over just the past two years, a Georgetown University professor was the subject of student complaints for reading the word aloud as part of a lecture, and two University of Oklahoma professors, a Stanford University law professor, a former Duquesne University professor, a San Diego State University professor, a George Washington University teacher, a University of Ottawa professor, a University of Rochester English professor, and a Barnard College professor were all embroiled in similar scandals.

In short, the classroom sequence is not only a plausible scenario, but highly realistic. Notably, the incident as it plays out in the film doesn’t lead to a high-profile scandal like the examples provided above – there’s no way to know exactly how often situations like the one in the movie have gone by entirely under the public’s radar at colleges every year.

A Buchanan University campus tradition that plays prominently into the film’s story is the “Wall of Firsts” – a wall of photographs dedicated to students of color who were the “first” to do something – really, anything – at the university. While colleges certainly love to honor their “firsts” in retrospect (Autherine Lucy and the University of Alabama come to mind), I couldn’t find a specific campus tradition that was a perfect analogue to the Wall of Firsts in the film. That said, it seems like a practice that is certainly believable, and I wouldn’t be shocked if it inspired by an actual campus tradition.

Another campus tradition that features in the film’s story is the “Legendary Tour” – a marathon of a handful of exclusive fraternity-hosted parties over the course of a single night, with varying levels of debauchery and eccentric theming between them. Admittedly, I’m hardly a knowledgeable authority on college parties (though I did devise an excellent Bill Nye The Science Guy drinking game back in the day), so I can’t speak too much from personal experience here. However, I have at least heard of a couple of the types of parties in the film, so I don’t think any of the parties – though likely exaggerated – were entirely detached from reality in their concepts.

One of the key locations in the film is the campus biology laboratory that contains the bacteria cultures for Kunle’s thesis experiment, which is crucial for his graduation and admittance into Princeton (also my favorite simultaneous MacGuffin and Race Against the Clock device in recent cinema history). One of the key issues in the film is the fact that the refrigerator that contains the crucial cultures has a faulty door, and must be locked in order for it to remain shut. Because the cultures are highly sensitive to temperature, Kunle forgetting to lock the fridge in the first act partially drives the sense of urgency for the film (at least at first). Out of curiosity, I decided to look into laboratory refrigerators that this sort of campus biology lab would – or should – have. According to an article I found on “Choosing the Right Laboratory Refridgerator or Freezer,” it appears that a built-in locking mechanism is a standard feature for many recommended models for laboratory use.  However, in the film, it appeared that the cultures were stored in a standard minifridge, equipped with a separate after-market locking mechanism. You have to make cuts to the budget somewhere I suppose. 

Most of the action of Emergency takes place around the Buchanan University campus and local community rather than actually on it. While the higher education setting plays heavily into the story, the movie is about a lot more than college. It is a rare college comedy film that has the social consciousness and heart of a top-notch drama, and the buzzingly anxious tension of a thriller. It gets a strong recommendation from me on all fronts, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this builds a reputation as a cult classic college film for today’s generation.

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Scream (2022)

Scream (2022)

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I’d like to think that I know when I’m being pandered to, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a bit flattering regardless. The target audience of the Scream franchise has always been horror hounds and general film dorks, with its reveling in story tropes, genre clichés, and the dramatic irony that comes with audience foreknowledge. The more time you’ve spent rewinding horror franchise VHSs, the more likely that Scream is going to be up your alley. Of course I loved the original Scream – there isn’t much more predictable than that. However, the sequels have been a different story. 

Scream relied on audience familiarity with a genre that dominated the preceding decade to its release, and weaponized the expectations that movie-goers had developed based on everything they had seen from the well-worn body of slasher films since the late 1970s. The sequels, however, relied on the same source materials: they never quite kept pace with the zeitgeist. The Scream franchise never moved on from the VHS era, and audiences clearly did. Films like Cabin in the Woods capitalized on audience meta-knowledge in new ways, and Scream became a relic of 1980s and 1990s culture, just like a dusty VCR in an attic.

The landscape of horror today, however, has shifted dramatically. We’re in a curiously (but pretty solidly) bifurcated era for the genre, defined simultaneously by arthouse “prestige” horror – think anything branded by Jordan Peele or A24 – and a mixed bag of “re-quels” – quasi-reboots of long-dormant franchises, like David Gordon Green’s Halloween, Nia DaCosta’s recent Candyman, or the Spiral entry into the Saw franchise. There hasn’t been a more opportune time to dust off and retool the Scream franchise – there’s a whole new book of rules and audience expectations to tinker and toy with. 

I went into 2021’s Scream with admittedly low expectations. The only trailer I saw gave the impression of a mildly updated remix of the well-worn path: sure, the advances in technology have opened new doors (literally) for Ghostface, but all signs pointed to a re-heat of an old formula with some new gimmicks. Instead, the film itself is in every way a product of our current horror genre zeitgeist, and revels in teasing horror-knowledgeable audiences in exactly the way the original Scream did. Unlike Green’s Halloween, which fully tosses out its endless sprawl of sequel lore, today’s Scream somewhat hand-waves the sequels, but doesn’t omit them entirely as truth within the world. There is no ret-conning to be had here, which is impressive writing gymnastics for a screenplay looking to establish new ground.

