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“And it is here,” as Witney Seibold recently wrote, “That I lose you.”
One of the (many) problems with the modern age of film criticism is that websites like Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic have created the illusion of a consensus. The idea that is that if a large percentage of critics like a movie, it must be great, and if a large percentage of critics dislike it, it must be bad. And that’s just not how subjective opinions work.
The point of criticism isn’t to create an objective reality out of subjective opinion. The point is to share our subjective opinions as eloquently and informatively and entertainingly as possible. If everyone had the same opinion, we wouldn’t need everyone to chime in. We need outliers to challenge our collective understanding of the art form, and to stir up new conversations about film.
That’s why all the best critics sometimes have opinions that, from the outside, appear bizarre. Pauline Kael didn’t like “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which I can’t personally get on board with. Roger Ebert gave positive reviews to “Speed 2: Cruise Control” and “Garfield: The Movie,” and I won’t jump off that cliff with him. Then again, while I’d never compare myself to those titans, I recently called “Venom” a pretty good movie and I’ve been getting the stink-eye from most of my peers for weeks because of it.
So we’re all a little radical sometimes. But as critics, we have to be honest about our opinions, and most importantly we have to explain ourselves. We can’t just say “I liked it” or “I hated it,” we have to explain why we hold those views. And if you can clearly explain why you have an unpopular opinion about a movie, you might just convince other people to see it the same way.
A good critic can make people acknowledge that some classics have serious problems, raising our collective standards for the future. And a good critic can also make people see the positive qualities in films that are otherwise derided, and give audiences even more joy in their lives as a result. Making this connection is what criticism is all about.
So with that in mind, at the behest of one of my readers, I present to you five films that most critics seem to hate, and that I either like or love. Maybe I can help you see them in a new light as well. Join me. Let’s jump off this cliff.
SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE
Why start with an easy one? The “Superman” movie that most people agree is the worst in the franchise is, frankly, my favorite. Not because it’s “so bad it’s good,” but because it’s the only live-action Superman movie that has a well-developed story.
Let’s get this out of the way: “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” has problems. It’s got a laughably low budget, and it’s suffering from a serious case of the 80s. There’s a scene where Clark Kent does aerobics and let’s be honest, not only has it not aged well, but that was pretty stupid even at the time. Also, one look at Lex Luthor’s sidekick Lenny Luthor - played by a hammy, young Jon Cryer - is all you need to determine that he’s a desperate ploy to appeal to hip teen audiences. He’s the “Poochy” of the Superman movies.
But, and this is extremely important, he’s also the only competent sidekick that Lex Luthor had. Lenny Luthor rescues Lex from jail and helps him build a supervillain out of Superman’s DNA. Otis and Miss Teschmacher were incompetent yutzes by comparison (or in a vacuum).
My point is, there’s a lot to like about “Superman IV” if you can get past the film’s superficial problems. At its heart, it’s the only Superman movie that gets to the heart of why Superman is a great character, one who does the right thing but still struggles because that’s it’s very difficult to live that way.
“Superman IV” kicks off with a child writing a letter to Superman, asking him a very simple question: if he’s got all these godlike powers, and if he really wants to help humanity, why doesn’t he stop the Cold War? It’s a fair question, and The Daily Planet - which is under new management, and eager to stir up controversy (presaging the issues that quickly befell all news outlets) - decides to ask it in front of the whole world.
Superman, still played with innate human decency by Christopher Reeve, decides to rise to the occasion. He announces that he’s going to throw all the nuclear weapons in the world into the sun, but when he accomplishes this task, he’s also destabilized the world. Superman has become the greatest force on Earth, and in order to stop him, all the people who thought they needed nuclear weapons hire Lex Luthor build another Superman, without all those pesky morals.
Lex Luthor, who’s finally acting like a brilliant supervillain instead of an overambitious real estate agent, rises to the occasion and builds Nuclear Man, who wreaks havoc across the world. The fight between Superman and Nuclear Man spans the entire globe, and concludes in outer space. If the movie had a decent budget it would be one of the most amazing fights in movie history. And if you can use your own imagination a bit, and reinvigorate your own sense of childlike wonder, it still kind of is.
“Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” challenges Superman physically and morally, dovetails his career as a newspaper reporter into his career as a do-gooder, and gives him three formidable villains. The details are cheap and dated but the soul of the movie is strong. I like this movie for its soul.
I only cringe at its aerobics.
WHITE HOUSE DOWN
When I watched “White House Down” in the theater for the very first time, I was absolutely elated. Roland Emmerich’s interpretation of “Die Hard in the White House” was bigger, breezier, and more inspirationally camp than its competitor, “Olympus Has Fallen,” which came out earlier the previous year. The film boasted all the same outlandish charms as the blockbuster “Fast & Furious” franchise.
I couldn’t have been more shocked to discover that everyone else hated it.
What’s worse, it didn’t seem as though my peers hated “White House Down” for reasons that snuck under my radar. They saw the exact same movie I did, and they thought all the cheesy elements I adored were the reason why it stunk. It was hard to take seriously, they said. As though it was some kind of problem.
