Let us continue our look back at the year in film with a token acknowledgement of ten films that were not quite as bad as their critical reputations. For the record, not all of the films below are good pictures. In a film criticism world that follows the sensationalized political landscape more and more, films are often judged as either unqualified masterpieces or pure failures. We have lost the ability to acknowledge that some films are just 'good', 'okay', or 'not that bad'. The following are in alphabetical order.Death at a Funeral
This Neil LaBute comedy got hammered for daring to remake a seemingly untouchable 2007 Frank Oz picture, all while critics couldn't decide if said original was any good in the first place. I have not seen the original, but this American variation works as a genuinely funny family comedy. Chris Rock makes an excellent and sympathetic straight man, James Mardsen is a fine clown, Zoe Saldana looks dynamite while getting to be funny, and the cast is filled with notable character actors (Loretta Devine, Keith David, Danny Glover) who just happen to be African-American. The first third is sharper than the rest, but it's a consistently entertaining piece of filmmaking.
Edge of Darkness
Pundits and critics spent most of their time hand-wringing over the personal flaws of star Mel Gibson, while audiences were conned by an ad campaign that made the film seem like a sequel to Taken. In reality, Martin Campbell's remake of his own 1985 BBC miniseries is a character-driven portrait of crippling grief and the pursuit of vengeance as a last resort to give weight to an otherwise meaningless life. Gibson and Ray Winstone give wonderfully sharp and low-key star turns, and Campbell does what he does best. He makes the thriller conventions feel real by having its adult characters act like adults and react realistically to the treachery and violence around them.
For Colored Girls
Had this film been directed by someone less of a Rorschach test than Tyler Perry, most of us would have just welcomed the all-star cast of underemployed African-American females being allowed to chew on meaty roles from the 1975 play. Yes, what was likely intended as Tyler Perry's Schindler's List
ended up closer to his Amistad
. But there is real power to the acting and the melodrama isn't nearly as heated as you'd expect. Perry's decision to frame Ntozake Shange's monologues as the equivalent of musical numbers is a surprisingly canny one, and the film remains compulsively watchable. It's not the masterpiece that all were hoping, but it's a rock-solid piece of the kind of thing we see all too infrequently from major studio releases.
Call this one 'underrated by me'. I gave the film a 'B' upon its release, saying that the film couldn't decide whether to be a full-on deconstruction of superhero mythology or a campy action blast set in a quasi-real world. That remains true, but much of my complaints came from the insanely over-the-top action scenes featuring Hit Girl. Well, come what may, if you watch the Blu Ray bonus features, you realize just how much of that action was in fact done more-or-less for in real time. Since I've seen Chloe Moretz doing those stunts for real, it's that much easier to believe my eyes when I see the film, thus making the contrast between the failed heroism of Kick-Ass
and the crowd-pleasing vigilantism of Hit Girl less of an issue.
Thus brings us the first film on this list that qualifies as 'bad'. While you won't find me calling the film some unheralded masterpiece, there are a few notable ideas that were missed in the rush to trash the obviously-butchered 73-minute theatrical adaptation of this cult comic book (and criticize innocent bystander Megan Fox for what amounted to a glorified cameo). The film has a mournful tone, and the picture uses the discontent of defeated Confederate soldiers as a parable to those on the political Right who feel so disenfranchised that they've considered taking up arms and/or doing violence against their government and their countrymen. The sight of John Malkovich deploying suicide bombers and weapons of mass destruction in the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians to spur the populace to rise up against the government is a chilling one that brings to mind all of the worst fears of a truly militant 'Tea Party'. Not a good movie, but an interesting bad movie.
The run-up to theatrical release was an odd one. The marketing campaign debuted with a genuinely funny trailer, and then Rogue/Universal screened the film at the SXSW Film Festival to rave reviews. Then the studio proceeded to hide the film until the last minute from regular critics, creating an automatic negative response that often greets films that are hidden from critics. It's no comedy classic, and it suffers from the same problems as the Austin Powers sequels (it presumes that MacGruber by himself is a funny character). But the supporting cast (Val Kilmer, Powers Boothe, Maya Rudolph, etc) score pretty consistently, Will Forte, Ryan Phillipe, and Kristen Wiig are good sports, and the film contains several hard belly laughs and some genuinely shocking bawdy humor. To call MacGruber the best Saturday Night Live movie since Wayne's World 2 probably isn't saying much, but it's a genuinely witty comedy and well-worth a rental.
The Nutcracker 3D
This is another 'not good' film that made the list. I saw this one at a press screening way back in October, but was required not to publish any reviews until right before opening day. The reason has less to do with the film's quality (it's ambitious but middling and plodding) and more to do with the fact that the beloved childrens' story had been turned into a Holocaust parable. The problem is that most of the universally scathing reviews concentrated on the shock and outrage that the filmmakers DARE try such an idea, as opposed to whether or not the film worked on its own merits. As Roger Ebert (who also trashed the film) likes to say, "It's not what it's about, but how it's about it." The film cost $90 million and has yet to gross $300,000 worldwide, making it perhaps the biggest flop of all-time. Come what may, it didn't deserve that. It may have been deeply flawed and not entirely successful, but this ambitious and obvious labor-of-love Nutcracker had genuine balls.