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Scott Mendelson

Scott Mendelson
Woodland Hills, California, United States
April 02
A ten-year Salon reader, Mendelson also has a film and politics blog/column at Mendelon's Memos: located at: He is also a free lance voice over artist and occasionally contributes film reviews for

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JUNE 5, 2009 12:43AM

Second time's the charm: good sequels to lukewarm originals.

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While I won't be seeing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen until June 22nd (IE - the first press screening in IMAX), I am oddly excited about the would-be summer box office champion.  I say 'oddly' because I rather didn't care for the first picture.  I didn't like the constantly campy comedy bits, I didn't like the cartoonish human characters, and I was shocked by the lack of robot-on-robot smack downs.  The film lacked tension, menace, and regulated the transformers to almost comic relief sidekicks.  Those reasons, aside from a few other token issues (for example, Shia Labeouf falls for Megan Fox purely because she's hot, then is outraged when he discovers that she has the gall to come from a lower-class, petty criminal household... and SHE has to apologize!) had me scratching my head in July, 2007 as the film seemed to win over not just audiences but quite a few major critics as well.   But the previews seem to indicate that Michael Bay may have tinkered with some of these issues, with more epic action and a darker tone.   So I'm feeling a little more optimistic than I probably should.

At the moment, I'm feeling like Charlie Brown as he prepares to kick a football.  Just what are the chances that this inferior first film will produce a decent sequel that actually works where the original did not?  While there are plenty of good or terrific first films that produced superior sequels, there aren't that many mediocre or underwhelming chapter ones that produced stellar or vastly improved second chapters. For one thing, usually if the first film is lousy, it won't make enough money to justify a sequel (although that's less of an issue in this quick-kill blockbuster age). However, there are a few worth noting.  To wit...

Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life (2003)
The original Tomb Raider was a colossal bore and a complete waste of potential.  As one of the few video game franchises that actually made sense as a film, the Angelina Jolie vehicle none the less featured a stunning lack of action and a complete absence of adventure.  You had a weak villain, a convoluted storyline that existed mainly to cram Jolie's estranged father Jon Voight in the narrative, and a picture where the majority of the action scenes were comprised of Lara Croft emptying her twin handguns into robots, statues, and CGI monsters.  While no masterpiece, Jan de Bont's would-be comeback vehicle was a marked improvement.  For one thing, the story actually made just a touch more sense.  Plus Jolie had far more chemistry with the male lead (Gerald Butler) than she did with the boring 'insert a dude' in the first film (played by, shockingly, Daniel Craig).  Most importantly, the film was an actual action film.  It had real chases, real fight scenes, and real shoot outs and stunt work with actual stuntmen being beaten, shot, and falling off cliffs.  While the original was an example of everything wrong with tent pole film making, the sequel (which was actually $20 million cheaper to make) was a pleasant B-movie throwback that worked as a rough and tumble action adventure movie.  Alas, its relative box office failure ($66 million vs. $132 million for the first Tomb Raider) led to what I call the 'Tomb Raider trap' rule, which states that a sequel to an unloved but successful film will bomb even if it's better, because audiences won't risk getting burned again.

Saw II (2004)
I was in the minority in that I rather loathed the first Saw picture.  Aside from its grotesque moral compass ('oh no, he's actually helping people... and he's not really killing anyone'), the film was terribly acted, ridiculously plotted, and inanely staged.  Just why was Dr. Gordon forced to listen as Amanda told her story of terror in the head cage?  Because that scene was what got the film made, and it was the prime attraction of the marketing campaign, so they needed to stick it in there somehow, right?  The whole film feels like an interesting first draft that never got polished after it was sold.  Since one of the costars was one of the writers, you had the unique pleasure of watching a lousy writer/bad actor deliver his bad dialogue poorly.  And Danny Glover delivers one of the worst performances of his career to boot (at least, unlike Shooter, you don't need hearing aids to understand him).