Our new Scream introduces a new slate of vibrant characters, who are debatably more charming and relatable when compared to their 1996 predecessors (who I have found more grating on re-watches in recent years). Jack Quaid, Jasmin Savoy Brown, and Dylan Minnette are particular standouts in the ensemble of newcomers, who more than fill the shoes of the previous accessory performers like Matthew Lillard, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Kennedy. They are joined by a handful of familiar (if much-aged) faces, including David Arquette, Neve Campbell, and Courteney Cox. If you ask me, the new blood was far more compelling than the old, but the stalwarts fill in their roles well.

The new Scream is brutal and visceral in a way that it hasn’t felt like since the inception of the franchise, which plays beautifully in concert with a cast of lovable and relatable knife-fodder. As one character notes in the final act, “our story has stakes,” which makes it stand out in contrast with its fellow Scream sequels. I was genuinely shocked at how well this film succeeded in accomplishing its goals: there’s not an obvious weak link to point out. Even the language of its cinematography bobs and weaves around and through expectations, dangling the audience on a string with well-crafted mise-en-scene and camera movement. One sequence in particular was an absolute joy to watch with an audience, as it artfully elicited gasps and laughs at the creative *absence* of payoffs.

Scream (2022) is an unexpected early highlight for me from the burgeoning cinema landscape of 2022. It is possible that I’m just the perfect audience for this particular form of pandering, but I’m happy to accept that. This was one hell of a good ride, and in my opinion the best sequel Scream could ask for.

Best Movies of 2021

2021

Ok, this is admittedly a bit out of my comfort zone. In the many years that I’ve had this blog, I’ve focused almost exclusively on the worst of cinema: the most critically-reviled of each calendar year, the IMDb Bottom 100, box office flops, and so on. However, despite my dedication to the dregs, I do try to watch good movies from time to time. Since 2017, I’ve been in graduate school, which has cut into my movie-watching time significantly, and this blog has been on the back-burner. That said, I caught a bunch of films in 2021 that I wanted to highlight in a thoroughly subjective, not-at-all ranked list. For some of these, I’m not sure I would even describe them as great films, but they did get my thoughts going. I also haven’t seen a bunch of the major critical darlings of the year, like Red Rocket, The Power of the Dog, The Worst Person in the World, The Tragedy of MacBeth, or Licorice Pizza, so if something is missing here, I probably just haven’t seen it yet.

The French Dispatch

I generally like Wes Anderson’s work, so I wasn’t surprised that I liked his latest. However, I didn’t anticipate liking it as much as I did. This may or may not be my favorite anthology movie, but it certainly has my favorite framing device for one. The eponymous paper feels like a character itself by the end of the film – an amalgamation of the writers and stories that make it up. I also absolutely loved Jeffrey Wright’s performance in particular, and appreciate a somewhat less whimsical application of Wes Anderson’s style. I thought this was maybe his most balanced film, which generally avoided the twee sentiments that turn some away from him without being overly dour, despite the often-grim stories within it.

Last Night in Soho

I might be the most predictable white film dude on the internet in this way, but I am a complete sucker for Edgar Wright’s style. What impressed me about Last Night in Soho, though, is how much he tempered and adapted it to serve a tone and genre outside of his usual wheelhouse. Wright produced a YouTube video recently that discussed his use of the “Texas switch” in the dance sequence of the film, which is certainly a highlight of the work, and showcases where he used the same technique in his earlier films. It is a good watch, and I strongly recommend it. As always, his attention to detail is impressive throughout Soho, and creates an immersive, stylized time warp to the 1960s that is one of the most impressive in recent memory (The Nice Guys comes to mind in a similar way). I loved the performances across the board in this one as well, and found it to be an intriguingly mysterious ride. I have only seen the movie once, and am curious how elements land on a re-watch.

Pig

I don’t think there was a greater cinematic surprise of the year than Pig. Cage’s performance is astounding, and this grief-filled, emotional journey into the underbelly of fine dining is unique, grounded, and at-times viscerally painful in its effectiveness. I saw this at a preview screening, and went in blind expecting a John Wick clone. It is certainly not that – it is far, far better. For all of the Cage detractors out there, this should be a reminder that he is one of the finest thespians of our age.

The Green Knight

This was almost certainly the most polarizing film of the year. It is abstract, imaginative, deeply-stylistic, and perhaps one of the best examples of indulgent, unfettered auteur-ship in many years. For what it is worth, I dug it. I thought is was visually entrancing, thought-provoking, and a bold literary adaptation that didn’t avoid unique flourishes on an established canon. I do think it may have been served better by disentangling the editing process from Lowery’s hands, but I still thought the movie came out impressive. It inarguably benefits from an audience that is familiar with the source literature, though, and could have done a better job of acclimating folks who don’t have vivid memories of an English literature class.

Judas and the Black Messiah

Wait, this came out in 2021? This was my first foray back into a movie theater since March of 2020, and it was a great way to get back to it. The lead performances are fantastic, but I will say that it has faded a bit from my mind after another long, long year. I think it will be due for a re-watch, but I remember coming out of the theater knowing it would make any year-end list of highlights that I would make.

