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Today, we let you in on another explosive concept that will unlock your minds to new levels of movie criticism: the benchmark movie.
A benchmark movie stands right on the border between two different classes of movies. Consider the blended genre of “dark comedy.” Serial Mom might be a good example of a benchmark movie for dark comedy. Anything darker than Serial Mom is an outright dark movie; anything funnier than Serial Mom is a straight-up comedy. Serial Mom is the benchmark of dark comedy: the signpost on the border.
You can also use benchmark movies as a standard for movie quality. Anything worse than your benchmark is “bad”; anything better than your benchmark is “good.” The benchmark movie is the perfect median.
A benchmark movie is inherently personal, however. Everyone has different tastes. So the Overthinkers will each contribute some benchmarks of their own. Once you’ve read through ours, post your own in the comments!
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – McNeil
There are two ways to go here. Either you choose a movie that’s pretty good all around or you choose a movie that has a perfect balance of good and bad. The former might be perfectly middling, but the latter’s the one you’re going to remember. To me, there’s one movie that is perfectly worthy of both our love and our hate, our respect and our disdain: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which owns a middling 58% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Writing: The film falls into a lot of traps. Writers Pen Desham and John Watson take the classic Robin Hood story, then toss in an unnecessary devil worship subplot that features a lot of egg cracking and cackling that doesn’t do much for the plot, the other characters, or the movie as a whole. The writers save themselves by a really interesting bit of character development. The “spoiled rich boy tempered in the crucible of war” theme gives the whole movie a weight that the classic tale lacks (and which Ebert hated) undercuts the usual inevitability in the relationship between Robin and Marian.
Acting: Costner’s accent is notoriously bad, distracting even from a few moments of solid emotional development and ass-kicking. Slater as the petulant brother is actually worse, but he’s on screen far less often. Most of the other characters are solid, but the whole thing is saved by one of the great
ham-fisted performances of all time, Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham. So very, very good.
Action: Some solid ambushes and an object lesson in the strategic weaknesses of treehouses make for some of exciting stuff, but the final swordfight is sort of routine.
Music: Score by Michael Kamen, soaring and exciting in a 1991 sort-of-way that’s been stuck in my head for 18 years. On the other hand, Academy Award nominated original song by Bryan Adams. (This predates YouTube by more than a decade, why is it still the first suggestion in the search bar when you type “everything”?)
Half awesome, half awful: the perfect rubric.
PS. Apparently, this 1991 movie about medieval England was able to predict the outcome of the
2004 1992 general election: “The popularity of over-scored, “let’s hug” bullshit like Robin Hood predicts the certainty of a one-term George H.W. presidency better than any number of Gallup polls,” says Walter Chaw of Film Freak Central.”
No time to over-think, except that you call Alan Rickman’s performance in Robin Hood “ham-fisted.” That means a very bungled performance, but you then say it’s very good. Do you mean his hammed-up performance, in which he would be over-acting? Or … something else? /confused
I have a few benchmark movies based on genre. All of them are closer to the bad end of the spectrum as opposed to being dead center but I still enjoy them and use them as a benchmark.
Action: The Scorpion King starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Remember when The Rock actual made acceptable movies? I certainly do. While it does have a pretty cliched plot and some questionable dialogue, the action is well done. It also has Michael Clarke Duncan in the role he was meant to play: large, angry pesudo-antagonist to the hero.
Superhero: Ghost Rider, starring Nicholas Cage. It’s faithful enough to the source material to keep my inner Comic Book Guy in check. Cage’s acting switches between being just a bit over-the-top and being too hammy for it’s own good. Special effects aren’t the greatest in the world but they get the job done. It also has a great driving sequence with Ghost Riders in the Sky.
Thriller: Trauma. The name of the lead escapes me but I’ll admit I picked this film up on a whim. It has a decent mystery with a slow burn. The climax has several unexpected reveals within a few minutes of another. They aren’t ultimately satisfying but they do allow the film to end on a disturbing note. It doesn’t hold up under intense scurtiny but given the limited information the viewer is given, it stands up well on its own.
Hate to nitpick an otherwise enlightening article, but your post-script at the end of page 1 loses a lot of its steam when one recalls that “George H.W.” actually refers to Dubya’s dad — meaning that the 1991 movie really only only (supposedly) predicted the results of the 1992 election. (And accurately, at that.)
Keep up the good work! :)
Good call, Jon. My reading kung fu is weak. With apologies to Film Freak Central…
I dunno… I think ham-fisted but awesome is a great way to describe that performance. Ham-fisted doesn’t really mean bungled, it means something like clumsy, too forceful, bereft of subtlety. Like, Carmina Burana is really, REALLY ham-fisted. That doesn’t mean it’s not also good.
So while a ham-fisted surgeon is always bad, a ham-fisted boxer can sometimes do pretty well, and a ham-fisted performance can be brilliant. My nominations for greatest of all time would be Rickman in Robin Hood, Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, and Joan Crawford in Straight Jacket.
@stokes: And anything by Brian Blessed. If anyone doesn’t know who he is, look him up and be delighted.
The Boondock Saints is my benchmark. The casting was excellent, the production values so-so, the story semi-forgettable, and the action more than satisfying.
To me, it screams benchmark because it was good enough to warrant a sequel, but not popular enough that it is sill considered a cult hit.
Also, anything with Alan Rickman is awesome by default. The rest of the movie may suck, but Snape/Grueber/Marvin is great.
Aaaah, “Robin Hood: Prince of Theives.” Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham is why I say I’ll stab/cut out someone’s eyes with a spoon (jokingly, of course). Best scene evar? “Because it’s dull, you twit, it’ll hurt more.” Over-acted, but so fantastic. And random trivia about the song: Kamen hated it and didn’t want to incorporate it into the score very much because he thought the piano sounded too modern. No problems with the guitar, bass, or drums, though. (Thanks, “Pop Up Video.”)
Greg: I like “Boondock Saints” as an example of that particular action movie, i.e. a gun-fight one. It’s lack of any sort of car chase sequence sets it apart from, say, the third “Die Hard,” a potential benchmark for the genre of action in general.