Reviews of books, movies, and more
I like to believe that I have pretty good taste. There are plenty of movies I like that have high Rotten Tomatoes scores and have won Oscars.
Then there are the other movies that I like, the ones that have ended up in the bargain DVD bin at Walmart just a year after their release, despite the fact that they may have cost millions to make. These are the “guilty pleasure” movies that may contain iffy acting, thin plots, and premises too dense or strange to appeal to general audiences. However, they are still loads of fun to watch for their great visuals, awesome music, adventurous concepts, and occasional melodrama.
So here are five films that may have either tanked at the box office or disappointed critics and mainstream audiences…but you will have to pry their discount DVD cases from my cold, dead hands.
Jupiter Ascending (2015)
What it’s about: Jupiter Jones works as a cleaning lady and lives with her boisterous Russian family in Chicago. Her life changes when she finds out that she is the heir to an enormous space empire, which includes Earth. However, the three other heirs each have their own plans for Jupiter.
Why people hated it: bad acting, convoluted plot, sci-fi weirdness, too many tropes, melodrama, terrible romantic dialogue
Why I like it: Jupiter Ascending is a bizarre, over-the-top twisted space fairy tale. The thing is, the film is very aware that it is all of these things. You just have to decide early on that you are going to go with it, and you’re going to enjoy it.
Not that women didn’t enjoy The Matrix (I did!), but this almost feels like a version of The Matrix made for women. You’ve got your Chosen One who suddenly becomes aware that the human race is being preyed upon by a more technologically-developed force, and he or she has to make the right choices in order to save the world. This time, the Chosen One is a young woman named Jupiter in a rags-to-riches Cinderella tale, but she finds that the riches come at a terrible cost. The plot is wish-fulfillment, but with the acknowledgment that you must be careful what you wish for.
Jupiter (Mila Kunis) is frequently rescued by Caine (Channing Tatum), a stoic but angsty human-wolf hybrid on space roller-skates who feels like he stepped out of a best-selling YA novel (like this one). You’ve also got Eddie Redmayne as a flamboyant villain with Oedipal issues who either whispers his lines or screams them. Plus a bee-keeping Sean Bean. Seriously, what’s not to like?
It’s a gorgeous film to watch, with lots of pretty technology, costumes, and space scenery. Even the action scenes have a balletic beauty to them, especially in an extended chase scene which takes Jupiter and Caine through the sky, streets, and water of Chicago at sunrise. Not to mention that Michael Giacchino’s score is operatic and sumptuous.
I won’t pretend that Jupiter Ascending is anything other than a slightly trashy space (soap) opera, but it’s definitely a fun one. Hollywood makes a dozen mediocre male-targeted action movies every year. So why can’t we have more sci-fi chick flicks, hmm?
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
What’s it about: The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise return in this second installment of the rebooted original adventures. While hunting down a wanted terrorist in Klingon space, they find that the Federation has some dark secrets.
Why people hated it: Benedict Cumberbatch as a character who was originally played by a person of color, the plot rips off The Wrath of Khan, pointlessly revealing shots of a female character, too much wanton destruction
Why I liked it: First of all, I agree with all the criticisms listed above and think that they are problematic and entirely valid. Despite all this, Into Darkness is still an entirely fun and engaging ride. Perhaps my standards for Star Trek movies are just low. I’ve found something to enjoy about each of the nine movies focusing on the original crew, even though they widely vary in quality. The updated Star Trek (2009) was such a blast that after four years of waiting, I was desperate for a sequel.
Full disclosure? The first time I saw Into Darkness (in IMAX 3D, no less), I loved every minute of it. It served as an emotional reunion with the crew, exploring Kirk’s development as a leader and Spock’s deeper understanding of navigating relationships with humans. As with Jupiter Ascending, Michael Giacchino’s superlative score guides us through all the highs and lows and manages to capture the spirit of the 1960s TV show. I laughed a lot and cried a little, which stayed with me longer than the deficiencies of plot.
Like every other entry on this list, it’s also visually beautiful. It’s clean and glossy and full of eye-popping primary colors. From the warp effects to torpedoes to vehicles flying through 23rd century London, the effects are all excellent. It’s a vision of a future and a tight-knit space family that I’m always happy to revisit.
