Category Archives: What the Hell Was That?

What the Hell Was That? – Catwoman (2004)

For the longest time, one of the toughest shells to crack in the film industry was finding that breakthrough superhero movie that centered on a female heroine.  The struggle to make it work shouldn’t have been that hard, considering the wealth of fantastic female characters in all sorts of media, but Hollywood itself has unnecessarily been hedging their bets a little too much over the years.  The problem has been rooted in the fact that the industry still holds on to the out-dated notion that male and female audiences value different things when it comes to cinema.  Sure, there are films that only cater to audiences of certain genders and are made specifically with the purpose of hitting those demographics.  But there is a sizable audience in between that can appreciate one or the other.  There are a lot of men who like romantic, feminine centered dramas or comedies, and there more than enough women who enjoy a good action film.  Comic books find that the same is true.  I know plenty of women who love comic books just as much as men do, and the comic book industry has it’s fair share of female artists and writers who are making an impact on their own.  It’s not a boys only world as much as Hollywood seems to think it is.  So, why has it taken this long for Hollywood to actually invest in a superhero movie with a woman at it’s center?  It largely comes down to not having enough faith in the audience, political timidity, and a lack of understanding about the comic book medium in general.  But, most of all, it’s a perspective that’s driven by money, and the mistaken belief that female superheroes are not marketable the same way that their male counterparts are.

That’s all about to change with the long awaited release of DC’s Wonder Woman.  Not only is the movie expected to have a strong opening weekend, but the film is also earning rave reviews; which given DC’s track record up to now, is really unexpected and pleasantly reassuring.  Finally, we have a movie centered around a female superhero that actually lives up to the potential of the character, and doesn’t feel like a cynical ploy by the studio to appeal to a target audience.  It’s an earnest adaptation of a long established superhero, treated with the same care and respect as would be devoted to her male peers.  And it’s long overdue.  The reason why I think that this new Wonder Woman movie is succeeding, more than anything, is because of the lack of cynicism.  You can look at the movie and see that it was made with the best of intentions by it’s filmmakers, and not as an obligation nor as a grand statement.  She gets her own story told the way that suits her character the best, and because she’s on an equal footing with Batman and Superman, her story gets the same treatment.  That’s something that even the recent Superman and Batman reboots haven’t been able to achieve, so it’s a real testament to the character and her fan-base that such a success could be possible.  But, Wonder Woman‘s road to reality has been a shaky one, and there have been a lot of other failed attempts to bring a feminine presence to the superhero genre.  Of all of them, none managed to mismanage a female heroine worse than 2004’s Catwoman, a mind-boggling misfire that not only ruined an iconic character, but also completely dismantled any progress towards successful female driven action films for some time, and is a prime example of the very cynical approach by Hollywood that Wonder Woman sought to avoid.

To call Catwoman a superhero movie is doing a disservice to the genre.  It bears no redeeming value as either a comic book adaptation nor as an action movie in general.  Even it’s roots in the source comics is non existent.  There’s no way you can look at it and see it as anything other than a cynical attempt to reach an audience that the studio clearly didn’t understand.  But, why did this movie become ever come into existence in the first place.  It was a long, windy road called “development hell” that led to a monstrosity like this.  After Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) brought a revised version of the character to the big screen, people began to show interest in her appeal as a cinematic icon once again.  Though Batman Returns received a mixed reaction from audiences and critics alike, Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance as the feline villainess was highly praised.  So much goodwill came Catwoman’s way that talk immediately started of a spinoff movie centered around her.  Unfortunately, even after receiving the green-light from Warner Brothers, the project languished for years, with both Burton and Pfeiffer dropping out of involvement and several rewrites and revisions being made to various script drafts over the years,  Eventually, the project dropped into the lap of a French visual effects producer named simply Pitof, who managed to land then recent Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry into the title role.  So, a long gestating film project finally got off the ground, but as we would soon learn, it was a project that probably should’ve been scrapped long ago.  It released into theaters in the summer of 2004 to almost universal derision.  People across the board hated it; critics, comic book fans, casual fans, and especially female fans.  For many, this wasn’t just a misfire, but a betrayal; to both a beloved character and to their hope of a successful movie that centered around a female super hero.

First of all, I would just like to point out how badly this film fails as a movie in general.  It is an ugly movie to look at, and represents many of the unnecessary excess that usually defined films of that era.  In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, we saw a lot of fresh new filmmakers experimenting with some of the new technology that was being made available.  That’s why you would see a lot of Hollywood films in this transition period of time using excessive amounts of CGI to make what they perceived as “cooler” and more exciting action scenes.  Unfortunately, not everything can be The Matrix (1999), and what we saw from this era was a lot of unappetizing eye candy.  Catwoman was a perfect example of that, with action scenes brought to incomprehensibility thanks to poor direction and obviously artificial visual effects used as a way to patch up the shoddiness of it all.  The film is notorious for how bad the CGI looks in several scenes, to the point where it’s clear that the Catwoman on screen is just a digital model and not the actress herself.  Other movie at the time did a far better job of switching between real people and digital stand ins when called for in a effects driven scene (the Lord of the Rings movies for example), but there’s nothing seamless here.  The movie even makes the mistake of getting up and close to the digital models, showing how not real they really are.  In addition, director Pitof uses a distracting soft focus throughout the movie, making everything feel texture-less.  It’s garish and unflattering, especially on the actors faces, and makes just sitting through the movie a chore.  And, like a lot of other pot-Matrix movies, the movie makes you all to aware of it’s film-making style.  Not a single scene in this movie is framed naturally, with dutch angles, slow-motion photography, and extreme lighting ruling much of the cinematography here.  Thank God Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), with it’s more restrained style, was right around the corner, or else we would be getting more super hero movies that looked like this.

The cast itself doesn’t fare much better.  Halle Berry in particular just feels lost in the role.  Truth be told, it’s not really her fault, because the movie never allows her to be more than just model around in costume and act like a cat.  And believe me, this movie is relentless with it’s cat puns and innuendos.  The way I see it, Halle Berry might have taken the role thinking that it would be an empowering character and dignified hero, but only realized too late that the film was sadly fetishizing the character as a way of making her more appealing.  As a result, you get a rather uninterested performance from Ms. Berry, who clearly is just waiting out the clock so that she could collect that paycheck and put this sad experience behind her.  But, sadly for her, audiences didn’t forget.  Her performance as Catwoman has unfortunately cast a dark shadow on her career, one that I think she still hasn’t moved beyond.  She rarely headlines feature films anymore, and if she does, it’s usually made outside of the Hollywood machine.  It’s hard to believe that one bad role can set back a career that harshly, but that seems to be the case with Halle Berry and Catwoman.  And it’s something that shouldn’t just be laid upon her shoulders alone.  The remaining cast, including a very forgettable male lead played by Benjamin Bratt, and an embarrassingly over the top Sharon Stone as the villain, are even worse in the movie.  At least when called to do ridiculous things like running catnip across her face and eating cat food out of the can, Berry still goes for it.  I’d say the terrible direction crosses over into the depictions of the characters, and makes them innately unlikable, even despite modest efforts from the actors.