Nightmare Alley

Much like Last Night in Soho, this is the work of an established, beloved director taking on a genre outside of his usual sphere. Cooper puts in a fantastic performance, leading an incredible ensemble from top to bottom. Notably, I loved how Cooper basically mimes through the first 20-odd minutes of the movie, conveying a range of emotions and establishing his character’s essence without a single line of dialogue. This is the feel-bad, grimy, pessimistic movie that 2021 deserved. What an intriguing year to have giallo and noir send-ups among the upper echelon of cinematic offerings. What I will say, however, is that I’m definitely feeling fatigue with “bad white guy” protagonists. The future of noir needs to see some innovation in the content while retaining the stylistic flourishes of the form. I think this film would have been received far better a decade ago, but it is still undeniably fantastic.

Dune

The most anticipated film of the year mostly lived up to the hype. Coming out of the theater, I was blown away. It was an imaginative spectacle with a compelling cast, sharp visuals, and an astounding score. That said, it hasn’t stuck with me like I expected it to. I’m looking forward to the continuation of the story, but I will need to revisit this one, and ruminate a bit on what might have been missing to keep it from getting stuck in my head. I am someone who is definitely prone to being sucked into sprawling, politics-heavy sci-fi and fantasy settings, like Game of Thrones, The Expanse, Star Trek, and The Witcher, so it is all the weirder that Dune didn’t flip a switch for me in a similar way.

The Suicide Squad

Grimy, darkly comedic takes on superheroes are a bit old hat at this point. Deadpool, The Boys, and even James Gunn’s own Super have thoroughly saturated that area over the past decade and change, attempting detournements of the hyper-dominance of comic book adaptations in the zeitgeist. So why did The Suicide Squad work so well for me? I think the zany ensemble certainly helped, and Gunn definitely has a flair for bringing colorful outcasts to the screen. The movie is genuinely funny utilizing methods that many comedies don’t execute nearly as well, like editing gags and physical performances. The simultaneous vulnerability and somewhat-perverse likability of the characters creates an investment and fear for their safety that most superhero movies can’t frequently pull off well either. The Suicide Squad is also an adept satire of American imperialistic attitudes and anti-democratic actions abroad, which is pretty deep, subversive work for a popcorn superhero flick. I also think it lands better in contrast to the preceding Suicide Squad, which was a far less enjoyable, well-crafted work by a wide margin. Simultaneously, Gunn was wise not to completely distance this film from its antecedent, particularly taking a gamble by allowing Joel Kinnaman to redeem himself by taking a significant emotional load for the film. 

Free Guy

Speaking of deep subversion in a popcorn superhero flick, how about an anticapitalistic screed wrapped in endless intellectual property Easter eggs and overt fandom pandering? Free Guy is my pick for the most perplexing film of the year. It ends with characters celebrating the abolition of banks, but it is also deeply mired in corporate cross-marketing of just about every pop culture property they could cram into it. At the same time, it clearly has a deep disdain for the toxic video game and tech-bro culture that it sprouts from, in just the same way that there is a spirit of anti-capitalism beneath the layers of pop culture references. It is arguably appropriate for a movie about a hidden oasis within a world of inane nonsense. All of that might sound like I didn’t like the movie, which isn’t exactly true. In many ways, it is a mess (I particularly don’t love the romantic conclusion). That said, I thought more about this movie after seeing it than most of the films I sat through this year, which should count for something. I also generally dug the visuals and performances: in that sense, it is a fine popcorn flick. I do sense Ryan Reynolds fatigue setting in among film critics, which won’t do this film any favors, but I thought he was far less Deadpool-like than many give him credit for in this film. I think he spends much of the movie effectively channeling the naivete and charm of a puppy, unaware of the chaotic dumpster-fire of a world he exists in. While I think he has let his Deadpool character blend into his wider persona (particularly on social media), I think a bigger issue is that audiences are struggling to see his performances without looking through Deadpool-filtered goggles.

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Spider-Man: No Way Home is, outside of perhaps The Avengers movies and Captain America: Civil War, the Marvel movie with the heaviest reliance on the audience’s prior knowledge of the franchise, and not even just its immediate preceding films in the series. No Way Home requires decades of familiarity with numerous adaptations, and hasn’t seemed to suffer for it at all. It seems that audiences, by and large, have kept up, and did their homework. We’re in a new era of blockbuster cinema that throws back to the infinitely serialized works of yesteryear, rather than the standalone stories of the past few decades. The Avengers and Justice League made this new path clear, but No Way Home asked far more of its audience – and from its story –  than any of those films. Weaving together different adaptations of the franchise – so many disparate threads without natural connective tissue – required artful work from the creators, and an audience prepared for the challenge. It was bold to even attempt, given the reaction to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 so many years ago: too many villains, too much story, too muddled. No Way Home somehow pulls it all off – it is a deeply emotional, well-performed, and engaging film that succeeds in so many challenges. There are tons of characters to balance, an immense amount of information to convey, and a complicated tone that blends humor and grief-filled tragedy. Somehow, everyone has room to breathe, and a stage saturated with performers puts just enough of the spotlight on each of them. I don’t think No Way Home is the best film of the year, but I do think it is the most iconic and representative of the state of film today. It is a blockbuster with a foundation in nostalgia, relying on legitimate performers and an intriguing vision that situates itself within the greater sprawling web of a meta-franchise. For better or worst, it is the movie of 2021.

