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When Movies Go Bad: Part Seven

posted by Paul on 10/25/02

Watching movies can sometimes be a chore. Singling out bad movies is a redundant past time, since most movies these days rarely strive beyond the mediocre. That is not to say that the quality of cinema has declined. Truth be told, there are more than enough great movies to tide over the most demanding cinema-goer. The last decade alone has given the spotlight to brilliant filmmakers like Tarantino, Thomas Anderson and Fincher. With the benefit of nostalgia and context, their movies will be viewed as classics, much as the seventies' work of Spielberg, Coppola and co. is esteemed.

It's unfortunate, though, that contemporary Hollywood is more taken with the get-rich-quick mindset. Commercial movies which are often little more than billboards for corporate America have become depressingly prevalent, pushing out the work of more accomplished artists. For me, these movies represent the worst that Hollywood has to offer. They're spineless, soulless and meritless. A lot of movies are bad, but not a lot are unwatchable. And there's no worse cinematic experience than watching a bad movie when, deep down, you know it could have been good.....

"Tomb Raider"

Year of Release: Summer 2001

The Pitch: Indiana Jones for the buck-toothed, zit-faced Nintendo generation, starring boobies and poor special effects.

Starring: Angelina Jolie. Angelina Jolie's breasts. Angelina Jolie's lips. Angelina Jolie's one-dimensional persona. Jerry Bruckheimer's sensibilities. Plus, Jon Voight as Angelina's crusty old man.

Reason for release: Tomb Raider was a huge hit as a videogame, broke all kinds of sales records and made a stash, appealing to every nerd's whim: every nerd's whim being, of course, to control an almost real female. A fresh spin on the old Indiana Jones yarn starring a female protagonist who has large breasts is equivalent to box-office gold. It didn't matter that the character was, at best, two-dimensional nor that previous attempts to translate computer franchises into movie franchises had backfired quite catastrophically. Those with a memory that stretches back further than the last attempt to create yet another robotic pop star from hordes of wannabes will surely remember such turkeys as Mario Bros, Mortal Kombat and Wing Commander.

What Tomb Raider had in its favor was relatively interesting story and characterization.... by videogame standards. After all, we're talking about the videogame genre, a medium which sole purpose is to keep people challenged/out of sunlight. When you're sitting in front of a computer screen, you're not worrying about nuance, let me remind you. And, call me old-fashioned, but a story about two overweight Italian plumbers who eat mushrooms was never going to challenge for Oscars. Now, maybe if Russell Crowe or Judi Dench had taken the roles and imbued their characters with mild schizophrenia, we'd be talking about a different outcome. Actually, in that circumstance, we'd probably be talking about a complex masterpiece rather than Bob Hoskins hip-hopping in a ridiculous boiler suit..which might win an Oscar if I had my way. Mario and co. weren't made for the movies. Deep down, everyone involved knew this, but sometimes it's better to wear the game face while stealing the coins.

In mainstream Hollywood, money is all that matters.

Truth is, video game spin-offs always made their money back. That alone made them worth making, even if they were delivered cheaply and supported by second-rate casting, ropey special effects and scripts that were an embarrassment to mankind. When Tomb Raider became a wordwide phenomenon, the movie rights were snapped up. Big names were lined up for the lead. Sandra Bullock and Liz Hurley were just two actresses touted for the role of Lara Croft. Eventually, Angelina Jolie landed the role. Enthusiasts, and we do live in a twisted world where people get pissy about minor stuff like this, were annoyed that a Calfornian was playing an upper-class English adventurer. But Jolie was an off-kilter, HOT movie star who appealed to every demographic. She was edgy, yet bankable in a role like this. Looking pretty and spouting cheesy lines does not call for one to tunnel into the well of creativity. The less anal weren't too concerned about how well she nailed the accent. By videogame standards, Tomb Raider was "War and Peace". By cinematic stanards, it was pure treacle. Once Jolie jumped onboard, it was ready-made for box-office success.

Where it went wrong: There were so many ways that Tomb Raider could have gone right that it was a crying shame to see it fail so miserably. Special effects can add a lot to a movie but, in Tomb Raider's case, they are the movie. The screenplay is weak, heavy in cliche and low in intelligence. This should have followed in Indiana Jones', but instead of the unapologetic fun and wit found in that advanture, the story was geared towards the next setpiece. And setpieces without anyone to root for invariably suck. In that scenario, it's hard to care for anything on the screen. It's so Bruckheimer, helmed by one of Bruckheimer's minions. Actually, to say it's Bruckheimer is unfair to him. At least his movies are brainless entertainment with a degree of slickness and are at least eminently quotable/watchable. This was slow, plodding and clueless.

I really wanted to like this movie, but its by-the-numbers manipulation and cynical marketing was an assault on the senses made that an impossibility. You didn't even get a chance to laugh at the plotholes. You'd say "Wait a m..." and then your eardrums would be attacked by blaring techno music. Anything to drown out the dialogue, I guess...

Where it REALLY went wrong: The film-makers patently forgot that this was supposed to be an adventure movie. There is absolutely no sense of danger, no emotional investment in the characters and little attempt to structure a coherent narrative. I wouldn't blast this movie for being silly because, after all, it's about a well-endowed English girl who raids tombs. The teenage boy market, to which this was targeted, weren't looking for a challenge.

But as movies like Gremlins emphasize....silliness has a place, provided the story is interesting. It's not. Nothing is at stake. It doesn't even have that "wow, this movie is awful, I'll buy it on DVD" quality. The dialogue is an extended in-joke, replete with the ubiquitous banter that's grown stale since Die Hard and Lethal Weapon did it so much better. It took six writers to pen this and, although we have no idea whether the screenplay declined upon subsequent re-writes, you'd definitely want to distance yourself from the finished product. When your sole job is to connect the dots, it mustn't feel too good to know that nothing clicks.

