Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Forgotten Gems: Flying Warriors

As a poor kid in the early 90s, having not even gotten my NES until fall 1990, while I did get games from time to time from somewhere like, say, Walmart (for example the incredible Monster in My Pocket game), a lot of games I managed to get, I got because of major sales. Specifically, and sadly, "Going Out of Business" type sales. In the town I lived in, there was an old Woolworth's store, which was one of the older department store chains in the US. At some point in the early 90s, after I had gotten my NES, the one in our town finally went out of business, and thanks to their own "Going Out of Business" sale, I was able to get several NES games that I otherwise likely wouldn't have gotten. Later on, I'm going to say a year or two later, the local K-Mart store also went out of business, and again I was able to get several games (and from that sale also a pile of old Nintendo Power magazines).

One of my sales "gems".

Among the games gleaned from these two sales, at least so far as I can remember, I was able to pick up such NES gems (and not so gems) as: Tiny Toon Adventures, Final Fantasy, Wall Street Kid, Solar Jetman, Orb 3D, Flying Dragon and Flying Warriors. As I recall, I do believe I got Flying Warriors, which actually was a later follow-up, first, from the Woolworth's sale. Then later, I got its spiritual predecessor, Flying Dragon, from the K-Mart sale. Seen above is the US box art for this game (though I've seen alternate art), the cover I got as a kid.

Now, it needs to be said, that at this early 90s time, I was directly in the throes of my obsession with the then new (released in 1991) arcade mega-hit, which basically gave birth to the modern one-on-one fighting game genre (it certainly refined it), Street Fighter II. SFII was essentially my introduction into martial arts stuff, for the most part, as I had not been really allowed to watch things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And it was specifically because of SFII, that I became not only obsessed with that game itself (though I rarely ever got to play it, which only fueled my obsession, making it like my Holy Grail), but with fighting games and the idea of martial arts in general. So when I was able to get games for my little NES that actually featured martial arts and tournament type fighting (a miracle in itself that my grandmother actually bought me these games in the first place), regardless of quality, I was enthralled!

What you see is what I got.

So, if my memory is correct, it is fairly easy to see how I could have been more than a bit disappointed when I got Flying Dragon from K-Mart, after having already owned and played the vastly superior "sequel" Flying Warriors. Released in the US in 1989, Flying Dragon was technically the second in the Hiyru no Ken (basically "Fist of the Flying Dragon") series. The first was known as Shanghai Kid, an arcade game which originated the fighting system the later games would use, and as such an early (and clunky) example of the one-on-one fighting genre that Street Fighter would later perfect. As you can see above, compared to its 1985 arcade cousin, Flying Dragon is actually pretty ambitious, not only adapting the in-ring tournament fighter aspect of Shanghai Kid, but fleshing the experience out by adding a side-scrolling element as well.

Unfortunately, while it's not a BAD game by any means, Flying Dragon is still fairly limited, and very rough around the edges. While a neat inclusion, and certainly lengthening the playability of the game, the side scrolling stages actually consist of looping levels. Meaning that you go through an area, fighting the same enemies and mini-bosses over and over, until you get all of the items that allow you to unlock a gate, beating the stage. Once you beat one of these stages, you got to a tournament fight, and have to battle one of your opponents in the "World Tournament of Contact Sports". The character, Ryuhi, has entered this tournament to avenge his master Juan's murder by the hands of mysterious Tusk Soldiers, and to retrieve the Secret Scrolls they stole.

The Tournament fights.

Keeping with what many games did around this mid-to-late 80s era, you cannot get the true ending of the game by beating it just once. Much like Ghosts n Goblins, or my own beloved Arkista's Ring, you have to beat it multiple times. In this specific case, the first time around, you have to collect all six of the Secret Scrolls the first time through to get the ending. The SECOND time through, you have to get not only the six scrolls, but also four mystic crystal balls. And if you DON'T get all of these items on the second (harder) playthrough, you won't get to see the game's true ending. I don't mind the idea of having a second, harder game to give players more to do after they've beaten a game. Hell, Mario and Zelda did that. But I DO mind the idea of not being able to actually see a game's ending until you beat it more than once. That's really kinda bullshit.

Overall, as I said, Flying Dragon is not a BAD game. It's just primitive and unrefined. Much as I did with most games I owned or rented as a kid, I still played it a lot, and tried my best to beat it (which I do believe I eventually did). But I simply did not find the story, nor far more repetitive gameplay (and having to beat it twice didn't help), as interesting, or fun, as I did the game that I'm REALLY here to talk about...

Cue Heroic Fanfare!

Released in 1991 in the US, the game known as Flying Warriors is an interesting case. It is actually made up of two Japan-only Famicom releases, the "sequels" to Flying Dragon, Hiryu no Ken 2 and 3. Apparently the game borrows elements from both games, while adding in some content of its own, which is a fairly unusual case when it comes to game localization. For whatever reasons, the developer, Culture Brain, decided when making this game for a western audience, to transform it into more of a "Saturday Morning Super Hero" type of deal. It still retained the mystic and martial arts elements (it would be pretty hard to remove those), but instead of transforming into armored mystic warriors, the heroes in this game transform into costumed super heroes. Culture Brain even went so far as to pay for multi-page, multi-part comic book style advertisements in North America, really selling the game as a comic book type of affair. Naturally, being big-time into the X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman cartoons of the early 90s, this made the game a huge draw for me.

Pretty bad ass.

I actually remember seeing these ads in classic gaming magazines like Game Pro, and these mini-comics really were pretty awesome. As for the game itself, aesthetically, even from the moment you power up the game, you are hit with a swell of super heroic-ness. The opening title theme is, in all seriousness, a pretty great piece of music, which you can listen to here. It definitely has a John Williams Superman type of vibe, and it does a good job helping to get you in the kind of mood for at least the tone the developers were trying for.

Takes a bit of learning.

As for the tone the game actually has? Well, it likely would have taken a lot of work to truly change what the game at its core was/is all about, which is the foundation of the Hiryu no Ken series: the martial arts theme and their fighting engine. The game starts you off as Rick Stalker (SUPER American name), who is in the mountains training with Kung Fu master who raised him, Gen Lao-Tsu. In fairly short order, after a quick tutorial session and a deadly walk through the hills, you learn that more is afoot than you would first suspect. Long ago some demon dude named Demonyx, of the Dark Dimension, tried to invade and rule the Light Dimension (where we live). He was repelled by a righteous warrior of Light called the Dragonlord. and sealed away with the pieces of the Mandara Talisman. But Demonyx warned that he would return when an Evil Red Star filled the sky. And now, naturally, it's up to Rick to FIND the pieces of this Talisman, and get ready to fight that SOB, to defend the Light Dimension again!

Just your average, quiet, demon-filled jog.

As you can see above, the game is more complex, graphically and otherwise, than its predecessor. The gameplay is still divided into side-scrolling levels, full of, quite frankly, a bit too much platforming for their own good (more on that later), and the one-on-one style fights. At first, these fights are with monks, to test your skill. But eventually, much like in Flying Dragon, you set off to take part in full blown martial art tournaments.

It was no Street Fighter, but it was what I had.

Now, hearkening back to my mention of Street Fighter II, as I stated before, I didn't get to play the game in arcades much, because my grandmother thought it was a waste of money. I DID get to play arcades sometimes, but far too rarely for my taste, and SFII itself super rarely. So in that sense it really was my "Holy Grail" at the time. I studied up on it, I read everything I could about the game and strategies for playing in magazines, I watched other kids play it every chance I got, etc. I would literally sit and think about what I would do in fights if I was able to play. And of course in practice, the rare times I DID get to play the game, I usually didn't last very long, only beating maybe one or two people before losing, because I obviously didn't have much practice.

So to me, only owning an NES, I took what little I could get when it came to a SFII-like experience, even if it was actually nothing close. With Flying Warriors, I had a game centered around martial arts, that even had a separate "Tournament Mode", which focused solely on this aspect. I played that mode by itself plenty, trying my best to pretend that it actually was some epic Street Fighter style affair. But really, poor-man's fighting game aside, at that age, Flying Warriors seemed like the perfect package for me. It had fighting, it had super heroes, mysticism, cool magic powers, etc. But there WAS one major flaw that held the whole thing back from being truly great...

Not all gameplay elements are created equal.