Honorable Mentions

Nobody
Candyman
Gaia
Bo Burnham: Inside
Antlers

 

 

Worst Movies of 2021

Here we are again: we’ve reached the end of 2021, so it is time to take a look at which movies were the worst of the year according to the zeitgeist.

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This aggregated list of the worst-perceived movies of the calendar year has been an annual endeavor for me since 2016. 2020 was a bit of an oddball, with many outlets electing to skip their “worst of the year” rankings. However, I recently went back to create a 2020 aggregated list while waiting for 2021 “worst of” lists to drop.

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As with previous years, I want to emphasize that this is a measure of public opinion – I’m not assessing any kind of objective quality, but rather gauging the public perception of which movies were the worst of the year. I measure this by compiling published year-end “Worst of 2021” lists (from sources like The Chicago Sun-Times and Variety), then I tally up how often each film appears on these lists. It makes for a simple frequency distribution to visualize how widely despised these various 2021 films were. If you would like to see my tallies, they are available here.

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This year, I pulled from 22 published year-end lists of the worst movies of 2021. This year continued a recent trend of a narrowing distribution of films making “worst of” lists: only 100 films were listed across the aggregated 2021 lists, down from 113 in 2020 and 127 in 2019.

As with previous years, there was not a universal consensus for the worst film of the year. In fact, I believe that this year’s “winner” had the fewest votes of a winner I have seen, as it was only included in 10 of the 22 year-end lists I collected, meaning 12 critics completely omitted it from their listings. While there was a single clear winner this year, there was a tight cluster of films towards the top of the distribution. Without further delay, here are the rankings.

  1. Dear Evan Hansen (10/22)
  2. (Tie) Chaos Walking / The Woman in the Window (9/22)
  3. (Tie) Music / Space Jam: A New Legacy (8/22)
  4. Vanquish (7/22)
  5. (Tie) Cosmic Sin / Thunder Force (6/22)

Are there any films that you expected to see that didn’t make the cut? Personally, I was a bit surprised that House of Gucci didn’t slip into a higher position. Of this list, I only caught The Woman in the Window, which I thought was mediocre, but nowhere near the mess of something like Prisoners of the Ghostland. Are there any “worst of 2021” contending films that I need to cover for the blog? Let me know!

Worst Movies of 2020

Hello again, my dear neglected followers and spambots! I have briefly emerged from my reclusion for doctoral studies to deliver a year-late aggregated ranking of the worst perceived movies of 2020.

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Initially, I hadn’t planned to make this post. Despite making an aggregated list of the worst-perceived movies of each year since 2016, I wasn’t particularly motivated to cover 2020 at the end of last year. Honestly, part of that was because I assumed that many places were following The AV Club’s lead in skipping the Worst of 2020 lists. While it does appear that they weren’t the only ones to skip out – a few of my other usual sources didn’t have a post for 2020 either, like Rolling Stone – plenty still put out their annual list of demerited films.

Now that we are hitting the end of 2021, I decided to look back on the widely-maligned year of 2020, as I wait for the inevitable “worst of 2021” lists to be published.

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As with previous years, I want to emphasize that this is a measure of public opinion – I’m not assessing any kind of objective quality, but rather gauging the public perception of which movies were the worst of the year. I measure this by compiling published year-end “Worst of 2020” lists (from sources like The Chicago Sun-Times and Variety), then I tally up how often each film appears on these lists. It makes for a simple frequency distribution to visualize how widely despised these various 2019 films were. If you would like to see my tallies, they are available here.

dolittle

This year, I pulled from 19 published year-end lists of the worst movies of 2020. On the whole, there was a narrower distribution of movies for 2020 than for 2019: down to 113 movies from 127. However, the 2020 total was still higher than the total movies that received votes in 2016, 2017, or 2018.

As with previous years, there was not a universal consensus for the worst film of the year. The “winner” was only included in 13 of the 19 year-end lists, meaning 6 critics completely omitted it from their listings. Unlike previous years that have featured plenty of ties at the top of the list, there were three clear medalists for 2020. However, there was a glut of movies vying in the fourth and fifth positions. Without further delay, here are the rankings.

  1. Dolittle (13/19)
  2. Artemis Fowl (10/19)
  3. Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island (7/19)
  4. (Tie) The Grudge / Like A Boss / The Last Days of American Crime (6/19)
  5. (Tie) Songbird / Irresistible / The Wrong Missy / The Tax Collector / 365 Days / After We Collided (5/19)

Are there any films that you expected to see that didn’t make the cut? Are any of these films in need of reappraisal? Are there any that I need to cover for the blog? Let me know!

The Book of Henry

The Book of Henry

Today I’m going to flip through the pages of 2017’s The Book of Henry, directed by Colin Trevorrow.

The plot of The Book of Henry is summarized on IMDb as follows:

With instructions from her genius son’s carefully crafted notebook, a single mother sets out to rescue a young girl from the hands of her abusive stepfather.