To her credit, Angelina Jolie does all she can in the role and she does it well. She's developing quite a niche of spearheading female equivalents/re-workings of vastly superior classics. Unfortunately, all this script demanded was that she look sexy and speak in an English accent. Not a huge stretch for an Oscar-winning actress. This was one of those movies people make only because it's high-profile. The quality was depressingly poor but the movie formula worked well enough that a sequel is in the works. It'll probably cement itself as a franchise. Angelina Jolie definitely deserves better than having Tomb Raider as her career highlight.

Overall: The critics slated it, it carried bad word of mouth, but the coffers still swelled. The film-makers would be wise not to follow the formula too closely next time around. I mean, it made money, but Angelina Jolie could run around in a bikini speaking in tongues for ninety minutes and it'd still make money. Point is, people were intrigued and the opening weekend of nearly $50 million declined in subsequent weeks. The hype machine made it a moderate hit but word-of-mouth and poor excecution ensured that it didn't hit the blockbuster heights of $200 million +. If the sequel actually boasts an interesting story and a strong script, it will surely live up to initial expectations. But the first movie's heartlessness doesn't bode well for a franschise. Thematically, there's nothing here that warrants a sequel.

"Scooby Doo"

Year of Release: Summer 2002

The Pitch: Re-make of cult cartoon, which featured various social degenerates hanging out with a talking dog and solving ghostly mysteries.

Starring: A who's who of second rate and critically scorned "young Hollywood", including Matthew Lillard, Freddie P and Sara Michelle Gellar. Also starring cynical Hollywood consumerism and a CGI talking dog.

Reason for release: Some genius decided that, instead of making a movie with a strong concept, we needed a live-action big-screen version of a trippy old cartoon. A cartoon about loser teens driving around in a van and solving mysteries is always going to find a niche. The cartoon itself was easy to watch and enjoyable for what it was - and its various updates and continuous re-runs have kept it alive in the public consciousness. Its huge fan following made it a certainty for the big-screen, where it was destined to recoup the investment. Unsurprisingly, it was shamelessly trotted out for no other reason than to make a lot of money.

Where it went wrong: The initial casting of the movie looked promising. Mike Myers was approached for the part of Shaggy which, if nothing else, would have made his lines funny. He's a good writer and not the sort of actor to make do with shitty comedy, regardless of how much money he's being paid to shill Starbucks. Even if he'd come onboard and worked on his own character, it would have had one thing to recommend it. But Myers was wise enough to turn down this no-brainer. Any hopes of campy quality were lost at that very moment. The producers obviously decided they could put anyone in there. Why bulk up the budget with comedy actors when the special effects are the stars anyway?

Enter the despicable trio of Lillard-Prinze-Gellar. None of them were A-Listers, but they had name value and each had been in successful teen movies. Casting them made it easier to market it to the under 18s - "Look, it's the guy who drooled in Scream!~11" The other benefit was that these guys were close-knit. There wasn't going to be any on-set fighting, they worked relatively cheaply and, with the possible exception of Gellar, are the thespian equivalent of talking robots. You could dress them up as beavers and they aren't going to complain. In every movie, Lillard looks perpetually shocked that he's been cast.

The movie was never going to be high art, but it could have been as wonderfully irreverent as the Brady Bunch movies. With this casting, and the fact that they opted for the guy who directed that Drew Barrymore five-star opus "Never Been Kissed", you knew it was going to be hair-pulling stuff. The Brady movies were a masterclass in updating archaic concepts to show how absurd the initial premise was. Scooby Doo, however, remained true to its roots. It attempted to make the live-action "comedy" earnest. Of course, it threw in some lame drug references, but amidst a steaming pile of dog shit using a code word for crack isn't going to save you.

Where it REALLY went wrong: The movie was mercifully short, running at about eighty minutes. But eighty minutes in the company on Freddie Prinze Jr and his faggy necktie seemed like an hell. It was a total drag. I spent half the film staring at my watch and the other half staring at the screen praying the torture would end. I must have been brain damaged because: a) I wasn't even wearing a watch, and b) I exchanged money to witness this movie. Strangely, staring at my wrist was a lot more satisfying than a jive-talking Freddie Prinze Jr. Honestly, the premise for this movie is so flimsy, it's amazing they could even stretch it out to eighty minutes. It didn't surprise me that a CGI dog was ten times more appealing than any of the human actors.

The original show was, I concede, fairly low-brow stuff. It followed a very simple formula. That works when you're dealing with crude animation, but watching human beings acting in a similar way is disturbing on a variety of levels. They couldn't even get the characterization right. I don't recall Fred being a braggard or Daphne being a vixen. Granted, Matthew Lillard nailed the Shaggy voice and finally found a role perfect for him - a witless stoner tramp - but that doesn't compensate for Prinze Jr's jive-talking scene. People don't diss this guy for fun. He really is an atrocious actor. Scooby Doo just underlines that with a huge exclamation point and three 1s.

Overall: This was a wasted opportunity on every level. The movie contains some glimpses of coherence and moments of fun. Sadly, they are few and far between. The story is weak, the special effects mean nothing without an exciting premise and Matthew Lillard steals the movie from the other "actors", who look a cross between confused and saddened. The movie hit its target and was a big success at the box office. A sequel is in the works, with the actors reprising their roles. I fully support those with mental deficiencies and the push for social equality, but I'd prefer if the mentally challenged weren't allowed to cast big-budget Hollywood movies. The producers' biggest dilemma is whether to name the movie Scooby Too or Scooby Deux (Hollywood wit!). Based on this showing, I'd call it Scooby Don't. OMG!1

AOL IM: paulwdfans

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