Thursday, June 9, 2011

11 Controversial Films that Aren’t Really that Controversial

Who doesn’t love a little controversy with their movies every now and again?  Controversial hype is a tricky card to play.  It can seriously help draw an audience (sure, I was curious why the MPAA initially slapped Blue Valentine with an NC-17 rating) or turn potential viewers away (The Brown Bunny is, and will always be, flat out dumb, controversy or not).

Some of the movies on this list are classics, others are complete duds.  Regardless, they’ve all earned their fair share of unreasonable controversy.  Some were banned, others were protested, some even inspired death threats. But looking back at these films now, I have only one question: seriously, what’s all the fuss about?

Lolita (1962)
You know the story: a professor agrees to marry a widower, simply because he’s attracted to her underage daughter. Stanley Kubrick changed several aspects of Vladimir Nabokov’s original novel to help appease censor boards (most notably, 12-year-old Lolita was made 14 in the film).   The result is a very fine film, but a tame one by all standards.  Through the professor’s sexual longing, Kubrick manages to pull off the most excruciating case of blue balls ever committed to film, which, contrary to what you may think, is very enjoyable to watch.

I imagine upon its initial release, Lolita made a few viewers squirm in their seats, but today we can see worse on network TV. 

For some real incestual controversy, see: Lolita, Adrian Lyne’s 1997 remake

Dirty Harry (1971)
I was an admitted late bloomer to the Dirty Harry films, having seen the first flick about five years ago, and I was shocked at how little controversy it contained.  You see, I had heard that Dirty Harry was one of the most racist, right-wing motivated cops ever put on film.  Huh?  Critics at the time flipped shit, labeling the movie as a “specious, phony glorification of the police and police brutality with a superhero whose antics become almost satire" and even calling director Don Siegel and star Clint Eastwood “right-wing bigots.” 

I just don’t see it.  As far as police brutality in films goes, Dirty Harry is badass, sure, but brutal?  Nah.

For some real dirty cop controversy, see: Bad Lieutenant (the Harvey Kietel version)

Michael Moore movies (1989-present)
Let’s be honest, Michael Moore thinks his documentaries are lot more controversial than they really are.  While I enjoy (some of) them, Moore’s films are not the policy-changing hybrids that he plays them off to be. 

Yes, it is very cool to watch K-Mart declaring that they will no longer sell ammunition in any of their stores, but most of the time, Moore aims way higher than he can deliver.  If John Kerry had become President in 2004, maybe Moore’s films could justly be labeled as “controversial game changers.”  But alas, we’re now stuck with hyped yawns like Capitalism: A Love Story.  Get over yourself, dude.

For some real documentary controversy, see: Triumph of the Will; Titicut Follies

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Was The Silence of the Lambs controversial because a whacked-out dude tossed semen at a woman’s face?  No.  Because a madman kidnapped women, kept them in a well and later skinned them?  Nope.  Because a serial killer wore a cop’s face as a mask?  No, The Silence of the Lambs raised a fuss because it portrayed a mostly unseen serial killer as being a… wait for it… homosexual.  And…? 

Every heard of Luis Garavito?  How about John Wayne Gacy?  Jeffrey Dahmer?  The fact that Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs liked to apply eye shadow and tuck his member back while belting out a Q Lazarus song is not of issue.  The dude got off on KILLING people.  Shouldn’t that be a bigger deal?

For some real serial killer controversy, see: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Basic Instinct (1992)
Yes it has sex.  Yes it has a vag shot.  Yes it has mild bondage and lesbian jealousy and Jeanne Tripplehorn, but so what.  I could list you ten films in which the sex is kinkier, the nudity is more prominent and the acting is more atrocious. 

I actually really enjoy Basic Instinct.  It’s perfect Verhoeven/Eszterhas smut; a trashy and enjoyable blend of sex, drugs, death and revealing white dresses.  It’s worthy of attention, but not for overly controversial reasons.

For some real love story controversy, see: Antichrist

Funny Games (1997/2007)
Most of you probably haven’t seen Funny Games (either Michael Haneke’s 1997 German original, or his shot-for-shot 2007 American remake) which is a shame, because everyone deserves to have the shit scared out of them from time to time.

