Richard Carrier asks us to come up with pairs of films which are very similar in theme but worlds apart in quality.
“I’m not looking for movies that are exactly or even mostly the same, but that are enough the same that you can compare and contrast them fruitfully. Yet one is a major cash-earning pile of puke, and the other is a far lesser known masterpiece of good writing and acting. It’s a ‘Don’t watch that. Watch this.’ kind of game. How many movie-pairs like that can you come up with?”
Richard’s pair are The Other Woman (2014) and If I Were You (2012), both films about two women hand-wringing over a man. Richard considers the former “nearly every kind of awful and sets women back thirty years”, and the latter “a fantastic film, unique, funny, engaging, well-written, well-directed, and superbly performed”. Though the critics happen to disagree with Richard (both films were panned), and while I wouldn’t be caught watching either one, I do like Richard’s exercise. Here are ten pairs I came up with, in no particular order. The box-office success of the bad one, and obscurity of the good one, isn’t always absolute, though I tried to follow that criterion. Some of my good choices ended up successful despite their indie framework.
1. Underdog Sports The Karate Kid (1984), by John Avildsen. 1 star. My blood congeals whenever I think of this film, which in many ways defined the ’80s era I grew up in. “Be whatever you want”, the sky’s the limit; the importance of the nuclear family; underdogs who can smack down bullies twice their size with ludicrous last-minute victories. Films like Hoosiers and Rudy follow the same formula and are just as bad. Whip It! (2009), by Drew Barrymore. 4 stars. This is a rare and refreshing example of how to do an underdog sports film exactly right. First, it uses the edgy sport of roller derby, which I’d always associated with white trailer trash, and which in some ways it is, but also tied to third-wave feminism. Second — perhaps most importantly — the underdog team is allowed to be true to form and, yes, actually lose in the end when it counts (Ellen Page’s amazing whip doesn’t work miracles like Ralph Macchio’s silly crane-kick, or Rudy’s quarterback sacking which got him carried off the field in victory). Third, it has the wisdom to not take itself too seriously. I reviewed this film at length here.
2. White Man Leads the “Other” Avatar (2009), by James Cameron. 1 star. I could substitute many films here — Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, etc. — but I’m going with Avatar, since I despise the work of James Cameron like no other, but also for the sci-fic context, which puts new color on the colonial theme. But make no mistake, it’s the same tired formula of a white man stumbling into a culture of “noble but benighted” primitives, and then leading them against his fellow colonials, while also making sure to save them from themselves. On top of that, the film is completely bereft of narrative innovation. District 9 (2009), by Neil Blomkamp. 3 ½ stars. Lobster-like aliens hunker down in South African ghettos, and are subject to apartheid. But when the white hero turns on his employer and begins to fight alongside the aliens, he does so remarkably out of crude self-interest, not altruism. He’s despicable in many ways, which makes him so believable. District 9 is an action-packed sci-fic thriller than tackles racism/colonialism in a very different way from Avatar, through a gritty lens that doesn’t allow us fantasy images of ourselves.
3. Slasher Hostel (2006), by Eli Roth. 2 stars. As slasher films go, you can do worse by character development, and there are some clever plot twists. But it’s ultimately torture porn and, most problematically, depends on a third-act redemption which turns the tables on the baddies in a preposterous way. Martyrs (2008), by Pascal Laugier. 4 stars. Again we have victims strapped in a chair and tortured graphically (and creatively), but this time the torture doesn’t encourage us to want more, or “fuel our blood lust” even as it horrifies. Just the opposite, it puts us through an entirely unpleasant ordeal and makes us crave the victim’s liberation however futile. It’s an intelligently crafted horror piece that explores the whacky idea of “transfiguration” through pain.
4. Post-9/11 Rendition Rendition (2007), by Gavin Hood. 1 star. It appropriately calls out rendition torture, but with a hollow plot and cheesy script designed for no other purpose than to pound us with screeds. It’s possibly one of the worst films I’ve ever seen — an exhibit-A for the cardinal sin of subordinating cinematic art to sermonizing. Zero Dark Thirty (2012), by Kathryn Bigelow. 5 stars. Contra criticisms, it’s no apology for the use of rendition torture, and it never pats Americans on the back in spite of the various triumphs in the hunt for Bin Laden. It actually makes us complicit in all the moral ambiguities involved. This is Kathryn Bigelow’s best film to date: finer, more mature, and even more disciplined than The Hurt Locker for which she won an award.
5. Superhero Satire Kick-Ass (2010), by Matthew Vaughn. 2 stars. The concept is great, but Kick-Ass isn’t nearly as transgressive as it pretends to be. Chloe Meretz is the best part (11-year old girls who use filthy language are entertaining in the extreme), but ultimately these losers are made to be too sympathetic in a story that’s surprisingly mainstream. Super (2010), by James Gunn. 4 stars. This is everything Kick-Ass should have been. Here the superhero conventions are thoroughly upended, making us laugh as our heroes take pipe wrenches to innocent people who simply cut in line at the movies and key other peoples’ cars. Their stated mission is to fight crime, but Ellen Page’s character doesn’t really give a rat’s ass about that, as long as she can beat the living shit out of someone. I mean, watch this priceless scene.
