On Second Thoughts, It Was a Dumb Movie

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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These are critically acclaimed films starring top actors and made by respected writers, directors and producers. Yet they somehow just don't sit right the next day.

Rob Roy (1995)

Many of the IMDb reviewers are in my corner. This was a complete piece of dreck, and I am still astonished it got the good reviews it did. Rob Roy (Liam Neeson) is an enforcer for a local nobleman, but sees an opportunity to move up in the world by buying cattle. He borrows the money from the nobleman, but a scheming bad guy steals the money, and Rob Roy takes to rustling the nobleman's cattle to pay back the debt.

If it's gross and unappealing, it's in this film. We see Rob Roy's wife urinating on the beach, then raped by the scheming bad guy. Rob Roy hides from pursuers by slitting the belly of a dead cow, then crawling inside. It's The Empire Strikes Back without the entertainment or visual appeal.

There are a couple of good moments. Probably the best is where Rob Roy is about to be hanged from a bridge. He whips the rope around the neck of the bad guy and jumps off, forcing the bad guy's friends to cut him loose. Only why didn't they simply haul Rob Roy up a couple of feet, take the rope off the bad guy's neck, then drop him again? John Hurt is thoroughly loathsome as the bad guy and got an Oscar nomination.

Rob Roy and the bad guy duke it out in a sword fight that was touted as exciting and highly realistic, but struck me as slow and plodding. One nice point was Rob Roy grabbing his opponent's sword by the blade. I have often wondered why we don't see this more often, since many swords don't have overly sharp edges, and a cut hand definitely beats being run through in any event. Rob Roy triumphs, and the nobleman sadly picks up a locket from the dead bad guy. We are left to surmise it's his degenerate and illegitimate son.

This is the kind of movie that makes you want to take a shower, even if you're not the one who crawls into the dead cow.

The Patriot (2000)

This film angered lots of Britons, and I don't blame them a bit. In our defense, Mel Gibson isn't entirely ours (he's Australian by upbringing) and between this film and Braveheart, it looks like he still has a real problem with the penal colony business. Plus, that charge at Gallipoli really was a badly thought out affair.

A rousing Revolutionary War epic that just leaves a rotten taste the next day. Gibson is Benjamin Martin, a former soldier in the French and Indian War who is initially opposed to the Revolution. We also discover later that he is haunted by an atrocity of his own from the French and Indian War. One of Martin's sons enlists, however. Martin is dragged in when a battle erupts near his farm and wounded soldiers from both sides are brought to the farm for aid. The first British officer on the scene thanks Martin for his care of the British wounded but his commander orders the Colonial wounded killed and the farm burned because it sheltered rebel soldiers. He also has captured Martin's son and orders him hanged. Martin protests that, as a uniformed courier, his son is entitled to be treated as a prisoner of war. One of Martin's other sons attempts to intervene and is killed. Martin rounds up his surviving sons and lays an ambush for the column with his captive son and rescues him.

With nothing left to lose, Martin launches a guerilla war. Now some of the only true guerilla warfare during the Revolution did happen in South Carolina, though you wonder why we never hear about Francis Marion. As problems mount, Lord Cornwallis eventually gives Martin's enemy, Colonel Tavington, free rein to suppress the attacks, while keeping plausible deniability for himself. Tavington eventually herds the population of a village frequented by Martin's band into a church and sets it on fire. Among the dead is the wife of another of Martin's sons. The son pursues Tavington and knocks him off his horse, but Tavington is only stunned and kills him. Frankly, he deserved to die. Instead of putting a musket shot into Tavington or covering him from a safe distance for the minute or two it would take his companions to arrive, he walks up alone and gets himself shot. Tavington and Martin finally meet at the battle of Guilford Court House where Martin kills Tavington.

There were atrocities in the Revolution, as in all wars, but the British have about as clean a record as any nation when it comes to fighting by the rules. There was a British officer in the Carolinas who recruited locals for the British militia through the incentive of not burning their farms down, and probably the grisliest warfare took place in upstate New York where the British inspired the Iroquois to make war on the colonists. There was a real officer named Tarleton at Cowpens who had a reputation for savagery, and Tavington is probably modeled on him. Certainly neither side gave prisoners of war more than the barest provisions or housing. But wholesale massacre of wounded soldiers or civilians by British troops just didn't happen.

