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We all know what a mediocre, likely forgettable film looks and sounds like. They more often than not make back their budget, get lukewarm reviews, occasionally entertain but ultimately leave a sour taste in the mouth, sometimes disappointingly.
But sometimes said films, whether they be popcorn fodder or absurd escapism folly, offer just a little extra, in the form of vital lessons to be taken into superior efforts. They can, it seems, provide a silver lining. Here are some examples.
Predators Teaches Us That Adrien Brody Is an Unlikely Badass
While it may be full of winking in-universe references and generally adventurous action stunts and set pieces, Nimrod Antal’s Predators proved to be a fairly underwhelming and generally unsuccessful attempt to breathe life back into the Predator franchise after the gag reflex testing Alien Vs Predator films.
And fans of the first two movies were downright puzzled when a testosterone fuelled combat carnage deathmatch movie was cast. The first two names out of the hat were neurotic indie actors Adrien Brody and Topher Grace. Despite being the youngest recipient of the Best Actor Oscar, Brody hadn’t really pushed out the boat much since, particularly not into the realms of the ‘aliens killing humans killing aliens’ niche.
So it’s quite a pleasant surprise that, as the main man, Brody is actually the film’s main attraction, beefed up and gravelly in voice, a millions miles away from his image. Some even went as far as to say that he was a more convincing soldier than Schwarzenegger in the original. Rough hew, Brody both looks the part and also plays well into the anti-hero mould, never quite a ‘good guy’, always interesting.
If there’s one thing you can take out of Predators, it’s that Brody has a wholly different skill set to play with that we never knew about.
Southland Tales Teaches Us That Richard Kelly Needs Lithium
Rarely has there been such a huge lapse in quality and clamor between a Director’s first and second film. Richard Kelly, mastermind behind 2000’s surprise hit Donnie Darko, made avid fans wait five years for his next project, the complex Southland Tales. And when it did arrive, it did not fare well.
Slammed upon release at Cannes, prompting a hasty recut and distribution hell, the film proved to be irredeemable and was promptly destroyed by film reviewers everywhere, citing its indecipherable plot and confusing imagery and symbolism. Starring a cast of B movie wonders, teen comedy drones and Saturday Night Live alumni, Southland Tales attempts to weave a near future ensemble noir tale amid biblical references and a rethinking of the apocalypse, all to no avail.
The beauty in Donnie Darko is that, although there is a labyrinth, pseudo-sci-fi backdrop about time travel and wormholes, it’s mostly a backdrop and allegory for growing pains and adolescent angst. In following this up, Kelly ramps up the mythology and neglects the foreground characters, resulting in a baffling main plot and unreserved, baffling scenes with no sense or relevance. We get to see Justin Timberlake performing a musical routine to the tune of The Killers’ ‘All These Things I’ve Done’, and never find out why it happened. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Sean William Scott at various points play the role of a Messiah. Kevin Smith plays the world’s least likely revolutionary leader.
Sadly, there is some great stuff to be found in Southland Tales, and it’s clear that Kelly has more imagination than is probably healthy, but without restraint there is simply too much in the film, everything thrown into a boiling pot of confusion and round pegs in square holes. Luckily Kelly has since shown a more responsible side with The Box, only marginally better a film. What comes next may rely heavily on medication dosage.
Black Hawk Down Teaches Us That Incessant Moralizing Cuts No Ice
Undoubtedly, the ‘battle of Mogadishu’ is a story worth telling. This was the disastrous 1991 raid conducted by US Rangers and Delta Force operatives, an attempt to capture a group of local militia leaders which mutated into a grueling siege. With Ridley Scott on the case (more on him later), the battle was dramatized as a 2 ½ hour long, spectacular war movie named Black Hawk Down, with an all star cast, including Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Tom Sizemore (back when he had a career) and William Fichtner, among others.