Not all too dissimilar from the Double Dragon or even Battletoads games, Flying Warriors is a game with its core in the fighting action. So much so, that this engine still shapes the gameplay on side-scrolling stages. Even though they try to throw in what can often be a copious amount of platforming, the way the mechanics in the game work, the jumping is stiff and often not precise enough for what they want you to do. It's not AS bad as the jumping in Double Dragon, but it's still a case of a non-platforming game trying to make you do platforming. I can recall one especially frustrating part a ways into the games, as you're making your way to the first tournament, and the game wants to you jump across this huge, gaping pit, Mario style. With moving platforms, and asshole enemies flying at you, and everything. Except UNLIKE Mario, your jumping controls and physics aren't built for that kind of action. So what happens? You can very easily wind up falling down the pit, a lot. And that kind of speed-bump in an otherwise decent game, can really sour the experience.

It's Morphin' Time!

Crappy jumping aside, the rest of the game's parts work well enough. As for the story, as you can see, Rick eventually picks up some allies as his journey moves along. Rick is joined by Mary Lynn, Hayato Go, Greg Cummings, and late in the game, Jimmy Culter Jr. (don't ask me where they picked those names), and together, as you might have guessed, they form the titular Flying Warriors. As the story progresses, you learn that forces from the Dark Dimension are at work, including a group of dark warriors who are your shadowy reflection, known as the Moonlight Warriors. If this all sounds like it should have been an anime or American cartoon series, well it's because it SHOULD have.

Ultimately, after fighting the Moonlight Warriors more than once, you finally encounter the big bad himself, Demonyx, and it all comes down to a final, epic battle. Which also brings up the last gameplay style this game presents you with. For BIG boss fights, but mainly for Demonyx himself, the fighting switches to a turn-based RPG style, with command menus and everything!

You might even call it, your Final Fantasy!

In fact, throughout the game you have a sort of "RPG Lite" system going on, as you gradually gain levels, and health, and the damage you can deal out goes up, etc. You not only need to "level grind" a bit if you want to get anywhere against Demonyx, but naturally, you also need all the pieces of the Talisman so you can seal his ass back up! Now the one area where I failed a bit as a kid when playing this, is that the upon beating the game normally, you are told that to get the TRUE ending (or somesuch), you have to beat the game on hard. And even as a kid, after working to beat an ALREADY fairly difficult game, I was like "Nah I'm good". I mean, I wanted to see the full ending, but I also didn't really feel like going through all of that again, but even harder. So I have, to date, never gotten the "True Ending" myself. I know, the shame.

All in all, Flying Warriors is a unique game, and an oddball mish-mash of parts. It isn't perfect, by any means, as the frustrating platforming can attest to. But it IS still a pretty solid game, and one worth checking out. I don't have the kind of patience and dedication to beat even crappy or hard-as-nails games that I had when I was young, but I'd still like to beat this game again someday. Though probably not on hard. I'm too old for that shit.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Unpopular Movies That I Like Pt. 3

So if you've been following along, I kicked 2019 off by talking about so-called "Unpopular Movies" that I actually like, and think are good movies. I've endeavored to point out why they're NOT actually bad films, and why I enjoy them. You can find Part 1 and Part 2 here. So now, let's finish this project off (for now at least), with Part 3!

Film: Super Mario Bros.
Year: 1993
Director: Rocky Morton/Annabel Jankel

This is one of my many films I didn't get to see during my childhood, even though being a massive Super Mario addict at that young age, I would have loved to. I did get to see it a bit later though, and even though I surely noted all of the inconsistencies with the games, and sheer weirdness of the film itself, I still earnestly liked it. Obviously, I must've said to myself "This isn't how the Super Mario Bros. are", yet still didn't hate it. And considering the fact that I REALLY loved Mario in general at the time, that's saying something.

This movie is fairly notorious for being a "Bad Film", both because its production was a total mess, and because it is a very bizarre live action adaptation of a beloved video games franchise. The thing is though, just right out of the gate, I don't personally believe that ANY live action adaptation of Super Mario Bros. was ever going to really work. It's already bizarre source material, what with a couple of plumbers from Brooklyn, being transported to a magical land of "Mushroom People", and black magick Koopas, and floating blocks, and golden coins everywhere, etc. With THAT kind of set-up, I'm really unsure what people honestly thought a live action movie was going to be. To be fair, what got made was something no one really could have guessed at, but still. A cartoon movie, more akin to my beloved Super Mario Bros. Super Show, would have been the only way to truly adapt the games well.

Bob Hoskins makes a pretty good Mario.

The movie itself, was directed by the duo of Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, who had already been known previously for the bizarre creation Max Headroom, and had together directed the neo-noir film D.O.A. Already, I think given the pair's background and penchant for "out there" material, the studio should have known what they might be in for. If they wanted something more "played straight", they might have wanted to pick someone else. As it was, the film went through a lot of rewrites, and suffered from a lot of script changes and battling between the studio and the directors. All of this lent itself to a very chaotic filming production, and it even led star Bob Hoskins to later claim this was the film of his that he hated the most, because he hated making it at the time.

Aside from Hoskins as the infamous Mario, the film stars comedian John Leguizamo as Mario's younger brother Luigi, and the ever-gorgeous Samantha Mathis as Princess Daisy (in the U.S. Princess Toadstool didn't yet have a name other than that, so they decided to lift the name Daisy from the Game Boy hit Super Mario Land). In the villain roles, they had Dennis Hopper as King Koopa, and Fisher Stevens of Short Circuit fame and Richard Edson as his "nephews" and lackeys, Iggy and Spike. All in all, a decent, albeit appropriately oddball cast.

The Super Scope is a dangerous weapon!

Now, admittedly, the movie is an incredibly weird, even surreal creation. Which, again, given the directors, isn't surprising. As seen above, King Koopa, instead of being a huge magical Turtle Dragon creature (aka Koopa), is a man. In the film's canon, when the meteor that (possibly) killed the dinosaurs hit, it ripped a hole in the fabric of space, and created a parallel dimension where the surviving dinosaurs, along with apparently fungus, evolved into very human-like people, with their own civilization and everything. Obviously, quite a far cry from the actual Mario storyline. And if you look above, you can also see what they did with the "Goombas" and "Koopas" of the film, transforming them from cute mushroom and turtle-ish monsters, into giant "devolved", tiny-headed things. For the "Mushroom Kingdom", the directors created a very near late 80s vibe, with a dark grimy city, almost like a Bizarro World New York. All things that, again, made it scream "Not really Mario!" Oddly enough, Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, was once quoted as saying that he "appreciated the effort put into the film, but felt they tried to stick TOO close to the source material."

And it didn't help that the production was such a clusterfuck, as that certainly hampered the film from being all it could have been (as so often happens in Hollywood). BUT, while the movie certainly is a crazy mish-mash, I think it deserves to be said that considering HOW ridiculous the production was, the final product turned out FAR better, really, than it had any right being. In fact, of course going with the theme of these articles, I would not even call this so-called "Super Mario Bros." a bad movie, at all! It's a shame, to me, that Hoskins (and Dennis Hopper) hated this movie, and regretted being involved in it, because honestly, it's a very memorable and very entertaining work, on its own merits. Perhaps it was a completely happy accident that it turned out as good as it actually is, but that doesn't change the fact that, simply put, it IS actually rather good.

Yoshi...is that you?

 I would say that I was certainly a BIT disappointed upon seeing it at 12 or whatever years old, for the obvious Mario/canon reasons. But I would also say that I have come to appreciate the film more and more for what it is, as an adult. Disregarding the gory details of the film's production, the movie has a lot going for it. It has a coherent, though certainly surreal, plot. It has a good cast of actors who gave surprisingly heartfelt performances. The movie has a nice deliberate pace, and actually flows very well. And perhaps most importantly, it absolutely carries a distinct style and personality, all its own. I don't think there is a single other film quite like this one.

As far as I'm concerned, the people who "hate" this movie, or dump on it for being "bad", are mostly your pretentious film snob types. That doesn't mean there AREN'T valid reasons to dislike it, I suppose. But as I've happily pointed out, for many years, I think if you took this exact same film, but removed any Mario title or names or references, so that it WASN'T supposed to be an adaptation of anything, but was STILL the same lovably weird movie, it would likely have a far better reputation. In fact, I think it would unquestionably be a "Cult Classic", on the same kind of level as something like Buckaroo Banzai or Big Trouble in Little China. This "Mario" movie is a curious creature indeed, but I think it is overdue for a sincere second look by movie fans. 

