Hopefully everyone is having a good day this Christmas. Since I'm sitting here, trying to find something decent to watch to pass the time, I thought I might revisit a favorite topic.
In the past, I've written pieces that asked what were the worst political gaffes & mistakes. I usually find the horribly run campaigns more fascinating to read about, since it's a group of supposedly smart people, with millions of dollars in contributions, who fail spectacularly. Usually at the heart of every political mistake is someone or a group of someones that got their heads together & came up with a policy proposal, campaign move, statement of reaction, or other "cunning plan" that wasn't thought all the way through, and it fails to live up in execution to how well it read on paper.
Most bad movies are concocted in a similar manner, except instead of a group of political aides sitting around a table trying to fashion a poll tested message, it's a group of film executives sitting around a table trying to fashion a film around screen-test results.
But there are many ways to jump on the Fail Boat, and screw up horrendously. There are many different levels of bad, with some films that are just plain bad, some that are Godawfully bad, and still others that are so bad they become an enjoyable experience.
So a simple question for the evening: Which bad film experiences stand out, and why?
As the xkcd graph above shows, there are some films that are so bad they defy the very fabric of the universe & become watchable in spite of themselves. It could be just the "car wreck" factor, or somehow, someway all of the negatives come together & become positives.
Usually a good script can rise above bad acting, but a bad script will drag down good actors. There are some exception to this. For example, there's the interesting career of Patrick Swayze, who had a way of making lemonade out of lemons & arguably one of the greatest ranges of any actor in his particular era of films (e.g. any guy that can be believable in 'Red Dawn' & 'Road House,' and also 'Ghost' & 'Dirty Dancing' has range). 'Road House' is a movie that on paper should NOT work, and probably only works because of Swayze's performance. If you plugged almost any other actor into that role, the movie wouldn't be the cult film it is today. Arguably, the same thing is true for 'Point Break.'
And then there's the so bad it's good territory called "Midnight Movie." The most infamous example of this is 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show.' However, Tommy Wiseau’s 'The Room' has been called a "true successor" to the 'Rocky Horror' throne. It's a horribly acted, written, and directed film, that has the production values of a late-night soft-core porn film you would see on Cinemax, from a guy that looks like he escaped from the set of a Geico Cavemen commercial.
Making a movie is a large undertaking. Even the independent filmmakers who're trying to make a name for themselves by maxing out their credit cards on a production are in for a long process. However, there are some films that while watching you start wondering how it's possible to spend hundreds of millions on a movie, and it seem like not a dime went towards the piss poor script? On the other hand, there are times where the filmmakers' reach exceed their grasp. People complain all the time about the same cookie-cutter movies made over & over again. But there's a thin line between creativity & going off the rails.
Thanks mainly to an excellent Entertainment Weekly piece by Clark Collis, what was once a well-kept L.A.-only secret—or as secret as anything promoted by a bizarre billboard could be—has recently been spreading throughout the country, popping up in sold-out shows in New York and other cities, and on a recent episode of Tim And Eric Awesome Show Awesome Show, Great Job! Approaching the film as a Chicago-based outsider, with a healthy skepticism of L.A. phenomena of any stripe, I’m now convinced that it’s the real deal. It may not have the staying power of a Rocky Horror, if only because midnight-movie culture just isn’t as sustainable as it once was, but in the annals of bad cinema, The Room deserves shelf-space next to Ed Wood’s Glen Or Glenda? Both are personal and shockingly amateurish laughers that put their directors in front of the camera and are all too revealing of their odd peccadilloes. Wood has a thing for angora sweaters; Wiseau has a thing for pillow fights, red roses, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Who are we not to luxuriate in their fetishes?