But, the movie’s biggest fault comes in the cynical nature of it’s creation.  To talk about the toxic nature of the film’s central theme, we have to address the sometimes touchy subject of feminism.  Now, I am a male writer who can in no way claim to be an expert on the subject of feminist issues.  All I want to do is to observe how Hollywood touches upon feminism and, in many cases, fall way out of line on the subject.  Feminism may not always be a topic at hand when it comes to adapting movies from comic books, but it certainly becomes one when Hollywood attempts to appeal to a female demographic that takes the genre very seriously.  There is definitely a disconnect between Hollywood and female audiences as to what constitutes a feminist identity in both narrative and production.  What Hollywood might see as empowering, feminists might see as condescending and offensive.  That’s something that very much defined the awkward portrayal of Catwoman.  When the filmmakers redesigned the character, for example, they sexualized the character to an uncomfortable degree, making her have more in common with a whip cracking dominatrix than a crime fighting do-gooder.  Now, to be fair, Catwoman has always been a character that has used her sexuality to her advantage, but here the subtlety in her portrayal is entirely dropped .  What the filmmakers saw as a strong, independent female in charge of her sexuality, feminists saw as a cynical ploy to use the character as a object of desire for male audiences.   By putting so little emphasis on her story and identity beyond that, you just spotlight the sexual nature of the character and it diminishes her to merely a tool for arousal.  That’s why the movie failed to appeal to a female audience, because they could see right through the cynicism, and rightly observed this as just another example of Hollywood not understanding their issues.

But to make matters worse, the movie has the gall to declare itself as an empowering, feminist movie.  There is a moment in the film where Berry’s Catwoman seeks answers from a mysticism expert, played by Frances Conroy.  She asks her why a history of female heroes who have been granted powers from felines over the centuries has been largely ignored, and the expert merely blames that on “male academia.”  That’s right; this movie’s feminist statement basically boils down to “women are great, because men are dumb.”  This is a clear minimalization of feminist ideals and is an insult to their cause.  It’s something that I found annoying in the recent all female Ghostbusters (2016) reboot as well.  Just like in CatwomanGhostbusters’ idea of declaring power for women is to knock down all the male characters around them and make them look weak and petty.  Now, like I said, I’m no expert on feminism, but I can safely say that this is not what the movement is all about.  Feminism is not about declaring superiority for one’s gender; it’s about demanding equal rights and respect in a society that doesn’t value women enough, and seeing that all women should have an equal footing with their male peers in all fields.  Taking cheap shots at men only diminishes what feminists are trying to accomplish, and as a result, it just motivates the men who have been a target of their ridicule to lash out back at them.  That’s the reckless and idiotic form of feminism that both Catwoman and Ghostbusters proudly claim for themselves.  It’s probably not a coincidence that both were directed by men who proclaim that they understand the plight of women.  Suffice to say, their help has not made things any better.

That’s why this new take on Wonder Woman is such a breath of fresh air.  It makes a concerted effort to appeal to all audiences, while at the same time taking the portrayal of her seriously, both as a icon of the comic book medium and of feminism.  And it thankfully pulls the concept of a female driven superhero film out of the dark shadow cast by the failure of Catwoman.  It’s safe to say that Catwoman is an example of the worst things that a superhero can be; whether it be female centered or not.  It’s cynical, garish, and just unappealing in every way.  And even worse, it represents just how little faith Hollywood can sometimes have for it’s audience and how little they value the issues that matter to them.  For years, female comic book fans have been clamoring for an honest portrayal of a heroine that could hold their own in this male-dominated genre.  Up until now, they’ve only been able to remain satisfied with their Princess Leias, and their Ripleys, and their Furiosas, all of whom are great heroines on their own, but who could never be seen sharing the screen with the likes of Batman and Superman.  Catwoman only compounded the problem, making Hollywood think that female driven super hero films were bad for business for a long while.  But, as we’ve seen, it’s not the heroines themselves that make the movies fail, it’s the lackluster executions of their stories.  A Catwoman movie could have worked if she was treated with a little more respect and dignity.  We’re thankfully heading in that direction now, finally.  Wonder Woman shows that female super heroes can succeed at the box office and hold their own, and hopefully it opens the door for other feminine heroes just like her.  Even Catwoman managed to find a better life outside her own movie, when Christopher Nolan included her in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), as portrayed by Anne Hathaway, showing that the character is still a valued one.  The only good to come from 2004’s Catwoman is that it now serves as a cautionary tale of how not to make a female super hero movie, and let’s hope, for the sake of other female super heroes waiting in the wings, that they don’t fall into the same, toxic trap.

What the Hell Was That? – Australia (2008)

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If there is one genre that I would consider a favorite out of all the ones to rise out of Hollywood, it would be the historical epic.  Nowhere else will you see the Hollywood machine at its finest than when it presents to us a grandiose, ambitious historically inspired melodrama on the big screen.  It’s the foundation that most of Hollywood is built upon to be fair.  Since D.W. Griffith’s epic silent pictures of the nineteen teens, every era of Hollywood film-making has aspired to bring history alive with all the spectacle that you would expect out of Tinseltown.  The 1950’s in particular became a Golden Era for these types of pictures, as new Widescreen processes allowed for movies to feel even more larger than life than they had before.  I for one have a soft spot for this era, as some of my favorite movies of all time emerged out of Hollywood in this time.  My favorite above all else, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), represented the quintessential Hollywood epic, devoting a operatic scale to a moment in history, and not even ancient history like Biblical epics but rather the Arabian theater of the World War I conflict, showing just how effective Hollywood prestige can be on any story.  Lawrence became a high water mark in Hollywood for many years to come, and many filmmakers raised on David Lean’s masterpiece have sought to recapture some of it’s power in their own work.  Films like Apocalypse Now (1979), The Last Emperor (1987), and Braveheart (1995) again proved to us the unending appeal of the great Hollywood historical epic, and that would again hit another peak with James Cameron’s Titanic (1997).  But, afterwards, the historical epic has since seemed to struggle, as epic scale has been more devoted to Fantasy and Comic Book films instead.  Any new entries are more likely to draw more on Hollywood nostalgia for their presentations, and not always for the better.

My feeling is that the success of Titanic was so big, that it made it nearly impossible for a movie of it’s ilk to every achieve that level of popularity ever again.  It was a genre high-point and a genre killer at the same time.  Historical films are still made today, but just not at that same epic level anymore.  The only way you can get audiences to sit down for three hours in a movie theater today is if it’s got wizards and dragons in it.  Try to sell them a history lesson through the same experience and they’ll stay away in droves.  In the nearly twenty years since Titanic, we’ve seen very few epic historical dramas, and the ones that have made it to the big screen recently are not very good at all.  Two notable failures pop out to me, both of which try to emulate a nostalgic Hollywood feel, but fail in very different ways.  The first failed epic is Pearl Harbor, which was itself a direct answer to Titanic, bringing a tragic love story into a different historical human tragedy utilizing many of the same big budget movie tricks.  Directed by Michael Bay, the movie fails to make us care about it’s central characters, trivializes the actual historical account of the Pearl Harbor attack for it’s own purposes, and just flat out represents all the horrible excess that we’ve come to expect from Michael Bay.  But, that’s not the epic failure that I want to focus on (I’ll save that for another day).  The other failed epic I wish to talk about it Aussie director Baz Luhrmann’s nostalgia laden ode to his home country, titled simply Australia (2008).  It’s failure I find more problematic than those of Pearl Harbor, because it goes far beyond just excessive cinematic style, and more into the themes and story behind it, which results in an infuriating experience.  To me, Australia is the textbook example of how not to make a historical epic.