Best Thing(s) About Super Mario Bros.: The chemistry and relationship between the Mario Bros., and their new friend Princess Daisy. And the overall oddball style/tone of the film.

Worst Thing About Super Mario Bros.: All that weird, slimy goddamn fungus everywhere! I think they took the whole "Mushroom Kingdom" thing a bit too literally.

Film: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Year: 1989
Director: William Shatner

To many, this is considered the "Worst Star Trek Film Ever Made". I would strongly debate that purely on how bad some of the later "Next Generation", and in my opinion ALL of the more recent "reboot" films have been. Compared to those, I think this is a masterpiece! But to back up for a second, the history of Star Trek V is an interesting one. After the late 80s hit (though notably odd) Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the original classic Trek crew found new life in the 80s, with four films during the decade. Two of those, The Search for Spock and my personal favorite, The Voyage Home, were directed by Spock actor Leonard Nemoy, who himself would find later directorial success with such films as the American adaptation of Three Men and a Baby. Shatner, feeling perhaps a bit left out, or maybe just wanting to stretch his own creative wings, wanted to direct the next film, and was allowed to. What followed, was easily the weirdest of the original movie series, and the final product, as noted, is considered by many to be "the worst".

A Vulcan with a BEARD? Nuts!

In addition to directing, Shatner also co-wrote the story concept of the movie. In it, the now-revealed older half-brother of Spock, named Sybok, has turned away from traditional Vulcan culture, which enforced logic over suppressed emotions, to instead embrace his emotions and passions, which include, as it turns out, trying to find the very nature of "God" itself. As I understand it, this plot point right away, for some Trek fans, "doesn't sit well", because it's a VERY spiritual overtone, in a traditionally science fiction series. But for one thing, it isn't as if the original series didn't at least somewhat touch on spirituality and the concept of "gods", and for another, the Vulcan people themselves, while highly logical and deeply pursuant of scientific exploration, also happen to be established as a very spiritual people, in their own way, as well. Hell, for that matter, the previous films in the movie series put MAJOR focus on Vulcan spirituality, shining specific spotlight on the concept of the "Katra", literally a piece of one's soul. So not only is it not out of place in the Trek universe, but it's actually a pretty interesting idea: a renegade "hippy" Vulcan, traveling the universe "In Search of God".

On top of looking for "God", Sybok also seems to have developed the distinctly unique ability, to somehow use his Vulcan empathic talent to "take people's pain away". By mind-melding with them, he somehow makes them feel freed from their inner demons and sorrows, by "sharing their pain", which leaves them feeling freed and euphoric. With this power, he amasses himself an army of loyal followers, who support his quest. In all honesty, I think that Sybok is one of the more interesting characters, and sympathetic villains, in the entire franchise. He employs some terrorist methods such as forcibly commandeering the starship Enterprise, yes, but he ultimately doesn't really want to hurt, let alone kill, people. In his skewed view of things, he wants to "enlighten" them and set them free. And beyond all that, actor Laurence Luckinbill, I think, does a fantastic job as the misguided spiritual crusader.

The heart of the story.

All in all, Star Trek V has an awful lot going for it. The classic cast, an interesting villain, and to me, most importantly, at its core are arguably THE best scenes in the entire series, of the relationship between the three principle Star Trek characters, Captain James T. Kirk, Spock, and Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy. Throughout the film, there are some really great, bonding and character building moments between these already beloved characters. For someone like me, who grew up on reruns of the original show and even the 70s cartoon, as well as these movies, that carries a lot of weight. I think that as a director, Shatner handled the plot and these more personal touches and moments very well. I'd say he does a fairly strong job overall, actually, as the movie is well-filmed, well-paced, and very professionally done. Even a co-star who he had a rocky relationship with, like George Takei, later gave him credit for doing an admirable job.

If anything, I'd say the fact that the studio actively sabotaged and undermined the budget and time he had to work with, effected it more than anything. Paramount was apparently too cheap to want to pay for Industrial Light & Magic to do the kinds of ambitious effects scenes Shatner envisioned, instead opting to take a lesser route. The studio, in yet another such case, also interfered a bit during the production, beyond cutting the budget. Perhaps the biggest criticism levied at this film, beyond the "spiritual" plot, is what many consider to be the anti-climactic climax. In Shatner's original vision, due to the being that Sybok leads them to, which turns out to most certainly NOT be "God", there was to be an epic final battle between the principle characters and stone giants brought to life from the planet itself. Instead, what he got to work with, was a floating glowy head that shoots deadly eye-beams, most of which he wound up cutting out because it looked sub-par.

One can only imagine what the film could have been, if Shatner had been allowed to fully make the movie he wanted to make. But even with Paramount's BS undermining him, I still think he turned in a classy finished product. All of the main original cast get their moments to shine, the scenes with Kirk/Spock/Bones are especially stellar, and if nothing else, the plot is very original and even a-typical. Many Trek fans shit on this film for being "Bad", but again, I'd not only argue that it's actually quite good, upon further reflection, I would personally say that it might very well be my second favorite of the classic movie series, behind Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. For a long time, the following and final classic Trek film, The Undiscovered Country, held that distinction for me, and in some ways I guess it still does. But I think the more personal scenes between the principle three characters, for me, might be what puts Star Trek V over the top.

Best Thing About Star Trek V: Easily the expanded/strengthened relationship between Kirk, Spock and Bones. Those scenes are gold.

Worst Thing About Star Trek V: Easily the shitty "God" head being at the end. The film, and Shatner himself, deserved more from the studio than that.

Film: Lethal Weapon 4
Year: 1998
Director: Richard Donner

I've mentioned before how 1998 was a hell of a year for movies. It is the year I saw THE most films in theater, topping 40 easily. Movies like Lost in Space, Dark City, Fallen, The Wedding Singer, My Giant, Almost Heroes, The Truman Show, Ever After, What Dreams May Come, etc., it was a year stuffed with decent to great films, and a wide variety between them to boot. And of course Lethal Weapon 4 was no exception. Directed by Richard Donner, hot off the heels of one of his best films, 1997's Conspiracy Theory, this would be the fourth and final installment of his famous action series. But I was surprised to recently learn, thanks to social media no less, that apparently some people consider it a "bad film". Out of all of the movies I've talked about in this series, just short of perhaps Die Hard With a Vengeance, none do I find more baffling to have such a designation than this one.

The only real criticisms I seem to have picked up on for Lethal Weapon 4, is that it's "overstuffed" and "too busy". So do these same people have the same criticism then for something like, say, Avengers: Infinity War? Because THAT was absolutely overstuffed and too busy, far more than this, for sure. The series added new characters over the course of each film, yes, such as Joe Pesci's ex-money launderer turned wannabe private detective, Leo Getz ("Whatever you need, Leo Getz!"), and Renee Russo's police officer Lorna Cole. And this movie added yet another character, Chris Rock's Detective Lee Butters, a new cop on the force who also just so happens to "secretly" be Roger Murtaugh's (Danny Glover's) new son-in-law. But that happens over the course of a series, you introduce new characters to keep things fresh and keep them from getting stale. So I'm not sure how valid of a criticism that even is.

Jet Li's first American film.

Otherwise, honestly, I don't know what the hell people who dislike this film or consider it "bad", especially if they're fans of the rest of the series, even want or expect out of it. As far as I'm concerned, it has a much stronger plot and is a better film, overall, than Lethal Weapon 3. It doesn't hurt that it was the only entry of the series that I saw in theaters. It also doesn't hurt that not only was it Jet Li's first American film, it was also MY first time seeing a Jet Li film, period. And it was quite an introduction, let me tell you! Li, who generally dislikes playing villains, is an excellent villain here, the "strong, silent" badass enforcer of the Chinese Triad, he is very effective, and naturally has great fighting scenes.

In addition to that, Chris Rock, just entering the hot period of his own film career at this point, is in classic form, and especially his interaction with Joe Pesci, adds a lot of humor. The relationship of Riggs and Murtaugh continues to deepen, and the sub-plot of both Riggs' girlfriend (Russo) and Murtaugh's daughter being pregnant, adds a deeper family element to the story. Is the plot busy and fast paced? Sure. But that goes for the entire series, even though I'd say that LW3 was perhaps the "slowest", having a smaller-scale plot involving the impacts of gang violence, etc. But seeing as how this entry was the final one, they clearly went out with an appropriate bang, and to me, it works really well.

The Captains.

