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.”