From the A.V. Club:
The same ambition, chutzpah, and admirable willingness to risk looking like a complete jackass in the eyes of an often-unforgiving public that fuel some of the biggest fiascos of all time also drive revered classics. The same mad-prophet ambition that made The Deer Hunter a triumph helped make Heaven’s Gate a career- and studio-killing bomb. The same audacity that made Roberto Benigni think a concentration camp was an awesome setting for a heartwarming family comedy also allowed him to delude himself into thinking the public would buy him as a balding wooden puppet-boy.There are many ways to waste money & destroy careers in the film industry. Right now, all you have to do is turn on cable & see a horribly, shitty film playing. However, the following are some of the more common ways "awesomely bad" films are made.
► These People Were Actually Nominated For Oscars... And Some Of Them Won!
An actor, actress or director lands a great project. The film is successful, gains critical acclaim, and the person is recognized with an Academy Award for their contribution. That means their career is set, and there will be nothing but roses ahead, right? Wrong.
Either through poor choices or cashing in on the success, there are a number of Oscar winners whose post-win careers have veered into a straight to DVD ditch. Since they now can be listed in the trailer & on the poster as "Academy Award Winner," the actor, actress or director now has the power to get films into production that might be stuck in development hell just by attaching their names to the project. However, there might be a good reason it was stuck in development hell.
A good example of this is Nicolas Cage, who won the Best Actor Award in 1995 for his role in 'Leaving Las Vegas.' If you look at his IMDB page for everything post-1995, arguably with the exception of 'Adaptation' & one or two others, it's pretty damn bad. And reportedly, Cage is in the position of doing any film that he gets offered to pay off debts & back-taxes.
Other examples of poor post-Oscar decisions that probably should have gotten an agent fired:
- Halle Berry followed her 2001 Oscar winning performance in 'Monster's Ball' with the James Bond film 'Die Another Day,' the horror-thriller 'Gothika,' and then the pièce de résistance that is 'Catwoman'
- After winning his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 'Good Will Hunting,' Robin Williams has been in 'RV,' 'Patch Adams,' 'Jakob The Liar,' 'Bicentennial Man,' 'House of D,' 'License to Wed,' 'August Rush,' 'Old Dogs,' 'Night at the Museum,' and 'Man of the Year.'
- It is possible to bounce back. Hillary Swank won her first Oscar for her role in 'Boys Don't Cry' in 1999. She then did a string of films that bottomed out with 2003's 'The Core.' However, her very next film was 'Million Dollar Baby.'
- Cuba Gooding Jr. won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 'Jerry Maguire' in 1996. In the fifteen years since, his IMDB page consists of 'Radio,' 'Norbit,' 'Home on the Range,' 'Instinct,' 'Chill Factor,' 'Pearl Harbor,' 'Rat Race,' 'Boat Trip,' 'Snow Dogs,' and 'Daddy Day Camp.'
However, the studios won't abide diminishing returns forever, and sooner or later if things don't change, it's off to straight to DVD land... or worse... late-night soft-core porn.
► The Vanity Project
Similar to what I mentioned above, this is when someone in Hollywood has a pet project they have enough clout to get made but (for a myriad of reasons) it doesn't work. As a general rule, if in the opening credits you see the same person listed as "Produced by, Written by, Directed by, and Starring..." it's a bad sign. Yes, good films can be the product of an auteur's vision, but you could probably count on both hands the number of directors who get that kind of control & more times than not things work better in a collaborative process. Usually there needs to be someone with enough power to offer a different perspective, and from time to time say "No."
The film adaption of 'Battlefield Earth' was the pet project of John Travolta, who as a member of the Church of Scientology wanted to get L. Ron Hubbard's book to the screen.
"Some movies run off the rails. This one is like the train crash in The Fugitive. I watched it in mounting gloom, realizing I was witnessing something historic, a film that for decades to come will be the punch line of jokes about bad movies."As alluded to above, 1980's 'Heaven's Gate' is an infamous debacle that contributed to the collapse of United Artists & basically ruined director Michael Cimino's career. Cimino was coming off the success of 'The Deer Hunter' (which had won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director in 1979), and decided on a Western Epic based on the Johnson County War.