The story involves criminals crafting an intricate plot to illegally gain money, which isn't too terribly different from the plot of any entry in the series, of course. But the twist of the Chinese Triad trying to move in on the American underground, is a fresh spin on things. And Jet Li being more of a martial arts bad ass, adds a fresh element versus simply more "bad guys with guns". Seeing this movie in theaters back in '98, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and looking at it now, while my opinion has fluctuated over the years, it might be my favorite of the Lethal Weapon films. There was a time when the second film was my favorite, but older me seems to find part four to be more entertaining now, over it's far-darker predecessor. And I suppose, perhaps, that is another reason people who dislike this film might use, is that it's absolutely the "lightest" film in the series. But again, I hardly find that a terribly valid criticism, as it still has its share of "dark" and serious moments, along with more touching, personal ones.

Overall, I think it's a great movie, and a fitting end to the franchise. For years, I had actually been somewhat hoping they'd make a fifth film. But thinking about it now, regardless of the actors' ages and the two decades it has been since this released, I just don't think there really is any call for another entry. I think this movie capped things off pretty well for all characters involved, which it really kinda feels like that was Donner's intention. The character of Martin Riggs (Gibson), has really grown and come full circle, from the borderline suicidal psycho that poor Murtaugh gets stuck with in the original movie, to now about to become a father and finally learning to move on from his past pain a bit. Even Leo Getz, while they still razz him and play jokes on him, finds himself being more accepted into the extended "family" that they've all become. And I think ultimately, that was the theme of this film, and perhaps WHY it's a bit lighter in tone: the bonds of family.

Best Thing About Lethal Weapon 4: Jet Li's bad ass antagonist.

Worst Thing About Lethal Weapon 4: I could always use some more Leo Getz. That's the biggest "negative" I could really come up with.


And that, as they say, is that, folks! I hope you've enjoyed my trip through the land of "Unpopular" movies, and I hope that perhaps I've helped turn some of you around on some of these fine films. I may return somewhere down the road with another installment, but for now, I feel like I've achieved what I set out to do. If you've never seen these movies, or even if you feel like giving them a second chance, please do see some of them. Or ALL of them! What the hell, right? Until next time.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Unpopular Movies That I Like Pt. 2

So last time I began talking about movies that are generally considered (by some, or many), to be "bad movies", a stance in their cases I disagree with and dispute. And now, it's time to talk about some MORE such films, because there are several, trust me. And away we go!

Film: The Wizard
Year: 1989
Director:Todd Holland

Another late 80s gem that is often the butt of jokes, The Wizard, much like Mac and Me, is also accused of basically being a 90 minute commercial. In this particular case, for the classic Nintendo Entertainment System (Nintendo's first major console) in general. But also, for the extended preview, more or less, of their at-the-time upcoming new hit game, Super Mario Bros. 3, featured in the climax of the movie. And much like Mac and Me, that isn't a completely untrue or unfair assertion, as this game was in fact licensed and endorsed by Nintendo themselves, who hoped the film would further raise the profile of their system and games. But is it a BAD movie? Let's take a deeper look.

Directed by Todd Holland, a director mostly known for television, this film was the result of happenstance, with Nintendo agreeing to a proposal by Universal Studios to make a movie based on their games, as they wanted to keep momentum of their popular console going, in the face of some delayed game releases. The story features Fred Savage of The Wonder Years fame as Corey Woods, a boy whose seemingly autistic younger brother Jimmy, has remained very withdrawn from the world after the accidental drowning of his twin sister two years prior. Jimmy keeps trying to run away from home, so it would seem, and their mother and new step-father, want to put Jimmy in a home, as they feel they can't meet his needs. Not wanting to see his brother "locked away", young Corey takes his brother and really does run away, which kicks off the strange road trip the movie takes us on.

Underage gambling, by proxy.

The brothers soon meet up with a pretty young redhead named Haley, who thanks to traveling a lot with her trucker dad, is far more road-wise than they are. Together, Corey and Haley also soon discover that, as it turns out, somewhat like a so-called "Savant", Jimmy seems to be incredibly good at video games. Haley sees an ad in a gaming magazine, for the "Video Armageddon" tournament, held at Universal Studios (where else?), in Los Angeles. Not only does this align with Haley's desire for money, but it also aligns perfectly with Jimmy's own repeated desire to go to California. Meanwhile, not only are Corey and Jimmy's father Sam and older brother Nick (played by Beau Bridges and Christian Slater, respectively) out on the road looking for them, but so is a sleazy "runaway catcher" who their step-father has hired. And thus the movie is not only a road trip story, but also a race to get to California.

Childhood dreams.

The idea for the "Video Armageddon" tournament was based on the real life gaming tournaments Nintendo themselves had just begun doing, starting with a Canadian event called the Nintendo Challenge Championship, and later evolving into the much more famous 1990 Nintendo World Championship. For my part, as a kid in the late 80s, I was completely unaware of such events, but I was aware of Super Mario Bros 3. I saw this movie (like anything else) as a home rental, probably in 1990 or 1991, long after this film had released. But I had experienced Mario 3 (already becoming addicted to the original at a friend's house), very briefly, at my aunt's house at a family gathering. And regardless of whether I finally saw this movie before I got a copy of the game myself for Christmas 1990, or after, once I finally saw this movie, I was still excited by the whole reveal and set-up of the tournament. In fact I found the entire movie to be very fun and entertaining, not at all hindered by my growing love of/childhood obsession with video games. Just to name a few, games shown in this film include Double Dragon, Ninja Gaiden, Zelda II, Rad Racer, and more, and to a kid who loves video games, just seeing all those in a single film was pretty damn cool.

The thing is, I still find this movie fun and entertaining today, in my 30s. Part of it is nostalgia, both for the movie and for old video games on my part, yes. But I also think as films go, it is a perfectly decent, even fairly well made little movie. It certainly doesn't lack for acting, with the likes of Bridges, Slater, Savage, and even a cameo by the great Frank McRae. In fact as much as I like Mac and Me, and think it isn't at all a poorly made film, I can easily say that The Wizard is, all around, a better written, better acted, and more grounded movie. The story of the bond between brothers, their new friendship with Haley, the journey of their dad and brother chasing after them, the excitement of Jimmy's gaming skills and the looming tournament, even the memorable "villains" of kid catcher Mr. Putnam and the arrogant rival gamer Lucas (who loves the Power Glove). All of these elements combine to make what I think is actually a really great movie, for what it is. It tells an endearing story, and though this is a major *SPOILER*, the bit at the end where it turns out Jimmy wanted to go to California this whole time, to take mementos of his sister to one of the last places they were happy together, the famous Cabazon Dinosaurs (of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure fame), is a really nice, emotional touch.

Best Thing About The Wizard: To a childhood Nintendo nut like me, the games. In general, it's a good story about family and friendship. Centered around awesome games.

Worst Thing About The Wizard: The Power Glove. Lucas makes it look awesome, but anyone who's ever used the thing, knows that it barely works.

Film: The Avengers
Year: 1998
Director:  Jeremiah S. Chechik

As I've described before, perhaps partially as a means of making up for all the childhood years that I wasn't able to see movies in theaters, in my teens from 1996 through 1999 especially, I legitimately saw an average of around 30 films per year. But the other side of that, was that in all blunt honesty, in the mid-to-late 90s, there were just a lot more films coming out that I actually WANTED to see in theaters. Not everything I went to see was great, granted, some even outright stunk. But I'd also say that it is not hyperbole to state that Hollywood was quite simply pumping out a LOT better movies back then. Compared to, say, the last 10+ years, where I'm lucky if there are 5 or 6 films I want to see in theaters, per year.

Well, in the summer of 1998, at the very height of my theater going days, a now lesser-known film hit theaters, based on an old TV show I had never seen (or barely even heard of for that matter), called The Avengers. Nope, not THOSE Avengers, but rather, a duo of British super spies, secret agents, who were something of a campy send-up of James Bond and the like that was very popular in the 1960s. Not only did the 1998 Avengers movie not do terribly well at the box office, but it also seemingly wasn't overly well liked by critics. I have also heard that many fans of the original show hate it, as with many Hollywood adaptations, they simply deviated too much (unnecessarily) from the source material. That is something I can relate to and sympathize with, as I myself am more often than not a firm believer in sticking to source material, and I myself often hate it when Hollywood makes changes to adaptations for no good reason. But for me, a 16 year old in the late 90s, a young man really starting to come into my own as a person, and someone who had never seen the original show so I had nothing to compare it to, quite frankly, I absolutely loved this movie!