6. Lifelong Romance The Notebook (2004), by Nick Cassavetes. 1 star. Sappy, falsely optimistic, serving up a cliched fairy-tale of everlasting love. Audiences eat this stuff right up; it wrecks my digestion just thinking about it. It’s the worst kind of melodrama that pleases soap-opera addicts — manipulative and predictable in every frame — but then it’s based on a Nicholas Sparks book. It delivers as expected. Blue Valentine (2010), by Derek Cianfrance. 4 ½ stars. The best lifelong-relationship film I’ve seen counters The Notebook at every gloating turn. It even uses the same male lead of Ryan Gosling. He and Michelle Williams are completely compelling in their roles, in a story that captures the start and end points of a relationship that starts in puppy love but is quickly followed by stagnation. It’s never clear what was lost along the way — perhaps just a natural deterioration into pointless existence and loss of affection that characterizes so many relationships. It’s a thoroughly depressing film, and for that reason didn’t stand a chance at the box office.
7. Vampire Youth Romance Twilight (2008), by Catherine Hardwicke. 1 star. Garbage that wets the panties of teen girls. Nothing more need be said. Let the Right One In (2008), by Tomas Alfredson. 5 stars. Leave it to the Swedes. Here we have a vampire girl who bonds with a 12-year old boy bullied by his classmates, a love story that inverts Twilight in every possible way. Interesting that it came out the same year, and is also based on a book.
8. Nuclear Bombing The Day After (1983), by Nicholas Meyer. 2 stars. I remember when this aired back in my teen years like it was yesterday. It showed what a nuclear attack would really do, and it rocked the entire country. It was an educational exercise that was necessary in the Reagan years, but the problem is that it hasn’t aged well at all. Acting performances are embarrassingly bad, and the entire production reeks of the amateur. Threads (1985), by Mick Jackson. 5 stars. This is basically a British version of The Day After, born of the same intent but vastly superior — and even more traumatizing. And keep in mind The Day After upset Americans so much that people were telephoning the government to ask if this is what a nuclear attack would really do. Threads takes place in the town of Sheffield, and when the bombs strike, things are as ugly as it gets; the aftermath sends humanity hurtling back into a primitive age of famine, lawlessness, and mental retardation. This one has aged perfectly.
9. Light-hearted Comedy Evoking Social Issues Little Miss Sunshine (2006), by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. 1 star. This film represents everything I hate about these kind of comedies: characters who make me want to smash the screen every time they open their mouths (or in the case of one, who refuses to open his mouth for a pretentiously philosophical vow of silence). It’s widely cherished, but there’s too much idiotic cuteness for its own good. Juno (2007), by Jason Reitman. 5 stars. Sorry to use yet a third Ellen Page movie on this list, but this masterpiece gets everything right in a genre I normally deplore — and which I feel compelled to contrast with Little Miss Sunshine, since the two films are often uncritically lumped together. Juno’s characters are all genuinely endearing, even a stepmother who for once isn’t villified. It’s also genius for fooling the pro-life crowd into thinking it endorses their agenda. Even if you know nothing about scriptwriter Diablo Cody (a pro-choice feminist) and of course Ellen Page herself, the film establishes a girl’s choice to have her baby without glorifying teen pregnancy, and that she would be supported by her friends and family regardless of her choice. It takes choice for granted, assumes hard-won rights, and doesn’t need to preach. Above all, it’s honest in its simplicity.
10. Gospel Drama The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), by Martin Scorsese. 1 star. The only good thing about this film is the scoring done by Peter Gabriel (one of my favorite musicians of all time). But the film on whole is a laughable spin on the gospel story, portraying a sentimental Jesus in the midst of a “cultural” milieu that represents nothing close to that of the first century, which is part of what it largely aims for. Jesus’ last temptation — a relationship with Mary Magdalene during his passion on the cross — fails in every way. The Passion of the Christ (2004), by Mel Gibson. 3 ½ stars. For all the controversy, it’s no more anti-Semitic than the gospels themselves, and actually even less so than Matthew and John. In some ways, it even goes against the anti-Semitism of the medieval source material of Catherine Emmerich. For what it attempts — a medieval mythologizing of the passion — it does quite well. Unless you really know what you’re doing, traditional passions like Gibson’s work better than modernized ones like Scorsese’s. Note: I choose the above Jesus films deliberately, because Martin Scorsese is a genius and one of my favorite film directors; he was simply clueless on this subject. Mel Gibson is a notorious asshole, but a decent enough director when he applies himself, and his Passion achievement has been unfortunately obscured under misrepresentations and non-sequiturs.