What was originally a film budgeted for $12 million, eventually ended up costing $42 million (which if adjusted for inflation, would be over $100 million in 2011 dollars) because of blown schedules & production delays.
'Heaven's Gate' earned less than $3 million domestically when it was released.
The studio brass [forced] Cimino to trim the film from its initial runtime of just over five hours to around three hours, forty-five minutes. The theatrical cut ran about two-and-a-half-hours.Another interesting example of the "Vanity Project" is M. Night Shyamalan's 'Lady in the Water.' After the critical & financial success of 'The Sixth Sense,' Shyamalan was seen as the next potential "great" filmmaker of his generation & was given a certain degree of freedom on his movies. However, every film after 'The Sixth Sense' received progressively worse reviews, and the hype backlash against Shyamalan has grown with each movie.
As an example of his fanatical attention to detail, a street built to Cimino's precise specifications had to be torn down and rebuilt because it reportedly "didn't look right." The street in question needed to be six feet wider; the set construction boss said it would be cheaper to tear down one side and move it back six feet, but Cimino insisted that both sides be dismantled and moved back three feet, then reassembled. An entire tree was cut down, moved in pieces, and relocated to the courtyard where the Harvard 1870 graduation scene was shot. Cimino shot more than 1.3 million feet (nearly 220 hours) of footage, costing approximately $200,000 per day.
Maybe it's that I like what Paul Giamatti does with what he's given, but I don't find 'Lady in the Water' as bad as the likes of 'Signs' (hydrophobic aliens, wearing no protection, invade a planet covered in water, has water vapor in the atmosphere, and try to eat a species composed 3/5 of water?) or 'The Happening' (Killer plants & people running from the wind? Just think about that for a second).
Perhaps oddest of all, 'The Happening' imagines itself to be a powerfully pro-environment movie. The snatches of televised commentary we see at the end of the film declare that this murderous act of nature was a warning; everyone seems to assume the obvious lesson to take is that we’d better treat nature nicer lest it decide to start wiping us out again. Allow me to suggest, contrarily, that if millions of Americans were killed by some tree-originated pathogen that could be released again at any time, the immediate result would not be a renewed enthusiasm for peaceful coexistence, but rather a program of deforestation so aggressive it’d make the Brazilian lumber industry look like tree huggers.However, 'Lady in the Water' is Shyamalan's least successful film. It also caused a very public split between Shyamalan & Disney (which distributed 'The Sixth Sense,' 'Unbreakable,' 'Signs,' and 'The Village'), who had problems with elements like Shyamalan casting himself in the film as a visionary writer whose work inspires a Messiah.
A more recent example of this trope were the film adaptions of Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged.' One of the more interesting points made in the A.V. Club's review of 'Atlas Shrugged: Part I' is that it shares a lot in common with the films made by far-right Christian groups about the end of the world, which is funny since Objectivism is atheistic.
Atlas Shrugged: Part I desperately wants to be a genuine Hollywood movie, just as badly as Christian filmmakers want to replicate the look, feel, and production values of their godless would-be peers/cultural enemies. It proves just as unsuccessful, yet Atlas Shrugged: Part I gets close enough for its efforts to be poignant, comic, and a little pathetic.
As with Christian tribulation movies, there is no place for nuance or understatement in Atlas Shrugged: Part I. We are not being seduced; we’re being sold with the hardest sell imaginable. Both films depict peculiar persecution fantasies in which the dominant ideologies of the day—Christianity and capitalism—are hounded relentlessly by the one-world-government brigade and the nefarious forces of encroaching socialism, respectively. These movies give victors an opportunity to feel like victims. What do you give a demographic that has everything? The righteous opportunity to feel like they have nothing, and like what little they have is on the verge of being taken away.
► Executive Meddling
This is the other end of the spectrum. Sometimes the "suits" have a point, but sometimes the studio can screw-up a film by bringing everything down to the lowest common denominator. They do it not because it makes for better art, but because they think viewers are stupid. They also need a PG-13 rating too, in order to make sure the film gets wide distribution & teens/children can watch too. So only one "Fuck" allowed, violent but not too violent, and please no sex.
