This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Agony Booth review: I Know What You Did Last Summer series

This article looks at what is probably the most famous of the slasher movies Scream inspired, and which also turns 20 this year!
The success of Scream, like that of Halloween before it, led to imitators. Scream basically resurrected the slasher film after it had been dormant for over half a decade. That resurrection, as it turned out, also included the stupidity that (consciously or not) was a hallmark of the sub-genre.

Perhaps the most successful of the slashers that Scream inspired (which really isn’t saying much, as the wave of slashers in Scream‘s wake didn’t last as long as those inspired by Halloween) was I Know What You Did Last Summer. Like Scream, this film was penned by Kevin Williamson, who actually wrote this picture prior to Scream, but basically kept it in a drawer until Craven’s film became a huge success. Also like Scream, the main protagonist is played by an actress who first became famous for her role on the TV series Party of Five, making further comparisons to Scream inevitable.

But, again like Scream, this film’s success would lead to sequels, each becoming dumber than the last. So let’s look at all three films comprising this series.

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
Released the same year as Scream 2, which was also penned by Williamson, this movie, like Valentine, was based on a book that the finished film basically pissed on.

This movie’s Party of Five alum (Jennifer Love Hewitt) plays Julie James, a recent high school grad who’s celebrating one 4th of July evening with her boyfriend Ray Bronson (Freddie Prinze Jr.), her best friend Helen Shivers (Sarah Michelle Gellar, who was at the time making her mark playing the title role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Helen’s boyfriend Barry Cox (Ryan Phillippe). As they drive home from their night of fun on the beach at the North Carolina fishing town they call home, Barry’s drunken state leads to Ray accidentally hitting a man with their car.

Despite Julie’s protests that they should come clean and alert the police, her three friends end up agreeing to just dump the body at a nearby dock. Alas, the body turns out to be not so dead and attempts to fight them off before being dumped in the water. This leads to our quartet (including Julie, reluctantly) agreeing to never mention the incident.

A year later, a depressed Julie, who has since separated from Ray, returns home from college, where her grades are not the best. She receives an anonymous letter containing the title message. Connecting with her three friends, all of whom are conveniently still in town, Julie attempts to find out who the person who knows their dark secret is. At the same time, said person begins to torment our quartet even further with methods that include murder.

Like Valentine, this movie was credited as being based on the book of the same name. But this film does a slightly better job at capturing its source than Valentine did. I say slightly, because this didn’t stop the book’s author, Lois Duncan, from condemning the movie.

The best part of the film is the beginning when our four heroes have their accident. Their fear and the manner in which they turn on each other is interesting, and helps the movie stand out from previous slasher films. After this point, however, it’s easy to understand the reason for author Duncan’s objections to the movie. This is because after Julie gets the letter and reunites with her friends, this film becomes just one dumb slasher cliché after another. For example, Barry never once has a moment where he’s likeable. He even tells Julie and Helen, his former girlfriend, that they look like “shit run over twice” (is it any wonder that Reese Witherspoon would later dump his ass?). Hence, it’s not surprising that Barry becomes one of the victims. Other victims the film telegraphs a mile away include not only Helen, but her bitchy sister Elsa (Bridgette Wilson), as well as sad sack/asshole Max (Johnny Galecki, before he would go on to the equal hell of living under the same roof as Sheldon Cooper).

There’s also an overstated attempt to cast suspicions that Ray may be the perpetrator. And when Julie is finally face to face with her adversary (Muse Watson), we learn that he was their hit-and-run victim, who himself had committed murder that very night. That last tidbit apparently makes our heroes’ (I’m using that word generously here) hit-and-run incident apparently alright.

The fact that this film’s most famous scene (Julie venting her frustration by shouting out to ask what the killer is waiting for, with the camera strategically placed on Hewitt’s chest) is noteworthy, but not in a way that exactly makes the movie lasting art. The fact that her venting is not noticed by anybody despite taking place in a suburban street is proof that this film is just another dumb slasher movie (at least Friday the 13th had the excuse of taking place in an isolated campground miles from anywhere).

I guess I should also mention the ending where the killer, Ben Willis, turns out to be still around. But the fact that the movie asks us to side with people whose moral upstanding is dubious makes that tidbit a mere flea bite leading to the inevitable sequel.

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998)
I’m going to get this out of the way first: this film’s title is better suited for a Saturday Night Live sketch (shouldn’t this been two summers ago, anyway?). Perhaps that, in itself, should have prepared us for how moronic (even by slasher standards) this film is.

Some throwaway dialogue early in this film suggests that the first film’s final scene was just a dream. But Julie and Ray are still presumably being targeted by Ben, with Julie having brief episodes such as awaking from a dream with a screaming fit in the middle of one of her classes.

As Helen and Barry are both dead now, they’re respectively replaced here by Karla (Brandy Norwood) and her boyfriend Tyrell (Mekhi Phifer, who should’ve known better). There’s even an additional character, Will Benson (Matthew Settle), who’s smitten with Julie.

