Friday, January 01, 2010

The Worst Films of the Decade: 10 - 1

See 20-11 here.

10 – Swept Away (Guy Ritchie, 2002)

After making his name with a pair of flashy but hollow cockney gangster flicks, Guy Ritchie decided to broaden his range, with disastrous results. His remake of the Italian romance Swept Away featured his then-wife Madonna as a spoiled rich bitch, who is stranded on a desert island with the Italian waiter (Adriano Giannini) she has spent the whole cruise demeaning. When they are alone on the island, Giannini turns the tables, effectively enslaving Madonna and forcing her to play the good housewife – this arrangement, naturally, leads to love. It's hard to know exactly what Ritchie was trying to do with this misadventure, in fact, I'm not sure if he even had a clear idea. Romance is not his forte, and the relationship between his two leads is laughably unconvincing. If this was a vanity project for Mr and Mrs Ritchie, then it is a baffling one. Rarely has a director cast such a harsh light on a woman he supposedly loves, repeatedly making her look aged and unhappy, and the character she plays has no redeeming features. Ritchie and his wife have now gone their separate ways, and he has returned to the crime genre, although he only continues to display the criminal lack of talent that was first in evidence here.

9 – Killing Me Softly (Kaige Chen, 2002)
Ah, the good old 'erotic thriller', does any other type of film so regularly guarantee a "so bad it's good" film experience? This ridiculous effort was the first (and, to date, last) picture Kaige Chen had directed in English, and perhaps his unfamiliarity with the language explains why he felt the stiff line readings offered by Heather Graham and Joseph Fiennes were acceptable. They are both on dreadful form as the lovers at the centre of this tawdry tale, although it would be hard to imagine how any actors could sell some of the bizarre moments this film contains; one scene requires Fiennes to propose to Graham over the motionless body of a mugger, whom he has just beaten to a pulp with the door of a London phone box. The overheated sex scenes are shot in a cheesy fashion by Chen, with the bondage sequences (Graham being tied to a table or choked with silk) being especially amusing. Alas, it does become exceedingly boring when it's not being comically daft, and by the end you're just waiting for the predictable climactic twist to drive the final nail into this awful film.

8 – Bad Boys II (Michael Bay, 2003)
A toxic sequel to Michael Bay's debut film, with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence reprising their roles as the bickering cops. Bad Boys II captures everything that is loathsome about Michael Bay's cinema; it is simply two and a half hours of explosions, poor plotting, incoherent editing, homophobia, explosions, sexism and idiocy – and explosions. The film is simply exhausting to watch, wearing out its welcome before the first hour has elapsed, and making us feel every one of the ninety long minutes that follow. Of course, that description could be applied to any of this director's films, but I have selected this particular entry in the Bay canon because there's a real nasty streak about this picture, a complete contempt for humanity, which is startling even by the standards of blockbuster cinema. During a destructive car chase, dead bodies litter the road and are crushed in by the onrushing vehicles, and in one astonishingly tasteless scene, Smith and Lawrence spend time in a morgue, admiring the breasts of a pretty young corpse. In a Michael Bay film, there is no dignity even in death.

7 – What Happens in Vegas (Tom Vaughan, 2008)
Ladies and gentleman, let us please have a moment's silence for the death of the romantic comedy. What Happens in Vegas is simply one of many offenders in this depressing genre, a genre in which both romance and comedy are frequently hard to find. Tom Vaughan's film is here because it commits almost every one of the crimes that habitually plague these films. The premise is stupid and implausible, yoking together two deeply unlikable characters and forcing them into a series of contrived situations, with the humour being reliant on their idiotic behaviour. The film has no respect for its characters or its audience, and there isn't a single ounce of real emotion in it before the regulatory reconciliation at the climax. The romantic comedy can be wonderful when it is done right, when there is some genuine feeling to it and it has been written with some wit and style, but these days it is a dumping ground for lazily assembled timewasters. We deserve better.

6 – She Hate Me (Spike Lee, 2004)
Oh Spike, what were you thinking? This director has made some serious misjudgements in his career, but this is something else. The film begins as if it's going to be a satire on corporate greed, with Anthony Mackie's character being fired for blowing the whistle on illegal practices at his drug firm, but Lee quickly ditches that idea when the question of how the unemployed Mackie is going to make a living needs to be addressed. The answer turns up at his door one night when a former girlfriend – now a lesbian – offers him $10,000 to impregnate both her and her new lover. Despite the fact that he began the film working on a drug to cure AIDS, he decides to oblige them, causing both women to moan with orgasmic pleasure, and soon every gorgeous lesbian in the city is offering to pay Mackie thousands of dollars for his highly valued sperm. The idea that lesbians would willingly pay a man to have unprotected sex with them is probably enough to sink this film on its own, but Lee's inability to find a balance between the main story and the half-dozen subplots he has going on at any one time is what really destroys it. It is a mess, and whatever message Lee was trying to get across is completely lost in the chaos.