From TV Tropes:
- 'Blade Runner' - Amongst the things the executives tried to change was adding narration by the protagonist, Deckard, to explain the story, because they felt the viewers wouldn't understand the movie otherwise. Harrison Ford protested loudly to this, and he was basically forced to provide the narration (with many fans suspecting Ford purposely read the narration with no life to show his displeasure with it, although Ford denies it & claims it was just badly written). Executive meddling also changed the ending to have Deckard and Rachael driving off, using footage from a different movie. Luckily, several versions have since been released that removed all these changes.
- Ralph Bakshi's 'Cool World' suffered from perhaps one of the more extensive cases of Executive Meddling. Originally, the movie was supposed to be about half-doodle/half-human Debbie Dallas, out to kill her human father for causing her to exist. The executives secretly rewrote the script and handed it back to Bakshi, changing the animated horror/thriller story to one about an artist getting trapped by his own creation. Bakshi also intended to have Drew Barrymore as the female lead, but instead they stuck him with Kim Basinger, who thought that it was a children's movie.
- 'Kingdom of Heaven'... one of the biggest examples on how Executive Meddling can ruin a film. It was originally more than 3 hours and cut after the studio forced Ridley Scott to do so. Complete elements of the story went out the window; many characters and much of the plot were altered with this move, none more than the character of Sibylla. King Baldwin V, Sibylla's son, was cut completely from the movie. Depth for many characters was cut, such as much of Balian's backstory. When this movie opened in theaters, it was met with mostly poor reviews.
- Russell Mulcahy, the director of 'Highlander II: The Quickening,' has blamed the incredible crappiness that is the film on the fact that the film's insurance company took over production after he repeatedly came in late and over-budget. They made numerous changes to the movie, including changing the Immortals' Back Story, and merging together the two fight scenes between MacLeod and the villainous Katana. Mulcahy tried to salvage the movie later by re-cutting it to match his original vision as best he could and releasing it as Highlander II: The Renegade Version. The movie was still pretty terrible, and future movies ignored it.
- 'Brazil.' Dear Lord, Brazil. Universal tried to hack this film — now considered one of the greatest, most intelligent sci-fi films ever made — down from 142 minutes to 97 (that's 45 minutes there, folks) give it a happy ending, turn it into a love story, and replace Michael Kamen's orchestral score with hit rock music to "attract the teens". Director Terry Gilliam fought for and secured a theatrical release of his preferred 132-minute cut, without the studio's permission, and it is this version which is the standard on home video as opposed to the studio's "Love Conquers All" cut.
► The Unnecessary Prequel/Sequel/Franchise Killer
If something is successful, why not do it again & make more money? However, if you want to make more money & a good product as well, the sequel/prequel/reboot runs into a situation that requires a fine balance. It can't be more of the same, or people will complain it's redundant. And it can't be too different, or people will complain the filmmakers forgot the elements that made the original film great. And if it doesn't work, it can lead to a "Broken Base," where fans will just ignore entire elements of the story or reassess how good the original product actually was.
'The Matrix' is a great film. The problem though is they didn't stop after the first film. Many feel the impact of the original film has been dragged down by the two sequels ('The Matrix Reloaded' & 'The Matrix Revolutions'), and some fans of the original like to pretend the sequels don't exist.
If the concern was the overall story, then the 'Star Wars' Prequels should have never been made. They're not necessary, and do the opposite of enhancing the original films. They diminish them. They also suffer from some of the things I wrote about in the Vanity Project section. You just get the feeling that at no point during the production of any of the prequel films did anyone pull George Lucas aside & say "I just don't think Jar Jar works in the film." Instead, it was "Yes sir, Mr. Lucas. I'll get right on making Darth Vader's "Nooooooo!!!!" scream even more ridiculous." With the original trilogy, Lucas didn't have as much power, had problems getting the production of 'A New Hope' off the ground, and it was more of a collaborative process. The film generally considered the best in the series, 'The Empire Strikes Back,' had its screenplay written by Leigh Brackett & Lawrence Kasdan, with Irvin Kershner directing it.
