The Good, the Bad and the Godawful: 21st-Century Movie Reviews

The Good, the Bad and the Godawful: 21st-Century Movie Reviews

by Kurt Loder


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The former Rolling Stone writer and MTV host takes off from classic Roger Ebert and sails boldly into the new millennium.

Millions grew up reading the author's record reviews and watching him on MTV's "The Week in Rock." In this collection of more than 200 movie reviews from and, more recently, the Reason magazine Website, plus sidebars exclusive to this volume, Loder demonstrates his characteristic wry voice and finely honed observations. The author shines when writing on the best that Hollywood and indie filmmakers have to offer, and his negative reviews are sometimes more fun than his raves. This freewheeling survey of the wild, the wonderful and the altogether otherwise is an indispensable book for any film buff.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312641634
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 11/08/2011
Pages: 560
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

KURT LODER currently writes about movies for REASON ONLINE. He was staff writer and senior editor at ROLLING STONE for nine years, where he remains a contributing editor; writer and host of MTV's THE WEEK IN ROCK for more than a decade; and movie reviewer for He is the co-author of Tina Turner's autobiography, I, TINA, a NEW YORK TIMES bestseller.

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The Good, the Bad and the Godawful

21st-Century Movie Reviews

By Kurt Loder

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2011 Kurt Loder
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3865-5



There's something especially dispiriting about a big movie that fails. We may stumble out of a small, brain-dead comedy likeThe Dukes of Hazzardfiguring the $50 million it cost to make must have been spent mostly on cash-kindled after-work barbecues for the cast and crew; but we know that making movies is an expensive gamble, and we accept that this was simply a dumb one that didn't pay off. However, when a picture's budget swells beyond the $100 million mark, the huge outlay can stir larger thoughts, usually involving starving third-world children. Some of these big gambles do pay off. James Cameron spent a reported $200 million to make the 1997Titanic, but the movie had a cast of nearly 140 performers and a behind-the-scenes crew — from editors, designers, and effects technicians to drivers, accountants, and animal trainers — that numbered more than 1,500 people, none of whom was working for free. No one now begrudges that expenditure, least of all the movie's producers:Titanicwas a well-made film that went on to gross more than $1.8billionworldwide.

On the other hand, twelve years later it was decided that a good use for $200 million would be to hand it over to the director of themovies in an attempt to revive the moribundTerminatorfranchise. The result,Terminator Salvation, was a botch of such sobering proportions that even the producers' thoughts may have turned to starving third-world children. Bad big movies like this are often connected to franchises — either in the hope of sustaining one, as withTerminator Salvation, or of launching one, as was the purpose ofThe Golden Compass(a movie that cost $180 million to make and was stillborn at the American multiplex). Other big-budget bombs are uninspired exploitations of evergreen genres, often involving swords, sandals, or sorcery; popular novels, cartoons, or video games; endlessly time-tested stories, like Ridley Scott'sRobin Hood(another $200 million down the drain); or of the movie-epic form itself — a determined attempt to paint a huge, sprawling picture that no one wants to see (Australia, coming up).

"Bad" is a subjective term, of course, and many movies that a rational person — that would be you and me — might dismiss as dreck actually make money. This is annoying. Despite my conclusion in the review that follows,The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperorsucked in sizable grosses worldwide, such that yet another installment of the franchise is apparently in the works.Tombis still a silly movie, in an uninteresting way, but there's clearly a large audience — presumably with a lot of spare time on its hands — that doesn't care. I envy them their spacious capacity for cinematic pleasure.

What all bad big-budget movies have in common is the central question they raise: not why they were made — like other movies, they too were gambles — buthow. Did no one notice how rickety the script was, how lifeless the performances, how dismal the cinematography? These are questions that have no answers — none that anyone involved will volunteer, anyway — but let us nevertheless contemplate them once again.


Oz Fest

There's a truly heartbreaking moment about two-thirds of the way through Australia,director Baz Luhrmann's cinematic tribute to his Antipodean homeland. Although the story is set Down Under, the picture is essentially — in fact proudly — an old-fashioned western, complete with plucky widow trying to save her ranch from an evil cattle baron and handsome cowboy helping her do it. After sitting through about two hours of campfires, cattle drives, and mad stampedes, we feel that the movie must soon come to an end. But then — this is the heartbreaking part — it suddenly turns into a World War II battle film and it just keeps going. For almost another hour. I nearly cried.

It's hard to imagine what Luhrmann thought he was doing with this picture. Clearly he intended to make an epic; and if we were to judge only by the film's interminable running time and its blockbusting budget (reported to be north of $120 million, although eased by Australian tax breaks), he might be said to have succeeded. But while the movie is packed with ravishing sights — palm tree'd billabongs, baking outback vistas — its story is such a fusty mélange of western-movie clichés that we might as well be camped out in the old cowpoke canyons of Utah, listening to the ghost of John Ford wondering who forgot to shoot the writers.