Neat story: scenes in Charleston were actually filmed in the wonderful old section of that city (well worth a visit) and the city took down street lights and signs, and allowed the filmmakers to cover sidewalks with planks. But they drew the line at fire hydrants since they didn't want to leave this priceless colonial section unprotected. So in some scenes where ladies are seen chatting on the sidewalk in hoop skirts, they're actually camouflaging fire hydrants.

Cold Mountain (2003)

A critically acclaimed film starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger, who walks away with the film. Inman (Jude Law – he apparently has no first name) and Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) fall in love after a few days’ acquaintance just as the Civil War begins. They worship each other from afar until Inman is wounded in battle. He survives the Battle of the Crater, a real event in 1864 that should by all rights have ended the Civil War if the Union Army had been prepared to exploit it. Inman is wounded later that evening attempting to flush out Union snipers. While recuperating, he realizes he will only be sent back to the fighting and might not be so lucky next time, so he deserts and heads home to Cold Mountain, requiring him to travel on foot the length of North Carolina while evading militia patrols looking for runaway slaves and deserters.

On the way he meets a real zoo. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Kurt Russell turn up, eye patch and all, saying “I’m Ssssnake Plisssken.” It's almost a Civil War Mad Max. The first character he meets is a minister who is attempting to murder his pregnant slave to avoid scandal. Inman rescues the slave and leaves the minister tied up in town with a note in his mouth telling the whole story. Not long after, he runs into the minister in the woods. The minister has been driven out of town in disgrace. So he and Inman team up. Does this make the slightest sense? If you’d exposed me to public humiliation, caused me to lose my job and my home, I’d brain you with a rock at the first opportunity. But they get along famously. They are soon captured by militia, but in a skirmish with Union troops, Inman is the only survivor.

Inman then stumbles onto the shanty of a weird goat herder, who nurses him back to health. Then he comes on a remote farmhouse inhabited by a young widow and her baby. He saves the widow from being raped and having her only remaining food stolen by marauding Union soldiers. Now this is all happening in the fall of 1864, long before Sherman got to the Carolinas, and if there was any part of the Confederacy least likely to see Union soldiers, it was inland North Carolina. But here they’ve turned up twice.

Meanwhile Cold Mountain is being terrorized by the local militia, which has managed to recruit all the local misfits too repulsive even for the army. Ruby Thewes (Zellweger) turns up and teaches Ada how to survive under adverse conditions. Inman finally makes it home, is reunited with Ada, and ends up in a fight for his life with the militia. All the time he was gone, Ada has been haunted by a vision of Inman returning surrounded by crows, and she has taken that as a portent of his death. Only one militia man survives, and he and Inman shoot at each other. The militia man is killed, but Inman is fatally wounded and as he returns to Ada, she sees her vision fulfilled literally.

Not every movie has to have a happy ending, but a tragic ending has to be dramatically defensible (Gallipoli, Glory, and Million Dollar Baby being three examples where the tragic ending is eminently justified), and this one isn’t. Like the first season finale of 24, the tragedy is plugged in at the last moment for no other apparent purpose than to jerk the audience around emotionally. I didn’t see the first season finale of 24, but after reading about the ending, I flatly refuse to watch the series. I have better things to do with my time than allow myself to be emotionally manipulated so some hack can brag to his friends around the latte bar about what a sophisticated writer he is. I put this film in much the same category. Not only are the characters in much of the film far-fetched but the ending seems to be nothing more than gratuitous emotional manipulation.

The pointlessness of the tragic ending is underlined by the saccharine coda tacked onto the film. Inman’s and Ada’s brief liaison produced a daughter. We see a scene several years later where Ada and her daughter and Ruby and her family are gathered together. While Ada does a voiceover describing that she still feels a sense of loss, overall it’s a happy ending. If you want a happy ending, while kill Inman off? If you want a tragedy, cut the movie off after Inman dies in Ada’s arms, or show her and Zellweger years later as bitter spinsters. This is a movie that can’t decide what it wants.

Gods and Generals (2003)

The prequel to Gettysburg. Jeff Daniels has evolved from Dumb and Dumber and Escanaba in da Moonlight to erudite professor turned officer Joshua Chamberlain. Robert Duvall may be one of America's most respected actors (and a personal favorite of mine), but he is not Robert E. Lee.

