Happy birthday, Elvis! In honor of The King’s birthday this week, we present one of his best movies, the delirious Viva Las Vegas, co-starring the combustible Ann-Margret.
Elvis plays a race-car driver named Lucky who meets a spirited girl named Rusty. For once he has a co-star who is as dynamic a musical performer as he is. It includes classics like the title tune and saucy duet “The Lady Loves Me,” plus a sizzling Ann-Margret dance number. And a car race! Just the thing to start off the new year.
The Washington Post covers Rotten Tomatoes’ round-up of the year’s worst movies and what makes it fun to read is not just the list of what-were-they-thinking horrible films but the quotes from the reviews by the critics who suffered through them. My own pick for the worst film of the year is featured on Rotten Tomatoes along with the choices from Ben Mankiewicz, Roger Ebert, and others invited to participate by the RT editors.
Maybe it’s just a case of new year’s optimism but for me the good news from this article is less about the lousy movies (what did we expect from Paris Hilton, Uwe Boll, or those “Epic Movie” people?) that it is about the good work done by the critics who reviewed them. The movies may have been a waste of time but the reviews, as quoted on Rotten Tomatoes and in the Post, were not. Anguished, maybe, even angry at times, but often funny and always clever, thoughtful, and game.
It doesn’t take a critic to know that a movie is awful, but it can take a critic to help us understand how and why it is awful. The movie may not be fun to watch but the critic can make explaining why it is not fun to watch a lot of fun to read and, on a good day, we will learn something, too. And I give extra credit to the intrepid souls who make the effort to see the “cold opens,” the films that are not shown in advance to critics because the studios are certain they won’t get a single good review. They’re better prognosticators than they are film-makers; several of those cold opens ended up on the worst list including the dead last, “One Misssed Call,” which did not get a single good review.
I usually don’t mind seeing bad movies. The really horrible ones can be easier to watch than movies that are just dull and mediocre. My son and I used to joke that the motto of our movie-going club was “just because a movie is no good is no reason not to see it.” He has generously accompanied me to some legendary flops, including Catwoman and Battlefield Earth. It is often easier to write a good review of a bad movie than a good review of a great movie, and the Post article reminds us that terrible movies often inspire some very well-written complaints.
All of this is a good way to get ready for the first releases of 2009. The big prestige movies of December, released in time for awards consideration, are inevitably followed by the January left-overs. We normally don’t see much worth recommending until mid-February at the earliest. So this round-up of last year’s worst movies as reviewed by some of the best critics is a timely reminder to sharpen my metaphorical pencils and get ready to do my best to make reading about bad films as entertaining as I wish it had been to watch them.
I last wrote about the superb documentary At the Death House Door when I interviewed its subject, Pastor Carroll Pickett, who served 15 years as the death house chaplain to the infamous “Walls” prison unit in Huntsville. The film was the first-time direction collaboration between award-winning directors Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) and Peter Gilbert (“Vietnam: Long Time Coming”). James was nice enough to answer some of my questions about the film.
How did you first hear about Pastor Carroll Pickett?
Steve James: Gordon Quinn at our film company Kartemquin was approached by The Chicago Tribune because they thought we would be interested in doing a film focused entirely on the investigation of the Carlos De Luna case by Steve Mills and Maurice Possley. Gordon knew that Peter and I would be interested in the subject and set up a meeting with the reporters. In the course of telling us about De Luna, they also mentioned Pastor Carroll Pickett who had been haunted by the memory of De Luna, and recorded these feelings in an amazing audio tape about the execution right afterwards. When they revealed he’d recorded audio tapes about all 95 executions he’d
ministered to, we were hooked. We decided from the get-go, that we wanted Rev. Pickett’s journey to be our main story, and bring us to why De Luna was so important to him.
What was your original intention for the film and how did it evolve?
SJ: See answer above… As stated, the original intention of the Tribune was to have us do a film about Carlos De Luna, but its hard to do a film about a man who was not famous or led a well-documented life, and who was executed 17 years before. With the mention of Pickett, it was clear that we had a unique and potentially powerful story to tell about a man’s past and also who he is today. This is one time when the original conception of what the film could be was pretty much on target for what the film ultimately became.But that doesn’t mean that the filmmaking process did not evolve. We didn’t anticipate guard Fred Allen, nor Carlos’ sister Rose, nor Carroll’s family and the significance they would all play in the film. Nor did we anticipate just how closed and “well armored” Carroll was as a person and how this film would ultimately – in his words – prove to be “the therapy he never got.”
What films inspired you to create documentaries? What documentaries most influenced your approach?
SJ: I was initially influenced by fiction films – one director in particular whose work was always characterized by complex portrayals of his subjects. That director was the great Jean Renoir, director of such classics as The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion. But I was also affected by less celebrated films of his like “Toni” and “The Crime of Mister Lange.” Renoir was the ultimate humanist filmmaker, a great observer of the human condition. Documentary influences were the films of Barbara Kopple, particularly Harlan County, U.S.A., 35 Up by Michael Apted, and The Times of Harvey Milk by Rob Epstein.