Of course, to understand the disappointment of this movie, I have to address the person behind it, because it is first and foremost a director driven film.  Baz Luhrmann is not what you would call the quintessential Australian director, but his excessive artistic style does fall in line with some of the country’s colorful character.  Starting off in the theater, he moved on to directing films starting off with 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, followed up with his Shakespearean adaptation Romeo+Juliet (1996), and then his big award winner Moulin Rouge (2001), a movie many claim as the one that revived the long dormant Hollywood musical.  With that string of rising success, Luhrmann finally had the clout in the industry to make the film that he’s always wanted to make, which was a defining epic throwback melodramatic ode to the nation that reared him.  That in itself is a noble goal.  I’m sure that like myself, Luhrmann loves the grand Hollywood epics of yesteryear, and this was his opportunity to give Australia it’s own epic worthy of that bygone era.  One thing that I can’t fault Luhrmann for is ambition.  It’s a trademark of his style.  Just watching anything he makes, you can see the workings of a director who wants to make every frame a visual treat.  Australia certainly has scale and production values on it’s side, but what it lacks is focus and narrative drive.  It’s a movie that unfortunately falls into the same faults that many other passion projects have, in that it succumbs to the director’s inability to move beyond their love of the concept in service of the story they want to have told.  It’s a movie built on love, but Luhrmann cannot quite find the best way to share that with us.

Truth be told, I really wanted this movie to work.  Ever since seeing Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen in my teens, I have wanted the great Hollywood historical epic to come back in a big way.  When it was announced that Baz Luhrmann had this film lined up as his next picture, I was genuinely excited.  I wasn’t entirely enthralled with Moulin Rouge when it first came out, but I recognized the artistry behind it and was excited with what it could look like in a genre that I’m more interested in.  Not only that, but the setting itself brings out so many possibilities for epic adventures.  With it’s wide open, untouched natural beauty, Australia is tailor-made for epic treatment.  Plus, a nearly three hour epic run-time told me that this story could not only be epic, but far-reaching as well, giving us a Gone With the Wind (1939) sized story of all the people, places, and history of Australia.  Sadly, what I saw in the movie theater presented none of that.  We get a ham-fisted, melodramatic romance with a historical backdrop that was neither insightful nor endearing.  This epic has annoyed me like no other in the genre, and it’s largely due to just how poorly it is presented.  I cared about none of the characters, felt the story was hackneyed and unoriginal, and more importantly of all, felt that some of the themes and messages were so badly delivered that it ended up having the opposite effect and became more offensive than enlightening.  And it all falls on the director, who seemed too wrapped up in the things he adores about the genre that he couldn’t observe the glaring problems that were right there in front of him.  A glossy shine cannot distract from the ugly, over-long mire that this movie going experience was for me.

First of all, so little development is given to the characters that it really becomes a joke at times.  Every person here is fully formed by the time they are introduced, and apart from some backstory revelations here or there, we don’t really know any more about them than what they go through in the film’s running time.  I do give Luhrmann credit for giving the movie an all-Australian cast.  Even the lead character who is given an English background is played by noted Aussie actress Nicole Kidman.  Sadly, none of the spark of her Oscar-nominated work in her last collaboration with Luhrmann is found here.  Kidman merely is there to be a place holder for the type of ideal heroine of old Hollywood, like Grace Kelley or Janet Leigh.  Unfortunately, her character emulates these ideals, but offers nothing more.  She’s a symbol rather than an individual, there simply to conform to her new surrounding, rather than leave an impression on it.  It’s a waste of Ms. Kidman’s talent, because I know she can do better.  Here, her character is less Scarlett O’Hara and more Marilyn Monroe; less active and more reactive.  There’s a moment where she attempts to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz which may be one of the most cringe-inducing moments I’ve ever seen an actress required to do in a movie ever; and it made me feel so bad for her.  She’s not alone though as a faulty character in the movie.  Everyone seems to be shorthanded.  Hugh Jackman’s character is so undefined that he’s not even given a name; he’s solely referred to as the Drover (an Aussie term for Cattle Rustler).  It’s so clear that this character was more a concept than an actual, tennable personality, and Jackman (really this generation’s defining Australian performer) is given nothing to work with.  His Drover merely just comes across as a poor man’s Crocodile Dundee.  Only the villain, played by David Wenham, stands out, and even he’s a thinly drawn character.  He makes Billy Zane’s over the top baddie in Titanic look subtle, but I credit Wenham for at least finding something to work with.  It shows even a talented cast can’t save lackluster material.

Another huge problem is that Luhrmann doesn’t know what his grand epic story wants to be.  Australia has a rich history to draw from, and it’s setting alone can inspire so many stories on it’s own.  But, with the movie Australia, Luhrmann has all of these ideas and pinpoints of interest, but noting to anchor it down.  We have the melodrama of the central romance, but because the characters are so thinly drawn, there’s not a lot to mine there.  So, Luhrmann looks at some of the defining elements of Australian history to focus on, but even here the execution is weak.  We are shown the troubled, and often brutal relations between the white Australians and the native Aboriginals whom they had oppressed for many years, as well as the hypocrisy of those in power, who often exploited the natives while at the same time keeping them down.  This issue alone is worthy of a movie of it’s own to explore, and the problem here is that it’s not focused on enough.  We learn about the dehumanizing programs that were in place in Australia in the early 20th century that took mixed race children away from their families and trained them for life as servants in White households, as a means that one horrible character describes in the movie to “breed the black out of them.”  I credit Luhrmann for not glancing over this horrible stain on his nation’s history, but sadly he undermines it later on in the movie by indulging in another historical touchstone of Australian history.  Just as the racial element gains traction in the story, suddenly World War II comes to Australia, and the completely unnecessary inclusion of the Japanese bombing of Northern Australia happens.  This whiplash change of focus for the story ruins what otherwise could have been a valuable historical lesson.  For Luhrmann, it proved that he got too greedy and that he spoiled the meal by adding one ingredient too many.

But, even without the unnecessary historical intrusion, the movie also undermines it’s well-intentioned message about race relations by again misusing old Hollywood tricks.  At the film’s center is a relationship between Kidman’s Sarah Ashley and a young mixed race boy named Nullah.  Nullah, as a character, is the film’s most troublesome element, because I think Luhrmann made the mistake of making a character that was so pure that he ends up becoming unrealistic.  Luhrmann, probably feeling ashamed of his own country’s history towards the Aboriginal people, wanted to portray them in the best possible light as possible, but in doing so, he robs them of any real depth.  Nullah is sadly nothing more than a prop to focus the movie’s message onto.  Young Brandon Walters is fine in the role, but the character is just an empty vessel for the story to reflect around.  Not only that, but they give him this annoying mystical quirk to his character, with awkward singing that supposedly puts him in tune with nature.  I know there’s some cultural basis for this among the aboriginal people, but it doesn’t translate on film.  Maybe the movie would’ve made this work better if he was more of a focus in the story.  Instead, and I hate to say this, he falls into that painful Hollywood cliche of the “magical Negro.”  Coined by Spike Lee, this trope is one referring to a minority character in a movie (most often Black) whose only purpose in the story is to impart wisdom and understanding on the sympathetic white protagonists, sometimes even through actual magic.  Nullah, fills that trope to a “t” and that ends up making Baz Luhrmann’s film feel very backwards and insulting, even with it’s good intentions.  Better movies have been made about the plights of the aboriginal people in Australia; director Phillip Noyce’s grittier Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) for example.   For Baz Luhrmann to not follow through with it here makes the end result feel more exploitative than informative, and it ultimately makes this a very loathsome movie as a result.

