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!