So far, so good. And as you would expect from Scott, it looks spectacular, the battle scenes are both thrilling and haunting, and Hans Zimmer is in fine form with a great score. But the issue is translating such aesthetic, bullet laden form into a human story, one which should be obvious and breathe out of the film with every death and injury picked up in a fruitless, meaningless struggle.
Except, that is, when the film pauses for five minutes at a time in order to have characters deliver impromptu, inappropriate morality-of-warfare speeches.
Over the course of the film, Hartnett, Bana, Sam Shepard and Jason Isaacs are given these monologues, which at times resemble sound bites you’d expect to find on an army recruitment pamphlet. Everything goes quiet for long enough for one of the hardened grunts to eulogize about why they’re fighting, that they’re all in it together, that they bleed and take bullets to the butt cheeks because of loyalty to the man next to them.
Simply put, they don’t work, and come off as an attempt to justify the regrettable death toll of the mission. Dialogue in war films is a hard thing to pull off, and Black Hawk Down confirms that such ‘epic’ verbal displays of heroism and valor are just as empty and ineffectual as a tragic war film with no soul.
Smokin’ Aces Teaches Us That Joe Carnahan Is More Effective With No Money
Considering that 2012’s The Grey is highly anticipated, with all sorts of sweet talk coming out of previews from critics, it seems that Joe Carnahan is going back to the hard boiled, emotionally charged roots which made his name. In other words, Narc.
Carnahan caught many an eye with his searing, brutal and powerful cop movie in 2002, working on a shoe string which resulted in more producers than speaking parts and Jason Patric and Ray Liotta surrendering their wages. After a failed venture with Tom Cruise on Mission Impossible: 3 (before JJ Abrams won the gig), Carnahan came up with Smokin’ Aces, a no hold barred action thriller about one mob snitch, a handful of assassins and the FBI agents protecting him.
It was an extravagant, patchy and uneven damp squib, with too many plot twists, long, winding subplots and scarce actual fighting. A plethora of wasted characters, story strands and an anti-climax ensued, an occasionally interesting mess. It seemed that, armed with a big budget, Carnahan didn’t know what to do with himself or his movie.
And there’s the crux. While The A-Team had more focus, it was also set out as a silly and over the top fizzer. Smokin’ Aces, a creature original to Carnahan himself, showed a lack of purpose. While Narc sizzled, Aces burned. The moral of the story, it seems, is that some directors need limitations to hit their peak, and this is particularly clear with Carnahan.
Robin Hood Teaches Us That Ridley Scott Doesn’t Care About Acting
If there’s one thing to expect going into a Ridley Scott film, it’s that you’re gonna get a feast for the eyes, whether it be sweeping visuals, beautiful cinematography or intricately constructed action. On all three counts, Robin Hood succeeds, but it fails in most others, for a few notable reasons.
The script, a hasty reconstruction by Brian Helgeland, based on a completely different original screenplay for a completely different kind of film, reeks of desperation, inconsistent and brimming with bland dialogue, which grants no favors for the actors on show. But this is compounded by the fact that the director seems to have no interest in his charges.
Russell Crowe seems to have become to Scott what Johnny Depp is to Tim Burton, a go-to actor and close friend when a leading role needs filling. And, with no real direction or wisdom to share, Scott allows the renegade Aussie to flit between accents and moods with no pattern, delivering an uneven, distracting performance without discipline. There are similar roles played out by William Hurt, who seems bored with the material, a hopelessly miscast Oscar Isaac, and the supporting trio of Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes and Alan Doyle, Crowe’s buddies. It appears that nobody was checking the dailies or paying attention to the performances. Only Mark Strong and Eileen Atkins emerge with any degree of pride.
The seeds were sown by Orlando Bloom’s casting in Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, giving an epic story a hero with no charisma (ironically, in a role earmarked for….yep, you guessed it, Crowe). And in Robin Hood, it’s hard enough to follow the patchy and needlessly convoluted plot without the added struggle of watching a bunch of actors milling around in confusion in the foreground.
But at least it looks good.