On our last episode of The B-Movies Podcast (episode #22), William ‘Bibbs’ Bibbiani and I briefly gave a rundown of the best (and worst) movies of the year so far. This is an invaluable critical practice. You see, major film studios make the (perhaps correct, perhaps incorrect) assumption that film audiences, and especially film critics, have a really short memory, so they tend to backend their quality pictures to the end of the year, typically right at the end of December, when you’ll be more likely to remember it when it comes time to write your top-10 lists, or cast your ballots for the Academy Awards. And while this system is firmly in place, and it gives frothing film fans a chance to catalog and compare and argue all of the so-called “prestige” pictures that come out in December, it does, unfortunately, give short shrift to any of the films released earlier in the year; especially those released before July. So Bibbs and I encouraged you to remember films like Hesher, Le Quattro Volte, Rango, Super, and The Tree of Life when December rolls around.
But enough of the direct critical musing. Here’s something even more shocking to consider: every year professional critics (and some of the more active cinephiles) see literally hundreds of movies. Of those hundreds, only about 20 or 25 are very good, and only about 5 or 6 are really stellar (the numbers can, of course, shift from year to year, but this seems to be the average). There might be about a half dozen really awful films that are worth nothing as well, but that means the vast number of films consumed by the people are middle-of-the-road, completely mediocre, completely forgettable fluff. This is the bulk of Hollywood’s output. Films you won’t remember in a few months’ time.
In that spirit, Bibbs and I thought we’d extend our best-of-the-year-so-far and worst-of-the-year-so-far lists to include the most mediocre films of the year. The 2½ -star films. The films we saw, absorbed, perhaps even wrote about, and still had no capacity to retain. This is not to say that they’re bad movies. Far from it. Some are entertaining enough. But that’s just the thing: they do nothing to stand out. They’re like chewing gum for the brain. They taste good for a few brief moments, and then are spat out and discarded.
So far this year, I kinda remember seeing:
THE MECHANIC (dir. Simon West)
This was a sometimes intense and sometimes exciting action flick with the talented Ben Foster and the always awesome Jason Statham as a pair of hitmen, the former looking for a new path after the death of his father, and the latter as a by-the-rules badass who decides against his better judgment to train the other guy. I remember the acting being above-the-bar for an actioner like this, and there was one notable scene where a car drove into – and inside of – a bus (another critic marked it as “the turducken of action movies”), but aside from that, and a few mildly toxic homophobic scenes, The Mechanic was largely a disposable remake.
PAUL (dir. Greg Mottola)
Again, notable for the talent involved, and little else. The film was written by and starred Nick Frost and Simon Pegg (of Shaun of the Dead fame), and involved a pair of sci-fi-obsessed British nerds who have a run-in with an ancient alien (voiced by Seth Rogen), and purported to find a middle ground between science fiction as a fantasy outlet, and hard sci-fi as real speculation. The film was loaded with funny moments (the presence of comedians like Kristin Wiig and Joe LoTruglio certainly helped), but the entire tone felt… I dunno… a little off. Like Pegg and Frost didn’t know what direction they really wanted to go, so they went in many directions at once. Paul is but a footnote in the cult film roll-call that Pegg and Frost have graced us with to date.
UNKNOWN (dir. Jaume Collet- Sera)
I know many fans of 2009’s Taken who were looking forward to seeing Liam Neeson in yet another charge-about-Europe-leaving-a-trail-of-bodies-in-your-angry-frothing-wake action flick, and were disappointed to find this flat and not very interesting psychological thriller instead, involving a traveling botanist who finds that all of his previous compatriots (including his lovely wife) no longer remember him after he had been in a car wreck. None of the action scenes really stood out (I seem to recall a car driving very quickly away from a train in reverse), and none of the performances really gelled. I also recall that January Jones had to do some stretching, playing a double-cross sort of character, and only came across as bland as she typically does. Sigh.
FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:
I’ve said this before, and I’ve probably said it so many times that it’s burned into my larynx the same way that the ‘Comedy Central’ logo is burnt into my plasma screen television, but bad films aren’t so bad. Mediocre films, on the other hand, are annoying as hell. Bad films are hard to forget because bad movies tried to do something and failed, often miserably. In contrast, mediocre films erase themselves from your memory in a matter of days because they achieve only the most meager of goals. Base competence is arguably worse than failure, from an artistic perspective. From a burrito perspective, I’ll grant you, mediocre is better than stomach turning, but when it comes to art you want to be genuinely affected, even if hatred is the result.
That’s not to say that I’ll exert much energy defending G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Atlas Shrugged: Part One or Frank Miller’s The Spirit but in the long run I’ll probably exert more energy complaining about these turdburgers than speaking in any way about the movies I am about to list below. These are but a small sampling of the adequate but thoroughly forgettable movies I’ve sat through so far in 2011. There’s no honor in it, but I’ll also take this opportunity to mention such equally tolerable flicks as Miral, Cedar Rapids, Stake Land and, although Witney already covered it, The Mechanic.
SEASON OF THE WITCH (dir. Dominic Sena)
Nicolas Cage reunited with his ho-hum Gone in Sixty Seconds director Dominic Sena for this equally unremarkable genre exercise, and for the life of me I can’t imagine why. The merely passable, episodic script follows Cage and Ron Perlman and a couple of character actors who might as well wear red Star Trek shirts as they escort a witch to a monastery, stopping periodically to give exposition or fight unconvincing CGI wolves. The concept isn’t the worst I’ve ever heard, but it’s a pulpy fun idea that director Sena can’t seem to take pleasure in. Season of the Witch plays just seriously enough to ruin any entertainment value, but its mild competence makes the film difficult to truly hate. It just sits there, begging to be ignored like that condiment in the door of your refrigerator that you haven’t used in three years. Meh.
SCREAM 4 (dir. Wes Craven)
I’ve said on the record that Scream 4 is better than Scream 3. A glowing endorsement it was not. Scream 4 skillfully slices through its large ensemble cast but despite some excellent performers none of them get enough screen time for anyone to care. Compared to the expertly balanced first two films in the franchise Scream 4 just goes through the motions by presenting characters, killing them efficiently, and then moving on like they never mattered. Despite an obvious attempt to reinvigorate the franchise almost all the new cast members are dispatched with precision, leaving the film with almost nothing but old – and apparently immortal – standbys by the time the credits roll. Why did we bother then? And what starts out as a truly innovative twist ending swiftly turns yawningly conventional. Scream 4 was just nothing to scream about.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES (dir. Rob Marshall)
The first Pirates of the Caribbean was a great little thrill ride: clever, funny and action-packed. The first two sequels weren’t very good, awkwardly retconning throwaway lines from the original into confusing new plot points, but I’ll say this much in their defense: at least their problem was having too many ideas. Rob Marshall’s On Stranger Tides doesn’t have that problem. Surprisingly, I find myself wishing that it did. The fourth Pirates goes through the motions more often than a “Best of Matthew West” CD on repeat.* The story may be easier to follow but it’s also of no consequence whatsoever to Jack Sparrow, the only character we actually give a damn about, and the filmmakers mysteriously tried to replace bland hero Orlando Bloom with a boytoy so generic that I can’t even recall his name from my photographic memory. The best you can say about Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is that it’s competent. That’s the tautological definition of mediocrity right there.
*Had to Google Search “The Motions” to come up with that gag. Let me know if it works.
What movies from 2011 do you have trouble remembering?