Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Power Of Ironically Good Movies

In 1973, Toho Studios released Jun Fukuda’s fourth installment in the Godzilla franchise, “Godzilla vs. Megalon,” which was a reflection of Fukuda’s feelings on the recent underground nuclear testing in the United States, as well as the continued theme in the Godzilla franchise of the horrors that come with nuclear bombs and atomic testing.
The problem with “Godzilla vs. Megalon” though, was that Fukuda decided to show these terrors by having the people who were affected by the underground tests look like rejects from the cast of “Cats.” In retaliation, the underground people are going to unleash their giant cockroach monster that has drills for hands to destroy the world (which means just Tokyo).
“Godzilla vs. Megalon” is a classic example of a movie that attempts to take its themes seriously. However, through poor execution of those themes and head-scratching decisions, such as including the addition of a size-changing robot who looks like Jack Nicholson, the film often ends up causing more laughter than acclaim. 
These types of films are often referred to by film critics as “so bad, they’re good” or ironically good movies. They differ from good movies, like the simple yet engaging “Jaws” (1975), as well as terrible movies, like the unfulfilling and emotionless “Transformers” (2007). In a way, they fall into a third category of movies that are neither good nor bad, yet are both at the same time.
“I see so many movies that are so self-importantly serious that I tend to enjoy the diversity,” said Dan Webster, co-host of “Movies 101” and film critic. “I've had the occasion to sit through films that actually made my mouth drop open they were so ... I'm not even sure I would describe them as bad because they were so far past bad they actually existed in an alternate aesthetic.”

Ironically good movies will often have elements in common. They are badly made works which missed the filmmakers’ original intent. At the same time, or even perhaps because of these films suck-etude, the audience can’t help but laugh at how incompetent and ridiculous the film is. They are enjoying the film, despite it being complete garbage.

“The main thing that separates a “so bad, it’s good” film from a film that’s simply bad is, I think, a singular artistic vision,” said film critic Nathan Weinbender. “More often than not, there has to be some deranged captain at the helm of the operation whose sheer hubris drives him to visualize his bad idea, no matter how misguided it may be. And in order for a movie to be enjoyed ironically, there can be absolutely no irony present in its conception. We feel like we’re in on a joke that the very maker of the film is not.”

For Webster, the key example of ironically good filmmaking is Werner Herzog’s 2009 film, “Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call,” starring the champion of ridiculous acting, Nicholas Cage. Webster found scenes in the film that were so absurd in both the story line and logic that he couldn’t help but laugh out loud, such as Cage threatening to shoot two old women in a hospital, simply because they looked at him strangely.

“I laughed in enjoyment because I was pretty certain, at some point, that Herzog knew what he was doing,” said Webster. “If he didn't? Well, that works, too. In any event, the feel of the film was more important than the actual film itself. And I loved it.”

What makes films like “Godzilla vs. Megalon” and “Bad Lieutenant” ironically enjoyable is the common thread among all ironically good movies: unintentional humor.

“Great camp can’t be forced, so when you’re making a terrible film intentionally, it’s not funny,” said Weinbender. “If the people making the movie knew they were making a bad movie, where’s the fun in that?”

By luring the audience into thinking that the film will be about something else, normally something rather serious or gritty, ironically good movies end up catching the audience off guard by performing actions that the viewer wouldn’t expect, like Godzilla sliding on his tail to drop-kick a monster from more than a mile away. 

Most people would not expect to see that at any point in their lifetime, whether in film or not. A monster who once stood for the horrors of the nuclear bomb is now using his tail like a Slip-and-Slide to attack a giant cockroach, when he also had atomic fire breath at his disposal. Because these actions are often so ridiculous, it’s all but impossible to view the film which wishes to be taken seriously as anything more than a joke.

“While there are those concoctions that revel in computer graphics advancements or unlikely casting conquests, the best bad movies are the ones with purposely serious moments that are so insincere, quite accidentally, that they're hilarious,” said Mike Massie, head film critic of

It is also this distinction that separates ironically good movies from bad movies. 