With Ray’s fishing career apparently taking up all his time, Julie agrees to go with Karla, Tyrell, and Will to the Bahamas, which Karla won a trip to via a radio contest. Ray later decides to surprise Julie by going to meet her there, but his trip is cut short when Ben appears and puts Ray in a hospital. He later escapes and somehow hijacks a boat to take him to Julie.

At the same time, this quartet’s trip to their hotel soon becomes another cliché upon cliché, with Tyrell being every bit the asshole that Ray was, and with many appearances by suspicious characters (among them Jeffrey Combs, who also should have known better) whose sole purpose is to die.

In another plot twist that’s no surprise, Will turns out to be Ben’s son, which he reveals in a revelation scene that’s basically a rip-off of the one in Scream. We also learn that Ben actually set up the radio contest that gave Karla this trip, which is almost (almost, mind you) as convoluted a scheme as the Emperor’s plan to take over the galaxy in the Star Wars prequels.

Heck, this film even gives us a copy of Julie shouting out to Ben with, once again, the camera placed to show off Hewitt’s cleavage. The only real difference this movie has with its predecessor is that Helen is still alive at the end. Scream 2, while it had its share of dumb moments, was genius compared to this mountain of stupidity. So we shouldn’t be surprised that there wouldn’t be a third film in this series, at least not involving anybody connected with the previous two movies.

I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer (2006)
Someone at Dimension apparently decided that a third entry in this series was called for, which led to this direct-to-video flick. Nobody from the previous two movies was involved with this one, and there’s only one story connection with the previous films (which I’ll get to shortly). This clean slate may have presented a nice opportunity to build this series from the ground up and even make it something good as a result. Alas, this film is really nothing special either.

This time, the focus is on five friends: Amber Williams (Brooke Nevin), her boyfriend Colby Patterson (David Paetkau), and their friends Zoe (Torrey Devitto), Roger (Seth Packard) and PJ (Clay Taylor). This quintet pull a prank at a carnival with Roger donning the Fisherman suit and hook Ben used. Soon, though, PJ winds up dead and Colby convinces the others to keep things a secret (oh, boy).

A year later, Amber starts getting texts with the “I Know…” message. She and Zoe inform Colby, but he tells them to basically fuck off, even disbelieving Amber’s later claims that she was attacked. Needless to say, the killer turns out to be Willis (now played by Don Shanks). Like the previous two films, you can pretty much tell who’s going to get it and what the last scene will be.

The first I Know… has a good opening act before going quickly downhill. I Still Know… simply inundates the viewer with its relentless stupidity from beginning to end. I’ll Always Know… is just plain dull. The lack of any generous views of Hewitt probably doesn’t help either.

There’s been some talk in recent years about a reboot of this series. But considering that reboots of Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street haven’t exactly eclipsed their respective originals, I’m not exactly holding my breath here.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Agony Booth review: How influential are film critics?

This article focuses on something I've wondered about often.
Recently, director Brett Ratner claimed that the relative failure of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which his company RatPac Entertainment co-financed, can be solely blamed on the website Rotten Tomatoes.

For those not in the know, Rotten Tomatoes collects all possible reviews of any given movie. A film is then classified as “fresh” if 60% or more of the reviews are positive. Likewise, films with 59% or lower positive reviews are classified as “rotten”. Batman v. Superman holds a 27% rating on the website.

This little tiff got me thinking about something I’ve sometimes wondered about: just how influential are film critics when it comes to a film being a success or a failure?

Rotten Tomatoes rep Jeff Voris responded to Ratner’s criticisms, saying that the “Tomatometer score, which is the percentage of positive reviews published by professional critics, has become a useful decision-making tool for fans, but we believe it’s just a starting point for them to begin discussing, debating and sharing their own opinions.”

Ratner is not the first Hollywood player to blame a film’s failure on critics. When The Lone Ranger (which holds a 31% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) bombed in 2013, Johnny Depp, who played Tonto in the film, pointed the finger for its failure not at the screenwriter, or the producers of the film, but those who pointed out how stupid it was.

“I think the reviews were written when they heard Gore [Verbinski] and Jerry [Bruckheimer] and me were going to do The Lone Ranger,” Depp said at the time. “They had expectations that it must be a blockbuster. I didn’t have any expectations of that. I never do.”

I find Depp’s lack of expectations hard to believe, since the film was made by the same people who made the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Hence I, like many others, was expecting The Lone Ranger to actually be as successful as those films. Hell, I’d say the main reason it bombed was because it was too much like the Pirates series.

Lone Ranger producer Jerry Bruckheimer chimed in, basically agreeing with Depp. “I think they were reviewing the budget, not reviewing the movie,” Bruckheimer said. “The audience doesn’t care what the budget is — they pay the same amount if it costs a dollar or 20 million dollars.” He added that the film is “one of those movies that whatever critics missed in it this time, they’ll review it in a few years and see that they made a mistake.”