The stars of the film.

The Avengers is directed by Jeremiah Chechick, whose first film was actually none other than National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, one of my favorite holiday films and comedies of all time. As such, while I'm sure the original show had its own brand of humor as well, this film is not without its comedic elements, which I personally felt worked quite well. The stars of the show, as seen above, are Ralph Fiennes (of Harry Potter fame) as Ministry Agent John Steed, and Uma Thurman as Emma Peel, a scientist who also starts working for the Ministry. In fact, the Harry Potter connections don't end there, as the primary Ministry bosses in the story, "Mother" (a man) and "Father" (a woman), are played by HP actors Jim Broadbent and Fiona Shaw. And last but most certainly not least, the main villain of the film, and a delightfully mad turn of a villain as well, is the great Sean Connery as Sir August De Wynter, a scientist obsessed with the weather.

The core of the plot, is that Project Prospero, an ill-conceived attempt at manipulating weather patterns, has been sabotaged, and video evidence seems to show Emma Peel herself, former head of the project, committing the crime. Both to clear her good name, and to help get this power out of possible terrorist hands, Ms. Peel agrees to aid Steed and the Ministry in their investigation. As they go to meet De Wynter, and the plot begins to unfold, it is revealed that Sir August himself is the man behind the the sabotage, and he has what appears to be a clone of Emma Peel working for him. He has taken control of Prospero because he wishes to use it to threaten the world with massive, catastrophic weather if they don't pay him a huge amount of money. You know, typical maniacal villain stuff.

The film's odd style and quirky sense of charm on display.

Believe it or not, this is yet another movie to be included on a list of so-called "Worst Films Ever Made". A list which I hold in little regard, in part because it is a high form of film snobbery, but also because looking at many of the movies, such as this, put on it, while also considering the exclusion of an awful lot of ACTUALLY bad films, it just doesn't deserve much regard. Lists like those, like all opinions, are of course incredibly subjective. Even so, the very notion to me, regardless of box office performance, that this movie could possibly be considered, with any degree of seriousness, one of THE worst films ever made? Again, I'll echo what I said in Part 1 of this enterprise, that I have myself seen a LOT of movies in my life, and a LOT of really, earnestly shitty movies at that. Not only does this not even come close, but I really don't see where people would get off calling this "Bad" in the first place. Personal tastes aside, objectively, it is fairly well written, well acted with a pretty strong main cast, it has excellent flow and pacing, it tells an interesting story, and at the end of the day, it is a fun action flick with an above-average sense of wit and wordplay.

Me personally, upon seeing it for the first time in August 1998, sitting in that theater by myself, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. I was immediately taken by the film's playful sense of British humor, and general tone and style. I loved the way they played up the stereotypical British politeness and focus on good manners, no matter the situation, even from the villains. Ralph Fiennes does a fantastically suave and charming job as John Steed, including pulling off some very well-executed and convincing action/fight scenes. And Uma Thurman, who depending on the film I am not always a huge fan of, does an equally charming job as the mysterious and potentially villainous Emma Peel. The show is stolen, of course, in my humble opinion, by Sean Connery, as it so often is. To me, this is one of his most entertaining roles, as he rarely plays villains, and he absolutely owns the eccentric madness of the character. Not too over the top, but Shakespearean enough, in its own way, to make a truly memorably bad guy. This was during the mid-to-late-90s period where I was just beginning to fully discover Mr. Connery, in movies like Highlander, Medicine Man, First Knight, Dragonheart, and The Rock. I had previously seen him as a kid in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, but this was one of many films during this time that really cemented him as one of my favorite actors.

I liked The Avengers so much that I saw it one or two more times, at the very least dragging a friend to go see it with me a second time. He also wound up loving it. Looking at a list just now, that I had previously made of movies I saw by year, it would seem in 1998 I actually saw over 40 movies, probably more than any other year in my movie-going life. And that year was full of many really great films I loved, including What Dreams May Come, Patch Adams, Fallen, Dark City, The Truman Show, etc. But I have no reservations whatsoever about including this movie among them, as it was one of the movies, from a year of great movies, that I got the most enjoyment from seeing. Overall, again personal tastes aside, I think many films that "bomb" in theaters, not making money, get unfairly seen as "bad films", regardless of their actual quality. And this is one I am confident in stating, if you've never seen it (or even if you have), that no, objectively speaking, it is in no meaningful way a "bad" movie. And that is even in light of the fact that Warner Bros, as idiotic studio executives often do, ordered the film to be cut down and altered. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but that and being a "bad film" are two entirely different things, as could be said for just about every movie I'm here to discuss.

Best Thing About The Avengers: Aside from Sean Connery's awesome turn as August De Wynter, I would say the overall tone and "British Charm" of the film. It was just an incredibly pleasant, fun movie to watch.

Worst Thing About The Avengers: The entire sub-plot about Emma Peel's clone is never fully expounded upon, and is a bit flimsy and ridiculous. But it's also not super important, and doesn't really detract from the rest of the story.

Film: Die Hard With a Vengeance (Die Hard 3)
Year: 1995
Director:  John McTiernan

While I was vaguely aware that some people disliked this movie, thanks to a snarky conversation by co-workers overheard many years ago, I was not aware until more recently that some people actually seem to consider Die Hard With a Vengeance a "Bad" film. I myself didn't see this movie when it came out, as it was on the cusp of when I was able to start going to theaters at 13 years old starting slowly in the summer of 1995, but I did see it later on, likely in 1996 or early 1997, on VHS. It was actually the first Die Hard movie I ever saw, in fact, and one of the first Bruce Willis films I saw in general. But while I clearly am defending every movie on this ongoing list of mine as being a good film, I'm about to take a much stronger stance than that.

Released in May 1995, this film was directed by John McTiernan, who in addition to directing the original Die Hard, had also previously directed Predator, The Hunt For Red October, and Medicine Man, all movies I like. The writer, Jonathan Hensleigh, also has quite a resume, as while this was his first major film, he would go on to write Jumanji, The Rock, Con Air, The Saint, and Armageddon. Not only was this movie probably my first major exposure to Bruce Willis, but outside of his smaller side-role in Jurassic Park, this was also my first major exposure to Samuel L. Jackson. For what it's worth, it was also the second-highest grossing film of 1995, behind only Toy Story, and beating out the likes of Apollo 13, Goldeneye, Pocahontas and Batman Forever.

John McClain, looking as haggard as ever.

The set-up of this particular Die Hard, I feel, is actually fairly unique. Where the first two films essentially saw similar plots where a group of terrorists were laying siege to or holding hostage a specific place, this movie is more of a "wild goose chase", in a pretty literal sense. While the villains are once again a group of terrorists, the plot this time sees hero Detective John McClain back in his native New York City, and the main terrorist, "Simon", is literally messing with McClain, leading him around on a game of "Simon Says". He accomplishes this via the threat of bombing various NYC targets, such as schools. In that sense alone, "Die Hard 3" is a much more psychological story, as the villain seems to have a personal vendetta against McClain, and his machinations are more than merely trying to gain money, etc.

For his part, Jackson's character of Zeus Carver, is just an "Average Joe" civilian who owns his own shop, and he gets involved by happenstance. "Simon" instructs McClain to go to a predominantly black neighborhood, forced to wear a sign with the racist slogan "I Hate N******", as a means of messing with him and deliberately putting him in harms way. Thinking he's just some crazy asshole who's going to get himself killed by the local gangbangers, Zeus interjects to save his life. Watching the entire thing from afar, "Simon" demands that Zeus accompany McClain for the duration of his mad game. Fair warning about *SPOILERS*, but in an interesting twist, the villain turns out to be Simon Gruber, the brother of Hans Gruber, the terrorist leader that McClain killed in the first film.

 The Odd Couple.

Now I'm really not 100% clear on what issues precisely that some people seem to have with this film. The original 1988 movie is considered a classic of the action genre, which I agree with, though I personally contend the notion that it is a "Christmas Movie", let alone that it's one of the "Best Christmas Movies Ever". But that's besides the point. To me, the sequel, Die Hard 2, while a decent film, is a bit of a let down from the first, and I certainly wouldn't personally consider it a better movie than "Die Hard 3", by any stretch of the imagination. But I really struggle to think of the reasons people would consider this a "bad" film compared to the first two. In point of fact, when I said that I would take a stronger stance than merely pointing out that this is a genuinely GOOD film, it's because, at least in my opinion, I think this is the BEST of the Die Hard franchise. Yes, best. Why?