The Book of Henry was directed by Colin Trevorrow, whose other directorial credits include Jurassic World, Safety Not Guaranteed, and the upcoming Jurassic World 3. The film’s screenplay was written by Gregg Hurwitz, whose only other prominent credit is writing for the  television series V.

The cast of the film includes Naomi Watts (King Kong, Mulholland Drive, Birdman, Tank Girl), Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent, IT, Midnight Special), Jacob Tremblay (Room, The Predator), Sarah Silverman (School of Rock, The Sarah Silverman Program), Dean Norris (Breaking Bad, Total Recall, Under the Dome), and Lee Pace (Guardians of the Galaxy, Halt and Catch Fire, The Fall).

The cinematographer for the film was John Schwartzman, who has shot such movies as Pearl Harbor, Seabiscuit, Armageddon, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Rock.

The editing for The Book of Henry was done by Kevin Stitt, who has cut quite a few major features over the years, including Paycheck, Cloverfield, X-Men, Elektra, Lethal Weapon 4, and Jurassic World.

The music for The Book of Henry was composed by Michael Giacchino, who also provided scores for Inside Out, Coco, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Jupiter Ascending, among others.

Apparently, the screenplay for The Book of Henry was originally written as a black comedy in the late 1990s, but Colin Trevorrow had it altered significantly to make it less comedic and more dramatic to fit with his vision for the story.

The initial poor word of mouth surrounding the release of The Book of Henry has been considered as one of the primary reasons Colin Trevorrow was released as director of Star Wars IX, as many had already questioned his competency to handle the task prior to the flop of Henry.

Currently, The Book of Henry holds a 6.6/10 IMDb user rating, alongside, Rotten Tomatoes scores of 20% from critics and 63% from audiences, making for a fairly mixed reception. Financially, however, the film was an unambiguous failure, taking in a lifetime theatrical gross of $4.5 million on a production budget of $10 million.

In his review of the film for The San Diego Reader, Matthew Lickona refers to The Book of Henry as:

a…sort of Rube Goldberg machine: one that seeks to draw out simple human emotions through precisely engineered (but still ridiculous) mechanics…However hard the talented cast may try, those aren’t people up on the screen; they’re candles, balloons, and marbles.

This is one of the most adept criticisms of the film I have come across – the characters really don’t feel tangible, as if they are just cogs and mechanisms engineered to fill a specific role. Outside of a few brief moments where Naomi Watts gets room to genuinely play the role of a grieving mother, the performances all seem rigidly trapped in defined molds, as to perform their function and nothing more. I don’t think it is at all fair to level this criticism at the actors – they clearly are doing what they can – but the writing and directing that they are beholden to makes their work effectively impossible.

Another film critic, C. L. Reed, noted in his review of the film that “there is nothing wrong with The Book of Henry that a good script could not fix.” I would go a step further than that – the problem here wasn’t just the script, but Trevorrow’s adherence to it as the director. His vision took precedence over the original screenplay – which he twisted and contorted it to fit within the boundaries he desired. Once it suited him, it clearly became fixed in his mind – since he tinkered with the script to his personal specifications, the odds that he would take input from others on it is very slim, ever if their criticisms were valid. I would wager that issues with his version of the screenplay were brought to his attention from multiple sources, but that he couldn’t and wouldn’t address them.

In his review for Paste, Andy Crump referred to The Book of Henry as having an “exact imbalance of bonkers incongruity” and called it an “inexplicable hodgepodge.” I think this gets at one of the core issues of the film – its tone. This is the other consequence of Trevorrow’s manipulation of the screenplay, and subsequent direction of the film. He took a film of one genre, and forced it to become another. What results is a screenplay that is still rife with vestigial fragments of the dark comedy it once was, but with a hard dramatic veneer. It is coarse where it should be smooth, and jagged where it should be round – it is just obviously the wrong damn shape from what it was and should be. Unlike a hybrid, genre-bending movie like Hot Fuzz or The Cabin In The Woods, the multiple genres aren’t synthesized or merged in an effective manner – they are ad-hoc pieced together by twine, Elmer’s glue, and wishful thinking. It is a bad look stylistically, like having your sleek, modern dining room decorated with a rusty, dilapidated Volkswagen.

All of that said, there is definitely some weird potential in The Book of Henry, and I would have been interested to see the off-kilter dark comedy it was written to be. The cast really do their best, and Watts gets some good emotional moments here and there. It is a shame that the movie doesn’t stylistically lean in to the bizarre hyper-reality created by the characters as they are written. Instead, this is a flat, unremarkable vision and execution layered on top of something that is, at its core, fundamentally twisted and perverse.

I’m not sure if The Book of Henry is a recommendable movie or not – it sounds more interesting and intriguing on paper and in summary than it actually is. If you only watched Dan Olsen’s reviews of the film, you would both get the gist of the film, and not have to deal with the arduously dull and faux-cutesy process of having to actually watch the damn thing. However, this is one of the more bizarre flops of recent years, and is probably worth checking out for bad movie aficionados for that fact alone.

The Bodyguard

The Bodyguard

Today, I’m going to take a look at the Whiney Houston / Kevin Costner romantic thriller, The Bodyguard.

The plot of The Bodyguard is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A former Secret Service agent takes on the job of bodyguard to a pop singer, whose lifestyle is most unlike a President’s.