While I think the only thing funny about the film was the stupid bird Depp had on his head, both Depp and Bruckheimer, like Ratner, are wasting their breath. I’ve certainly heard a number of people over the years say they don’t listen to critics. I’ve even felt the need to check out some movies despite every review saying that the movies are awful. But there are a number of films that make huge amounts of money regardless of what the reviews may say.

One example of this is 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which was savaged by critics for not being as fun as the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, in which Errol Flynn played the title role. (For the record, Thieves holds a 50% score on Rotten Tomatoes.) Most of the criticism was reserved for Kevin Costner, who played Robin Hood. Many said that he was too American for this very British role. Costner, who at the time was riding high off the Oscar-winning success of his directorial debut Dances With Wolves, would later be given a Razzie Award for his performance.

However, none of this kept Prince of Thieves from becoming the second biggest hit of 1991, trailing only Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I’ve always felt that this was because while, acting-wise, Costner certainly didn’t hold a candle to past Robins, the movie itself was exciting, with great action and wonderful supporting turns from Morgan Freeman as Robin’s Moorish friend Azeem, and the late, great Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham. Another nice touch was Sean Connery’s cameo as Richard the Lionheart, which was meaningful because Connery memorably played Robin Hood in 1976’s Robin and Marian. In addition, the film’s song, “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”, sung by Bryan Adams, became a chart-topping hit and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song. (It lost to the title song from Beauty and the Beast.)

Other movies which have become massively successful in spite of bad reviews include the 1978 Clint Eastwood comedy Every Which Way But Loose, and its 1980 sequel Any Which Way You Can. Both of these movies involve Clint doing the tough guy routine he does so well, only this time with an orangutan named Clyde.

Clint was already known and loved for his tough guy roles by this point. So pairing him with an orangutan for laughs certainly raised many eyebrows. Many critics were quick to express their disgust with such a move, but Clint’s charisma and some genuine laughs helped make these two movies among Eastwood’s most successful.

I once noted that some summer blockbusters can thrive in spite of negative reviews, if they’re exciting. One thing both Batman v. Superman and The Lone Ranger have in common are that they are not exciting. In fact, I found parts of them quite boring.

There’s also the fact that, in the age of the Internet, film critics themselves are increasing in number. One of my colleagues once wrote that the internet has destroyed the influence of film critics. I can certainly understand that stance. Before anyone knew what the hell the internet was, people such as Siskel and Ebert were, for all intents and purposes, the biggest reference points when it came to how good a movie was. In this day and age, however, pretty much anyone who can type can go online and critique a movie. Perhaps the key difference here is that some critiques are not as thorough as Siskel and Ebert’s or others who may have been inspired by them.

This may be a reason for Ratner and Depp’s criticisms. They see certain criticisms that may not be well thought out, and deduced that all such criticisms of Batman v. Superman and The Lone Ranger must be just as unfairly harsh. But film critics can be instrumental in determining if a movie is truly worthwhile. For me, they give me an idea of what to expect from a film, even if I don’t entirely end up agreeing with their final assessments.

For instance, the film CHiPs, based on the beloved 1977 – 1983 TV series, was recently released. Based on the reviews that make up its 18% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as its low box office take, I can pretty much deduce that the movie pisses on that show by resorting to stupid, unfunny gags. The fact that it was written and directed by its star Dax Shepard confirms my thoughts that he’s become just a poor man’s Adam Sandler (yeah, just let that depressing thought sink in).

But hearing Ratner and Depp complain, they seem to be comparing their respective movies to films that weren’t meant to be blockbuster hits. During his tenure on the TV series ER, George Clooney starred in the terrific movie Out of Sight. This film got glowing reviews from critics but didn’t do much in terms of making money at the box office. However, the movie was a nice rebound for Clooney after starring in Batman & Robin, and from there, he would go on to win an Oscar for Syriana. But Out of Sight wasn’t intended to be a franchise like Batman v. Superman or The Lone Ranger. So does this means critics are to blame for Out of Sight not making as much money as that same year’s Saving Private Ryan? By the logic Ratner and Depp are presenting, this is certainly the case.

In short, there is and always will be a place for movie critics. By blaming them for essentially doing their jobs and pointing out how bad a certain work is represents, for me, the height of laziness. This is because people such as Ratner and Depp think that bad things that are said about their work are the reason their work isn’t successful, rather than attempting to see if there’s any validity in such criticisms.

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t disagree with critics. Lord knows I’ve certainly done my share of that. What I’m saying is that pointing fingers in this manner is counterproductive. Disagreeing with critics is one thing, but actually saying they’re the ones to blame for a movie’s failure doesn’t do much to turn things around for filmmakers. Maybe examining the work being criticized to see exactly why it didn’t generate enthusiasm among audiences would be a more productive approach.

Movie criticism should be viewed for what it is, which is simply a tool to indicate how a work has turned out. It should not be the end-all-be-all of how a person responds to criticism of their work. Viewing criticism in this manner ends up doing more damage to said person’s credibility rather than any work they may put out.