But Saw II?  It's no great masterpiece and certainly not that scary, but it traded in wrongheaded morality plays and narrative incompetence for B-movie fun house jolts.  It's violent and brutal, but not drawn out or grotesque.  Plus, you have the wonderful interplay between two first rate character actors, as Tobin Bell faces off against Donnie Wahlberg.  This second chapter allowed Tobin Bell to progress from twist-spilling cameo player (gee... that's noted screen menace Tobin Bell in the hospital bed... I wonder if he's involved somehow?) to full-fledged franchise movie star.  And this is the only film that has explicitly called foul on Jigsaw's warped philosophy.  It's good nasty fun that forgoes the pretentiousness of the later sequels and it's a far more polished, professional picture than the rough draft original in every way.  Plus, it was the first date for my eventual wife/mother of my child, so it's got that going for it.  Every year we celebrate the anniversary of our first meeting by seeing yet another Saw sequel and swearing each year that we'll find a better way to celebrate next year.

Addams Family Values (1993)
Despite opening to $24 million and staying above $20 million in weekend two way back in November 1991 (a second-weekend feat surpassed only by Batman, Home Alone, and Terminator 2 at the time), the original Addams Family film earned the scorn of critics and the passive acceptance of audiences (despite the two massive weekends, it quickly flamed out after Thanksgiving and ended with $113 million).  While perfectly cast and gamely performed, the first picture and its 'fake Uncle Fester tries to con the family' plot did little to endear the franchise and the film just wasn't all that funny.  But the sequel that followed just two years later was a genuine comedy classic.  Everyone in the cast felt at home, Raul Julia and Angelica Houston were obviously having the time of their lives, and Christina Ricci was rewarded for her scene-stealing turn as Wednesday Adams in the first film by massively increased presence in the sequel (in terms of screen time, she's actually the star).

All this, plus the film contains not one warmed over suspense plot line, but three broadly comic storylines all mixed in, each of which would have sufficed on its own.  Whether it's the birth of Pubert Addams and the older childrens' quest to murder said infant (priceless sight gags galore), the marriage of Uncle Fester to a would-be black widow (played by Joan Cusack, who is rarely allowed to be this attractive onscreen), or the brilliant gambit of sending Wednesday and Pugsley Addams to a cheerfully happy song-and-dance summer camp, this second picture is superior in every way and is one of the funnier mainstream entertainments of the 1990s.  Alas, the lukewarm reception of the first film prevented this sequel from attaining similar box office heights, and it reached only $48 million in the US.

Scream 2 (1997)
The original Scream is not a bad movie, but it is a slightly overrated one.  Yes, it's gamely acted and contains a knockout of a curtain raiser.  But, once you get past the 'wink-wink, we're openly discussing the very cliches we're indulging in', it's a pretty generic 80-style slasher picture.  But the sequel umped the ante in a number of ways.  For one thing, the picture feels huge in scope, as if it's the first 'epic' slasher film.  The cast feels more comfortable in their characters' skin, and they are all suffering from various forms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which lends a gloom over the whole show.  Leiv Shreiber gives a star-making performance, while the picture finds time for two completely appropriate musical interludes amidst the carnage (plus, David Warner is an upgrade from Henry Wrinkler).  Most importantly, the violence in this one really stings, as Wes Craven boldly kills the most popular character in the series at the halfway point, and then allows the characters ample time to grieve his murder.  If for no other reason than the scene where Dewey and Sydney try to determine who gets to call Randy's mother after he is killed, Scream 2 is a more potent piece of pop entertainment.

A few popular sequels that will not be on this list:

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) - Yes, this second film is better than the first, but I enjoy the maiden voyage more than most.  While it's overlong and more of a tone poem, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is perhaps the only Star Trek picture that's actually about space exploration and discovering new worlds, as opposed to foiling evil villains and their evil plots.

Superman II (1981) - It's not a bad movie at all, but this critically overpraised sequel is still inferior to the grand myth making in Richard Donner's original picture.  The climactic throw down with the Kryptonian super villains is still fun and there is still some drama in the fortress of solitude moments with Superman and his respective parent (his mother or his father, depending on which version you watch), but the film has never been as engaging as the epic gold standard of superhero origin stories.  Neither film is perfect, and both have issues with villainy (Gene Hackman's Lex Luther is a little too campy, while General Zod and company are all bark and little bite due to the family friendly nature of the franchise), but the first Superman picture is still the very best one yet made.

Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me - The original film is one of the very best comedies of the 1990s.  The sequel, despite popularity and critical raves, was one of the most heartbreaking theatrical experiences of my life.  Mike Myers apparently didn't realize that Dr. Evil and Austin Powers were not inherently funny characters, but that the comedy emanated from fish out of water situations.  By putting a swinging 60s bachelor back into the 1960s, Jay Roach and company took all of the satirical fun out of the film, and the constant poop and dick jokes were not enough to compensate.  Plus a prologue plot twist took a giant dump on whatever emotional investment we placed in the original picture.

Spider-Man 2 (2004) - As confused as I was by the critical pass that Transformers received, I was flabbergasted by the critical orgasm that greeted this vastly overrated Spidey sequel.  The film follows the idiot plot through and through (IE - most of Peter's problems would be solved in five minutes if he wasn't an idiot), and Alfred Molina's cartoonish Dr. Octopus can't touch the multi-layered performance of Willem Dafoe.  Once Octavius becomes Doc Ock, all humanity and subtlety goes out the window until the very end. Like Superman II (to which it owes much of its plot), stellar action scenes allow the picture to escape narrative scrutiny.  It fails for the same reason Superman Returns failed - it's 2+ hours of self pity because the girl who he cruelly and selfishly abandoned won't take him back.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian - While this under performing sequel corrects many of the flaws of the The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, it's still not a perfect film (it drags after an admittedly shocking third-act twist).  Regardless, The first film wasn't that bad, and the sequel is good but not great.

Angels & Demons - Yes, it's a much more fun than The Da Vinci Code, but neither are 'good'.  One is terrible and dull.  One is terrible, but stupidly fun and entertaining.  I'll take dumb over dull anytime.

And now, just so I don't leave anything out, a random smattering of terrific sequels to very good or terrific originals - The Bride of Frankenstein, The Road Warrior, X2: X-Men United, Batman Returns, The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Bourne Supremacy, Toy Story 2, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (it's OK, you can admit that the action scenes are astounding and the romantic subplot takes up only about 1/4 of the film), Terminator 2: Judgment Day, From Russia With Love, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Matrix Reloaded (sorry, it's true), and The Godfather part II (although I still prefer the original).

Any I missed or any you disagree with (I'm sure there are plenty of both)?  Feel free to share.

Scott Mendelson

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You forgot one of my favorite films of all time: Aliens. While the first Alien movie is also a classic, I don't feel like it's aged that well over time. The alien is clearly a guy in a big rubber suit, and it lacks the scary punch it may have once had. Aliens, by comparison, is still a kick ass movie to this day. And it gave us one of the greatest action heroes of all time - Ellen Ripley, who finally get over her feat of the aliens and learns to love the thrill of a good pulse rifle and flamethrower strapped to her side.
I actually considered counting Aliens as a great sequel to a mediocre original. But it's not really the first film's fault that it's aged so poorly. When it came out, it was truly something worthwhile, regardless of how it holds up today.
Thank you for finally giving The Matrix: Reloaded its due. I've argued with friends for years that the only reason this movie is frowned upon is because Revolutions was so bad. Had the third one been a better movie everyone would think Reloaded was on par with the original.
I actually think The Matrix Reloaded is the best film of the trilogy. Even the critically slammed third film has a pretty terrific opening and final act (the ending may not be popular, but it's ballsy and bittersweet). It's that terrible middle section where characters we barely know fight CGI robots for a good hour that kills the movie. I still think to this day that the third movie was re-edited in response to the audience confusion about the second. I don't think it's an accident that all of the fascinating questions brought up in Reloaded are ignored in Revolutions.
I agree. The first act of Revolutions is great. The rest of the movie not so much. Plus, I know its popular with the cool kids to make fun of the Star Wars Prequels but other than the terrible "love" story I thoroughly enjoyed episodes II and III. They were a vast improvement over I and I don't think Lucas gets credit for that. More fun to call him a soulless greedy hack I guess.
The reason that I didn't include Attack of the Clones as a good sequel to a lousy original is that, gasp, I liked all three prequels. They all have their issues, but they are all visually dazzling, morally gray, and intricately plotted science fiction adventure pictures. Heck, Phantom Menace is paced just as slowly/quickly as A New Hope (in some ways, it's a better film than the first Star Wars, if obviously not the revolutionary picture that Star Wars was). All six Star Wars films are top-notch genre entertainment. I'll defend them unto death.
I'd give a shout-out to a threequel (Is that a word? It is now!): Aliens III.