The cast of The Bodyguard includes Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves, Waterworld, Mr. Brooks, Man of Steel, The Untouchables), Whitney Houston (Sparkle, The Preacher’s Wife, Waiting to Exhale), Bill Cobbs (Demolition Man, The Hudsucker Proxy, The People Under The Stairs), Ralph Waite (Days of our Lives, Cliffhanger, The Waltons), Tomas Arana (Frankenfish, The Bourne Supremacy, Gladiator, Tombstone), Michele Lamar Richards (Top Dog), Mike Starr (Dumb & Dumber, Uncle Buck, Ed Wood, Miller’s Crossing), Gerry Bamman (Home Alone, Runaway Jury), and Richard Schiff (The West Wing, The Lost World: Jurassic Park).

The Bodyguard was written and co-produced by Lawrence Kasdan, whose illustrious list of credits includes Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Silverado, The Big Chill, Wyatt Earp, Dreamcatcher, and The Force Awakens.

The director on The Bodyguard was Mick Jackson, who also helmed such productions as Volcano, L.A. Story, and Clean Slate.

Two editors are credited with work on The Bodyguard: Donn Cambern (The Glimmer Man, Little Giants, Twins, Ghostbusters II, Major League II, Cannonball Run, The Last Picture Show, Easy Rider, Excalibur, Time After Time, Harry and The Hendersons) and Richard A. Harris (The Bad News Bear, Fletch, The Golden Child, Terminator 2, Last Action Hero, True Lies, Titanic, The Toy).

The cinematographer for the film was Andrew Dunn, who also shot Hot Rod, Hitch, Sweet Home Alabama, Monkeybone, Addicted To Love, Gosford Park, Practical Magic, and Precious.

The movie’s musical score was composed by Alan Silvestri, a prolific movie scorer with credits including The Polar Express, The Avengers, Ready Player One, Flight, Van Helsing, Cast Away, Judge Dredd, Reindeer Games, Volcano, Super Mario Bros, Cop And A Half, Forrest Gump, Mac And Me, Predator, and Predator 2, among many others.

One of the greatest claims to fame for The Bodyguard is that it boasts the best-selling film soundtrack of all time, courtesy of the work and popularity of co-star Whitney Houston.

According to IMDb, a number of musical talents were at some point considered for Whitney Houston’s role: Dolly Parton, Madonna, Joan Jett, Janet Jackson, Pat Benatar, and Olivia Newton-John among them.

Prior to the 1990s, the screenplay for The Bodyguard had been on the shelf since the mid-1970s, when it was written initially for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross. However, it failed to get made at the time because it was apparently deemed “too controversial” to be successful.

When the film was initially screened for test audiences, consistent feedback indicated that most viewers hated Whitney Houston’s performance, which led to some re-cutting to attempt to make her character more likable.

The Bodyguard received seven Golden Raspberry Award (Razzie) nominations, including one for Worst Picture (which it lost to Shining Through). It also notably received two Academy Award nominations, both for Best Original Song. Given it received so many Razzie nominations, you can accurately conclude that critics were generally not fond of the movie. However, audiences were quite a bit more receptive to it: The Bodyguard currently has a 6.2/10 IMDb user rating, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 35% from critics and 64% from audiences.

Financially, however, The Bodyguard was a smash hit. On a reported production budget of $25 million, the film was able to take in over $411 million in its worldwide, lifetime theatrical run.

In his review in Entertainment Weekly, film critic Owen Gleiberman described The Bodyguard as:

Glossy yet slack; it’s like Flashdance without the hyperkinetic musical numbers and with the romance padded out to a disastrously languid 2 hours and 10 minutes…To say that Houston and Costner fail to strike sparks would be putting it mildly. The two barely seem to be in the same room — the movie is like a discordant duet between their superstar auras.

I can’t argue with Gleiberman about his central point here: there is little to no chemistry between the Houston and Costner, and I don’t think that it is explained simply by Houston’s acting inexperience. After all, Houston wasn’t really an actress,  so I think it is hard to blame her for the lack of chemistry: she was supposed to be guided and carried by the other performers. And, to her credit, I think she put in one scene’s worth of a decent performance (in the country music bar).

In my opinion, I think the bigger problem for the movie is actually Kevin Costner. The more time I have spent rewatching movies from the early 90s for this blog, the more I feel like the entire world was weirdly hypnotized by Costner during the era, and everyone (for some reason) collectively agreed to the delusion that he was a great actor. Kevin Costner, for a time, was The Emperor’s New Clothes of actors. Looking back now, the truth as I see it is that Costner is and has always been a terrible, one-note actor. He is almost always portraying some form of stoic in his films, which is convenient for a guy who seems to struggle with emoting most of the time. Worse yet, I find him to be completely unbelievable as a bad-ass lead: his entire vibe and appearance screams “step-father trying to look cool,” which doesn’t really work for what was intended to be an analog for a Kurosawa samurai. In the hands of another actor – ideally someone with capabilities for both gravitas and intimidation – I think The Bodyguard might have been a pretty decent movie. As it stands, though, it is a rightfully forgotten popcorn flick that was clearly built around a soundtrack. If not for latent nostalgia and a culture-wide fondness for the music pf the soundtrack, I don’t think anyone could make much of an argument in favor of the film in retrospect.