This is the story of three crucial early Civil War battles: Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. The movie spends forever building up the image of Stonewall Jackson as a murderous religious fanatic and barely sketches Chamberlain, who turned down an offer from Bowdoin College to spend two years in Europe rather than join the army. Then, in a time when political hacks jockeyed to be appointed generals, Chamberlain, who was innately more qualified than the vast majority of them, took an appointment as a staff officer because he felt he wasn't yet qualified to assume leadership.

The movie has some good moments. The scene of Union and Confederate Irish brigades colliding in battle at Fredericksburg is heartbreaking and the depiction of Stonewall Jackson's end run around the Union army at Chancellorsville is taut and suspenseful (even if you know how it turns out). A charge that would have been chopped to bits by repeating rifles is terrifyingly inexorable if all you have is a musket. But mostly the movie just plods. If you didn't know what Bull Run was about already, you wouldn't learn from this film, which mostly depicts the arrival of late reinforcements on the battlefield and doesn't deal with the shock of a Confederate victory at all. In fact, for all the play Jackson gets in the film, you have to listen attentively to know why he got the nickname "Stonewall" at all. The five months between Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville seems to take five months on screen and mostly belabors an unsuccessful attempt to make Jackson look human by depicting his friendship with a little girl who dies of a fever. The film tries hard to make Jackson's accidental death by "friendly fire" tragic, but it's hard to see it as anything but well deserved given the way his character is portrayed

The Terminal (2004)

Starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones, directed by Steven Spielberg. This is a movie that entertains in the theater and falls apart when you really think about it. Tom Hanks, as Viktor Navorski, travels from the mythical land of Krakozhia to New York only to discover that he can't enter the U.S. because a coup in his homeland has invalidated all travel privileges for Krakozhian passports. He can't leave the airport, and he can't go home.

Now at the end of the movie, when everything has been happily resolved, we see him looking up at the departures board as "Krakozhia" appears. So there are direct flights from New York to Krakozhia. But somehow, coming to New York, he's the only person in a predicament. Also, there would probably be other people arriving at other airports. Wouldn't this eventually show up as a big enough national security blip to cause Homeland Security to come up with a policy? I think bureaucrats are stupid, but even I don't think they're that stupid (and no, I am not interested in hearing your horror stories).

I don't know what language Hanks is speaking. The printed documents we see fleetingly are in Russian, but the dialogue is so heavily slurred as to be unintelligible. If he is speaking Russian (as one person assured me), we're to believe that a major airport in New York doesn't have any Russian speakers around? Even if they don't have any official interpreters available, they can't find some guy from Brighton Beach working as a baggage handler? They can't go outside and find a Russian-speaking cabbie in, oh, five minutes? They can't find a crew member or passenger from an Aeroflot flight?

The airport security manager refuses to admit Navorski into the U.S. but then becomes frustrated when Navorski does exactly what he's told and stays in the airport. For nine months. I can see an anal security manager not wanting to be traced to letting an illegal immigrant into the country, but sit down for five minutes and come up with a dozen different ways someone in that post could make it happen. He tells Navorski that his entry into the U.S. is tied to the manager's success in getting a promotion. Then, when the situation in Krakozhia is resolved and the manager has been promoted, he tells Navorski he can't enter anyway! Does this make the slightest sense? So Navorski, after slavishly obeying the law for nine months, heads for the door anyway, only to be barred by security guards. A sympathetic guard lets him through, all the while watched by his chief, who lets it slide, after posting the guards in the first place! Just plain weird. Can anyone think of a single reason this couldn't have happened, oh, eight months earlier?

Navorski survives in the airport by his wits, eventually ending up on a construction crew that pays him cash under the table. On hearing that Navorski is making $19 an hour, the security manager says "That's more than I make!" The security manager at a major airport makes only $40,000 a year? Even comparing take-home and assuming Navorski gets overtime, it's ridiculous.

The one realistic thing is what doesn't happen. Amelia Warren (Zeta-Jones) is a flight attendant with a history of toxic relationships. She's attracted to Navorski because of his honesty, but they don't fall in love. Actually, Viktor does, but Amelia doesn't. Amelia recognizes she can't escape her addiction to bad relationships and parts company with Viktor.

Bridge to Terriblithia (2007)

Reviewers of this film fall into two camps: disappointed viewers who expected a fantasy adventure and viewers enchanted by the story of two children creating a fantasy world. Basically the second camp consists of people smart enough to appreciate character development yet so clueless they can't understand why people would be upset about false advertising. Because Bridge to Terebithia is the most flagrant case of bait and switch advertising in recent movie history. While many mediocre movies put all their good moments in the trailers, I can't think of any other movie where the trailers consisted almost entirely of digital animation, and the film itself was almost entirely live action. Literally every second of visual wonder and fantasy in the film is also in the trailers.