There are few other movie epics that stand out to me as such a crushing disappointment as Australia was.  I really want historical epic dramas to be a big part of Hollywood once again, but I feel that Baz Luhrmann’s film only dug the genre deeper into a too self-important hole.  More seriously, I feel that the movie missed the point of telling the true story of Australia by trying to be too much all at the same time.  Baz Luhrmann clearly loves his country and old Hollywood epics, but he can’t quite make the two come together.  Tapping into the nostalgia of the style undermines the importance of the film’s ultimate message, and I feel that this movie ends up telling us less about the people and places of Australia than it should have done.  The aboriginal people in particular seemed to be short-changed, and this is in a movie meant to shed light on their tortured history.  I understand Baz’s passion for this project, but I feel that he was ultimately the wrong fit for this kind of sweeping epic tale.  His greatest strength is taking usually dryer material, and giving it his own unexpected visual flair, like with Romeo+Juliet and his more recent The Great Gatsby (2013), a movie that I liked a whole lot more than this one.   Perhaps sticking too close to home was not a smart move for the director.  There was rumors that he was going to make another epic project centered around Alexander the Great, and that’s a subject that I think he could’ve done very well with.  Australian cinema is not without it’s exceptional pieces that adequately tell it’s story.  Peter Weir gave us interesting epic stories like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Gallipoli (1981) in his early career, and of course one cannot forget the work of George Miller and his Mad Max series.  Also, check of John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), a haunting, gritty film with an outback setting similar to the one in Australia.  But, for a true Australian epic to stand above all others, Baz Luhrmann’s attempt rose high and fell hard, and in the end, became one of my least favorite epic films of all time.

 

What the Hell Was That? – X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

We live right now in a Golden Age of Comic Book Movies.  What was once seen as a niche market, with only the occasional crossover hits, is now the dominant force in film-making today.  It seems like any studio will take a shot at adapting Comic Books into movies these days, whether they are good or bad, just so they can capitalize on the trend.  While comic book films are diverse, the vast majority of them are coming from the big three players in this battle at the box office; Marvel, which is owned by Disney; DC Comics, which is owned by Warner Brothers; and 20th Century Fox, which has held on to it’s licensed characters from Marvel (namely the X-Men).  Though independent comic book adaptations still happen occasionally (such as Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)), it’s these three competitors who are clearly driving the state of Comic Book adaptations forward.  For the most part, fans of comic books are pleased with the state of things in this booming industry.  A lot of these movies are made by fans for fans, and the studios are learning quickly that it’s better to give their audiences what they demand, instead of delivering what they think the audiences want.  Marvel, of course, is leading the way with their ambitious Cinematic Universe, which has tied all their collective films together.  But, it’s not been without tough competition from their competitors, such as DC’s Dark Knight trilogy and of course the unexpected success of Deadpool earlier this year.  But, the one thing that the studios have learned is that when one of their comic book movies fails, it fails hard.

We’ve seen a number of times over the years where a comic book series runs out of steam and hit a low point.  Sometimes those low points result in movies that are so bad that they completely shut down the series as a whole, stopping any chance of further installments.  Most Comic Book franchises have fallen victim to this at some point.  Superman saw his series come to an end with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), a ludicrously cheap sequel in a once revolutionary franchise.  Batman also reached an absurd end with Batman & Robin (1997), which traded in the gloomy gothic grandeur of Tim Burton for the neon, cartoony carnival excess of Joel Schumacher. Spiderman has had to be rebooted twice thanks to two horrible movies; Spiderman 3 (2007) and The Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014).  It’s practically a miracle that nothing like this has happened yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though Iron Man 3 (2013) and Ant-Man (2015) brought it awfully close).  But, what somehow redeems some of these movies in the long run is the fact that they are so bad, it actually makes them fascinating.  I could go on about the ridiculous and seemingly unthinkable creative choices that went into the making of some of these movies (like the dance sequence in Spiderman 3, or the laughably terrible acting in Batman & Robin), but to be considered one of my least favorite superhero movies, you would need to something much worse; and that’s be a complete bore.  A boring superhero movie is worse in my opinion than any weirdly horrible film.  Batman & Robin at least has camp value.  Superman Returns (2006) does not.  But, if I were to pick out one of the worst Superhero movies I’ve ever seen because of this factor, it would be the worst film in the X-Men franchise; X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

Up until last year’s Fantastic Four (2015), I would say that Origins was the worst superhero movie that I’ve ever seen.  It’s not the worst made or the worst acted, but it’s the one superhero movie that feels the most bland and uninteresting.  Just watching the movie you feel like no one involved had any passion behind the project and that it was made purely out of an obligation to keep the franchise going.  The only problem is, there was no place for the franchise to go.  Fox had already put an end to the X-Men story-line with 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, an equally derided sequel that left fans upset, because of the way that it shamelessly killed off some fan favorite characters for no good reason.  Origins was an attempt to keep the franchise going by rolling back the clock and showing how it’s titular hero began.  The only problem was that nothing interesting was revealed to us.  The origin of popular X-Men character Wolverine (played throughout the franchise by Hugh Jackman), was already explained pretty well in the critically acclaimed X2: X-Men United (2002), so using this movie to tell a story that we already know felt pretty pointless.  That being said, a earnest approach to the story could have found new and unique revelations about the character.  Sadly, because this was a film driven more by commerce, Origins relied more heavily on action set-pieces than actual character development.  This film came at the tail end of an era when studios were more interested in the characters than stories.  Because of this, many movies of this era usually forced superheroes into story-lines that normally weren’t suited for them; feeling more like generic action films rather than something that was pulled off of the panels of the comic.  This film is exactly the worst example of that.  It’s explosive without reason and hard to care about despite it’s attempts at trying to be profound.

Some of you may be wondering why I dislike this movie over say the more aggressively bad X-Men: The Last Stand.  While I will gladly agree that The Last Stand is a terrible film and also much more incompetently made than Origins, it doesn’t quite make me upset as Origins does, and that’s because of the lowered expectations.   To understand how I respond to the direction of a franchise, I should probably state the point of view that I had on these movies as they came out.  The first two X-Men movies did a fairly good job of bringing the popular Comic Books to life, under the guidance of director Bryan Singer.  Singer in fact really helped to bring the Comic Book genre back to life with these films in the wake of the failure of Batman & Robin, which nearly killed it.  But, he left the franchise in the midst of developing the third film in order to make Superman Returns for DC, leaving The Last Stand without direction.  Instead of refocusing their efforts, Fox just hired a hack director named Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) who was not a good fit for the series and told him to finish what Singer had started, which he was ill equipped to do.  The Last Stand is a convoluted mess of a sequel, but knowing all this did manage my expectations and made me more prepared for the failure of that film.  X-Men Origins:  Wolverine on the other hand looked more promising, given that it was being directed by an Oscar-winning filmmaker, Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) and was being scripted by a great writer named David Benioff (who later created a little show called Game of Thrones).  Not only that, but the film was also going to introduce some fan favorite characters from the X-Men series that had yet to make it to the big screen; namely Gambit and Deadpool.  But, none of this panned out the way it should’ve and it’s because of this waste of talent and potential that Origins feels like the bigger failure overall.

It’s hard to explain exactly what went wrong.  The story does follow the comics, but does so in such a step by step way, that we feel like we’re watching a stage play rather than an immersive adventure.  The film does start out with a surprisingly effective opening credit sequence, showing Logan (aka Wolverine) and his brother Victor/ Sabertooth (Liev Schreiber) fighting in every American War fought over the last 200 years, from Civil to Vietnam, surviving because of their regenerative mutant powers.  But from that point on, everything becomes convoluted and hard to follow.  And that’s mainly because the villain, Colonel William Stryker (Danny Huston) never has a clear motive for his actions.  At first, he commands mercenaries with mutant powers for his own ends, then he wants to start exterminating them, but to do so he has to create even more powerful mutant warriors; and you can see why this movie is all over the place.  Sadly, this reduces one of the best villainous characters from the series, who was so vividly portrayed by actor Brian Cox in X2, to a very one-dimensional character.  He’s gets no character development; he’s just there as a plot device to provide conflict for the character of Wolverine.  But, this becomes a problem when there’s another villain present in the person of Sabertooth.  Here you have an interesting adversary to Wolverine, possessing every same attribute he does as well as the bond of blood but lacking the moral center to do good, and the movie wastes that potential.  Sabertooth has no place in the movie because of Stryker’s presence, and he’s merely there to get into fights with his brother, allowing little time for character development.