If you have fond memories of this movie, I don’t recommend going back to it: it is bound to disappoint you. For everyone else, I think listening to the soundtrack without the context of the film is probably preferable to actually watching it – this is an overly long movie with some pretty bad performances, highlighted only by some awkwardly-placed interludes and music videos. Just cut the chaff, and check out the music on its own if you want to experience the cultural impact of The Bodyguard.

 

A Sound of Thunder

A Sound of Thunder

Today, I’m going to take a look at 2005’s A Sound of Thunder: an ill-fated adaptation of a classic science-fiction tale.

The plot of A Sound of Thunder is summarized on IMDb as follows:

When a scientist sent back to the prehistoric era strays off the path he causes a chain of events that alters history in disastrous ways.

The cast of A Sound of Thunder includes Edward Burns (Saving Private Ryan, Alex Cross), Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, Sexy Beast, Schindler’s List, Iron Man 3, Lucky Number Slevin, Suspect Zero), Catherine McCormack (Braveheart, Spy Game), Corey Johnson (Captain Phillips, Jackie), and David Oyelowo (Selma, The Cloverfield Paradox, The Last King of Scotland, Nina).

A Sound of Thunder is based on a short story of the same name written by science-fiction legend Ray Bradbury, which was originally published in 1952. While this is the only film adaptation of the story, it has been translated to the small screen twice: once on The Ray Bradbury Theater, and another time in parody form on The Simpsons.

The screenwriters for this wayward adaptation of the Bradbury story were Thomas Dean Donnelly (Sahara, Conan The Barbarian), Joshua Oppenheimer (Dylan Dog: Dead of Night), and Gregory Poirier (National Treasure: Book of Secrets).

A Sound of Thunder was directed and shot by Peter Hyams, whose other films include Timecop, Sudden Death, Stay Tuned, Capricorn One, End of Days, and The Presidio, among others.

The editor for the film was Sylvie Landra, who also cut The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional, and Catwoman, among other films.

The music for A Sound of Thunder was composed Nick Glennie-Smith, whose other works include Heaven Is For Real, We Were Soldiers, The Man In The Iron Mask, The Rock, and Home Alone 3.

Renny Harlin was the original director for the project, and even had Pierce Brosnan on board as the star. However, he was fired by the producers after he apparently made a creative decision that displeased Ray Bradbury, paving the way for Hyams to take over.

During filming of the movie in 2002, heavy floods damaged the sets, causing significant delays. Also, the production company wound up going bankrupt during the post-production process, meaning there was little-to-no money to finish the film. The combination of these factors led to the film’s release date being delayed by a total of two years.

A Sound of Thunder brought in just under $11.7 million in its lifetime theatrical run. However, given this take was on an estimated production budget of $80 million, the film was a huge financial failure. Critically, it didn’t fare any better: currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 4.2/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 6% from critics and 18% from audiences.

In his review for SPLICEDwire, Rob Blackwelder described A Sound of Thunder as “a catastrophe of bad acting, ludicrous science and conspicuously cheap special effects.” Personally, I can’t imagine a more succinct summary of the film. While I don’t feel nearly as strongly about the acting (it wasn’t notable enough to be notably bad), the science writing and special effects are mind-boggling: there are misunderstandings about basic evolutionary concepts, and the creatures all look like they walked out of an MS-DOS computer game. Interestingly, I think both of these notable weaknesses of the film trace back to issues with the production: the bad effects are a direct result of the bankruptcy of the production company before the film’s completion, and the writing issues relate to the screenplay attempting to be both an adaptation and expansion on the Bradbury source material.

Lawrence Toppman of The Charlotte Observer made an observation in his review of the film that I definitely agree with:

Some of this might have passed muster in a Twilight Zone episode, which would have been an ideal home for such a tale.

This material is basically tailor-made for a short-form adaptation: had this movie been made for the small screen (and with a shorter run time), the screenplay would have side-stepped having to speculate the sequence of events after the source story concluded. The voice of the screenplay would have sounded more consistent, and the more scientifically illiterate later acts of the film wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. The more I think about it, the more this seems like an ideal story for a 1 hour television movie: something that might have been more realistic for a production plagued by financial issues from the start.

All in all, A Sound of Thunder is a shockingly terrible exemplar of what happens when the money for a film runs out before the visual effects are truly complete, and should serve as a cautionary tale to those who seek to dramatically modify and expand on source materials in their screenplays. I can recommend giving it a watch up until the “butterfly effect” moment, in which the time stream is initially distorted: the ending point of the Bradbury short story. While the film still isn’t good up until that point, the initial dinosaur effects are awe-inducingly terrible, and worth the 20-30 minutes for the first act. After that point, though, I’d say it is more than worth bailing out: there is nothing of worth beyond it.

 

Grizzly

Grizzly

Today, I’m going to take a look at a 1976 creature feature: Grizzly.

The plot of Grizzly is summarized on IMDb as follows:

An eighteen-foot-tall grizzly bear terrorizes a state park, leaving it up to a Park Ranger to save the day.

Grizzly was directed by William Girdler, who tragically died in a helicopter accident at the young age of 30. However, he made nine films in his six years as an active director, including Grizzly, Day of the Animals, and Asylum of Satan.