Pacific Rim (2013)
What it’s about: Monsters called kaiju have begun to emerge from a rift in the Pacific Ocean. In response, humans construct giant robots called jaegers in order to fight them off. When it appears that the humans are starting to lose the fight, a retired pilot teams up with an untried rookie to save the world once and for all.
Why people hated it: implausible premise, stupid action with little plot or character development
Why I like it: Kind of like Jupiter Ascending, this movie take an outrageous premise and runs with it. There’s a great underdog story about hotshot pilots who risk everything to do their job. Imagine the Death Star run from Star Wars, but for the whole movie.
Pacific Rim features a diverse group of people from around the world teaming up to save it. A lot of backstory doesn’t make it into the film, but every single character is fun and interesting. My personal favorites include tough-as-nails leader Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) and two squabbling scientists (Burn Gorman and Charlie Day). Its female lead, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), even got a new feminist film litmus test named after her.
At the heart of the film is the concept that two people must be neurally connected in order to successfully pilot a jaeger. There are all kinds of neural partnerships in the film – romantic, family, friends, and even rivals – and all are important. Basically, Pacific Rim emphasizes that we have to depend on other people if we want to save the world. And that’s pretty cool.
While I’ll admit that I would rather have had more character development in the second act than endless mayhem, the action is indeed beautiful. Pacific Rim is bursting with color, from the hologram lights in the jaeger cockpits to the eerily-blue kaiju blood. Ramin Djawadi has also created one of the most exciting, blood-pumping movie themes in recent memory.
TRON: Legacy (2010)
What it’s about: A computer game designer named Kevin Flynn gets trapped in a virtual world of his own making. Twenty years later, his adult son Sam also finds his way into the game. Teaming up with the sentient algorithm Quorra, the Flynns have to stop the rogue program Clu from causing mayhem in the real world.
Why people hate it: slow, thin plot, shallow characters
Why I like it: I never saw the first TRON, but it doesn’t matter. Did anyone really watch this movie for the plot? It’s a fantastic 2-hour-long Daft Punk music video that perfectly marries visuals and music.
Some of the best scenes are the gladiator-style disc games and cycle battle which occur towards the beginning of the movie. They’re purely fun, perhaps even justifying the use of some really exaggerated slow-motion. This is also where the production design of the film really shines, using the simple scheme of blue and orange light lines against a stark black background. (Contrast this with the dull browns in the “real world” introduction to the film, and the earthy greens in the final scene.)
Even when the pacing of the film slows down a lot (and I don’t mean in the slow-mo shots), there are still pretty things to look at. The use of space in every shot is very striking. There’s a penchant for symmetrical, centered shots, some with a Kubrick-esque one-point perspective.
Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
What it’s about: Set over 30 years before A New Hope, The Phantom Menace is the beginning of Anakin Skywalker’s journey to become a Jedi Knight, and later Darth Vader. The Jedi Order is also threatened by the appearance of a new Sith threat.
Why people hated it: not nearly as good as the Original Trilogy, Jake Lloyd, Jar Jar Binks, midichlorians, the aliens have racist accents, podrace is too long, no clear protagonist, too many dense politics, I could go on…
Why I like it: And here’s where I lose any shreds of credibility that I have left. I first watched The Phantom Menace as an impressionable seven-year-old, just months after I saw the Original Trilogy. Back then, I didn’t discriminate between new and old Star Wars movies, or ponder whether they were good or bad. It was all just Star Wars to me. Even now, I think The Phantom Menace is the best out of the prequel trilogy, and it has more to redeem it than most people give it credit for.
Things like the Senate or Coruscant or the Jedi Order were just hinted at in the original movies, and it strengthens the series’ worldbuilding to see them onscreen. It does a nice job of setting up how Palpatine pulled strings to eventually become the Emperor. The podrace is actually pretty exciting, and features some of the best uses of sound effects in the whole series. And who could forget that amazing three-way lightsaber fight, set to John Williams’s incredible Duel of the Fates?
Ewan McGregor does an excellent job playing a young Obi-Wan Kenobi alongside Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn. Although he only has two lines in the whole film, Darth Maul (Ray Park) is an eerie, intimidating villain. In addition, it’s fun to see Natalie Portman/Keira Knightley portraying an authoritative queen with an incomparable wardrobe.
What are some of your favorite “guilty pleasure” movies? (Feel free to comment, but please be respectful and avoid inappropriate language.)