Which gets me to the most problematic part of the film, and it’s the fact that it tries to cram too many characters into a movie that doesn’t need it.  The problem with many Superhero movies of this era was that they tried to capitalize on too many characters too soon and all at once, without giving them the right amount of development.  Multiple villains were common and shoe-horned together to less effective results in many films, like The Riddler and Two-Face sharing screen time in Batman Forever (1995).  At least with X-Men (2000), this ensemble approached was built into it’s DNA, so it didn’t feel too out of place.  But, when this is supposed to be a movie focused on a single central hero like Wolverine, it made less sense to fill the screen with fan favorites who were deserving of their own films (and ultimately got them).  Because they were forced into this story-line purely for fan service, we merely got bland, characterless stand-ins for what should’ve been amazing characters.  Take Gambit for instance.  In the comics, Gambit is one of the most colorful and charismatic members of the X-Men team; a ragin’ Cajun hotshot with a heart of gold.  His appearance here was long overdue; it unfortunately just never lived up to that potential.  You could imagine someone of Matthew McConaughey’s ilk bringing great life into the character, but instead they cast Canadian-born Taylor Kitsch who sounds nothing remotely close to Cajun.  Also, his performance is lazy in the movie, mistaking aloofness for swagger, and it sadly ruins a beloved character.  Still, that’s better than what happened with Deadpool.  Strangely enough, they cast the right actor in Ryan Reynolds, but the movie wastes him in bland action sequences and saddles him with unfunny one-liners.  Seriously, how do you make Deadpool not funny?  That’s kind of miraculous.  The biggest insult from the filmmakers is thinking that the character was going to be so obnoxious that audiences would applaud them for sewing his mouth shut for the final climax.  That right there shows you that this was a movie made by people who knew nothing about comic book heroes and were merely just making your average, run of the mill action film purely for the money.

But, you’re probably wondering why I’m forgetting about the titular hero himself.  Well that’s because the movie forgets about him too.  For the most part, Hugh Jackman remains the only good thing about this film, and that’s only because he is pretty much the complete embodiment of the character.  Really, no other actor is as synonymous with a superhero as Jackman is to Wolverine; with the possible exception of maybe Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man.  From 2000’s X-Men to the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse, Jackman has been the face of this franchise and it’s going to be quite a daunting task to replace him after he hangs up the claws for good.  Unfortunately, his first solo go at the character leaves him with nothing to do other than to just look aggressive and/or amazed all the time.  This is the most passive version of Wolverine that you’ll ever see.  He accepts offers without challenge, runs into fights without thinking, and by the end of the movie, he’s knocked unconscious and loses his memory, making all the little character development that he had in the movie useless.  You can clearly see the disinterest in Jackman’s eyes as the movie goes on, as if he’s waiting for something exciting to happen too and yet will never see it.  The movie also suffers from some very terrible CGI effects, especially with regards to scene where Wolverine discovers his atom-antium claws for the first time.  The disinterested look on his face in that scene says it all, like he’s asking the filmmakers, “What was wrong with the physical claws I wore in the last movie?”  But, at the very least, Hugh does still embody the part in the moments that allow him to.  But, when the movie doesn’t add anything to the mythos of the character, it just makes you wish that he deserved better overall.

As a result of all this, Fox abandoned their planed line of Origin films for some of the other X-Men characters, the next in line being a Magneto origin story.  So, in a way you can say that Origins: Wolverine did the same exact thing that Spiderman 3 and Batman & Robin had, which was kill a franchise.  But, unlike the others, X-Men did survive the double whammy of The Last Stand and Origins by retaining all the good things about the series and just refocused them in a soft reboot called X-Men: First Class (2011).  Like Origins, it turned back the clock on the story-line, but did so in a fun and more faithful way to the comic source, and as a result, it revitalized the franchise.  In fact, it seems like all that the X-Men series has done in the last few years is make apologies for their worst movies; Days of Future Past even wipes the events of The Last Stand completely out of the continuity.  Hugh Jackman also took a more active role in the development of the character since then and the Origins follow-up titled The Wolverine (2013) was a vast improvement, taking full advantage of the character and building a worthwhile story around him.  Ryan Reynolds would also get the last laugh when he finally brought Deadpool back in a big way earlier this year with his own solo effort.  Many of that film’s best gags were even directed at Hugh Jackman, and there’s a clever dig at the Origins version of Deadpool as well, if you caught it.  Jackman’s own swan song to the character also looks to be promising in the next few years as it’s rumored that it will be tackling the beloved “Old Man Logan” story-line from the comics.  Origins is the lowest point this series ever got and thankfully it was all uphill from there.  But, it still stands as the most blatant, and pathetic example of getting the formula wrong in adapting a comic book movie.  When you make a Superhero film, make sure it’s one that you care about making and don’t just put it out purely to make money.  Fan reactions matter in this genre.  It’s what separates the X-Men Origins: Wolverines and Batman & Robins from the Deadpools and Dark Knights.

What the Hell Was That? – How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

jim carrey grinch

The holiday season has it’s fair share of the good and the bad.  It’s true with every form of holiday entertainment.  In music you have Bing Crosby’s immortal “White Christmas” sharing playtime on the radio with Elmo & Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”  With TV Specials you have to endure Shrek the Halls (2007) in order to get to A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965).  And of course, there are a dozen or so bad Christmas movies to go along with the great ones.  We all have come to accept that not everything Christmas related is going to turn into quality entertainment.  It’s true with these as it is with any other type of film.  But, what I find so strange about bad Christmas movies is that they are sometimes given more of a pass for being awful just because they can serve as a time filler for the holidays.  Once out of the multiplexes, any Christmas movie is then able to find itself spotlighted once again in the holiday home video section at your local marketplace or on television as a featured presentation, regardless of whether or not it was good.  It doesn’t matter to the studios who make them, just as long as it shows that they’ve made something available for the consumer at Christmastime.  I think that’s why some of the lesser holiday fare like the laughable Jingle All the Way (1996) or the horrifying Jack Frost (1998) endure to this day;  consumers will still eat that garbage up just because of holiday nostalgia.  But, that becomes problematic when it keeps a truly awful film alive and fools everyone into thinking that it’s a worthwhile holiday film when it’s not. That’s exactly the case with what I believe to be one of the absolute worse Christmas movies ever made; the 2000 remake of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

The Grinch, to me, doesn’t just represent the worst kind of bad Christmas movie; it also represents the worst kind of film-making that Hollywood can create period.  Every wrong decision that could have been made in the creation of this disaster is present on screen and it just screams out as being nothing more than a studio driven market machine.  It wasn’t made to do anything other than make money, which completely goes against the original intention of the story itself.  Which leads to my other reason for hating this movie so much; it shamelessly exploits a holiday classic written by the legendary Dr. Seuss.  Seuss’ 1959 classic is not just a great Christmas tale, but also a brilliant meditation on the true meaning behind the season, stressing the importance of community over the desire for goods.  The remake attempts to retain that message, but it is constantly undercut by the film’s own superficial flashiness and it’s extensive studio driven requirement to appeal to every demographic, running contrary to the story’s original basics.  The end result becomes an ugly, aggressive, and just plain unpleasant cinematic blunder.  It’s everything that a Christmas movie shouldn’t be.  Is it the worst ever made?  In a relative sense, it probably is.  Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (2014) is more offensive morally, and direct to video fare like A Christmas Story 2 (2012) and Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure (2003) are more shameless as cash-ins.  But, as a big budget Christmas season offering, they don’t get much worse than The Grinch.

