Atlas Shrugged trilogy
Ayn Rand’s most enduring and longest work — a bloated corpse of an economics lecture dressed up as a novel — required three films to bring to the screen, each with increasingly tighter budget constraints. The films are set in a version of America where the government tightly regulates industry, redistributing wealth to unions and crippling the entrepreneurial spirit. Two titans of industry, Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden, fight the regulations on their businesses and eventually join other business leaders in a strike against the government.
Critics often rake Atlas Shrugged over the coals for the worldview it espouses, but even the most fanatical free market acolyte must cringe at the meandering dialogue, none of which is improved through the medium of film. Characters in Atlas Shrugged do not engage in dialogue; they speak in polemics, ranting about the virtues of unrestrained self-interest, as their ideological opponents stutter and fall to their knees. The films are like a recording of a high-school debate scored with trite orchestral music.
The Last Airbender
M. Night Shyamalan had already squandered his reputation as a visionary director by 2010 after a string of increasingly reviled films, but the zenith point came with The Last Airbender, a live-action adaptation of Nickelodeon’s popular (and beloved) animated series. The Last Airbender is set in a fantasy world where people are divided into tribes that can each control (“bend”) a different element: earth, water, fire, or air. The world is peaceful until the Fire Nation starts a war of global conquest, using its industrial infrastructure to overwhelm the other nations.
The show slowly immersed viewers in the politics and culture of its fantasy world, but the movie has only so much time. The result is a film overstuffed with meandering exposition and stilted dialogue — a turducken of bad writing. The actors can do nothing to make the script come alive; even Dev Patel’s petulant villain could be better played by a plank with a scowl drawn on it.
It almost seems unfair to include The Room on this list, both because every other film writer has already taken shots at it, but also because the film is strangely charming in a way few terrible films are. The Room was the passion project of director Tommy Wiseau, a mysterious auteur who also plays the lead role of Tommy. Beloved by seemingly everyone, Tommy is nonetheless the victim of an affair between his girlfriend Lisa and best friend Mark. The Room could have simply turned out like any of a million mediocre dramas, but mediocrity was not enough. The film somehow it manages to do everything inexplicably, beautifully wrong.
The dialogue is not merely bland, but bizarre. When, discussing work at a coffee shop, Tommy breezily changes the subject, asking Mark “Anyway, how is your sex life?” One cannot help but wonder if the script was assembled through Markov chains. Why does The Room feature no less than three sex scenes in its first 20 or so minutes? Why do the characters spend so many conversations tossing a football around? Why are there numerous sequences of what appears to be stock footage of San Francisco? We may never understand what led to these decisions, but the result is a film that, by doing basically everything wrong, somehow feels so right. This is a film everybody should watch, preferably with friends and some sort of strong beverage.
Imagine a film like Toy Story, except the toys are replaced with food mascots and the themes of friendship and aging replaced with grotesque, uninhibited product placement. Now stop, because you need not imagine it — such a movie basically exists. Foodfight! peeks into the secret life of food mascots and is set in a supermarket where an idyllic community of characters, including Charlie the Tuna and Twinkie the Kid, face invasion from a host of generic products decked out in Nazi imagery. The protagonist is Dex Dogtective (Charlie Sheen), a dog dressed like Dick Tracy, who is searching for his missing girlfriend, a raisin-peddling cat-lady named Sunshine Goodness (Hilary Duff).
Foodfight! languished in development for around a decade, yet it looks like something a student would cobble together for midterms after a week of popping molly. The film is hideous, poorly animated, and shameless in its product placement.
God’s Not Dead
God’s Not Dead is painful to sit through. The central conflict of the film is that Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), an evangelical Christian, enrolls in a philosophy course at his college, only to butt heads with the professor, Jeffrey Radisson (Kevin Sorbo). Smug and vindictive, Raddison is a militant atheist who demands that the students sign a pledge stating that “God is dead” in order to pass the class. When Josh refuses, Radisson offers him a test: prove that God is real via debate, or fail the class.
To call God’s Not Dead propaganda would make it seem more morally complex than it is; Frank Capra gave the Axis more credit than this film does atheists, or even other religions, for that matter. Every character in the film is either a Christian struggling to maintain their faith as society tries to beat it out of them, or an angry nonbeliever. Another advantage of actual propaganda: craftsmanship, which God’s Not Dead is sorely lacking. Given the staid direction and grocery-store lighting, the director seems to have had little idea of what to do beyond record the actors reading their lines.
