Lone Great Features of Six Otherwise Terrible Movies

by Mindy Hung

1. Music and Lyrics (2007)

The first 2 minutes and 31 seconds of Music and Lyrics contain some fine filmmaking. A caption tells us that we’re watching a music video from 1984 called “Pop! Goes My Heart” by Pop. Everything about it is spot on: the black and white set, Scott Porter’s big hair and loping dance moves (Jason Street from “Friday Night Lights”!), and Hugh Grant, bless him, mime-sings his little heart out.

And let’s talk about the song. From the keyboard flourishes, the falsetto of the “Gold and silv-ah-hah!” leading into the bright harmonies of the chorus, the handclap punctuating the “Pop!” (and the sweet countering “Pop goes my heart”), the Casio synthesizer bridge and closing — it’s just perfect, a perfect pop song, quintessentially 80s, and very catchy.

But then the plot cranks into gear. And pretty soon, it’s clear that Music and Lyrics will never live up to the promise of its opening.

There are plenty of bad movies that have one brilliant sequence, one great performance, one raft of goodness in a sea of terrible. Somewhere, someone had an inkling of how to do something well, which makes it mystifying why the rest of the film is such a clunker. The jewels don’t redeem the crud they’re plucked from. Mostly, these isolated moments make us ask why, why can’t the rest of the picture be as good? And in some cases, they can make already-bad cinema seem even worse.

And so in Music and Lyrics, Hugh Grant, playing the washed up half of a Wham!-like pop duo, shows more chemistry in his 2 minutes and 31 seconds with Scott Porter than he does in the hour and change he spends with Drew Barrymore, the substitute plant-waterer-turned-lyricist-turned-woman-of-Hugh’s-dreams.

Sure, Music and Lyrics tries to send up other genres and singers with some frantic dancing and busy music. No dice. The filmmakers wisely choose to reprise Pop! Goes My Heart at the end (pop-up video style). It’s the only thing that comes close to washing the taste of desperation and mediocrity from one’s mouth.

2. Gangs of New York (2002)

There’s a fine line between epic and ridiculous. Guess which side Martin Scorsese ends up on? Everything about Gangs of New York is way too much: the emotions are overwrought, the colors are garish, the run time is 52 minutes too long and Cameron Diaz is alarmingly and unappetizingly rangy. The film depicts bloody mob wars in the Five Points section of Manhattan. Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) infiltrates the gang of Bill the Butcher, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, in order to avenge the death of his father. Cameron Diaz, looking like she wandered in from an Oliver!-themed Vogue shoot, plays love interest Jenny Everdeane.

There one glory of this movie is Daniel Day-Lewis’ accent. What in heaven’s name am I tawking about?

No one knows what variety of accents New Yorkers had in the 1800s, but while DiCaprio and Diaz sound like they’re going to offer you a bowl of frosted Lucky Charms, Day-Lewis took an Irish lilt, gave it a modern Big Apple Squawk and ended up with a deeply bizarre missing-link accent that is both glorious and unsettling. Once you hear the hoofbeats of Day-Lewis’s little Eohippus, you can’t un-hear them, and maybe you don’t want to.

3. Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991)

Kevin Costner, as Robin of Locksley, robs from the rich and gives to the poor, or something like that. Kevin Costner seems confused. He speaks haltingly and sounds like he’s from California. When he’s supposed to be thinking, he creases his forehead.

There is one good thing about this movie, and that’s Alan Rickman, who plays the evil Sheriff of Nottingham.

Yes, the line about “call[ing] off Christmas,” is cartoonish — Rickman sputters and flaps his way through his villainy, essentially playing the Sheriff of Notthingham as Daffy Duck. But combine Loony Tunes with Shakespearean training, and you get, basically, the best thing ever. Mel Blanc would be jealous.

4. The Stepford Wives (1975)

Ira Levin, man, why don’t we talk about him much anymore? Novelist Levin gave us Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, two stories that underscored the uneasy relationship between the sexes against the backdrop of the women’s movement.

But the original film version of The Stepford Wives (let’s not even mention the remake) lacks the nimble humor and creepiness of Rosemary’s Baby, despite a screenplay by William Goldman of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride fame. Is this story of a New York family’s move to Connecticut town filled with vacuous housewives trying to be a domestic drama about the frustrations women and men experience within marriage?

Walter Eberhart, played by Peter Masterson (father of Mary Stewart Masterson, who plays the daughter in this movie) seems mildly frustrated by his messy house, but not enough to have his wife, Joanna (Katharine Ross) replaced by a (SPOILER) robotic (and significantly larger-breasted) version of herself.

So, is it a science fiction thriller? Maybe a satire? In one moment, it is. Frustrated by the passivity of the women of Stepford, New York transplants Joanna and Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) form a women’s lib-style consciousness-raising group.

In this moment, the sharing of feelings goes completely awry. (Also, GINGER!) Would that the rest of the film had followed suit, but Joanna spends most of the movie wondering if there’s something in the water. Maybe there was, Joanna, maybe there was.

5. Ski Party (1965)

Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello cornered the summer cinema with their beach movies. But what to do about winter? The answer was Ski Party, starring Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman as a couple of hapless collegians who disguise themselves as frumpy Englishwomen in order to learn how to be successful with the ladies.

This movie doesn’t pretend to be brilliant, but there is one insanely wonderful segment in Ski Party, and that moment comes courtesy of a young James Brown.

This clip also gives you a good idea of the quality acting and dialogue — and the lily-whiteness of the movie (I’m looking at you, headband girl). But really, the only thing better than James Brown’s singing and dancing is his Alpine cardigan.

6. Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Europeans swan around looking confused, uneasy. No one seems certain about what happened when. It’s what I expect it must be like to await trial at the Hague. The best feature?

At least you learn to play Nim.

Mindy Hung is a master of… suspense (see what I did there?). Her novel, Trip, will be released by Outpost19 in 2012.