I actually think it's better than the second, which is mainly an action movie (a good one, though). The third effort recaptures the bleak and hostile environment of the first movie, while the creature is more agile. It's not sentimental like Aliens, but has some poignant moments with the prisoners who have been discarded on a rubbish tip in space (and a truly great cast, something Aliens is lacking). Number IV of the series isn't that bad either, mainly because of the French director who's name I forget. The idea of giving each sequel to a new director with a distinct style is the thing that kept this series interesting.
You're dead on Norwick. I too enjoy all four Alien pictures (for me, it goes Aliens, Alien Ressurection, Alien 3, and then Alien). And yes, letting such different directors play in the pool is what makes it an interesting franchise. It's one of the main reasons I like all three Mission: Impossible movies. Warts and all, they all absolutely feel like (respectively) Brian DePalma, John Woo, and JJ Abrams pictures through and through.
I think Road Warrior is a great sequel to an original piece of crap. The original Mad Max was badly acted, badly written, with very little in the way of depth. The dialogue is wooden, and the acting doesn't even have that much flexibility. Road Warrior is everything Mad Max wasn't. The characters are far more nuanced, we learn far more about the world, the dialogue is far crisper, and the overall story is much better. Then, of course, came Thunderdome, and we ended up back at the crappy original.

I have to disagree with your assessment of Road Warrior ... I agree its a great sequel, but I think the original was crap.
I'm totally with you on Addams Family Values. Wednesday's "ghost story" at camp (where her cabin mates shriek when she reveals that the dastardly act of the evil prowler was to undo all the nose jobs) is priceless, and Joan Cusack is always wonderful. She was even funny in In/Out.

I also agree about the original Star Trek movie. I always thought it captured the adventuring spirit of the show.

You might consider adding The Dark Knight. Batman Begins is very good, but the multiplicity of themes, the keep-you-guessing plot turns, and the incredible performance of Heath Ledger make the second Christian Bale incarnation of Batman the better film.
First of all, apologies Norwonk for spelling your name incorrectly.

Second of all, I think both Nolan Batman films are about equally terrific. They are radically different pictures, but they compliment each other beautifully.
Great work, as always.

I agree with your assessment of the first two Star Trek films, but my take is slightly different. The original, directed by Robert Wise, is a solid movie, a bit long and verbose at times, but everything about it -- with the exception of the iconic characters -- feels out of sync with the films that followed. It's almost as if Nicholas Meyer said, "OK, let's forget about the Robert Wise version and make our own version." The two follow-ups -- The Search for Spock and Voyage Home -- extend the plot almost like a mini-series. Star Trek V had its moments, but overall its forgettable, in my opinion. Star Trek VI, the Undiscovered Country, is back on point with Meyer's return as director. I didn't care for "Generations," but I thought the first two Star Trek movies with Picard et al were terrific. "Nemesis" was a muddled mess, unfortunately, but I enjoyed the J.J. Abrams reboot.
I would add:

Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead 2." Evil Dead is a fun movie; Evil Dead 2 keeps the fun and ups the scares.

"After the Thin Man"

"A Shot in the Dark," the sequel to the original Pink Panther, because it put Peter Sellers squarely at the center of the story. People forget that The Pink Panther was supposed to be a David Niven vehicle.