Funny Games is easily one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen, which isn’t necessarily the byproduct of controversy. While vacationing at their summer home, an upper class family is greeted by two young men dressed in all white, who show up at their door and basically terrorize the shit out of them for the remainder of the evening. 

Many critics labeled the film as gratuitously violent, hell, a number of people even walked out of the Cannes premiere.  But here’s the kicker… none of the violence in Funny Games is ever shown on screen.  We only see the aftermath of violence, everything else is purely reaction based, which is a great credit to the actors involved in both films.

Haneke wanted to “make a film with a moralistic comment about the influence of media violence on society,” i.e., Funny Games is Haneke’s way of mocking (mostly American) movie audiences, who have become desensitized to the blood and guts and gore that litter contemporary horror films.

Funny Games is infinity more terrifying than any horror film I’ve seen in the last decade.  But, again, that doesn’t make it controversial, it just makes it deceiving.

For some real home invasion controversy, see: A Clockwork Orange; The Last House on the Left, Wes Craven’s 1972 original

Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Before the public even had a chance to form an accurate opinion about Brokeback Mountain (you know, by actually seeing it first), people all over the country were demanding it go unseen.  Mostly notably, Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller, who famously pulled the film from his movie theatre near Salt Lake City upon learning of its “dangerous” same-sex romance content.

Give me break.  Had Miller, or Bill O’Reilly, or John Gibson, or the many other social conservatives (none of which, I believe, are known for their film criticism) actually watched the film, they would’ve known that it contained one very brief, very darkly lit, clothed homosexual sex scene.  That’s it.  Sure Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal make out a few times.  Yeah… and?  Have these guys never seen an episode of Six Feet UnderQueer as FolkThe L Word

Brokeback Mountain was unjustly labeled as the “gay cowboy” movie, which is funny for two reasons: one because it denotes that there’s something wrong with being gay, which is just silly, and two because the film does not contain any gay characters (there is, after all, a difference between gay and bisexual).

Brokeback Mountain isn’t a movie about gay people.  It’s a movie about romance, and a damn fine one at that.  Many people believe that deep-rooted Hollywood homophobia caused this film to lose Best Picture to the far inferior Crash.  I believe there’s some truth to that, but regardless, we can all agree that Brokeback Mountain in no way deserves to be remembered for the commotion made by a slew of insecure talking heads.

For some real homosexual controversy, see: Midnight Cowboy

Crash (2005)
Racism!  Stereotypes!  Los Angeles!  Ludacris!  A good friend of mine once described Crash as “Buddhism on acid,” which I feel is appropriate.  Crash basically shows its viewers how damn near every single race-related stereotype is accurate, but that we should all still love and accept each other in the most profoundly Hallmarkian way. Aww. 

Look, I’m not trying to belittle some of the content of the film.  A police officer fingering a woman he’s pulled over is never a laughing matter, even if it is kind of hard to take Matt “Wild Things” Dillon seriously.  Crash experienced one of the most elaborate sugar highs of contemporary Hollywood.  People loved this movie when they first saw it.  It gained steady word of mouth and eventually won the Best Picture Oscar.  But ask around now.  Why is it that most people consider Crash to be second-rate?

Maybe because the film isn’t as hot-button as many people initially thought.  Maybe because its basic message is the same one delivered decades earlier in a film called BambiCrash has its moments (namely the ones with Michael Peña), but controversial?  Meh.

For some real racism controversy, see: The Birth of Nation, Do the Right Thing

The Da Vinci Code (2006)
Here’s a perfect example of controversy helping a film.  From the get-go, several assorted Catholic factions got their panties in a serious bunch over Ron Howard’s film, which they said was full of “calumnies, offences, and historical and theological errors.”

Protests formed at movie theatres across the country, but to little affect.  The movie, which by nearly all accounts is a complete bore and not nearly as controversial as people were lead to believe, made a shitload of money, grossing $217 million in the U.S. alone (and more than double that abroad).  Granted, much of that money was probably doled out by fans of Dan Brown’s book, but The Da Vinci Code did a great job of cracking the formula.  Bad movie + popular book + loads of controversy = great success.

For some real religious controversy, see: The Last Temptation of Christ

Hounddog (2007)
When word leaked that Hounddog would feature Dakota Fanning getting raped, it was instantly dubbed as the “Dakota Fanning rape movie,” a tagline it has yet to live down.

