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Savage of The Wonder Years fame as Corey Woods, a boy whose seemingly autistic younger brother Jimmy, has remained very withdrawn from the world after the accidental drowning of his twin sister two years prior.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!