Briefly — to employ a word that's clearly not a part of Luhrmann's professional lexicon — it's September of 1939, the year Australia joined the U.K. in declaring war on Germany. Oblivious to this development, the posh Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) has pursued her wandering husband from England to the Australian cattle ranch he owns in the parched outback. Upon arrival, she discovers he's been murdered, allegedly by an Aboriginal shaman called King George (David Gulpilil). The cattle baron, Carney (Bryan Brown), makes an oily offer of assistance: he'll take the ranch off the widow's hands for a price, and in the process complete his monopoly of the country's beef supply. Sarah decides instead to make a go of the place herself; but the only way to raise enough money to do so is to herd the fifteen hundred resident livestock off to Darwin, hundreds of miles away, to be sold. This seems an unlikely possibility — until a master cattle drover named, well, Drover (Hugh Jackman) turns up.

Naturally, these two are an ill-matched pair. Sarah is a prissy tenderfoot (Kidman might be auditioning for the Katharine Hepburn role in a remake of The African Queen), while Drover is a rough-hewn natural man, most at home under the sun and the stars, venturing into town only for an occasional round of hearty barroom fistfights. (Jackman's matey charisma is at full voltage here, but it's no match for the picture's energy-draining sprawl.) After Sarah fires her late husband's devious ranch foreman, Fletcher (David Wenham), who takes the spread's best men along with him on his way out the gate, Drover is forced to assemble a new crew of cowpunchers from a slim list of candidates. He winds up with an alcoholic accountant (Jack Thompson), a pair of Aboriginal ranch hands, a mixed-race boy named Nullah (thirteen-year-old first-time actor Brandon Walters, who narrates the picture and is a real find), and, of course, Sarah herself. ("I will have you know, I'm as capable as any man!") So off they ride, into the flatlands of cowboy banality.

Fletcher and his nasty-looking henchman are of course secretly in league with Carney — thus the stampedes and water-hole poisonings as they harass Sarah's party from every perimeter in an effort to prevent her from reaching Darwin. At this point, it's heavily inevitable that Sarah and Drover should come together in the desert wastes for a silly silent waltz and a chaste kiss — although the very Spielbergian starry sky under which they do so is a little unexpected. What I couldn't figure out was how the skeletal King George — Nullah's grandfather, we learn — kept turning up at various far-removed locations saying things like, "I will sing you to the place where the rivers meet," when Drover and company were all on horseback and he was on foot. (This is perhaps unremarkable in the Aboriginal worldview.) As for the strange, continual references toThe Wizard of Oz, I'm sure they're a salute to the transcendent magic of movies and not to the director himself.

In any event, Drover gets the cattle to Darwin, scotching Carney's nefarious scheme and saving Sarah's ranch. In any sane picture, credits would now roll. But no. Having secured the money to keep her ranch, Sarah suddenly decides to sell it. Then she decides not to. Then she invites Drover to accompany her to a fancy-dress ball. He refuses to go; then he changes his mind, and eventually makes an entrance amid the party lights in a blindingly elegant white dinner jacket. Then Nullah is snatched by missionaries and taken to a nearby island reserved for the forced housing of mixed-race children (an Australian historical issue that may not resonate here). Then the Japanese navy, fresh from its assault on Pearl Harbor, unleashes a fleet of bombers on Darwin, engulfing the city in a transparently digital conflagration. Then Drover disappears. Sarah thinks he's been killed. Then he returns, and he thinks Sarah's been killed. Then they realize they both were wrong. Then it looks like they may finally come together for good, with Nullah — who's not dead either — as their honorary offspring. But no. And still no credits are rolling.

Luhrmann's highly operatic sensibility (he directed his own production of La Bohème on Broadway a few years back) seems best suited to over-the-top pop material like Moulin Rouge. Here, his attempted blendering of some of the hoariest elements of old cowboy and war movies with squirts of historical instruction and sloshes of social consciousness lacks the wild style of that earlier film; it's just ungainly. Did he really think there'd be an audience thirsting for nearly three hours of this? Or was he simply too long out in the brain-roasting Aussie sun? (November 2008)

The Golden Compass


Here's a magical-mystery movie with everything money can buy: big-name stars, boffo effects, a story presold (somewhat) in a British cult fantasy novel. The only thing The Golden Compass lacks, alas, is magic. And its mystery is a little too mysterious.

The picture looks great — director Chris Weitz and his town-size team of digital technicians have created a dazzling fantasy world of misty cities, gleaming dirigibles, and intricate steampunk gadgetry. But in attempting to cram as much as possible of Philip Pullman's four-hundred-page novel into a two-hour movie, Weitz — who wrote the script after nixing Tom Stoppard's pass at one — gives us both way too much and much too little. We're so pounded down by all the exposition in the beginning, and then by the stampede of daemons and bears and mechanical insects arriving in its wake, that fans of the book may slump in despair, and nonfans in simple indifference.