And then there's Joel Schumacher's 'Batman and Robin.'
Better known as the movie that killed Batman, for awhile anyway.Both the 'Star Wars' prequels and 'Batman and Robin' are also examples of being.....
To grasp how truly bad this movie is, keep in mind that it put the Batman movie franchise on hold for eight years, and when it did kick in again it was a complete reboot.
After the box-office success of 1995's Batman Forever, a sequel was inevitable. Audiences that backlashed against the Darker And Edgier Batman Returns found the lighter, more comedic tone of Forever to be a welcome change of pace. So come 1997, what does Warner Bros. do? Secure an All Star Cast, turn the camp Up To Eleven, and throw $125 million into the production of the film. What came out is a film that many people love to hate, even to this day.
► Commercials For Toys, The Soundtrack, Cups At McDonalds, etc.
I remember an episode of HBO's "The Chris Rock Show" where Chris' guest was Spike Lee. If I remember right, they were discussing how a movie like 'Belly' got made, and Chris Rock's response was "The Soundtrack." The film is not really a film. It's a ninety minute commercial (or music video) for the soundtrack.
► "Paint By Numbers" Versus "True Art Is Incomprehensible"
This is probably the greatest source of bad films.
When I did the diary about TV & Film clichés, I noted that almost every work employs a certain amount of tried & true clichés, conventions, formulas, and stereotypes to hold a story together. In a good film these type of things are usually forgiven, since the audience doesn't really notice 'em. However, in bad films they stand out like a sore thumb, with the writer & director sometimes serving up a "cliché storm" to the audience. Depending on the film, it's possible for it to work, but usually it leads to an uncreative, boring mess in which the viewer could figure out the major plot beats during the first five minutes.
For example, Roland Emmerich's '2012' goes down a checklist of disaster film clichés. Among them:
- An Apocalyptic event that defies all known "real" science is discovered.
- Secret government conspiracy/program to save humanity.
- The government program will be lead by the biggest asshole the world has ever known, who will disregard any & all advice given to him.
- A precious few find out about the coming DOOM and try to warn their family, which they are estranged from.
- The disaster begins, which is signified by blowing up a given country's national monuments.
- The survival of everyone is dependent on the guy who's estranged from his family doing something incredibly heroic, which "earns" his redemption in his family's eyes.
On the other end of the spectrum are the films that throw out the clichés & structure, not as part of a coherent narrative decision, but as a purposeful way to show how different they are. A lot of bad "Art" films wallow in this. Things don't make sense? The plot is incomprehensible? You "just don't get it."
"I shudder if the majority of people look at my brush work and say it is pretty, for then I know it is ordinary and I have failed. If they say they do not understand it, or even that it is ugly, I am happy, for I have succeeded."An interesting middle ground example between these two extremes is 1999's 'American Beauty,' directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball. When it was released, the film was critically lauded and won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Kevin Spacey), Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography.
However, the film has not exactly aged well, and it now has a tendency to show up on lists of the most overrated Best Picture Oscar winners of all-time. It largely stems from the fact that when you sit down & watch it now, 'American Beauty' comes off as a movie that thinks it's really "deep" in its cultural commentary when it's not (i.e. "You mean upper middle class people have dysfunctions and problems too?!?!"). Nothing exemplifies that more than a scene of characters watching & pontificating on the significance of a plastic bag floating in the wind.
► Gimmick-y Movie-making
Sometimes movies aren't really about anything. Not in the Seinfeld-ian sense, but they're not really about characters, or story progression. They're centered around a concept or gimmick to put butts in seats. The problem though is that a gimmick might get people to take a chance on a film, but you can't really base a two hour film around a gimmick... at least you can't base a good film around a gimmick.
