Good, bad, and ugly

So …. what constitutes a bad movie?

First off, “bad” depends entirely upon one’s taste, preferences and, admittedly frame of mind on seeing any given film. I’m probably going to get mad and shut off even something as perfect as The Godfather if I’ve had a bad day. That doesn’t make The Godfather bad; it just means I’m not in the mood for a three-hour drama about Italians.

However, The Godfather — as great as it is — might not be everyone’s cup of tea. My dad loved it, as do I, but I always knew that my mother forced herself to watch it whenever he did. I always knew she hated The Godfather precisely for the reasons he loved it: the violence, the machismo, the dark cinematography, its cynical worldview, and the fact that it really isn’t that much fun. It’s dialogue-heavy, nothing much really happens, and for the last 20 or so minutes, you have to read Michael Corleone’s mind to figure out what he’s doing. I find this exhilarating, but I know at least one generation of viewers that would find this particular effort to be less than worthwhile.

I don’t know whether Mom thought The Godfather was bad, but I do know that she loved films I thought were horrendous — and still do. For example, 1989’s The Burbs, starring Tom Hanks, is a film I cannot stand. Yet she watched it religiously and found it as funny on her 400th viewing as on her first. I think it is over-the-top in the worst way, relentlessly unfunny, and indistinguishable from a Loony Tunes cartoon. Likewise, she loved National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (a lot of people do). I’ve never found it funny.

Yet Mom and I did agree on some films, like The Hunt for Red October, one of my favorites from the early Nineties. She loved the suspense, I loved the technical details. And, my Dad found Die Hard just as thrilling as I did; it quickly became one of his Top 5 favorites. (I always wished he’d seen it in a theater, with a big audience.)

So, yeah, taste is a big part of it. But what makes a movie objectively bad? That’s harder to answer; the best way of dispensing with the question is by going to some examples. 1995’s Waterworld, for example, is widely considered not only a box office bomb (it wasn’t) but one of the worst movies ever made (it isn’t). I argue that Waterworld, despite its flaws, was intended as a summer blockbuster and swashbuckling action-adventure film. Viewed with that lens, it works amazingly well. You can say I have bad taste, but I’d respond that there are plenty of worse movies out there.

How about every movie (save one) that Adam Sandler has ever done? (For the record: Uncut Gems is the exception.) How about 92 percent of Burt Reynolds’ output? How about Every Which Way But Loose by Clint Eastwood? How about The Osterman Weekend? How about Red Dawn? How about Bird on a Wire, starring Mel and Goldie? These films — and dozens upon dozens of others — were made to either A) make a quick profit or B) capitalize on a star’s name in order to make said profit. There are still hundreds of others that just have no ambition at all, that exist to fill a slot on a network or streaming schedule. These are some of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, or heard of. So bad I wouldn’t watch them again just to see how bad they truly were.

Here’s the thing: a bad movie is boring. No matter what a film might have going for it — big star, big budget, CGI, blah blah — if it’s boring, it’s boring, and nothing can save it. Generally, this can be laid on the doorstep of the screenwriter, though a bad directing job can fuck things up, too. David Fincher is a pretty great filmmaker, but his Gone Girl was so boring I don’t really care if he comes back. Ridley Scott, reliable as he is, made the unwatchable Body of Lies and A Good Year. Martin Scorsese made Kundun and Bringing Out the Dead (and, while we’re at it, Hugo). Spielberg made Hook and The Lost World.

And so on.

Here is a solid example of what I consider bad filmmaking, bad storytelling, bad all the way around: the currently-streaming Haunting of Bly Manor, airing on Netflix. This mini-movie binging bonanza is, in a word, atrocious. The series (we’ll call it that instead of a film) has a remarkable central performance from Victoria Pedretti — I’d probably watch her in anything — but this is one of those annoying long-form stories that pad out their episodes with long stretches of tedium where nothing of any consequence occurs. Once in a blue moon, a cat will jump out of the shadows, scaring anyone who’s still interested.

Bly Manor has excellent production values and dreamy photography, but it keeps doubling back on itself, repeating itself (in a self-consciously “artistic” way) and reversing its own most dramatic developments, until it becomes impossible to care about the characters. Or, put it this way: Bly Manor is about 8 hours of exposition, followed by about 1 hour of actual propulsive action. If that much. I know Pedretti will get more work, but I was well past tired of seeing the rest of the cast in this tedious, drawn-out, self-involved “horror film.”