The film itself is an innocuous tale about two friends, Jess and Leslie, who create a fantasy world while simultaneously coping with bullies in school. Ever wonder where the people in Deliverance went to school? Jess and Leslie are the only normal kids in the school. Jess's father is a self-righteous, ignorant lout who berates his son for "having his head in the clouds," while simultaneously not being able to make ends meet himself. Think October Sky. Mebbe if'n Pappy had got hisself some of thet thar book larnin', he might just realize a "farm" is more than a hothouse with a couple of tomato plants. Or maybe he might actually have acquired the skills to earn a decent living. Everybody else's farm seems to be succeeding.

There are only three ways to do a bullies film: the bullies win, the victims win, or the bullies reform. They've all been done. So there's nothing original in the plot line apart from the fantasy world. If the fantasy world had been played straight, the film might have been along the lines of Secret Garden. But the film tries to have it both ways and jerks back and forth between the two plot lines, so that neither develops effectively.

Red Dawn (1984)

Even people who hated this film when it first came out now agree it's a pretty good alternative history action tale. The opening of this film is breathtaking. I was literally left gasping for breath in amazement. I can't think of any other film that manages to cram as much military silliness into three minutes.

Your peaceful, remote American town is suddenly invaded by Soviet paratroopers. Why? Well, one might guess, because there's a war on. And that means if you see something rolling toward you, it's probably not the Welcome Wagon. So what do you do? Well, I didn't go to West Point, but my guess is the first few guys to land shed their chutes and set up a defensive perimeter for the rest of the troops.

Evidently Soviet doctrine was that as soon as you land, you run into the nearest town and start randomly shooting everything up. Because, even while chutes are still descending, there are Russkis in town doing just that. Taking out vital installations like, oh, a high school classroom and then, for good measure, firing a rocket propelled grenade down a hallway to take out what appears to be a blank, wood paneled wall. I could see if it was the school's trophy case or a bank of gym lockers or something equally vital to the American war effort, but a blank wall? Wait till they get the bill for the woodwork! That will teach the capitalist oppressors to mess with the glorious workers' paradise! Also, they blew up a school bus. Walk, running-dog Wall Street lackeys!

And why do you send in paratroopers? In the vast majority of real airborne invasions, the intent was to seize an airfield so follow-on troops and supplies could land, or capture a bridge to deny it to the enemy or prevent them from destroying it. So wouldn't it be nice to have at least some vague indication this town had military significance? Like a stream for a bridge to cross, or an airfield capable of handling more than a crop duster? But there has never been an airborne operation in history where the paratroopers dropped in just to seize a location just for the sake of seizing it. And who drops just a company of soldiers (which is about all we see dropping)? There have been small airborne operations where the force was small for secrecy. But that sort of went iz okna (out the window) when they jumped in broad daylight on the outskirts of town and started shooting.

Idiocracy (2007)

A stupendously average soldier and a civilian hooker are recruited for a suspended animation experiment, only to wake up 500 years later in a world where humanity has become stupid. The two sleepers are now the smartest people on Earth.

The film has undeniably funny moments, but a trenchant, incisive commentary on society as it's sometimes said to be? No, it's pretty superficial slapstick. For one thing, who's keeping all the technology running? Somebody is making cars, broadcasting television signals and flying planes. Who's doing all that if everyone has an IQ of about 80? I would think after 500 years, a society that dumb would be pretty medieval. They'd be living in a Mad Max post-apocalyptic world surrounded by the hulks of machines whose uses have mostly been forgotten.

The problem with a satire like this is it needs a target. We see people watching stupid, violent, repetitive TV programs (wasn't that in Max Headroom and Robocop?) and being forced to fight for their lives on live TV (Running Man?). Corporations and media passivity are cheap and easy targets. But if we'd been shown a society of illiterate book-burning religious fanatics or indolent and parasitical welfare bums, one side or the other of the political spectrum would have gone into spluttering, incoherent rage. So Idiocracy effectively neuters itself by playing safe and politically, well, not correct, but not very offensive, either. It has all the incisive bite of a toddler gumming a mouthful of strained peas.


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Created 21 January, 2003,  Last Update 02 June, 2010

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