Dr. Seuss (alias of author Theodor Geisel) was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century and How the Grinch Stole Christmas is arguably his most renowned and widely published masterpiece, alone with “The Cat in the Hat”.  The rhyming prose and the illustrations done by Seuss himself both contributed to a delightful tale that has endeared itself into the hearts of multiple generations.  Telling the story of a grumpy green skinned hermit named the Grinch, the tale shows the character as he greedily wants to steal away everything related to Christmas from the neighboring Whos of Whoville in order to share with them the same misery he feels during the holidays.  But, to his surprise, he discovers that the Whos celebrate the holiday despite having nothing and their enduring spirit makes the Grinch reconsider what he’s done; and as the book states “his heart grew three sizes that day.”  In the end it’s a story that reaffirms what Christmastime should be about, which is goodwill towards our fellow man, whether they be a Who or a Grinch.  It’s a story that transcends age, race, gender, and religion, and because of that it is a universally beloved tale.  Naturally, something as popular as Dr. Seuss’ story would get the attention of Hollywood, and thankfully, it was acclaimed animator Chuck Jones that brought the story to life first, with the involvement and approval of Seuss himself of course. The 1966 special perfectly translated the book, retaining it’s loving message and it too has become a beloved classic over time.  Best of all, it added new elements like popular songs, including the always memorable “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” sung by Tony the Tiger actor Thurl Ravenscroft.  Both the book and the short have rightfully made the Grinch an iconic part of the holiday season, which makes the spoiling done by the movie remake all the more painful.

When it was announced that Universal Studios was going to do a big screen adaptation of the Dr. Seuss’ book, I’ll admit that I was looking forward to it.  I grew up with the short like everyone else, watching it almost religiously every Christmas with my family.  It’s the kind of holiday tradition that never gets old and How the Grinch Stole Christmas still holds up to this day.  The Boris Karloff narration, the unforgettable songs, the over-the-top way that Chuck Jones animated the Grinch’s devilish smile.  It’s all an indelible part of my childhood.  It’s also a beloved thing that crosses over generations.  My own mom considers this to be one of her favorites as well, and like me, she too was looking forward to the big screen version.  And when it was announced who was involved in it’s making, it appeared to all that this was going to be a top class production.  Not only did they manage to get Jim Carrey into the role of the Grinch, coming off a strong winning streak in the 90’s with films like Dumb and Dumber (1994), Liar, Liar (1997) and The Truman Show (1998), but Universal also tapped acclaimed filmmaker Ron Howard (1989’s Parenthood, 1995’s Apollo 13, 1996’s Ransom to name a few) to direct.  Overall, this looked like it was going to take Seuss’ vision to a whole other level and become a grand Christmas classic like it’s predecessors.  Both me and my mom went into the movie expecting something like that, but once the film started playing and we watched the final result of all that potential, we both walked away severely disappointed.  It was hard to comprehend at the time what went wrong, but when looking deeper into all the factors that made the original such a masterpiece and how this version ignored all of that, it became clearer as to how a disaster like this could happen.

First of all, let’s talk about translation.  Story wise, Dr. Seuss’ book is an easy one to comprehend.  Written for children, but also equally appealing to adults, the original tale is subtle and heartwarming.  Animation proved to be a perfect match for this kind of story, as the 30 minute run-time allowed for just enough time for the story to unfold without ever losing it’s momentum.  And Chuck Jones managed to find the right tempo as well, brilliantly casting Frankenstein actor Boris Karloff whose soothing yet intense British accent matched the persona of the Grinch to perfection.  The animation was also better suited to translate the Seussian style of design, which includes many twisted and unnatural shapes in both the architecture and environment, all recreated perfectly by famed background artist Maurice Noble.  Needless to say, if The Grinch needed to be brought to life, this was the way to do it.  Now, expanded to a 90 minute feature, there arises many more challenges, given the limitations of the material.  Not that they can’t be overcome with a deft adaptation, but what ended up happening here proves that even the most talented of artists and cast can fail in this endeavor.  Ron Howard’s The Grinch unfortunately dilutes the original tale to the point of being unrecognizable by adding a bunch of pointless filler.  Not only that, but the filler is also both crude and unnecessary, adding nothing to the film other than cheap laughs that only degrade the material rather than elevate it.  This movie unfortunately came at a time in the nineties when gross out humor was deemed popular, in the wake of the hit comedy There’s Something About Mary (1998).  Sadly this kind of sophomoric comedy seeped into family films as well, and The Grinch was not exempt.  In the movie, you get constant flatulence jokes throughout and even something as crude as a character kissing a dog’s behind.  Yep, just as Dr. Seuss envisioned.

The characters themselves are also mistreated in the story’s adaptation.  Now, I will admit, Oscar-winning make-up legend Rick Baker’s work on The Grinch is fairly impressive.  Jim Carrey, an actor with an extraordinary ability to transform himself physically in a role, is almost unrecognizable here.  In order to make the Grinch come to life in live action, this is about the best that could have been hoped for, and Carrey does throw himself admirably into the part.  Unfortunately, the script gives him nothing more to do than shtick, and it becomes grating after a while.  Carrey tries his best doing a Karloff impression in line with the original cartoon short, but the voice just sounds off when he’s combining it with wacky antics.  And he never shuts up.  One wishes for the restraint of Boris Karloff’s delicate reading, especially when we have to constantly hear Carrey’s Grinch screaming obscenities and telling characters to “pucker up” and kiss his ass in the film.  The Whos of Whoville don’t fare much better.  Of course, Seuss didn’t give much characterization to them in the first place, with only Cindy Lou Who being the only one of them named in the book.  Sadly in the movie, none of the Whos are given meaningful characterizations and they mostly come off as bland archetypes as a result.  Strangely, the script chooses to make them even more unlikable than the Grinch, showing them as shallow, greedy and prejudice people, changed only by the noble heart of Cindy Lou, who’s also generically drawn herself.  It’s their portrayal that really betrays the intention of Seuss’ story, diminishing the sense of community that made the original such a heartwarming tale.  Even Rick Baker’s make-up effects can’t save them, as actors like Bill Erwin, Jeffrey Tambor and Molly Shannon come off looking more grotesque than charming in their Whovian faces.

Which gets us to one of the more upsetting aspects of the film, which is the fact that it is an ugly looking movie.  Ron Howard’s approach to the story is exactly the wrong way to bring it to life, with bizarre choices in art direction and cinematography throughout.  The Seuss style in architecture is painstakingly recreated in the movie’s sets and environments, but it just feels wrong on screen.  By trying to be overly faithful to that style, the film only heightens the viewers sense of the setting’s artificiality, and it makes the audience keenly aware that this entire movie was filmed on a sound-stage.  There’s nothing that looks organic in the film; it’s all a messy overload of Seussian design.  To make matters worse, Howard took the extra bizarre step of washing out the color from the finished product in it’s color grading.  I don’t know if that was an artistic choice or not, but it adds an extra layer of unpleasantness to the film’s aesthetic.  The washed out color just leaves the film with this cold and sickly feel, which again steals some of the heartwarming appeal of the design away from the film’s look.  In addition, Howard also frames the story in a weird way, using numerous Dutch angles and in-your-face close-ups.  It’s the kind of off kilter directorial choices that you would expect in a slasher movie and not in a family friendly Christmas film like this.  Howard’s tonal control is also off too, with wacky hi-jinks abruptly undercutting moments that were meant to be touching.  Jim Carrey’s unsubtle performance doesn’t help much either, with the Grinch’s moment of clarity near the end being undermined by an out of place wacky reaction to the character’s heart growing three sizes.   It’s one baffling bad film-making decision after another and it overall adds to a thoroughly unpleasant cinematic experience.