Because while the first movie is a classic, and a very entertaining action/thriller, to me the entire setup of sending the heroes all over New York City, having them do whatever crazy, dangerous shit you can think of, as a cover for the REAL crime you're committing right under their noses? All of this also being personal revenge against McClain? It's just a far more exciting and interesting plot, to me, than terrorists holding a corporate Christmas party hostage for money. Bruce Willis and Sam Jackson have great chemistry, in that "odd couple thrown together" kind of way, and this was actually the movie that made me both a Willis and Jackson fan. Jeremy Irons makes a great villain as Simon Gruber, and his motivations and schemes are more complex than his brother's (played by the late Alan Rickman). The stakes are obviously far higher, with terrorists threatening to blow up schools full of innocent children, etc., versus one room full of yuppy corporate partiers (even though one of them WAS McClain's wife). In general, I think this movie is every bit as classic an action flick as the first, and I would contend that overall it has more going for it, and going on within it, than it's predecessors do.

Best Thing About Die Hard 3: The teaming of Willis and Jackson, the more complex villain, and the more intricate, psychological plot.

Worst Thing About Die Hard 3: The fact that McClain is once again estranged from his wife, who he had seemed to have reconciled with in the first two films. I'm a sucker for good, lasting relationships, and I hate to see them fall apart (especially for no good reason other than plot convenience).


Well that's it for now. I'll be back with at least one more installment of this series, and a few more heavy hitters to discuss. Until then, go watch these movies, because they're actually pretty good!

Monday, January 21, 2019

Unpopular Movies That I Like Pt. 1

I have never been a stranger to having so-called "Unpopular Opinions" in my life. By and large, with few exceptions, almost exclusively from my youth, I like what I like, and don't what I don't, and tend to mostly not care where those opinions align with the masses. So-called "Popular Opinions", after all, are very often disingenuous, in the sense that many people tend to get swept up in the "Zeitgeist", so to speak. Meaning that many people, who might tend not to have strong or concrete opinions of their own, will instead just kind of go with whatever the general opinion on something seems to be. Thus, when it comes to things like entertainment, many such people who form "the masses", will tend to lean towards whatever popular likes and dislikes they have heard expressed. The idea being that, if some people put out there the notion that "Movie X is a Bad Film", even if that may not actually be true on many levels, through a form of the "Word of Mouth" phenomenon, the notion will just kinda keep creeping and spreading through the proverbial grapevine, until that thought is more or less planted within the so-called "Public Consciousness". The end result being that the "Popular Opinion", though most did not actually come to the conclusion on their own, or via their own time or effort, will inevitably be that "Movie X is a Bad Film."

Now in all fairness, sometimes Movie X genuinely IS a bad film. And in other cases, some people will feel that Movie X, while it is NOT a "bad film" on many levels, to THEM is a bad film, or they simply find reasons to dislike it. Not everyone who echoes a "Popular Opinion" is a Zombie of the Zeitgeist, if you will. It's just that many are, and that is how many opinions become popularized in the first place.

As for myself, personally, there are certainly popular opinions that I echo. But I also often find myself having contrary opinions to the popular norm. In fact, since childhood, there have been many times when a thing or opinion is popular, and I just sort of buck against it instinctually, as if "This can't be how it really is" or "This can't actually be that good". Sometimes I will reevaluate this initial gut reaction at a later date, such as when I experience said popular thing and come to the conclusion, for myself, that "Oh, it actually is pretty decent". But there are other times when my initial gut reaction in such cases, stands the test of time.

The bottom line being, I have always tended, more often than not, to be an individual and critical thinker. I am certainly not above having gut reactions to things that are more shallow or even petty, especially when it comes to entertainment related things. But by and large I typically try to form my own opinion of things, always attempting to be fair-minded, and striving to judge things as they are, on their own merits. And that of course extends to movies. There are many films I like or even love, that happen to be rather popular, such as Ghostbusters, Star Wars, The Goonies, and the list goes on and on. In fact I'd go so far as to say that it's entirely possible, that a majority of movies I like (let's say over 50%), are probably movies well liked and well thought of, in more general terms. But, I also have never shied away from liking, and defending, movies which have fallen into that unfortunate abyss of being "Unpopular". Any more than I have shied away, as evidenced by my own sub-series "Unnecessary Sequels", from expressing dislike for movies that may be more popular.

Today I am here with the express intent, to go to bat for several films which seem to be generally "Unpopular", or in some cases are even apparently thought of as "Bad Movies". All opinions of course being subjective, "bad" is more often than not a matter of personal taste, though there there are also films which are objectively poorly made. But I want to make it clear that I am not usually one of those "So bad it's good" people, I do not tend to like things because I think they're bad. Just to make it clear, that every movie I'm going to discuss today, while a few are hardly masterpieces, I myself DO consider them to be "Good Movies". I am here to discuss both why I personally like them, as well as on a more general scale, pointing out why I do NOT feel they are, in my view, "Bad Movies". So without further exposition, let's dig right in!


Film: Mac and Me
Year: 1988
Director: Stewart Raffill

I figured I'd start with an "easy" one, meaning that the general consensus on this film is easily the most negative of all the films I'm going to discuss today. Which also means that it's technically going to be the most "difficult" to defend. But I'm here to give it my best shot. Mac and Me was a film released in 1988, featuring heavy product placement by Sears, Coca-Cola and McDonalds, and was absolutely a fairly blatant attempt to cash in on the success of the 1982 Steven Spielberg classic E.T.:  The Extra Terrestrial. It is considered by many to be one of the "Worst Movies Ever Made".

Firstly, I'll get into what I personally like about this film. For one thing, in spite of the rushed nature of its production, and blatant highly corporate tie-in nature, in spite of these things, the story still comes off as fairly genuine and heartfelt. Much moreso, I'd argue, than many films with zero corporate ties, that take themselves far more seriously. I enjoy the cooky aliens, especially the titular M.A.C. (Mysterious Alien Creature), who is rather adorable in a mildly terrifying way. I also enjoy the family dynamic, both of MAC and his weird ass alien family, as well as the human single mother and her two sons (and neighboring girl next door) that they befriend. For another, the movie has, again in spite of itself, an undeniable charm throughout, and many genuinely funny and/or entertaining scenes within it. Not funny or entertaining merely because of the camp nature of the film itself, but, at least I feel, on their own merits. I especially like MAC's bizarre, malleable physiology, which lends itself to scenes of him bouncing or stretching all over the place, or his powers that seem to make things go haywire.  And the movie has some moments that I find to be genuinely touching, especially that scene near the end, in spite of its ridiculousness.

Secondly, I'll address this being considered one of the "Worst Movies Ever Made", and why I think that is incorrect. The primary reasons that this film has been widely panned are twofold: its rampant product placement, and its fairly obvious attempt at trying to be "The Next E.T.". To be perfectly fair, I would say the worst part about this entire movie, is easily the nonsensical "McDonald's Party" scene. Any scene where an entire movie/story stops, so that something else unrelated to the story can happen , is typically extraneous and unnecessary. I don't have a problem with product placement in a movie, such as Reese's Pieces candy in E.T., especially considering how big a part of general 80s culture Coca-Cola and McDonald's were (certainly if you were a kid, which I was). It is, admittedly, a bit silly and contrived that the aliens have weird whistle-mouths, which they can seemingly only consume liquids from, through the use of straws, and that they love Coke. But as far as I'm concerned, that fact is mild and forgivable, considering the rather surreal nature of the story in the first place. And I don't even think that a scene taking place at a McDonald's restaurant, even with Ronald making an appearance (which to kids at the time was a pretty cool thing) is bad on its own, because again, going to McDonald's was something most 80s kids would have loved to do (I did). The "cardinal sin" they committed, and where the film jumped the shark, was having a ridiculous, overlong music video type scene, rife with completely pointless elaborate dancing routines, etc., which had nothing to do with the plot, and disrupted the flow of the rest of the film. They 100% could/should have done without that scene, as even IF they wanted to get some McDonald's action into the film, there were far better ways to accomplish that.

Everybody dance now.

