Best scenes in worst movies
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When I’m praising a film to someone, I will occasionally run into a “How can you like that? There was nothing good in that!” reaction. And I can usually come up with the one inarguably good scene in an arguably bad movie. One that comes up a lot is the opening credits of Watchmen, both because that sequence is great, and because there are a lot of Watchmen-haters out there.
So looking at it from the other side, what’s a scene/segment you liked in a film you didn’t care for on the whole? In that direction, the first that comes to mind for me is the parts of Knocked Up with Katherine Heigl’s horrible bosses, Alan Tudyk and Kristen Wiig. (That’s sort of a scene if you smoosh them all together.) I found those hysterical, even as most of the rest of the film left me cold. The fact that we’re supposed to hate them probably helped, along with the fact that the actors are hilarious: “We don’t want you to lose weight. We just want you to be healthy.” “You know, by eating less. We would just like it if you go home and step on a scale and write down how much you weigh and subtract it by, like, 20.” —Bob K
We tackled this one as a feature back in 2005, but we’ve gotten enough requests for it as an AVQA lately that we decided it was worth throwing it back out there for discussion by a much, much larger audience. I’m tempted to just reiterate my main contribution to that piece—Christopher Walken shuffling around in bunny slippers and boxers, hatin’ on the bears in The Country Bears—but that hardly seems fair to everyone else, who had to come up with new scenes. So I’ll tackle one that didn’t make our previous go-round for the obvious reason that it didn’t exist yet in 2005: Justin Timberlake’s musical number in Southland Tales. There are a bunch of great standalone lines, characterizations, and moments in this messy, crazed muddle of a frustrating film, but nothing as sustained as the moment where The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” starts up, Timberlake suddenly starts lip-synching directly into the camera, and a kickline of white-wigged nurses joins in. Seen out of context, it’s just another oddball music video, but within the context of the meandering film, it’s a caffeine shot in the middle of a dozy daze, a startling, exciting wake-up call where the focus and intensity of the music and the moment briefly sweep away the confusion and lack of focus.
I was talking about Dexter recently and a friend said that she can’t watch Jennifer Carpenter without thinking of White Chicks, a movie that originally made me uncomfortable when I watched it both because it was bad and because the prosthetics were so disturbing. But a scene from the movie starring Carpenter has become a YouTube favorite that I've also come to love. In it, Shawn Wayans, as a man pretending to be a girl, watches Carpenter slip into a slinky outfit in a dressing room, And he starts to get turned on. To his horror, however, he sees how she truly feels about herself, which is to say, not too confident. I'm not saying that women’s bad self-esteem is hilarious (part of the joke lies within the fact that Carpenter probably has 1 percent body fat) but I’m a sucker for scenes wherein overly confident men get thrown by what goes on in the female brain. And it’s fun seeing Carpenter do humor.
Jurassic Park III isn’t good or anything (though it’s better than the second film in the franchise, The Lost World: Jurassic Park), but prodded along diligently by Joe Johnston—a sort of stillborn Joe Dante bastard-baby—it exhibits a frequently wily playfulness with the man-vs.-dino genre the Jurassic Park series established. There’s an amazing scene in the otherwise largely crummy film, right near the end, when Marines arrive on Isla Sorna to bail out Sam Neill, William H. Macy, et al. from the prehistoric predators. As the infantry rolls into an oncoming charge of dinos, Johnston cuts away. It feels like a cheat at first. After all, Jurassic Park had been courting a full-blown human/dino war since the T-Rex got loose on the mainland in the second film. But Johnston’s cutaway is superb, a rug-pulling acknowledgment that, duh, obviously a bunch of hi-tech tanks and guys with automatic weapons could take down a herd of pea-brained reptiles. Survival of the fittest and all that.