What is the ugliest part of Battlefield Earth? Is it the horrendous makeup used for the alien Psychlos? The incessant use of Dutch angles? John Travolta’s piercing cackle? For those who have never seen Battlefield Earth, it is based on a novel by L. Ron Hubbard, one that depicts a world where humans have been enslaved by an alien race known as Psychlos. When the Psychlo security chief Terl (John Travolta) is condemned to remain at his post on Earth for the rest of his life, he plans to mine gold using humans, placing one of them, Jonnie (Barry Pepper), in a “learning machine” so he might better organize the workers. Instead, the newly-educated Jonnie launches a rebellion; the ensuing battles look like cutscenes from a C-tier ’90s video game. Poorly written, acted, and shot, Battlefield Earth is a delirious wreck of a movie.
Proving that the couple that stars together, bombs together, Gigli stars Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez — who were dating at the time — in a rom-com that is neither romantic nor funny (at least, not intentionally). The plot concerns one Larry Gigli (Affleck), a mobster who is tasked with kidnapping a prosecutor’s mentally challenged brother, Brian (Justin Bartha), with the help of a woman named Ricki (Lopez). Despite the fact that Ricki is a lesbian, she and Gigli fall in love, an improbable romance that involves — and I will avoid spoiling the context here — Ricki breathlessly uttering the line, “It’s turkey time. Gobble, gobble.”
The film has a few bright spots thanks to Al Pacino and Christopher Walken; the latter turns in one of his inexplicably compelling, stream of consciousness performances. In recent years, Affleck has reasserted himself as a talented director-actor with films like Argo; perhaps this string of great films is his way of atoning for this greatest sin of a movie. If so, he still has a few Hail Marys to go.
From Justin to Kelly
Having run for 15 years, American Idol was one of the most successful shows in television history, each season drawing millions of viewers to see hopeful singers perform anodyne covers of pop songs. The show was an institution, but buried beneath the floorboards is a dark secret: From Justin to Kelly. The film was a romantic musical produced and released hastily after the first season of American Idol concluded, and starred winner Kelly Clarkson and runner-up Justin Guarini. It takes place during spring break, where Kelly and Justin meet at a Florida beach and begin to fall in love, their romance threatened by Kelly’s jealous friend Alexa (Katherine Bayless).
Given how quickly the film followed on the heels of the first season — with roughly nine months between the season finale and the film’s release, this is perhaps the most grotesque birth in history — there was not much time to work out a script. That could be forgiven — many great musicals have simple stories — but even the spectacle is hollow. Much of the film is devoted to soulless musical numbers — the young folks of Fort Lauderdale robotically spin around as the stars belt out karaoke. The script is not helped by the fact that the two leads — who were trained as singers, not actors, and who had just finished trying to eliminate each other in a talent contest — have all the chemistry of a sock and a piece of stale bread.
Dragonball was a popular manga-anime series that followed a young boy named Goku, who uses martial arts and magic powers to travel the world, fighting villains and homing his skills. It was the type of story, filled with outlandish character designs, uniquely suited for a cartoon. It is hard to imagine anyone would try to make a live-action version. The call of money is powerful, however, and eventually led a studio to produce the misbegotten Dragonball: Evolution.
The movie reimagines Goku (Justin Chatwin) as an awkward teenager. Goku’s grandfather possesses an artifact known as a Dragonball, and one night the demon Lord Piccolo (James Marsters) kills him in an attempt to take it. Goku then embarks on a journey to find the other Dragonballs and stop Piccolo. The filmmakers seem to have decided that audiences would not relate to Goku’s epic journey to defeat a demonic warlord, so they gave him some high school bullies to deal with in the first act of the film. Dragonball’s kinetic and colorful action and characters come across as silly and embarrassing in this live-action film.
You might be surprised to learn that Christmas, one of the most popular holidays in the world, is in need of saving. Apparently it is, though, and Kirk Cameron is the man to save it. Not from atheists, though. The great threat against Christmas is, strangely, other Christians, who dislike the commercialism that has taken over the holiday. Yes, Saving Christmas argues that the true meaning of Christmas is spending money and throwing up lavish ornaments, rather than Puritanical values like togetherness or charity. After a bizarre opening scene in which Cameron lectures the viewer on his love of Christmas and hot cocoa, the film begins for real, as Cameron arrives at a family Christmas party, where he learns that his brother-in-law Christian (Darren Doane) — so-named because subtlety is deader than Marley’s ghost — is refusing to celebrate because he views Christmas as a pagan holiday that has hijacked his religion.
Like God’s Not Dead, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas is intended to teach the audience through one-sided dialogues, as Kirk eviscerates Christian’s arguments. The film also shows a weak grasp on filmmaking techniques; it feels like the film is 70 percent close-up shots. At times, the film also abandons the family dramedy narrative for lengthy documentary segments in which Cameron explains his Biblical arguments for things like Christmas trees.
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