But as far as Mac and Me being one of "The Worst Movies Ever Made"? As in EVER? My overall response to that is pretty simple: not even fucking close. I've watched a LOT of movies in my time, and let me tell you, even on a purely objective level, disregarding my own personal tastes and feelings, this is not a "Bad" film. As in, badly made, badly executed, badly acted, badly edited, etc. I've seen a TON of genuinely shit-tastic films over the years, that were all of those things and more. And Mac and Me does not, in any reasonable sense, belong lumped in with those. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that, considering that this movie was hastily rushed into production, started filming without a script (the director had to hammer it out as the film was being made, basically), is an attempt at corporate advertising through film, and stars a kid with zero previous acting experience, the final product is actually RATHER good, in spite of itself.

Director Stewart Raffill, who had just prior to this made the sci-fi cult hit The Philadelphia Experiment, and the fantastic (and underrated) sci-fi comedy The Ice Pirates, honestly did a pretty good job, given what he had to work with. I would hardly call this movie a GREAT film, let alone a masterpiece of cinema, but I think it does have a very slick, professional look, solid cinematography, good pacing (outside of that absurd McDonald's Party), special effects that are pretty decent considering the era and the film's budget, etc. The child actor who plays main character Eric, as stated, had zero previous acting experience. But they decided they wanted the character to be disabled, and the actor legitimately has Spina Bifida, and is wheelchair-bound for real, making him a rare case of a legit disabled character. Taking those facts into consideration, I think he actually did a pretty strong job. I also think that the actress who portrayed his mother, Christine Ebersole, did a very solid job with the material, and their relationship comes off as fairly organic and genuine. She has good chemistry with her movie sons, and with Eric in particular, she has some really nice scenes, like when she's out jogging alongside his wheelchair, where their relationship shines.

They just wanted to shop.

As far as being a blatant E.T. ripoff goes, I'd say the truth behind that is "Yes and No." On the surface, and when it was being conceived by the producer, yes, it absolutely was an attempt to cash in and get a piece of that sweet "friendly alien" pie. On the superficial level of "kid with a single mom meets alien with strange powers, who is stranded on Earth and being hunted by government types", yes, it is incredibly similar to E.T.  But beyond that, the movie does have its own personality and twist on those themes. Whereas ET himself is this wondrous alien with fairly mild powers, MAC and his family are wacky aliens with highly malleable (even somewhat invulnerable) bodies, and abilities that are actually quite powerful in comparison. MAC himself, basically being a child, lacks a great degree of control of these powers, hence leading to bizarre and even ridiculous mishaps. But he also manages to use his powers to fix things, and directly saves Eric's life more than once. The family dynamic also certainly is a unique twist, as opposed to ET being stranded on the planet alone, and as goofy and oddball as the aliens look and act, there are genuinely touching moments of familial care and survival, as they struggle to make it on a hostile world. And while I would of course whole-heartedly agree that E.T. is overall a better movie, I would actually say that, on that family level, Mac and Me does a somewhat stronger job of portraying the plight of a single parent, with more emphasis on showing the mom struggling to work and support her kids alone, setting up a new home and life for them, on top of dealing with all the weird goings-on.

I would definitely agree that this movie is very weird, and even outright corny and ridiculous at points. The nature of the aliens is a bit silly, but it's also pretty creative, and it lends them an oddball charm. I'd hardly call the acting "Oscar Worthy", but it's also not bad, especially the kid for whom this was his first role. In spite of cheesy product placement and a completely pointless McDonald's Dance Party scene slapped in the middle of the story, this film is far from poorly made. Mac and Me is a flawed film, most of its flaws coming from the nature of its conception and production in the first place. But overall, I would say it's a decent movie, that doesn't deserve most of its bad rep. I would argue that it is not merely a "bad" movie that I happen to enjoy, and I would strongly argue its status as being one of the "Worst Movies Ever Made". In fact I'd say that's flat out untrue, and anyone being honest with themselves, looking at the film on a purely objective level, would acknowledge that. There are many films that deserve to be considered some of the worst ever made, and Mac and Me is very far from deserving that odious distinction.

Best Thing About Mac and Me: Fun story and good family chemistry.

Worst Thing About Mac and Me: The infamous McDonald's scene, easily.

Film: Richie Rich
Year: 1994
Director: Donald Petrie

One of Macaulay Culkin's less successful mid-90s films, along with the likes of Getting Even With Dad and The Pagemaster (which I also really like), Richie Rich was not a box office success, and is generally regarded as being "not very good". Directed by Donald Petrie, who had just come off of his first big success, the 1993 hit Grumpy Old Men, this movie is a live action adaptation of the Harvey Comics character of the same name. Harvey Comics, of course, being the same origin for other popular characters, Casper the Friendly Ghost and Wendy the Witch. Unlike poor Mac and Me, Richie Rich was not widely panned, it just wasn't, and seemingly isn't, generally well regarded.

On a personal level, this was of course one of a great many films that I did not get to see in theaters, because my grandmother simple didn't "do" theaters. But unlike many films I missed out on as a kid, I did get to see this, thanks to the existence of VHS tape. In fact, oddly enough, I think we might have actually just bought this movie outright, versus renting it. Perhaps because my grandmother already knew Culkin from Home Alone, which she liked. Either way, I did get to see it, probably in early 1995, and I found it to be quite enjoyable. I still find it enjoyable as an adult, though the reasons for liking it as a kid were pretty obvious ones: the film is full of the kind of sweet gadgets and extravagant luxuries that most (especially poor) kids dream of having, imagining what it would be like to be super duper rich, like Richard "Richie" Rich Jr. is. The concept of being "The Richest Kid in the World", is very alluring to a child, not because of a love of money, but just imagining how bad ass it would be to basically have anything, do anything, or go anywhere you want.

The comics version Richie, and his dog Dollar.

Of course the idea of fabulous, nearly ridiculous wealth is not the core of the story. Even in the comics, Richie, in spite of BEING filthy rich, is not a spoiled or callous snob, but instead a caring and generous person. He gets that in part from his parents, Richard Sr. (played by the sadly departed Edward Herrmann) and Regina (played by Christine Ebersole), who themselves are huge philanthropists, spending a significant portion of their wealth on charitable causes. But the central theme of the film's story, is actually a very good one: money can't buy you everything. More specifically, while Richie is indeed the "Richest Kid on Earth", the one thing he doesn't have, are real friends. With his parents, especially his father, often being quite busy, and he himself being kept on a busy schedule, Richie finds himself to be very lonely, and longing for companionship. And I think at its core, that is why I like this movie, and what makes it so likeable, the pervading theme of the importance of friendship and family.

Unlike Mac and Me, the reasons why Richie Rich is regarded as a "Bad Film", are far less clear. It was, generally speaking, a "Box Office Bomb", meaning it didn't even make back it's budget, and that alone is often enough to give the general public a notion that a film "must have been bad", because it wasn't financially successful. Of course, there are many exceptions to that: films like Highlander, John Carpenter's The Thing, or Big Trouble in Little China, which were sadly not successful films in theaters, but later went on to be fairly highly regarded. I think perhaps part of the reason Richie doesn't share the same post-theatrical success, is because it is a "kids movie", which many snobby grown up film fans can very often be far more critical on. It would seem that another take on this film, is that it was just kind of "blah", not necessarily bad, but not terribly great either. A notion I would, of course, contend. otherwise I wouldn't have included the film in this article.

The great Jonathan Hyde.

To be perfectly honest, I have a bit of a hard time thinking of any genuinely negative points this film has. I wouldn't call it a GREAT film, though so few truly are. But I would call it a well done and entertaining film. The acting, especially by the many veteran adult actors, is I think, fairly strong. Herrmann and Ebersole do a good job portraying the eccentric yet good-hearted parents. Character actor Mike McShane has a great comical turn as the cooky Rich Corporation scientist (and Richie's tutor) Professor Keenbean. John Larroquette (of Night Court fame) as Laurence Van Dough, revels in the money-hungry slime-ball role that he's so good at. And in my opinion, the show is stolen by Jonathan Hyde, pictured above, as the VERY British family butler Cadbury. Not only is Cadbury a bit of a badass in his own right, but he also has good chemistry and a strong bond with Culkin's Richie. As Richie's parents are often so busy, the film has multiple scenes that really impress the fact that (not unlike Alfred Pennyworth with Bruce Wayne) Cadbury did his fair share of raising the boy himself, and thus he has a very paternal relationship, and protectiveness, towards Richie.