Though many other Christmas movies have done worse, this one feels like the biggest betrayal of them all due to the talent behind it and the way it completely trashes the classics that came before.  The Grinch is a bad Christmas experience on an epic scale.  Thankfully, it didn’t tarnish it’s creators completely.  Ron Howard would win an Academy Award for his very next film, the Best Picture winning A Beautiful Mind (2001), and deservedly so.  Rick Baker continues to be a legend in the make-up effects community.  And Jim Carrey would go on to make more hits like Bruce Almighty (2003) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), though not with the same consistency he did prior to The Grinch.  Both Howard and Carrey themselves have also dismissed the movie publicly too, showing that they both recognize it as a less than positive addition to their resumes.  Sadly, the film still endures and is continually presented to us again whenever the holidays are around.  Universal has shamelessly turned it into a cash cow, making money off the merchandise and home video sales whenever the holidays come around.  And it’s that crass commercialism behind the movie today that is the biggest betrayal to Dr. Seuss’ story.  What he wanted to tell us with his original Grinch was that we don’t need all the gifts and traditions to enjoy the holidays; all we need in the end is each other and the desire to do good deeds.  Somehow, this Grinch has fooled us into believing that it’s an essential holiday classic despite the fact that it doesn’t earn any of that respect.  If you want to enjoy Seuss’ tale the right way, read the original book or watch the delightful Chuck Jones adaptation.  This big budget mess will only leave a bad taste in your mouth like a spoiled can of Who Hash.

What the Hell Was That? – Space Jam (1996)

space jam

So, let’s talk about bad movies for a moment.  The strange thing is that when we talk about bad, it can fall into several different categories.  There are movies that are so bad that they become entertaining as a goof (like The Room or Battlefield Earth), which I talked about before in another article.  Then we’ve got those movies that are bad and forgettable, barely leaving an impression on the viewer long after it’s seen.  And then there are those movies that are so unbelievably bad that they not only create a bad viewing experience, but they leave a bad taste in your mouth long after you’ve seen them.  These are the worst kinds of movies, the ones that you wish you could un-see, but can never seem to shake off, and they just linger there in the back of your mind making you hate them even more.  Everyone remembers those kinds of movies, and whenever someone points out what is the worst film they’ve ever seen, they’ll usually have an answer ready to go depending on how many movies they’ve seen.  I for one have seen my fair share of flicks and there are quite a few that stick out in my mind as being some of the worst cinematic experiences that I’ve ever had.  These movies have left such a distinct impression on me that I felt I should devote an entire series of articles to explain just exactly why I hate these movies so much.  In these articles, I plan to highlight each particular cinematic tumor that I’ve come across and pick apart exactly why these movies have drawn my ire.  Just remember that these are my own personal reactions to these films; sometimes I’ll be touching on a movie that some of you may actually like or love, and I don’t hold that against any of you.  I only want to use this series to explain the reasons why I believe these movies affected me in the wrong way, and hopefully some of you out there will understand my way of thinking, and may even agree with some of it.

So, what horrible movie should I take apart to kick off this series.  Well, I figure I should go with the movie that for the longest time I referred to as my least favorite and most hated film; 1996’s Space Jam.  This movie was a unexplainable disaster on all fronts for me, and the first movie that I can remember feeling genuine hatred for when I was growing up.  The movie dropped into theaters just at about the same time I was entering high school and was also starting to gain a strong interest in film and film-making.  Had I been a bit younger, I may have had a different reaction, seeing as Space Jam was marketed to a younger demographic, but even still, I think the younger version of me might have cried bullshit on this movie as well.  So, why do I hate this film so much?  There’s too many things to pinpoint; the horribly unfunny screenplay, the meandering and pointless story, the one note performances (especially from it’s headlining star), the crass commercialism, the shameless hero worship, the lackluster animation, and probably most egregiously it cinematicly ruined three things that I genuinely love in this world: Looney Tunes, Nike Shoes, and Bill Murray.  To put it into simpler terms, this did not feel like a movie to me.  Instead it was something designed from the very beginning to capitalize on name brands in the guise of a compelling story.  This was the first movie that I recognized as a kid as being purely a marketing scheme and nothing else.  It may not have been the first movie to be purely made for that purpose, nor the last (Transformers), but it’s the first one that really opened my eyes to the whole idea that some movies had no interest in telling a story at all but rather were more interested in selling us on a brand, or in this case, multiple brands.  But, then again, what else would you expect from a movie based on a commercial.

Space Jam holds that dubious distinction of being the only movie in history spawned off of a television commercial.  The Nike corporation in the early 90’s wanted to highlight the launch of their of their Air Jordan sneakers with an ambitious ad campaign starring their namesake, NBA Icon Michael Jordan.  Jordan proved to be the right spokesperson for the time,  undoubtedly being the most popular athlete in the world during the 90’s.  Jordan’s clout as a basketball superstar needed to have an out-sized ad campaign that could live up to it, so Nike called upon the Warner Brothers Animation Studio to help out.  Utilizing the massive stable of characters from Warner’s Looney Tunes series, both Nike and the Animation giant created one of the most ambitious TV ads ever made up until that point.  Starring Michael Jordan and WB mascot Bugs Bunny, the 90 second ad premiered in 1993 and was highly praised by both sports and animation fans alike.  I liked the ad quite a lot myself, and still do this day.  It does everything that it needs to do, and with a clever sense of humor befitting the legacy of the Looney Tunes cartoons.  The ad features Bugs and Jordan fighting Marvin the Martian and his team of giant alien birds on a space set basketball court in order to retrieve a large collection of stolen Air Jordans.  It’s a simple, charming premise that’s executed perfectly.  Not only does it make Jordan and his shoes look good, but it also shows a surprisingly funny side to the NBA star that we hadn’t seen before.  Amazingly, he holds his own opposite his animated counterparts too.  Naturally, the campaign was a huge hit, making Michael Jordan a strong pitchman for his brand as well as turning Nike into a marketing juggernaut.  But, there were some at Warner’s that felt that more could be explored with this premise and thus, a full length feature was put into prodution.

Now, what works in a 90 second ad doesn’t translate well into 90 minute movie, and Space Jam is proof positive that it should never be done.  The premise is stretched so thin here, that there is scarcely anything of substance left.  The story of Space Jam is painfully generic, and basically just comes down to praising it’s star and showing how amazing he can be without ever earning the right to do that.  We find Michael Jordan in the middle of his real life mid-career retirement from basketball being pulled into the world of the Looney Tunes.  The Tune,s it turns out, have been invaded by an alien race who have challenged them to a basketball game in order to force them into enslavement at their overlord’s amusement park.  Bugs calls upon Michael to help them train so that they have a chance against the mutated aliens.  And that’s pretty much the story right there, all within the first 20 minutes.  The movie is all one convoluted excuse to get us to a big game showdown where Michael Jordan will undoubtedly save the day.  Nothing else of interest happens.  There’s even a pointless 10 minute scene in the movie where Bugs and Daffy Duck must break into Jordan’s home and steal back his Air Jordans.  Why?  Couldn’t Michael have gone there himself?  Why does he have to stay in Toontown while Bugs and Daffy can cross between worlds effortlessly?  It’s just many scenes of pointless filler in this movie leading up to a game that no one cares about by the end.  And thus, we see one of the many problems with the movie; the horrible story.  Here we have a film that’s trying to fill the gaps of a stretched out premise by falling back on easy laughs and cliched setups.  The original ad had a premise that was quick and tight for what it needed to be.  When you add nothing to that for a full-length running time, all you’re going to do is highlight the gaps inbetween.