The story is set in a parallel world that resembles Victorian England. There's even a parallel Oxford University, where spunky little Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is happily installed as the ward of the scientist-explorer Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, who's in the movie for about as long as it might take you or me to hail a cab). The freethinking Asriel is a heretical figure to the sinister Magisterium (think the Catholic Church — Pullman did, although New Line Cinema really hopes you won't). Both Asriel and the Magisterium are obsessed with something called Dust, a shimmery substance that no one entirely understands, least of all us. About the time Asriel decides to take off for the northern polar regions in search of the source of this stuff, the glamorous Mrs. Coulter (blazingly blond Nicole Kidman) arrives on the scene, making a runway entrance into a vast university dining hall that's so blatantly Hogwartsian, you half expect to see Albus Dumbledore go tottering by.

By this point, you'll have noticed that all the characters in the movie are walking around with little animals perched on their shoulders or yipping around their feet. These are the above-noted daemons — advisers, protectors, stand-ins for the soul, you might say. Little kids have cute daemons: butterflies, birds, fuzzy quadrupeds of various endearing sorts. The evil operatives of the Magisterium lean more toward serpents. Mrs. Coulter's daemon is a monkey, which I found to be a stumper.

Anyway, Mrs. Coulter offers to take Lyra to "the North," as it's called (think Norway), unaware that Lyra had already been hoping to follow in Asriel's footsteps and maybe get to the bottom of this Dust thing. By now we've also learned that a group called the Gobblers — nefarious minions of the Magisterium — have been kidnapping children, and before long we're further informed that they've been spiriting the kids off to a snowbound laboratory to perform alarming experiments on them. Lyra is enraged, but Mrs. Coulter takes a suspiciously sympathetic view of the Magisterians: "They keep things working by telling people what to do."

I haven't mentioned the alethiometer — the titular Golden Compass. This is a nifty device that can tell all truths and reveal all that others wish to hide (if I may slip into the fancy-speak of the story for a moment). Nor have I touched upon the armored Ice Bears — and there's a whole kingdom full of them. Lyra recruits one of these lumbering creatures, named Iorek, to accompany her on her polar quest. She also gets backup from another outfit called the Gyptians, who sail about in a piratey schooner. Then there's a drawling cowboy "aeronaut" named Scoresby (Sam Elliott — even his rabbit daemon has a cracker accent) and a sky full of fierce witches armed with bows and arrows. I'm leaving stuff out, believe me.

Admirers of Pullman's book, who've invariably followed this tale through to its third-volume conclusion, marvel at the story's scope and purpose. The movie strives mightily to cram in hints of those things, but the result is mostly clutter and confusion. (In this regard, lopping off the first book's ending, which had actually been shot, is something of a puzzlement.)

I'm guessing part of the fault for the picture's shortcomings must lie with New Line micromanagement. Having grossed billions with its Lord of the Rings trilogy, the company surely latched on to the similarly tripartite His Dark Materials with visions of another corporate cash-wallow. But this one ain't that one. The first Rings movie set up its story with ravishing clarity: good Hobbits, bad wizards, evil ring. The Golden Compass (which reportedly cost $180 million to make, approximately two-thirds of the budget for the entire Rings trilogy) buries us in so much desperate explication that the shape of the story never emerges. The picture ends with the promise — or the threat — of a sequel. Given the numbers, and this movie's probable reception, I'm betting it never gets made. (December 2007)

Angels & Demons

Talk Show

The hardest thing about wrestling a Dan Brown novel into submission for movie purposes would have to be the wads of undigested explication that clog the author's narratives. Brown and his reclusive wife-cum-research assistant, Blythe, appear never to have encountered an arcane factoid they could resist cramming into one of his tales. It needn't even be factual. (Their inaccuracies have been widely derided.) The result of this book-crafting technique has been to give Brown's wooden characters far too many things to explain and instruct us in. This was already a problem for director Ron Howard in his film version of The Da Vinci Code three years ago. Now, taking a whack at Angels & Demons — the opus that preceded Da Vinci but has been extensively rewrought into a sequel here — Howard has thrown up his hands and gone native.

Tom Hanks is back, minus the mullet under which he wandered through Da Vinci, as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon. And once again he's teamed with a female sidekick — this time a "bio-entanglement physicist" (an actual career path, wonderfully enough) named Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer). Like Langdon, Vittoria is a stick figure whose sole purpose (no chemistry, please!) is to stir the vats of esoteric Brownian blather. She spends most of her time listening to Langdon say things like, "It's the ancient Illuminati threat!" Occasionally, though, she gets to inject some big science into the proceedings, causing Langdon to make superfluous comments like, "You're talking about the moment of creation!" There's more to the movie, it must be said; but mainly it's more of that.

Langdon has been summoned to Rome by the Vatican, which is having a terribly bad day. The pope has just died and the church has gathered its cardinals from around the world to elect from among themselves a successor. But the four frontrunners — the preferiti — have been kidnapped, and word has been received that one of these hostages will be killed at the top of each hour in a countdown to midnight, at which time the entire Vatican will be blown up by a single drop of antimatter stolen from CERN, the big physics research center near Geneva. (In his book, Brown offers an earnest explanation of antimatter which, unfortunately, has been dismissed as fantasy by CERN itself. So the antimatter we're dealing with in the movie is essentially just some pretty nasty stuff, and let's move on.)


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