[Think Tank] Benchmark Movies

[Think Tank] Benchmark Movies

Which movies sit in the exact median between “good” and “bad”? Or between one genre and another?

Gangs of New York – Stokes

For me, it’s got to be Gangs of New York.  This is kind of a funny film to list as your ultimate definition of “… meh,” because nothing is “meh” about it.  Everything is either fan-freaking-tastic (especially Daniel Day Lewis’s character) or deeply, deeply horrible (especially Cameron Diaz’s character).  If I’m channel surfing and I find myself watching one of the bad scenes, I convulsively change the channel by pure motor reflex alone before I even realize what I’m watching, sort of the way that your hand pulls back from a hot stove a split second before you even feel the pain.  If I happen to hit one of the great scenes (which make up less of the film by volume, but are somehow, uh, denser), I stop and settle in, because I know I’m going to watch it all the way through to the end.  I have done this at least three times, once after randomly landing on the opening fight scene, once after landing on the scene where Daniel Day Lewis wraps himself with the American flag, and once after landing on the scene where he taps his eye with a knife.  (Just thinking about that scene kind of gets me excited.  His EYE!  With a KNIFE! Even knowing it’s a prop knife, and a prop eye, that’s just all kinds of bad-ass.)

Somewhere between their noses lies the mathematical zero of all cinema.

Somewhere between their noses lies the mathematical zero of all cinema.

Each time, though, as the stupid fadey-in-out skyline shot appeared, and the lame late-period U2 song faded up over the credits, I was left with a curiously vacant feeling.  Had I enjoyed this movie?  Had I hated it?  All I could say with certainty is that time had passed.   Gangs of New York is the eating-a-whole-giant-bag-of-olestra-potato-chips of movies.  Theoretically, there’s enough “cinematic nourishment” there to feed a family of four for a week!  But that fails to take into account the resultant “cinematic explosive diarrhea,” which makes the whole thing a zero sum game, and ultimately a waste of 167 minutes.  If only it had been a little better!  Or just a little worse!  As it is, it’s simply nothing… a perfect benchmark.

p.s. Gosh, I’m sorry about that metaphor, guys.  It’s gross… and also unfair, because as I’m sure some of you know, the intestinal distress caused by eating a whole giant bag of olestra potato chips lasts waaaaay longer than 167 minutes.

p.p.s. Also, now I feel kind of weird about using the phrase “all kinds of bad-ass” earlier in the post.  Oh well, nothing to do about it now.

8 Comments on “[Think Tank] Benchmark Movies”

  1. Lisa #

    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


  2. RiderIon #

    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.


  3. Jon Eric #

    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! :)


  4. mcneil OTI Staff #

    Good call, Jon. My reading kung fu is weak. With apologies to Film Freak Central…


  5. stokes OTI Staff #

    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.


  6. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @stokes: And anything by Brian Blessed. If anyone doesn’t know who he is, look him up and be delighted.


  7. Greg #

    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.


  8. Gab #

    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.


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