The central cast of Grizzly was made up of Christopher George (The Rat Patrol, The Exterminator, City of the Living Dead, Pieces, Day of the Animals), Andrew Prine (Gettysburg, The Miracle Worker), and Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen, Starman, 3:10 to Yuma, The Green Slime, Walking Tall Part 2).

The cinematographer for the film was William L. Asman, who is an experienced camera operator who has worked on shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, 7th Heaven, and Melrose Place, as well as on movies like The Octagon, Brainstorm, Loverboy, Gremlins 2, Matinee, Speed, and The Rocketeer.

The editor for Grizzly was Bub Asman (cinematographer William Asman’s brother), who also cut Day of the Animals, and is a veteran sound effects editor with credits such as Sicario, American Sniper, Million Dollar Baby, 1941, Red Dawn, First Blood, Conan: The Barbarian, Speed 2, Demolition Man, and Prisoners.

The music for the movie was composed by Robert O. Ragland, whose other credits include 10 to Midnight, Q: The Winged Serpent, The Fear, The Touch of Satan, and The Thing With Two Heads.

The special effects work for Grizzly was provided by the duo of Phil Cory (Misery, The Aviator, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Cobra, Mannequin, The Wraith, The Monster Quad, Weekend at Bernie’s) and Bob Dawson (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Christine, Prophecy, The Day After).

In 1983, a sequel to Grizzly (called Grizzly 2: The Predator or Grizzly 2: The Concert) was partially completed but never released, and has become somewhat of an icon among lost films. In 2014, The New York Post wrote an article on the film, which was set to star the likes of Charlie Sheen, George Clooney, and Laura Dern. From the article:

the tale [of the movie’s failed creation] involves — among other mishaps — stolen money, malfunctioning special effects and a script that was rewritten by none other than its Hungarian caterer.

In addition to the uncompleted sequel, there is also a fake sequel that is occasionally marketed as Grizzly II. 1977’s Claws,  which is also about a killer grizzly bear, was re-released in the United States in 1978 in an attempt to capitalize on the success of Grizzly.

Grizzly was one in a large wave of Jaws knockoffs featuring any number of predatory animals that spanned throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Others films in this sub-genre included Piranha, Alligator, The Last Shark, Tentacles, and Orca.

The live bear used in filming was named “Teddy”: he was an 11 foot tall grizzly bear who was, at the time, the largest bear in captivity. The cast and crew were kept separated from the bear by an electric barrier for their safety, as the bear was trained by not tamed. For the attack sequences, a robotic bear was used in his place.

Grizzly was made on a low production budget of $750,000, on which it took in $39 million at the box office. This made it the most financially successful independent film of 1976, and for a time, the most profitable independent film of all time (a title that would be taken by Halloween two years later).

Despite the financial success of the movie, it isn’t a film remembered very fondly. Currently, it holds a 29% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, alongside a 5.3/10 user rating on IMDb.

The first thing that is impossible not to notice about Grizzly is its similarity to Jaws. This movie is utterly unashamed about how much of a blatant knock-off it is. Instead of a shark, there’s a bear. Instead of a boat, there’s a helicopter. There are still three dudes making up the central team that faces off with the monster: a frustrated enforcement official, a salt of the earth quasi-sage, and a scientific naturalist. There are the same tensions with authority, as the Amity Island mayor is replaced by the head of the national park. Even the debate over species is the same: the authorities won’t acknowledge the presence of a grizzly bear in the same way that authorities didn’t acknowledge the unlikely presence of a great white. Swimmers are exchanged for hikers, rabid shark fisherman for game hunters, etc, etc, etc. One of the few points of departure is that the mauled kid gets to live, but the audience is shown some severed child-limbs for good measure.

That said, the Jaws formula, when done well, works. Grizzly is by no means Jaws quality, but the interactions between the three central characters are pretty interesting, and they seem pretty tangible and believable. The gore effects are kind of fantastic, and, shockingly, the attack sequences themselves are pretty decent. Unlike with Jaws, there is actually a fair bit of exposure of the big bad bear here, though the supposed scale isn’t well conveyed (a judicious use of miniatures would have won serious bonus points from me). I was actually surprised that this movie didn’t rely on stock footage for the bear, as most cheap knock-offs tend to do for wildlife. The actual attack scenes of course feature disembodied bear claws and fake bear replacements, which are also used to pretty good effect in their own right.

For such a cheap movie, there are some seriously entertaining set pieces in Grizzly. The first one of note is when the bear takes down a forestry service guard tower, which is pretty fantastic and harrowing to watch, despite how obviously cheap it was. On top of that, there is a pretty cool finale sequence where the bear takes out a helicopter, which is exactly the kind of thing anyone would want from a giant bear movie.

Overall, I was surprised how much fun Grizzly was. It is definitely not a strong recommend, mostly due to the pacing getting pretty slow and the action getting repetitive after a while, but it is still one of the better cheap Jaws knockoffs I’ve found. For movie buffs, it might be fun to devise some sort of Jaws bingo to play along with Grizzly. Bad movie fans, and folks who relish the bygone era of late 1970s creature features will find plenty to like here.