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

Fewer films have generated a more divisive response in my lifetime than 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a film I admire greatly but which rubs a lot of people entirely the wrong way.

I can sort of understand why, especially when it comes to Kevin Costner’s performance in the lead role. It is kinda/sorta hard to overlook that Thieves cast a born-and-bred Californian as an Englishman, and allows said Californian to more or less shed his attempted British accent early on. My opinion? Costner doesn’t even try to play an Englishman; he is himself, from beginning to end.

The movie was made at the absolute height of Costner’s A-list appeal, shortly after Dances With Wolves, which (deservedly or not) won him a handful of golden statues. He could sorta do no wrong. And damned if I don’t still feel that way about his presence here. Is he a dyed-in-the-wool Brit? No, not at all. The tragedy would have been if he had attempted to be. What Costner presents instead is a thoroughly heroic and athletic protagonist who is laidback and, in his own manner, fairly persuasive. A lot of people hate him, but I always felt he filled the role just fine.

After all, I don’t really give all that much of a shit about Robin Hood. Seeing this film in 1991 did not inspire me to go back and revisit the Errol Flynn version, or even the one starring Connery and Hepburn (Robin and Marian). Whether Costner attempted or aborted a British accent made absolutely no difference to me, and still doesn’t. What I require from a film called Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a strong hero up against an even stronger villain, which is exactly what this movie gives us.

And what a grand villain! Alan Rickman strips all the gears in the acting gearbox as the legendary Sheriff of Nottingham. Seeming to be taking all his lines and direction from another director in a different movie, Rickman STEALS Robin Hood out from under its star and everybody else. Roger Ebert correctly judged Rickman as playing the Sheriff as if he were David Letterman, and you know what? Given the forthrightness of California Robin, I’ll take it. Rickman makes this movie sublimely entertaining, and is funny as hell, to boot.

So — a shaggy, haired beach blond vs. a wild-eyed, rangy, insult-spewing Satan worshipper. Yes, that’s plenty of conflict for a summertime action-adventure blockbuster. Look, this movie isn’t Kramer Vs. Kramer. It’s called Robin Hood, for Christ sake. And it has a ton of other qualities that are frequently overlooked by those who can’t get past Costner’s squeaky-clean action hero.

Morgan Freeman, for one. As Azeem the Moor, Freeman grounds the story in something that might be called “reality.” He is the happy medium between Costner’s fretting, perhaps too-complex hero and Rickman’s shambling, sweating madman. We need that level-headed dose of sanity, otherwise the movie would just go spinning off the rails (which, I admit, it sorta does, anyway). There’s also Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s feisty, spirited Maid Marian. Yeah, she might be just as badly cast as Costner, but she’s a fine actress, even if her character does change from kick-ass swordfighter to a shrieking damsel-in-distress over the course of two hours. But what are you gonna do? Some forms must be observed.

In addition to the cast (the less said about Christian Slater, the better), the film boasts impressive production values, including its location photography (England never looked grungier or more sinister) and still-influential score. The stunts and fight scenes are pleasingly realistic (this was long before CGI could summon Rocket Raccoon and Jar Jar Binks), and Costner convincingly pulls off many of his own stunts.

I will admit that the climax gets a little buggy when the Sheriff graphically attempts to rape Marian. But somehow there is the spirit of cheerful, comic villainy that supplants my natural inclination to cringe. In other words, if I felt in the least bit that the movie had truly crossed a line, I would be the first to condemn it. Yet, Robin crashes heroically (if somewhat clumsily) through the window to interrupt the shocking proceedings and battle and kill the sheriff. In this fantasy setting that gives the fairy tale a bit of a contemporary (for ’91) edge, I’ll give it the thinnest of passes.

Director Kevin Reynolds would work again with Costner on the infamous Waterworld, which I insist deserves another consideration. As far as action-adventure films from this era go, I rate them both about the same. Don’t expect Raiders-level greatness, but you know? I’d rather sit and watch either of these films before, say, Doctor Strange or Thor: The Dark World. (Not to mention the truly atrocious Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott version from 2010.)

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