After it bombed at Sundance, the film went through a number of reedits and was eventually released to virtually no fanfare.  And for good reason.  People didn’t stay away because Dakota Fanning’s character gets assaulted (which, incidentally, isn’t even shown), no, people didn’t see the film simply because the movie is bad. 

After hearing about the film (he admitted he hadn’t even seen it) North Carolina State Senator Phil Berger wanted all future films in his state to have their scripts approved in advance.  Really?  All that hubbub, just for a crappy little movie?  Next.

For some real sexual assault controversy, see: Irreversible

The Human Centipede (2010)
Like Hounddog, when The Human Centipede was announced, it was immediately slapped with a huge controversial label.  Also like Hounddog, the controversy proved to be ill spent, as The Human Centipede isn’t just bad, it’s goddamn boring, too.

You all know what it’s about: some psycho scientist kidnaps three people and sews them ass to face to ass to face, creating a living human centipede.  I was, naturally, curious to see how disgusting the movie would actually be.  And after watching it, I was struck with one thought: “That’s it?” 

The Human Centipede is gross, yes, but it isn’t’ that gross.  What it is, however, is a boring horror film with acting that’s a notch below that of soft core porn. I’ll put it this way, it could’ve been a whole hell of a lot more grotesque.  And by the sounds of it, director Tom Six’s sequel (which will now feature a 12 person human centipede) is aiming to be just that.

For some real gratuitously violent controversy, see: Salò, Or The 120 Days of Sodom; Cannibal Holocaust


  1. Those are some excellent choices. I always wondered how Brokeback Mountain would have fared if it were about a heterosexual couple. I wonder if it would have been more popular since a portion of the population had no interest in seeing a "gay cowboy movie" or if the controversy got it the attention it needed to become as successful as it did. (I for one thought that it was a good love story but not Best Picture material.)

  2. I actually do think controversy, in part, helped Brokeback Mountain attain some of its success.

    It's funny, back in '05, I didn't think it deserved Best Pic either, but today, it's a no brainer, to me.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. thanks for adding the "For some real controversy, see" at the end of each entry. I haven't seen too many of those, which would you recommend?

    also, how bad are Salo and Cannibal Holocaust? gruesome?

  4. Most of the “real controversy” films are really good, and really disturbing. Adrian Lyne’s Lolita, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Antichrist, and The Last House on the Left aren’t great films, but they are indeed shocking. The rest of the “real controversies” are very good. Save, yeah, Salo and Cannibal Holocaust.

    You probably know as much about Salo as I did when I first saw it: a slew of twisted bastards torture and rape a group of teens for the hell of it. To me, the movie was just flat out gross, it’s one of the few movies whose controversial hype is completely justified. But it is in no way necessary viewing.

    Likewise Cannibal Holocaust, parts of which actually made me sick to my stomach. While I appreciate its impact (without it, you have no Blair Witch Project, or Paranormal Activity), it’s just too much. But like I said, if it’s gratuitously violent and sexually deviant films you’re after, Salo and Cannibal Holocaust should be right up your alley.

  5. I couldn't sleep for three days after watching Funny Games. Note to readers: don't watch that movie if you live alone.

    I've only seen the Naomi Watts version. Is it worth checking out the original?

  6. The American version isn't a faux, Gus Van Sant Psycho "shot for shot" remake, it is, from what I gathered, the exact same thing.

    I'm a huge Naomi Watts fan, so I prefer the American version. But it's interesting to see what different actors do with the same material. The original is currently on Netflix Instant, if that helps...

  7. Definitely. I'm going to check it out. Hopefully it won't scare me shitless this time.

  8. The Last Temptation of Christ it's not a real controversy, only for those who never seen that fantastic movie and are blinded integrist christians.
    This movie is a REAL Tribute to Jesus and his suffering on the cross !!!
    Because, at the end, he vanish the last temptation !
    "Oh Father, forgive them..."

    1. I agree, it isn't controversial to me. But wow, did people FLIP when that thing came out.

  9. Talking about films that have caused controversy, what is your take on Cassie Jaye's documentary The Red Pill (2016)?

    The protests and petitions it has garnered must easily rival The Last Temptation.


    1. I honestly hadn't heard of this movie. I've just read about it and it sounds interesting.