“It's important to deal somehow with humor here,” said Webster. “Bad films that make you grimace are just bad. Bad films that make you laugh out loud at their badness are things that we want to share with our friends, usually over drinks.”
Yet, it is important to keep the differences between ironically good movies and regular good movies in mind. In this case, the difference is with quality filmmaking. Howard Hawks, director of films such as “Bringing Up Baby,” “Red River” and “The Big Sleep,” once said that a good film needs at least three great scenes and no bad scenes, which is something no ironically good movie can accomplish.
Almost all examples of ironically good films are inadequately written, poorly performed and often come off like the director didn’t know what he was doing or what he was trying to say.
However, ironically good movies can be enjoyed by others for many of the same reasons as a comedy. The only difference between the two types of films being the filmmakers intentions. Comedies are attempting to be amusing on purpose. Ironically good films seem to be doing it by complete accident.

“Ironically good movies are almost never made intentionally,” said Massie. Inevitably, filmmakers will continue to fail in bewitching new ways, giving birth to further hordes of terrible yet altogether amusing entities. In the world of film criticism, viewing “good” bad movies is commonly more fun than seeing accomplished, dramatic works.”

Tom Mullin, an Eastern Washington University film professor, believes that ironically good films can be enjoyed for multiple reasons. One way is how “Rocky Horror Picture Show” became a cult hit as a result of popular opinion being expressed in the media or by opinion leaders. Another reason is through nostalgia and people associating movies with certain memories. 

“If we stop and think, we know the movies are often bad in all these scenarios,” said Mullin. “It is not the movie that becomes good, it's the desire to be cool [and] to wallow in nostalgia... Down deep we know many of these films are not good. We just want to believe our enjoyment is good.”

For these reasons, there are many different kinds of ironically good movies, ranging from the cheap and old fashion “Manos: The Hands Of Fate” to the Alfred Hitchcock-tribute turned sour “Birdemic: Shock & Terror.”

“I do believe that ironically good movies will always be made and will always find an audience,” said film critic Chris Pandolfi. “I think it has already been proven that ironically good movies are a viable market. There are countless numbers of conventions held annually for movies like that, and low-grade horror and sci-fi movies have been presented by horror hosts on television for decades, either locally or nationally, like Vampira and Elvira. Furthermore, the home video industry is still in full swing, and although they’re not as common as they once were, there are still midnight movie theaters.”

The variety of ironically good movies is baffling, encompassing nearly every type of film genre, with no two movies being the same. Each one fails and succeeds on its own merits, and they all beg to be seen just to help the viewer understand how bad filmmaking can get.

“Like cultivated masterpieces, it usually takes a bit of luck to wind up with something really special,” said Massie. “When that happens, audiences will continue to recognize and appreciate those that are so bad they’re good.”

List of the Best Ironically Good Movies 

- “The Wicker Man” (2006) - The shining example of Nicholas Cage’s ridiculous acting style and how far one man will go to never be taken seriously again.
- “The Room” (2003) - If there was ever a contender for the most unintentionally hilarious actor against the Cage Rage, it would be Tommy Wiseau in his only acting role (so far). 
- “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1959) - You know it’s a bad sign when someone you’ve probably never heard of directs, writes and produces the entire film on his own money.
- “Birdemic: Shock & Terror” (2008) - In an age of CG and advanced technology, even films that came out in the 1910’s look more dignified than this film.
- “Ghost Rider: The Spirit Of Vengeance” (2012) - Nic Cage returns in an unnecessary sequel with even more mugging for the camera and audience at home.
- “Showgirls” (1995) - More than ten years in the making, never has a film taken so much time and turn out so laughably bad.
- “Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky” (1991) - By the end of this film, most viewers will want to know more about how this happened, rather than why it happened.
- “”Manos”: The Hands Of Fate” (1966) - For those unaware, “Manos” is Spanish for “Hands.” Thus, the title in English is “Hands: The Hands Of Fate.” The film is already off to a great start.
- "Troll 2" (1991) - You would think the film would be about trolls...except there isn't a single troll in the film. Instead, it's about a dysfunctional family going on a vacation in the woods. Fun times are had by all.
- "Battlefield Earth" (2001) - This was suppose to be the film that would get people to take Scientology seriously and it backfired like a cannon full of chicken feathers.
- Nearly any movie featured on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” - The tag-line of the show should be “Watch us rip apart the worst movies of all time!”

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Seeing Is Believing #2 - "Ikiru"

What would you do if your doctor said you only had six months left to live? Would you spend it with family and friends? How about doing everything you’ve always wanted to do, but never could? Or would you attempt one last meaningful act that others would remember you for?

This is the dilemma for Kanji Watanabe, the middle-aged protagonist of the 1952 Japanese film “Ikiru.” It is also the driving force behind why “Ikiru” is a film everyone should watch at some point in their lives.