“White House Down” is the story of John Cale (Channing Tatum), a police officer assigned to protect the Speaker of the House, who wants to become a Secret Service agent. On the day he has his job interview, and completely screws it up, terrorists attack the White House and take the whole building hostage. Cale’s daughter, Emily (Joey King) is one of the hostages. And the only person available to protect the idealistic President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx)… is John Cale.
Roland Emmerich is called a Master of Disaster for a reason. The action sequences in “White House” are imaginative, impressive, and crisply presented. They each represent a wild and childlike imagination. It’s hard to fit a car chase into a single-location “Die Hard” knockoff, so “White House Down” puts a car chase right in the middle of the White House Lawn. With the President’s limo. While the President shoots a rocket launcher as his pursuers. Who have a gating gun.
Perhaps the problem with “White House Down” was that the film has a serious case of hero worship. Jamie Foxx isn’t literally playing former President Barack Obama, but he adopts many of Obama’s mannerisms. President Sawyer is also a liberal president trying to de-escalate America’s warlike xenophobia while staving off rebukes from a conservative establishment who, spoiler alert, might want to run the country so badly that they set this whole chain of events in motion.
At the time it may have played like overkill (to some), but today “White House Down” might play like beautiful wish fulfillment. The action movie genre is frequently a haven for conservative mentalities about guns, nationalism and outside governments. But “White House Down” is a liberal fantasy, where the good guys are so danged good that even their more heavily armed opponents are helpless to stop them. Where Joey King can wave of a missile strike against the White House using a flag twirling routine. Where world peace can be declared as an afterthought, just because the good guys did such a good job.
It’s rare that an action movie supplies awesome action thrills without resorting to a worldview that suggests that violence is celebratory. “White House Down” pulls that strange and unlikely feat off. It’s a fun, silly, exciting summer blockbuster. I’ll probably always like it.
Sometimes I think that the blockbuster success of “The Matrix” convinced some audiences that The Wachowskis were commercial directors. The majority of their films are challenging, esoteric motion pictures, stylistically daring and narratively eccentric, and frequently to a fault. They’re not mainstream blockbuster filmmakers, but they get mainstream blockbuster budgets, which sets mainstream blockbuster expectations.
As such, I don’t think many people knew what the hell to make of Jupiter Ascending, another oddball sci-fi flick with delusions of broad audience appeal. It’s got action sequences and princesses and monsters and space fights, and it totally doesn’t work as a crowdpleaser. And I don’t think it’s supposed to. I think it’s a stealth economics lesson.
“Jupiter Ascending” is the story of Jupiter (Mila Kunis), a poor cleaning lady who naturally dreams of better things. She gets them in an unexpected way: she’s a one-in-a-googleplex exact genetic match for a member of galactic royalty, and as a result, she’s inherited the entire planet Earth. And since Earth is spectacularly valuable - for reasons that become apparent later on - the other members of the aristocracy want to kill her, marry her, and otherwise exploit her.
At its heart, “Jupiter Ascending” is a simple and clever inversion of the conventional princess fantasy story, where the protagonist becomes rich and powerful and gets to wear fabulous clothes, and hunky men fall over themselves for her. The Wachowskis are painting that story on a gigantic intergalactic canvas, full of fun action sequences. But they’re also subverting it on every level, by making each stage of Jupiter’s ascendancy a harsh lesson in 1% capitalism. She inherits all the wealth in the world, literally, and discovers that the lifestyle that comes with that wealth is grotesque and inhumane and petty and miserable.
As a result, “Jupiter Ascending” isn’t always fun. Sometimes watching it is the cinematic equivalent of eating your broccoli. And I love it for that. I love that The Wachowskis tried to trick casual moviegoing audiences into seeing a sci-fi thrill ride, only to send them home with a socioeconomics degree. George Lucas tried to do something similar with his “Star Wars” prequels, which illustrate the fall of democracy in a tale with space wizards and laser swords. None of these filmmakers seem to have changed the world (yet), but kudos for making an effort.
And “Jupiter Ascending” is, I must say, a significant improvement on the “Star Wars” prequels. The film’s political screeds are more challenging and complicated, the characters are more human and relatable, and the sci-fi elements are more bizarre and fascinating. I’d rather have Channing Tatum’s flying shoes than a lightsaber any day. (You’d poke your eye out with that thing!)
TWILIGHT: BREAKING DAWN PART 1 & 2
Sometimes I think the only thing more popular than the “Twilight” movies was hating the “Twilight” movies. But personally, I’ve come around. They’re simplistic and I don’t agree with their sexual politics, but they’re unabashedly sincere. Emerging, as they did, in a world that frequently rejects or at least doubts sincerity at every turn, the “Twilight” movies were almost hypnotic in their retro charms.
That’s not to say that I love them, but I can appreciate what they’re going for. But I don’t think they get truly “good” until the final two films. The first three “Twilight” movies, about the seemingly doomed romance between the teenager Bella (Kristen Stewart) and her immortal mega hunk boyfriend Edward (Robert Pattinson) is on again, off again, and besieged by evil vampires and jealous werewolves. They’re watchable, somewhat silly movies.