1995's 'Showgirls,' directed by Paul Verhoeven & written by Joe Eszterhas (who sold the script for this sucker for what was a record $2 million at the time) is a prime example of this trope. The entire marketing hook & hype for 'Showgirls' was sex. I believe it's the only studio film to have a wide release with a NC-17 rating. The trailer for 'Showgirls' plays up what they can't show you, and how "erotic" and "controversial" the film will be. It's probably the last big-budget studio sex film. (Although, I guess I should point out that Steven Soderbergh's 'Magic Mike' is basically the same story as 'Showgirls,' just done a bit more sanely & from the perspective of a male character.)
Rather than using nudity for artistic or dramatic purposes, this is the movie with the chick from "Saved By The Bell" getting naked for the sake of getting naked.However, sex scenes is not the only way to gimmick-up a film. How many times have you seen a movie marketed for its explosions, violence, stunt casting, visual effects, and the most recent one of "Lifelike 3D!," only to see it and find out that beyond the CGI-gasms there's nothing else? Bad horror films are particularly bad offenders of this one. Some are marketed as the "scariest" film you'll ever see. It's so scary they can't even show you clips from the film. May God help you if you come to the theater, because you may die from a heart attack. And then you finally see the film, and it's a cliché ridden crapfest.
Of course, you can put gratuitous violence & gratuitous sex together & get a hackneyed combination as well. I once wrote a diary on controversial films too. In the comments, 1979's 'Caligula' was mentioned. The film is primarily infamous for trying to straddle the line between being high art & a porn film, and failing miserably at both. The original script was written by Gore Vidal (who later disowned the film) and it was directed by Tinto Brass. However, the film was produced by Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse magazine, who had final cut. Unhappy with Brass' product, he brought in someone else to recut the film & added in hardcore sex scenes (with some of them not making any sense to what little plot the movie had). This led to many different versions of the film.
There are nine different cuts of 'Caligula,' and with each of them you're still left pondering how a movie with good actors (Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud), and gratuitous amounts of sex & violence, can be so damn boring?
From the A.V. Club:
A porno starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, and John Gielgud? Oh hell yeah. I was under no illusion that Caligula would be any good at all, and that 156-minute run time did make me nervous (yes, I went with the unrated cut; would you expect less?), but some movies persist in the cultural memory simply because they’re so outrageous, we can’t help but be delighted they’re real. Oh of course it’s trash, and of course it’s filth and perversion and horse-fucking and girl-on-girl and Peter O’Toole being crazy and Malcolm McDowell fisting a dude and—wait, what was I saying? Right. It’s trash, but in concept at least, it has the potential of being gloriously transgressive trash... Watching Caligula is like flipping back and forth between a prestigious but dull historical epic and a movie in which people masturbate a lot. The masturbation may be some kind of symbolism, but when you’re watching actual genitalia onscreen... well, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a dick is just a dick.
It’s tempting to blame most of Caligula’s flaws on Guccione’s meddling, and there’s little doubt that his additions—including, most infamously, a five-minute lesbian sex scene that doesn’t have anything to do with anything beyond being a five-minute lesbian sex scene—were distracting, pointless, and, by the end, irritatingly dull. During a late-movie orgy sequence, I’d swear I saw the same woman giving the same guy the same blowjob at least six times. Apart from ruining any sense of narrative momentum, the constant assault of fuckery just gets old. It starts as shocking, becomes compelling in a Rube-Goldberg-meets-the-Marquis-De-Sade kind of way, but by the time you hit your third finger-bang, the magic is gone...
Take the plot: Malcolm McDowell plays Caligula, inveterate sister-fucker and heir to not-quite-dead Emperor Tiberius (Peter O’Toole). The movie opens with a familiar quote about gaining the world and losing one’s soul, but let’s be honest here: When your idea of a perfect day involves romping naked through the woods with a sibling, then screwing that sibling to your heart’s content, the soul train has already left your particular station.