In a recent Q&A, Will Harris and I discussed Poltergeist’s demonic trees and the sequel’s eerie octogenarian, Reverend Kane. But apart from its inspired casting of Julian Beck as a doom-saying ministerial ghost, Poltergeist II: The Other Side is basically a sham. (Though next to Poltergeist III, it feels comparatively effective at serving any discernible mood or purpose.) But, the good/bad news for once-traumatized audiences of a certain age is that, thanks to conceptual artist and Alien mastermind H.R. Giger, Craig T. Nelson’s infamous Mezcal-worm/vomit-creature scene remains repugnant and perverse. The initial, comical throes of Nelson’s mutant regurgitation give way to an increasingly horrific oral birthing that makes Julie Christie’s delivery in Demon Seed look like the miracle of life.
Remember Duets, the misbegotten 2000 crowd-pleaser about the amateur karaoke scene? Neither do most. Disney delayed and altered the film over concerns about two excessively violent scenes—again, in a movie about the amateur karaoke scene—and it opened to a paltry $2 million, driven down by reviews that properly cited the tonal imbalance of its multiple storylines. Yet it has one terrific scene that cuts to the core of karaoke’s appeal, to say nothing of Paul Giamatti’s appeal as a loveable sad-sack. Giamatti plays a miserable traveling salesman who comes home to a less-than-welcoming family and immediately sets out to a bar for some cigarettes. Once there, he’s cajoled into coming onstage for a rendition of Todd Rundgren’s “Hello, It’s Me,” and slowly loses himself in the song, beginning with an embarrassed reluctance that builds into full-on rapture, as he starts vamping to the audience and belting it out as if he were in the shower. He’s hooked.
I don’t know if Music & Lyrics necessarily qualifies as a full-on terrible movie, but it offers precisely one scene that I find worthy of watching over and over and over: the video for “Pop Goes My Heart,” by PoP!, the ’80s heartthrob band featuring Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant), who spends the film seeking to revive his career as a songwriter without his original collaborator. As a whole, Music & Lyrics certainly doesn’t rise significantly above standard romantic-comedy fare, but damn, that video is such a perfect reproduction of the stuff I used to watch on MTV back in the days when they still played videos—that’s right, I’m old—and the song itself, written by Andrew Wyatt and Alanna Vicente, is straight out of the ABC playbook, which would explain why Grant reportedly sought the assistance of Martin Fry to get his moves down for the scene.
The Adventures Of Ford Fairlane was a bloated mess of a vanity project when Andrew Dice Clay was at the height of his comedy powers; his ego at the time was as big as the arenas he was selling out, and the movie was a vehicle for him to “act” like his stand-up persona. If it weren’t for the David Fincher-directed video of Billy Idol’s “Cradle Of Love,” no one would remember the movie. But given Clay’s stardom, and the still-big-in-the-news development that MTV had given him a “lifetime” ban for doing some of his naughty nursery rhymes during the 1989 VMAs, a voiceover at the end of one scene where Clay-as-Fairlane says “I could have been a rock star, but I was banned from MTV” surprised audiences. Why? Because in 1990, meta lines in silly comedies were far from common, and the audience felt great being in on the joke. I remember that line getting a big laugh when I saw the movie in the theater, and considering there weren’t many other laughs to be had, that’s saying something.
2005’s Shopgirl is Steve Martin’s simultaneously maudlin and lukewarm adaptation of his own novella, clumsily directed by Anand Tucker with lots of showy dissolves, but no real pace or point. Martin is too remote and glacial to make an impact as one part of a weirdly weightless love triangle. Claire Danes is ever-solid but silent, trapped in a movie that hems her in with a weepy cello score and repeated shots of Martin staring vacantly through glass surfaces. That leaves third wheel Jason Schwartzman to liven things up during his sadly minimal screen time. The scene that made me glad I sat through the whole movie was when he and Danes go back to her place to have sex for the first time. She asks him if he has protection; he reaches into his pocket, and—awkwardly digging around his pocket—comes up with a mint instead. (And eats it!) Then he goes outside and asks the neighbor if he can borrow a condom. Amazingly, Danes still goes through with it. It’s a really funny, unexpected bit in an otherwise-tepid film.
I don’t agree that Speed Racer is a terrible movie, but many people do. They still have to be in awe of the opening sequence, the densest passage in a mainstream film since Moulin Rouge. Using the framework of an anxious Speed preparing for an imminent race, the Wachowski brothers deftly weave into and out of flashback, efficiently laying out the movie’s backstory while constantly accelerating the pace. It’s a masterwork of 21st-century filmmaking, using cutting-edge tools to advance a story rather than obliterate it.