5 – Date Movie/Epic Movie/ Meet the Spartans/Disaster Movie (Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg, 2006 – 2008)
Having learned their trade as part of the Scary Movie writing team, Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg graduated to their directors' chair with a series of stunningly awful films. Their movies have negligible plots that exist simply as an excuse to spoof the previous year's cinema, but there is no imagination at work here. All they do is recreate scenes from recent movies, and throw in some slapstick or a pop culture reference; so we see Britney Spears getting kicked into the pit from 300, or a woman being tossed from a plane by a Samuel L Jackson lookalike (Snakes on a Plane) and landing on Paris Hilton. Some might argue that Seltzer and Friedberg aren't doing anything that the Zucker brothers didn't do before, but films like The Naked Gun and Airplane tended to spoof genres rather than specific films, and their screenplays were written with multiple layers of humour, smart wordplay, and were performed by fine comic actors. These films just recycle the same gags from one movie to the next, the only thing that changes is the target of the joke, and yet people made these films hits – they actually paid money to see terrible footage of bad actors doing amateurish reproductions of films they paid to see a few months ago. Date Movie, Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans all made over $80 million worldwide, but we can take solace in the fact that Disaster Movie 'only' made $34 million. There may be hope yet.

4 – I Am Sam (Jessie Nelson, 2001)
When Robert Downey Jr. warned Ben Stiller about the dangers of going "the full retard" in the hunt for Oscar gold, this is the performance he was talking about. Sean Penn's display as the mentally deficient Sam is a horrendous collection of tics, mannerisms and loud speech. It isn't for a moment believable as anything more than Academy bait, but that's merely the tip of the iceberg in this shambolic film. The thrust of the narrative is that Sam, with a mental age of seven, is not fit to be a parent to his daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning), who will soon be the more mature than him. Social services are threatening to take her and place her with another family, so Sam turns to touch lawyer Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer) to plead his case. That's a fair enough setup for an issue-based drama, but director Jessie Nelson overplays everything. The social services, whose concern for Lucy strikes me as perfectly reasonable, are portrayed as cold-hearted villains, and just in case we aren't sure, Nelson includes a scene in which they barge into the middle of Lucy's birthday party to snatch her away. This is an astonishingly crass and manipulative piece of work, which is offensive both in the way it patronises the disabled and insults its audience. Penn's performance isn't the only thing about I Am Sam that's retarded.

3 – Hostel: Part II (Eli Roth, 2007)
One of the most depressing developments in the past decade has been the rise of the 'torture porn' film, a particular brand of extreme cinema that has become big business purely despite having little to offer beyond scenes of dismemberment and death. A key figure in this genre is Eli Roth, whose Hostel films feature young American holidaymakers in Europe being kidnapped and tortured by rich businessmen who have paid for the privilege. This sequel follows the formula of the first film, but Roth flips the gender, so this time we get to see attractive young women getting it in the neck rather than men. In the film's signature sequence, a naked Heather Matarazzo is hung from her ankles and then sliced apart by a scythe-wielding woman, who lies underneath her and bathes in her blood. All this scene does is push the envelope slightly in terms of the depiction of onscreen violence, but is that really a worthwhile endeavour? Roth doesn't appear to put any more thought into his film than that, and he displays no interest in or sympathy for his characters; they are there only to kill or be killed.

2 – Domino (Tony Scott, 2005)
Am I allowed to include a film I haven't watched all the way through? In the case of Domino, I've tried, I really have. On four separate occasions I have sat down to brave the full assault of Tony Scott's filmmaking, and on each occasion I have failed – the film is literally unwatchable. In the past decade, Scott has adopted a hyperactive visual and editing style that reached some kind of apotheosis with this biopic of bounty hunter Domino Harvey. Freeze-frames, onscreen captions, scenes replayed from multiple angles, garish lighting and editing so rapid and choppy you can barely make out what you're supposed to be looking at. In less frenetic hands, the story of Domino Harvey might have made a decent picture, but Scott simply pummels the audience with the worst case of visual excess since Oliver Stone's mid-90's heyday, and I can't take more than half an hour at a time before I have to admit defeat. The film is massively flawed at a structural level (the tone is all over the place) and the casting is off (Keira Knightly simply isn't up to the task), but I could have lived with those issues if the film gave me a chance. Maybe I'll get through it one day, but at the moment the score is Domino 4 Phil 0.

1 – The Village (M. Night Shyamalan, 2004)
My choice for the worst film of the decade is M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, which may be surprising. After all, I have praised the film's cinematography elsewhere in this series of articles, and you could justly argue that Shyamalan's subsequent films Lady in the Water and The Happening are even worse. You could also question whether a film that has been so classily made deserves to be ranked below some of the offensively slapdash works I have already mentioned, and you would again have a fair point. I include this film, however, because of the utter sense of betrayal its climax left me with, and the fact that it proved to be a turning point in my perception of Shyamalan. I had enjoyed The Sixth Sense well enough, but was slightly disappointed by both Unbreakable and Signs, the films he followed his breakthrough with. Even so, I still believed there was a talented filmmaker here, someone who enjoyed building suspense and took his time over the craft of filmmaking. The Village, however, is an awful film. Despite its pleasing aesthetic qualities, it is incredibly dull to watch, with the characters all talking portentously in hushed tones and the film dragging on at a deathly pace. The only thing Shyamalan has to hold our interest is the promise of a big reveal, that will explain the mystery that hangs over the film, but when that twist comes, it's a shocker. Shyamalan's explanation for the events of The Village makes no sense, undermining everything we have been watching for the past two hours, and we are hit by the infuriating realisation that all of this was simply a smoke and mirrors act, designed to keep us guessing until the director played his hand. Shyamalan's career has gone off the deep end since he made The Village, and he may well continue to make even worse films, but I doubt he'll ever make a picture I hate more.