I was so charmed by Steady Diet of Film’s answers to the Professor Kingsfield “Hair-Raising Bar-Raising Holiday Movie Quiz” that I decided to try answering the questions myself. Professor Kingsfield, of course, is the terrifying law professor in “The Paper Chase,” one of the scariest teachers in movies. Remember when he gave his student a dime and told him to call his mother and tell her he’d never be a lawyer? The quiz comes from Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. As is often the case with these things, it seems to invite show-offy answers, but I’m just going to say what first pops into my mind and warn you that I often have trouble keeping it to one answer. And I will try to explain any reference that seems esoteric or a little too inside. Anyone else want to try these questions?
1) What was the last movie you saw theatrically? On DVD or Blu-ray?
“Yes Man” in a theater, “Milk” on a critic’s screener DVD.
2) Holiday movies– Do you like them naughty or nice?
Nice! There’s just about always some naughty behavior along the way (think of Scrooge) but I like a happy ending.
3) Ida Lupino or Mercedes McCambridge?
Two great actresses, and one a pioneering woman director. I pick both.
4) Favorite actor/character from Twin Peaks
Special Agent Dale Cooper
5) It’s been said that, rather than remaking beloved, respected films, Hollywood should concentrate more on righting the wrongs of the past and tinker more with films that didn’t work so well the first time. Pretending for a moment that movies are made in an economic vacuum, name a good candidate for a remake based on this criterion.
I think that “Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” could both be far better movies than the versions that were released. And I was awfully disappointed by the recent “Nancy Drew” movie. Those books could make a great movie for 4-8th graders.
6) Favorite Spike Lee joint.
“School Daze” — I love Spike Lee, and this is an under-appreciated masterpiece.
7) Lawrence Tierney or Scott Brady?
Aw, I’m not going to favor one brother over another!
8) Are most movies too long?
No, time is too short.
9) Favorite performance by an actor portraying a real-life politician.
Henry Fonda in “Young Mr. Lincoln.” Everyone in “1776.” Everyone in “Dick.” Paul Scofield in “A Man for All Seasons” (well, sort of a politician)
10) Create the main event card for the ultimate giant movie monster smackdown.
Marshmallow guy from “Ghostbusters” vs. Mothra
11) Jean Peters or Sheree North?
I think Sheree North had more talent but Jean Peters appeared in better movies.
12) Why would you ever want or need to see a movie more than once?
I love to see my favorite movies over and over. Once you know the plot, you can really open yourself up to the small details of the performances, production design, screenplay, direction, cinematography, and soundtrack. And when you watch the same movie many times over many years it serves as a measure of your own changes in perception and thinking.
13) Favorite road movie.
“The Wizard of Oz,” “The African Queen,” “Midnight Run”
14) Favorite Budd Boetticher picture.
I am sorry to say I have not seen enough to make an informed decision.
15) Who is the one person, living or dead, famous or unknown, who most informed or encouraged your appreciation of movies?
Many candidates here — Truffaut and Hitchcock in the book-length interview, my film school professor Paddy Whannel, but most of all the movie-makers themselves.
16) Favorite opening credit sequence. (Please include YouTube link if possible.)
Lots of good choices, but I’ll pick this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaLDyrun_Cc
17) Kenneth Tobey or John Agar?
I’ll never forgive Johan Agar for not being a good husband to Shirley Temple.
18) Jean-Luc Godard once suggested that the more popular the movie, the less likely it was that it was a good movie. Is he right or just cranky? Cite the best evidence one way or the other.
I don’t think even he thought that. Evidence to the contrary: movies like “Dark Knight,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Gone With the Wind” are fine films. And there are many, many deservedly unpopular films.
19) Favorite Jonathan Demme movie.
“Rachel Getting Married”
20) Tatum O’Neal or Linda Blair?
Tatum O’Neal is a more talented actress.
21) Favorite use of irony in a movie. (This could be an idea, moment, scene, or an entire film.)
In most movies the irony comes from the audience knowing something that the characters do not.
22) Favorite Claude Chabrol film.
Have not seen enough to make an educated choice.
23) The best movie of the year to which very little attention seems to have been paid.
I love “Be Kind Rewind”
24) Dennis Christopher or Robby Benson?
I like Dennis Christopher. His brief appearance in “Chariots of Fire” shows how much he can do with very little screen time.
25) Favorite movie about journalism.
“All the President’s Men”
26) What’s the DVD commentary you’d most like to hear? Who would be on the audio track?
“Duck Soup” and the Marx Brothers
27) Favorite movie directed by Clint Eastwood.
“Letters from Iwo Jima”
28) Paul Dooley or Kurtwood Smith?
Two great character actors!
29) Your clairvoyant moment: Make a prediction about the Oscar season.
The best 10 minutes of acting this year were when Viola Davis appeared in “Doubt.” If she doesn’t win Best Supporting Actress there is no justice. No ESP, just a hope.
30) Your hope for the movies in 2009.
I so want “Watchmen” to be GREAT.
31) What’s your top 10 of 2008? (If you have a blog and have your list posted, please feel free to leave a link to the post.)
BONUS QUESTION (to be answered after December 25):
32) What was your favorite movie-related Christmas gift that you received this year?
Watching “Period of Adjustment” with my husband and daughter.