In Post-World War II Japan, Kanji Watanabe is the head bureaucrat of Tokyo City Hall. His job entails sending the same cases back and forth through other offices that ultimately come back to him. Nothing ever gets done. Watanabe has held this position for 30 years, and has never missed a day. 

“He just drifts through life,” the narrator describes. “In fact, he’s barely alive.”

After a few days of stomach pains, Watanabe visits his doctor, only to find out he has gastric cancer and has roughly six months to live.

Watanabe, not sure what to do with his life, drifts aimlessly through the city. His impending demise only serves to remind Watanabe that he’s done nothing with his life. No worthwhile memories or achievements. Nobody to remember him for who he really was. Even his only son thinks of him as a source of money, rather than someone with emotions and feelings.

“I just can’t die,” said Watanabe. “I don’t know what I’ve been living for all these years.”

He runs into a novelist at a bar, who takes Watanabe to Tokyo’s Red Light District, in the hopes of finding happiness. They go to pachinko bars, dance clubs, a strip show and even hook up with a few ladies of the night. By the end, Watanabe still feels empty and without purpose.

It isn’t until Watanabe is found by a young female coworker that things change. He’s happy around her, because of her optimism on life. She wants to leave the bureaucrat business to work for a toy company, because knowing the toys she makes put smiles on children’s faces gives her purpose.

She tells Watanabe, “Why don’t you try making something too?” 

Suddenly, there’s a flicker of light in his eye. A smile comes across his face. “It’s not too late,” says Watanabe, as he rushes out of the restaurant to pursue one last meaningful act before he dies.

“Ikiru” is directed by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who also directed “Rashomon” (1950), and the influential films “Seven Samurai” (1954) and “The Hidden Fortress” (1958). While “Ikiru” does not contain a samurai, the film’s message and meaning are just as powerful today as they were in 1952. 

We all strive to have purpose in our lives, and to ultimately be remembered long after we have departed this world. That our actions can be seen by others decades after we have turned to dust, and for those people to picture someone whose life meant something. 

“How tragic that man can never realize how beautiful life is until he is face to face with death,” says the novelist.

The emotional core of “Ikiru” lies here, and its something that I believe everyone on the face of the earth can relate to and understand. No matter your ethnicity, age or gender, there is something in “Ikiru” for everyone to latch onto. We are all like Kanji Watanabe. We seek meaning and fulfillment. We fear death and what it will bring about. We strive to make our lives matter.

I first watched “Ikiru” during my freshman year of college in 2008. I had just begun to gain an appreciation for films, and could hardly tell the difference between great films, like “Jaws” (1975), and terrible films, like “Transformers” (2007). As “Ikiru” unfolded before my eyes, I saw a film that went to an entirely new level of storytelling and filmmaking that I didn’t know existed. Few films have reached that same level.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Brave Vs. Wreck-It Ralph

At the most recent Academy Awards, the one award that stuck out the most to me was Best Animated Feature Film. Going into the awards, I was certain that either “Wreck-It Ralph” or “Paranorman” was going to win that award. Much to my surprise, it was given to Pixar’s “Brave”.

The reason this award strikes me as so odd is rather simple: That award deserves to go to the best, most well made animated film of that year, and I do not think “Brave” was that movie.

First off, “Brave” is an alright movie. It looks beautiful and the film manages to capture the best of Scotland.  The relationship between the main character and her mother is one of the better relationships between family members that I’ve seen in quite a while, managing to capture both the love and hate that comes with a family. Both of these are highlights of the film for me.

However, the immediate downside to the film is the story and mostly how it feels like I’ve seen it hundreds of times before and that it doesn’t try anything new. It’s the story of how a girl hates her life, makes a wish to change it, things go bad and she ultimately realizes her mistakes, that her life wasn’t really that bad and then there’s a struggle to fix it. It’s a classic Disney story, similar to films like “The Little Mermaid.”

I wouldn’t have a problem with the story if they actually tried to do something new and creative with its unoriginal story idea. The problem is that it doesn’t really try. It feels just like any other Disney princess movie, except that now it’s in Scotland. It would be like if you combined “How to Train Your Dragon” with “Brother Bear.”

To me, “Brave” screams an okay movie. It’s certainly not bad, but there are problems that hold it back. And it certainly doesn’t deserve the best animated feature film Oscar.