While for me Wrath of Khan and First Contact are the best of the Trek franchise (and that includes the current film), Star Trek: TMP has grown on me over the years as I've come to appreciate Robert Wise's gifts as a director. While I still think it suffers from being slack in spots, I realize now that Wise came from an era of filmmaking that was not afraid of letting an epic story unwind slowly--and an intelligent being's search for its creator is about as epic as it gets.
Well Scott, where to begin? First, I really enjoyed your post. Very thoughtful and entertaining (I especially appreciated the charlie brown/lucy football analogy :-)) In any case, I wonder Scott, if you were an avid Transformers watcher when it was a cartoon. Because I think this frames most peoples' perceptions of the movie. I watched Transformers, but I wasn't as glued to it as some of my male counterparts at that age. So for me, I enjoyed the movie quite a bit. I did think Shia LeBoef's faux outrage at hearing of his love interests past was a bit wierd. I was thinking, "Dude if she was previously on Death Rowe, you still should be glad that she gave you the time of day" :-) . I can't wait to see the sequel. I really don't want the film to be TOO DARK... I mean, that's what horror and sci-fi is for. I would like to keep it a bit 'FUN' or else I think it takes away from the fact that it was originally a children's cartoon. By the way, I don't care for a lot of the cartoons today because I think that they are bordering on being too dark. Children these days are moody enough as it is). I had an uncle who use to take me to the Star Wars films and he would always stand up and clap when Darth Vader would come onto the scene....How embarrassing! I think he just liked the dark nature of the character, but more than that I think he was just 'anti-good-guy' just because. Just to spite everyone else. I on the other hand like the good v. evil nature of the superhero/cartoon genre and really don't want to see the villians win.

Also, as a practical lifetime fan of STAR WARS, I must disagree with you that 'The Empire Strikes Back is a better film than A New Hope. I have every film in the series and can practically recite every word/musical note in the first 3 films (Episodes 4, 5, & 6) and I just never found 'Empire' to be the most entertaining or moving or exciting. Certainly the special effects were better and the characters were fleshed out a little better, but that's what sequels do.

In addition, I disagree that 'Reloaded' was a better film that the Matrix....Matrix was straightforward and to the point. I loved the storyline, characters and action scenes. The sequels were too long, convoluted and the CGI scenes (especially the ones with neo fighting multiple 'Agent Smiths ') were WAY too obvious and fake looking. I did like the way the "machines came together to make a face to communicate (that was cool) and the way that they outsmarted Smith, but I doubted that machines have any concept of sticking to their part of the bargain. Machines don't have morals or consciences. Once their enemy was defeated why not just destroy the humans anyway.

Just a few of my thoughts.

I am lobbying for a Thundercats movie!!! That was my ALL TIME FAVORITE!
Most of these are movies I don't really like but I think Bride of Frankenstein and Empire Strikes Back were two sequels that were better than the original. I think the first two Godfathers are as close to equally good as two movies can get.

My two cents.
Gotta concur about "Empire." I love "A New Hope" but hands down Empire is better, and is the best of the six Star Wars films. Lawrence Kasdan, the best screenwriter for ensemble pieces bar none, wrote the screenplay and I think Irving Kirschner is an unsung hero as the director. George Lucas does what he does best, namely produce.

Kasdan took over scripting duties on Empire after the unexpected death of original screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who received co-credit). Kasdan's writing career had been going nowhere until George Lucas, an old friend, hired him to write a little project he had going with Steven Spielberg called Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It was when Kasdan handed in the first draft for Raiders that Lucas asked him about finishing up Empire. Finishing Raiders of the Lost Ark on a Friday and starting The Empire Strikes Back the following Monday. Lawrence Kasdan went from struggling to A-list in a weekend.
How about remakes that are better than the originals. One that comes to mind is the "Thomas Crown affair". the remake is much better in many ways. I'm not sure if the Italian Job qualifies though. El Dorado, Rio Lobo come to mind as kissing cousins to a remake.
Attack of the Clones? No, the action scenes weren't good. Yes, the love story was terrible, and I don't quite understand that argument that it's only 1/4 of the movie, as if 1/4 is a small percentage.

Also... I rewatched the first Alien recently in theaters. The chest burster doesn't quite hold up and the Ash's severed head probably didn't hold up back in the 70's, but aside from the that, man that's a perfect movie. It's still intensely scary, the alien effects are still terrifying after they've been ripped off and bastardized literally hundreds of times. To put it behind 3, which was dark but completely nihilistic and soulless, and 4, which was a fun cartoon, but still a cartoon, is ridiculous.