And the stretched out premise also highlights the other big flaw of the movie, and that ‘s Michael Jordan himself.  Jordan, I’m sad to say, doesn’t have it in him to carry a movie.  His performance in the film is wooden and devoid of charisma, which is extremely confusing given that he’s basically playing himself here.  Perhaps he didn’t get any acting lessons during the film’s production, because he just seems lost here.  From stilted and monotone line readings to almost seeming like he’s devoid of emotion throughout the entire movie, Jordan clearly proves that he cannot act.  Some of that is the fault of the lackluster screenplay, which gives his on screen character almost no development, but you should expect Jordan to show at least a little enthusiasm.  Jordan’s stilted performance feels especially out of place alongside his cartoon co-stars, who are almost too wacky for their own good here.  And it also feels out of sync with the basic underlying message of the movie, which is to show how amazing a person Michael Jordan is.  Jordan never earns the right in the movie to be called amazing, other than what he shows on the court.  We learn nothing about his character; what makes him an interesting human being, nor what appeals to his heart.  He’s just good at basketball; that’s all this movie tells us and somehow that’s supposed to mean that he’s the greatest person ever by the end.  At least the Nike ad campaign showed a lighter, playful side to Michael Jordan.  Why is that missing here?  I think the movie might have worked just a little better if someone else with a little personality stepped in and filled Michael Jordan’s shoes instead.  For one thing, I would have rather have seen someone like Charles Barkley in the lead role instead (he does appear in the film in a minor role).  Barkley is not much of an actor himself either, but his natural personality would have at least been a better fit for this film’s tone, considering that Barkley is a bit of a cartoon character himself both off and on the court.

But, it’s not just Jordan that sunk this movie; it’s the quality of the production as well.  The movie just looks poorly made to begin with.  It’s devoid of style, particularly in the live action sequences, and both those and the animated sequences clash in some very jarring ways.  Another big problem is the fact that the animation used for the Looney Tunes here is just not very good; but not in the way you’d expect.  The reason it looks bad is because the animation looks too polished; too Disney-like.  What set the Looney Tunes apart was the fact that they weren’t like Disney, and that their cartoons had a slight edge to them, not putting too much emphasis on detail and fluidity but instead emphasizing the effectiveness of the gags.  It’s a formula that has worked for them since the days when Friz Feling and Chuck Jones were directing the shorts, and it worked brilliantly for them.  But, in the 90’s, when Disney saw a resurgence with the likes of The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), animation standards seemed to be raised and Warner Brothers felt that they needed to follow Disney’s example.  The problem is, it doesn’t work with the Looney Tunes.  The gags and very exaggerated expressions that worked for them before fall flat in the fluid Disney style, and it makes the Looney Tunes feel out of character for the most part.  Bugs and Daffy aren’t nearly as zany as they’ve been before and they feel almost neutered by the new animation standards.  Not only that, but the new alien characters are also ugly and uninteresting in design.  The Alien Overlord (voiced by Danny DeVito) is about as generic as you can get as stock villains go, complete with an ever present cigar in his hands throughout the movie.  What was wrong with Marvin the Martian from the commercial?  We can at least laugh at him.  One only has to look at another Animation/ Live Action hybrid called Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) to see how to to make this kind of movie in a stylish and inventive way, and that was almost a decade before this.  Why, even the Nike commercial had better animation, because it maintained the edginess of the past Looney Tunes shorts.  It’s a clear example that crisper animation doesn’t always make for a better movie.

But, there’s also the crime of wasting so many talented people in such a crash, commercial exploit that really angers me about this film.  It’s more than just the waste of good animators working out of their element.  Warner Brothers and Nike clearly dug deep to fill their movie with top tier names, all seemingly put here to reinforce the majesty of Michael Jordan.  Beyond the presence of the Looney Tunes, we get more NBA All-Stars in the movie like Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Shawn Bradley, Larry Johnson and Muggsy Bogues, all of whom have to rely on Michael Jordan to get their talent back from the aliens who stole them.  If stealing talent was so important, then why didn’t Michael have his stolen as well?  Either way, it’s weird in the movie seeing these talented players reduced to victims while Michael is spared to save the day; although they do get the one gag in the movie that does work (when walking down a hallway at a hospital where they’re recuperating, all the 6’5″-plus players bang their heads on a low hanging door frame, except the 5′ 4″ Bouges who walks on without noticing).  But, most egregiously, the movie spoils the cinematic talent of Bill Murray; one of the funniest actors ever.  Murray clearly is in this movie purely because of his huge Chicago Bulls fandom, but there’s nothing for him to do.  Not only that, he shows up to participate in the movie’s climatic basketball game without any explanation and contributes absolutely nothing to the scene.  It’s a huge wasted opportunity and shame on you Space Jam for making Bill Murray not funny.  That’s a crime against humanity in my opinion.  The only person in the movie that seems like he’s actually trying to do something worthwhile is actor Wayne Knight, here cast as Jordan’s personal assistant.  He’s basically cast as the cliched, overweight comic relief (as if we needed it in a movie with cartoon characters), but damn it, Knight tries his hardest to give some semblance of character in this movie that’s devoid of it.  Again so much talent wasted to create a self-aggrandizing movie for it’s star who doesn’t feel comfortable being there in the first place.  It all makes the end result pointless in the end.

As you can see, I have a lot of issues with this movie.  And the sad thing is that there could have been a lot of potential here if the people who worked on it actually gave a damn in terms of story and character.  Instead, we get a movie that feels more like a blatant commercial than the actual commercial that it was based on.  I still resent this movie today, mainly because of how it wasted every bit of goodwill that it potentially could have had and ruined some of the cherished things of mine on the big screen.  Truth be told, it didn’t ruin them for long; both Bill Murray and the Looney Tunes have made comebacks over the years in some very good projects since, and of course I still will buy Nike shoes over all other competitors.  But, what still troubles me is that there’s still a strong following for this movie that continues to this day; so much so that plans for a sequel are underway with LeBron James taking over the lead role.  I don’t know why the movie still continues to have a legion of fans; they may geniunely like the movie or they fell hook, line and sinker for the film’s blantant commercialism.  I myself did not buy into it for a second.  It’s still one of the most crass and disingenuous movies I have ever seen, and I’ve also learned that I’m not the only one who has felt that way about the movie.  Chuck Jones himself was highly critical of the film, saying that he felt that the Looney Tunes characters strayed too much from their original versions and that some of their one-liners were too inappropriate and out of character as well.  Needless to say, it’s a movie that I needed to vent on about in this blog, and hence, that’s why I created this new series.  The only sensible reaction that I can sum up for a movie like Space Jam is to say “What the Hell Was That?” and that’s why I’m making that the title of the series.  I will be covering more movies like this in the future, including some controversial picks, and hopefully I lay out my list of grievances in an impactful and persuasive way.  In the meantime, go watch a good sports movie instead or even a live game, and stay far away from Space Jam.