But “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 & 2” are deliriously strange, and I admire them for it. These last two films were directed by Bill Condon, whose spotty career includes great films like “Gods & Monsters” and megacrap like “The Fifth Estate,” and who also carries with him a proper horror pedigree. The Bill Condon that directed “Breaking Dawn” is the same Bill Condon who directed “Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh,” and that’s what makes them delightful.
“Breaking Dawn - Part 1” tells the story of Bella and Edward’s honeymoon, which is sexy and sex-filled and, if memory serves, they also play chess. The plot kicks in when Bella finds out she’s pregnant with a vampire baby. Rather than this be the perfect extrapolation of their wedded bliss, “Breaking Dawn - Part 1” reveals it to be a walking nightmare. Bella’s baby is literally eating her from the inside, and Condon let’s the film play out like a Cronenbergian paranoid fantasy about the human reproductive process.
It’s eerie and delightful to a series as aggressively safe as “Twilight” take a turn towards nightmarish body horror, and to watch Kristen Stewart dive into her character’s gloomy, gradual emaciation. It’s the only film in the “Twilight” series that seems to understand that vampirism can be horrifying instead of romantic, and Condon seems to take glee in subverting audience expectation, and delivering something unexpectedly gruesome instead of an idyllic supernatural romance.
And then “Breaking Dawn - Part 2” does a complete 180-degree turn, and transforms into a mad superhero movie full of vampires with magic powers. Bella has her baby, survives the birth by becoming a vampire, and then immediately jumps into the air and eats a puma. She then assembles a veritable Avengers of cartoonishly overpowered vampires, in order to fight off the evil vampires who are going to try to kill her baby.
The film’s climax, the battle of the vampires, takes all the action and horror and violence that never made it into the “Twilight” series, and throws it all onscreen at once. Beloved characters die, the earth opens up beneath their feet, it’s astoundingly epic and satisfying… until the film’s actual ending, which should be disappointing but actually plays totally, 100% fair. The book doesn’t have an action-packed finale, but the movie does, and it somehow seems faithful anyway.
The “Twilight” movies aren’t all-time cinematic classics… at least, not in my book. But they have their value and they’re certainly entertaining, and those last two films are batshit bonkers and I love them for it.
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN
Directing a slasher movie sequel must be one of the most thankless tasks in Hollywood. Do the same thing as before, people complain the franchise is repetitive. Do something different, they complain you’re changing what they love. Jason Voorhees and Luke Skywalker should hang out sometime. They have a lot in common.
The “Friday the 13th” movies are some of the most inconsistent motion pictures around, with installments that take bizarre left turns at every opportunity. It starts out as a film about a grieving mom killing teenagers as a summer camp. Then it’s about her mute, homicidal son. Then it’s a 3-D schlockfest. Then it’s about Jason Voorhees fighting a young avatar for makeup effects maestro Tom Savini. Then it’s about a Jason copycat. Then it’s about Jason becoming a zombie. Then it’s about Jason fighting Firestarter. Then it’s about Jason taking Manhattan. Then he’s a bodyswapping demon. Then he goest to outer space.
Just about the only thing you can count on in a “Friday the 13th” movie is that you can’t count on anything, so the critiques of the film’s eighth installment - “Jason Takes Manhattan” - don’t even phase me. Many critics and diehard fans are still, to this day, annoyed that Jason doesn’t even get to Manhattan until the film’s final act. And I couldn’t possibly care less.
First and foremost, regardless of any concerns about false advertising, “Jason Takes Manhattan” is one of the most briskly paced films in the “Friday the 13th” franchise, with lively characters and memorable kills throughout the entire running time. It’s dunderheaded but entertaining as hell, and that’s what i think we all want from a Jason Voorhees movie.
But the thing that really gets me is that, if “Jason Takes Manhattan” had a different title, like “Jason Takes Titanic,” I think the fans of the franchise would hold this movie in high esteem. The boat sequence is a hoot in and of itself, and could easily have sustained an entire motion picture on its own. And when Jason finally does get to Manhattan his killing spree is equally glorious. Dumb, certainly, but glorious!
Films like “Jason Takes Manhattan” are rarely appreciated when they first come out, and then usually find a more forgiving audience later on. But for some reason this particular “Friday the 13th” installment still struggles to earn any respective as a weird, entertaining entry in a weird, entertaining franchise.
Sometimes I think we have a tendency to regurgitate old complaints as though they’re altruisms, rather than adjust our expectations accordingly and look at old films with fresh eyes. Complaining that “Jason Takes Manhattan” doesn’t spend enough time in Manhattan is a reactionary critique, the kind you make after you first watch it and didn’t know what you were going to get. But we know what this movie is now, we know what it has to offer, and we know that it’s perfectly entertaining for what it is. Even though it’s not exactly what it says in the title.
Top Photo: Summit Entertainment