When it comes to creating great scenes in terrible movies, no one, but no one, can compare to Christopher Walken. Whether he’s savoring the concept of destroying the Country Bears’ home or merely trying to get his hands on that infernal Kangaroo Jack, Walken’s crazy livens up even the most moribund motion picture. But there will always be a special place in my heart for Walken’s utterly unhinged portrayal as a cop in Gigli. Every line Walken utters seems to have arrived somewhere from the farthest reaches of Mars. He’s on his own planet, only intermittently swooping in to interact with Ben Affleck and say things like, “Man, you know what I’d love to do, right now? Go down to Marie Callender’s, get me a big bowl, pie, some ice cream on it, mmm-hmm good! Put some on your head! Your tongue would slap your brains out trying to get to it! INTERESTED? SURE?” as only Walken can. Walken’s wily turn has fuck-all to do with the rest of the film, but that’s much of its gonzo charm.
It’s way too easy to mock Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. There’s no easier punchline in recent cinema than Jar Jar Binks, and for good reason. I can’t imagine ever sitting through the entire film again, but I’ll never flip the channel if I come across the three-way lightsaber fight between Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Darth Maul. While not reaching the dramatic, cathartic heights of the climatic battles of either The Empire Strikes Back or Return Of The Jedi, it still represented the type of lightsaber fight many of us always had in our heads. It took place over a large physical expanse, featured three Jedi in peak form, and had a freaking’ double lightsaber in the mix! Couple that with the strongest musical theme John Williams wrote for the prequel trilogy, and people stopped asking “Yousa people gonna die?” and momentarily got transported by George Lucas the way they had decades earlier. Unlike most of the film, which seemed aimed directly at children, this scene made many of the most jaded fans feel like kids again.
I’m not going to sit here and claim the Matrix sequels are horribly unwatchable. In fact, I quite like The Matrix Reloaded. But Matrix Revolutions is one long third act that doesn’t really go anywhere, regardless of the ideas underpinning it, which often seem more fascinating than the film. The battle scenes are weirdly uninvolving, the character arcs don’t conclude so much as peter out, and the movie’s philosophy becomes muddled somewhere around the two-hour mark. That said, there’s one evocative, gorgeous moment in the midst of all of this that I’ve always remembered, even if I can’t quite remember why it happens. Trinity, flying Neo toward the machine city and on the run from the robots, has to head up into the sky to avoid their long tentacles. She goes higher and higher… approaching the clouds… and then… she breaks through them and sees the sun for the first and only time in her life. She’s overcome with emotion. And then the ship tilts back toward Earth, plummeting to the ground and ultimately killing her. It’s a moment of pure, simple emotion amid chaos, and it really works. (Runner-up: The weird exodus of the animals in the absolutely atrocious Stephen King adaptation Dreamcatcher.)
My experience of watching 500 Days Of Summer was basically an offscreen meta-version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel’s drama-filled, hyper-romantic romance. With this movie, there is no comfy middle ground that pragmatics would call “stability” and people who identify with the leads would probably call “boring”—there are only extremes of emotion. The opening supertitles start it off by noting that any characters’ resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental. “Especially you, Jenny Beckman. Bitch.” Hate. The next scene notes that our hero’s romantic nature is based in “sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie The Graduate.” Love. Oh Christ, are they really meeting cute over Morrissey? But that postcoital dance sequence was so great! I refuse to go on about this like our protagonist goes on about his own relationship drama to his creepily prescient kid sister (hate hate hate). I’ll just remember the good times—particularly the I-watched-it-four-times Expectations/Reality split-screen scene, in which the left side shows how our hero hopes a reunion with his ex will go, while the right side simultaneously shows how it’s actually going. Though you can’t catch them all at the same time, the subtle differences, particularly in facial expression and body language, between the parallel shots add up to this incredible Magic Eye portrait of disappointment and sadness that I’ve never seen anywhere else. (This was not enough to save my relationship with Summer, though. Drama drives me crazy.)