For his own part, Macaulay does a solid job as Richie. I don't know that he was ever a super dramatic, wide-range actor throughout his childhood career, though he was effectively sinister and creepy in The Good Son. But conversely, "Mack" has always had a magnetic screen presence, likeability and charm to him, that is still present in this movie. You definitely feel for him in the "lonely prince" sort of character, as for all his wealth and possessions, the only things he truly wants, are friends to play with, and more time with his parents. And the poor kids he eventually befriends, while initially scorning and rejecting him as "not belonging" in their world, later learn that he is a fun and "normal" kid underneath it all, and grow to like him. The "money isn't everything" theme rings consistent throughout the story, even to the point that when the villain Van Dough manages to force the Riches to open their vaunted "Rich Family Vault", he finds that it holds not a horde of money, but instead tokens of their life and Richie's childhood, things that only have sentimental value to them.

Overall, I would say that Richie Rich is a very solid, entertaining film with a unique personality and style. The theme of greed and wealth being trumped by friendship and family, is a strong and commendable one, yet not hammered home so hard that it's preachy or cheesy. The movie has a colorful and memorable cast of characters, and holds a lot of fun, and funny moments. It isn't as classic as, say, Home Alone, by any means. But I would personally say it's one of the best films Culkin starred in.

Best Thing About Richie Rich: Showing that even a rich kid needs (true) friends.

Worst Thing About Richie Rich: Could have used a bit more scenes with Richie and his parents together.

Film: Rocky V
Year: 1990
Director: John G. Avildsen

Widely considered to be the "Black Sheep" of the storied Rocky franchise, Rocky V is yet another movie that I feel has an undeservedly bad reputation. I think that it's a movie that was the unfortunate victim of several factors working against it. For one thing, after four Rocky films preceding it, I think the general public was getting a bit fatigued on the character, even though this did come out nearly five years after Rocky IV. I also think that, at the time it released in 1990, it was at a point in Hollywood where this type of film was being phased out for more action-packed fare. That isn't to say that the 90s didn't have dramas that did well in theaters, it absolutely did. But rather, this kind of action/drama hybrid was falling out of vogue. And finally, the Rocky series had gotten progressively more and more over the top, namely with the third and fourth installments, so to many moviegoers, this fifth, and at the time final film in the series, taking a step back and being more grounded and personal, like the original, was inevitably going to be a letdown.

After Stallone directed Rocky II-IV himself, for the fifth installment they brought back director John G. Avildsen, who not only won an Academy Award for directing the original Rocky, but also went on to find great success with the Karate Kid franchise. I'm going to imagine that it was at least partially Avildsen's idea to scale everything back, from the ridiculous excesses of Rocky IV, taking the series back to its roots, and getting back to being a more intimate, character driven story. Though to be fair, the film was written by Stallone himself, so perhaps he too felt like things had gotten a bit too over the top. For my part, I happen to like the fact that the story takes the Balboa family back to their old Philly neighborhood, as it not only puts more focus on the family again, but it also gives the series a bit of a "coming full circle" feeling. While it is an absurd contrivance that Paulie, whom Rocky and Adrian nonsensically leave in charge of their finances while they're off in Russia, makes a bad move that loses them practically ALL of their wealth, forcing them to move back to the "slums", it was also a bit absurd that they got so rich they had a futuristic robot butler, as well.

One of the best movie couples, ever.

I think the primary reason this film is derided, however, is because it doesn't feature a "legit fight" as the film's climax, like every other entry did. The Rocky films were, seemingly, built around a big fight that Rocky was going to have, and the films would typically end after the climactic fight scene. So on that level, yes, I agree it would be natural for the audience/fans to assume that this movie would do the same. However, I would also point out two key facts that stand in contrast to that: 1. The entire point of this film was that Rocky couldn't fight anymore, and 2. The fights were only a part of the Rocky movies, at least initially, because Rocky himself was a boxer. The core of the Rocky franchise was never the fights, but rather the character of Rocky himself, his growth and evolution, and his relationships with the people close to him. Taken from the viewpoint that the Rocky movies, with the possible exception of part four, are character dramas that happen to have fighting in them, I would argue that Rocky V was a fitting, albeit imperfect ending to Rocky's original story arc.

Now, while I suppose me defending Rocky V as a good film would be, to some, mildly controversial, I'm going to step it up a few notches and say something truly controversial, though it is also my honest opinion: Rocky V is a better movie than Rocky IV. Yes, you read that correctly. To be perfectly clear, I LIKE Rocky IV, and I won't deny that in certain ways, it is definitely a more fun, entertaining film than Rocky V is. However, to me personally, Rocky IV is actually the worst of the franchise. Not to say it's a "BAD" movie, by any means. Just that, again, taken from the viewpoint of what the Rocky franchise was actually about, that character-driven core that made it so beloved in the first place, Rocky IV drifted FAR too far away from that. It became an almost generic, action-oriented spectacle, no longer much of a character drama. Again, I think Rocky IV IS a fun movie, taken for what it is, but it's also a perfect example of the pinnacle of 80s excess, from robot butlers, to music video style training montages, to the lack of character development and general leaps of logic. Rocky IV departed from the grounded, gritty foundations of the series, and basically became a live action cartoon, almost a parody of itself.

Tommy Gunn, from humble son to punk ass bitch.

By comparison, while it's hardly the best it could have been, I think that Rocky V did the right thing, toning shit down again, and getting back to what was good about the series to begin with: the character of Rocky Balboa. Rocky V sees our hero as an aging veteran who has taken too many blows to the head. As such, his doctor tells him he can't fight anymore, or he'll risk permanent brain damage, or even death. Something that, in the long era before people took things like concussions and brain damage more seriously in sports, I'm sure many boxers actually had to deal with. Rocky, of course, doesn't take the news well, as boxing is all he knows, and all he thinks he can do. In his mind, boxing is what makes Rocky Balboa who he is, though his wife Adrian disagrees. He winds up finding a young, promising boxer in Tommy Gunn, an underdog who reminds him a bit of himself, and so by agreeing to train Tommy, Rocky can still be around boxing, and in effect live vicariously through his new pupil. Unfortunately, he gets so into training Tommy, that he ignores his own son, Robbie. Eventually, Tommy is lured by the promise of faster gains and easier riches, by the Don King parody George Washington Duke, and corrupted by fame and fortune and the "wrong crowd", Tommy becomes a real asshole, turning on Rocky completely. He ultimately even wants to fight Rocky, because he feels like he's living under his mentor's shadow, but Rocky refuses, both because of honor, and because he promised Adrienne he wouldn't fight anymore. But Tommy finally pushes him too far, and while he definitely risks his health in doing so, he shows the kid a thing or two by beating him in a street fight.

I'll reiterate that I like Rocky IV, and I do understand why many people love it. It is the most outrageous and fun entry in the series. I also can see why fans of part four, could dislike part five, as people going into a film expecting an over the top action film, are naturally going to find a slower, more character-driven, more dramatic fare to be a bit "boring". The thing is, the first two Rocky films were exactly the same style, they were dramatic "slow burns", far more about the characters than the fights. And while Rocky III certainly upped the ante, with Rocky now champion, and the outrageous character of Mr. T's Clubber Lang as his new adversary, it still mostly stayed rooted in the core style and themes of the franchise. Therefor Rocky IV, which in many ways "jumped the shark", is the oddball of the series.

My personal vote for best of the whole series, would probably be the original, though Rocky III has some compelling arguments to be made. But while Rocky V is absolutely a comedown from the cartoonish heights of its predecessor, I do not agree that it is in any meaningful way a "Bad Film". It's well done, in the same tone, style and quality of most of Avildsen's works. And while I can certainly see an argument for it feeling a bit anti-climactic as the original end of the series, I still say that from a dramatic perspective, with Rocky's struggle to accept that his career is over, and the growth of his relationships with his wife and son, I think in that way it is a fairly strong final bow. Again, not the best final bow it probably COULD have been. But also far from the pitiful last gasp that many seem to make it out to be.

Best Thing About Rocky V: Grounding the series back in its roots, and giving Rocky a well-rounded character arc.

Worst Thing About Rocky V: The horrendous and hilariously un-mentioned age jump of young Robert.


So that's all for now! I wrote more about these three movies (especially Mac and Me), than I originally thought I would. But with me and these articles, that often seems to be the case, doesn't it? Since I was initially going to cover nine or so movies, I think I'll cut it up, and have this be the first installment. So with that said, if you're not already a fan, or even if you've never seen them at all, go give one or all of these movies a spin, and see if you can see a bit of what I see in them. Until next time!