Why? Because I found that “Wreck-It Ralph” was, overall, a more well-put together movie. “Wreck-It Ralph” had some of the most imagination and creativity I’ve seen from any movie in a long time. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a film quite like “Wreck-It Ralph” in terms of taking its environment and using everything that you could possibly imagine with it. I walked out of “Wreck-It Ralph” with a huge smile on my face, because this film brought the kid in me. It reminded me of a time where I would try to make creative situations out of the toys at my disposal and just to use my imagination to come up with the fun moments I would have as a kid. “Wreck-It Ralph” does this so many times with its video game environments that it’s hard not to crack a smile at the Diet Coke and Mentos Mountain of doom or the Oreo guards.

Whereas, when I walked out of “Brave,” my thoughts were of how I certainly enjoyed myself, but I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about what I just saw. To me, this speaks volumes of how much better “Wreck-It Ralph” is over “Brave”. What you take away from the film is one of the most important aspects of analyzing a film. When you’re doing watching it, how do you feel? What emotions does this conjure up for you? Good emotions or bad emotions? Did it stir up any emotions at all?

I’ve also heard fantastic things about “Paranorman,” but haven’t seen it myself. I’ve made it a policy to no judge a film I haven’t seen, so I have no opinion on “Paranorman.” All I know is that lots of people loved it and how it was able to celebrate and satirize horror films all at the same time.

But here’s my point: While “Brave” was more of the classic story that most people would expect from Disney and animated films in general, “Wreck-It Ralph” knew that it was an animated film and took advantage of that to its fullest potential. The film did everything it could with its video game feel and environments. That’s enough for me to say that “Wreck-It Ralph” was a better film than “Brave.”

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Seeing Is Believing #1 - "The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre"

No matter how much we learn and try, humans beings often end up making the same moral mistakes and end up falling into the same holes repeatedly. The Seven Deadly Sins are probably the best example of this. We can try our whole lives to be the moral and goodhearted people we possibly know, yet we will often fall pray to things like pride, envy, lust or even greed.

Have you ever wanted something so bad that you’d be willing to do anything to get it? Congratulations, you just experienced a feeling of greed. Granted, most people feel this way when they’re young and desire a new toy or their favorite box of cereal, even though their mother says it’s bad for them. What if you were an American living in 1920s Mexico, shortly after the Mexican Revolution, and you have little more than the clothes on your back?

This is the dilemma of three down-and-out characters in John Huston’s 1948 film “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre.” These three characters are Fred C. Dobbs, an American who can’t catch a break played by Humphrey Bogart, Bob Curtin, a more happy-go-lucky type played by Tim Holt, and Howard, an experienced grizzled and old prospector played by Walter Huston (as in the director’s father).

The film starts in a bustling Mexican city, where Dobbs asks every American he can find to pay for his next meal, which ends up being the same guy three different times. Dobbs ends up mostly buying things like a trip to the barber shop and as much whiskey as he can get his hands on. By the end of the day, he’s flat broke again and finds Curtin at a homeless shelter. 

The next day, Dobbs and Curtin find work helping a “wealthy” Texan build houses. When it comes time for the Texan to pay up, he bails out and refuses to pay a cent to anyone. Dobbs and Curtin find this man in a bar and pulverize the man to get the money that was coming to them. 

The problem is, now they have no idea what to do. They’re surely going to be reported to the police and they’d run out of their money eventually. Suddenly, a stroke of golden fortune hits them, when they recall talking to an old coot in the shelter about an area not too far away that was nearly untouched and had gold as far as they eye could see.

Dobbs and Curtin find Howard back in the shelter and all three put up all of their money to buy the necessary supplies, food, water, mules and guns to go hunting for the treasure of a lifetime in the high mountains of the Mexican terrain. 

One of the main draws to this film is its portrayal of how much greed and paranoia will effect a man’s mind and soul. At the beginning of the film, Fred Dobbs seems like an average relatable guy. He’s in a difficult situation by being an American in a town full of people who just finished a revolution and don’t want to associate with outsiders.

“Some town to be broke in,” says Dobbs. “You know, if I was a native, I'd get me a can of shoe polish and I'd be in business. They'd never let a gringo. You can sit on a bench 'til you're three-quarters can beg from another can even commit burglary. You try shinin' shoes in the street, peddlin' lemonade out of a bucket, and your hash is settled. You'll never get another job from an American.”

As the film progresses towards the mountains, Dobbs becomes more relatable as bandits try to rob the train and begins to boast about how many of them he shot down, while Curtin remains rather unaffected by the whole ordeal and Howard just moves on like nothing happened.

It isn’t until the signs of gold start to appear that Dobbs takes a turn for the worst. After their first full day of work, he immediately asks to start splitting the gold into three even piles, and that each man should be responsible for his own stash, including hiding it from the other two.

“This is the country where the nuggets of gold are just crying out for you to take them out of the ground and make 'em shine in coins on the fingers and necks of swell dames,” says Dobbs.

The man that was relatable at the beginning of the movie has turned into a twisted greedy and sort of evil caricature of his former self.

“I think I'll go to sleep and dream about piles of gold getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” says Dobbs. 

The thing that suddenly makes the film a bit more scary and intense is that Dobbs transformation into this monster is realistic and feels like it could happen to someone if they were put in similar situations. Nearly anyone would do the same thing to get that much gold and be set for the rest of their natural lives. It’s the impulsive need within all of us to be greedy.

The scene that personifies this feeling is when one of the three gold hunters has to go into a nearby town for supplies, but none of them are willing to go, especially Dobbs. He’s afraid that if he goes, he’ll be gone for a few days, giving the other two ample time to find his stash of gold. Howard points out that he should take his gold with him then, but then Dobbs becomes paranoid about the lurking murderous bandits nearby and that the gold would only give them more of a reason to rob him.

“If you was to run into bandits, you'd be out of luck anyway. They'd kill you for the shoes on your feet,” says Howard.

Dobbs replies with, “Oh, so that's it. Everything's clear now. You're hoping bandits will get me. That would save you a lot of trouble, wouldn't it? And your consciences wouldn't bother you none, neither.”

Critics often regard Fred C. Dobbs as one of Humphrey Bogart’s best roles, which has tough competition from other classic Bogart films, such as “The Maltese Falcon,” “In A Lonely Place,” “The African Queen” and “Casablanca.”

Eleanor Quin of Turner Classic Movies describes Bogart’s performance as, “[A]n opportunity to shed his suave leading man image created seven years prior in The Maltese Falcon. His character undergoes a moral metamorphosis - from a congenial, average guy to a murderous monster gripped by paranoia.”

By the end of the film, Dobbs reflects on some of the terrible actions he has done to get the gold that he feels rightfully belongs to him, leading to a soliloquy that Roger Ebert believes is up there with many things William Shakespeare wrote. 

“Conscience. What a thing,” says Dobbs. “If you believe you got a conscience it'll pester you to death. But if you don't believe you got one, what could it do t'ya? Makes me sick, all this talking and fussing about nonsense.”

“The Treasure Of The Sierra Made” is a film that John Huston wanted to work on personally since 1941, but because of World War II, it had to be put on hold until after Huston returned from the war. Upon returning, Huston almost immediately flew down to Mexico and wanted to film nearly the entire movie on set, much to the dismay of Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers, who has funding the movie. It also didn’t help that the film went way over budget, costing more than three million dollars by the end and took much longer to film than it was expected to. 

Yet Warner was still willing to let Huston continue to make the film his way, mostly because he trusted Huston as a director and because he believed that what they were making was “definitely the greatest motion picture we have ever made."

While it took more than twelve years to make the film, the result was a film with diverse yet interesting characters, a tight and focus story with a crisp and realistic approach, balanced and superb acting from the three main cast members and a message that spoke directly to the human condition of greed and paranoia. That year at the Academy Awards, Walter Huston won the award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Howard, John Huston won for Best Director and Best Screenplay, making it the only year in Academy Award history where a father and son both won awards on the same night.

When I first watched “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre,” I wasn’t entirely impressed by it. As time went on, I began to appreciate the subtly and underlying tones and themes of the film, as well as the well-written dialogue throughout the film. It was very pleasant to hear and came off very naturally and powerful.

“A thousand men, say, go searchin' for gold. After six months, one of them's lucky: one out of a thousand,” says Howard. “His find represents not only his own labor, but that of nine hundred and ninety-nine others to boot. That's six thousand months, five hundred years, scramblin' over a mountain, goin' hungry and thirsty. An ounce of gold, mister, is worth what it is because of the human labor that went into the findin' and the gettin' of it,”

Ultimately, there is something for everyone to enjoy in “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre,” wether its the action and suspense throughout, the witty dialogue, the fantastic acting from Bogart and Huston, or the underlying message of how greed can turn respectable and regular people into psychotic and crazy monsters.

“I know what gold does to men’s souls,” says Howard. By the end of the film, you will know what it does as well.