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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
This week on the Friday Five, I’m going to talk about five movies that should have been disappointments, but weren’t. So often, I go into movies with either the highest of the high or the lowest of the low in terms of expectations. The “high” movies often end up disappointing me, while I consistently enjoy the “low” movies. I’m hoping to explore why this happens to me, so let’s get going!
I have championed this movie for over three years at this point. I have podcasted on it. I have written extensively on it. I pretty much make all my friends watch it if they haven’t seen it yet. Push should have been an absolutely terrible movie, but ended up being quite entertaining. It is the movie that inspired me to write up this list. It is a movie I had absolutely zero expectation that I’d enjoy, and yet I love it. I have no idea what to call this, so I think I’m going to just label it as the “Push phenomenon.”
There is legitimately a lot to like in this movie, and I think what I like the best of all are the performances, which surprises me even as I write this. Chris Evans, playing a dislocated loner in Hong Kong, is effective in the lead role. His painfully morose demeanor comes through perfectly. Anyone who has ever experienced what it means to be an ex-pat might be able to accurately sum up how he feels and what he goes through. Dakota Fanning, long the champion of child actors, is also entertaining as a kind of bizarrely-precocious-but-not-in-an-irritating-kind-of-way character. Villains, including underrated character actor Djimon Honsou and Neil Jackson (Quantum of Solace, White Collar) are actually menacing and terrifying, something I find lacking from villains in modern movies. Push also features a variety of character actors including Cliff Curtis, Ming Na, Nate Mooney, and Joel Gretsch.
Push is also helped by its guerilla-style filmmaking, which is fascinating in and of itself. It’s almost as if Hong Kong had no idea that director Paul McGuigan was even making a movie at all. McGuigan’s effective use of on-location shooting and Hong Kong martial arts movie-style sets are also welcomed. Music is another strongpoint in the film, with a pseudo-electric score that is both memorable and interesting. The story/plot might as well be hot garbage, but the film has enough going for it (and also has enough fun despite its more serious tendencies) that I almost don’t mind. I’m really glad I took a chance on a one-dollar Redbox Rental way back in the summer of 2009.
The A-Team (2010)
Joe Carnahan, prior to The A-Team, seemed to be a love-him-or-hate-him director. His previous films, including 2006’s Smoking Aces, were either strongly liked or very strongly disliked amongst circles I run in. While I found Smoking Aces to be a fun movie with a few delightful performances, I legitimately *hated* The A-Team when I first saw it in early 2011 (I skipped the theatrical run entirely). And then, about a year ago or so, I found myself in a Liam Neeson mood, but too burned out by Taken (which could easily go on this list) and a few others to give them yet another spin. There was The A-Team, however, just kind of staring at me from far away, and for reasons still unknown, I gave it another shot.
Turns out, I’m glad I did. On second viewing, The A-Team somehow turned into an incredible, indescribable action experience. I find this film to be the most purely entertaining summer blockbuster of the 2010s thus far (yes, even more entertaining than either The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises – I’m cutting this argument off at the head). Neeson, Cooper, and Sharlto Copley are brilliant (I’m more divided on Quinton Jackson – he’s just a guy) in their roles. The villains (Patrick Wilson, Brian Bloom) are absolutely compelling and menacing without being entirely campy (a Carnahan hall mark). Even the tacked on love story isn’t that bad (considering Jessica Biel, who I normally dislike, openly shoots her gun at love-interest Cooper I’d say it’s better and more entertaining than a typical Kathryn Heigl romance). If by chance you skipped this one because previews and trailers were dumb, or because you’re burned out on remakes (I understand this), I highly recommend you check it out now.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 meditation on man’s inhumanity towards animals and whatnot, had every single reason to end up terrible. A reboot to a beloved but ultimately cheesy 70s product, Rise seemed to not feature any of the things that made the originals the “classics” they are in the first place. The dreary, emotionally heavy tone conveyed throughout probably didn’t seem like it would work either. And yet, Rise of the Planet of the Apes turned out to not only be 2011’s best summer movie, but perhaps one of the best movies of 2011 period.
Featuring a brilliant mo-cap performance from Andy Serkis (the king of mo-cap performances indeed), Rise is the story of brilliant researcher and scientist James Franco (who is actually not bad as a scientist, not entirely believable but not bad) who takes in a young chimpanzee after its mother is killed in a laboratory accident. The chimp, named Caesar, shows signs of being highly intelligent and develops much faster than a typical ape, or even a growing human child, would. When circumstances force Caesar into a living in a corrupt, cruel animal shelter, he eventually strikes back in glorious, entertaining, and even horrifying spectacle. Total chaos then ensues, in the best way imaginable.
What I like about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that it brought back the “theater experience” for me in a big way. Watching Rise, I felt a collective audience experience, and also felt surprised by what I was watching for the first time in a long time. Having recently re-watched it on Blu Ray, the experience holds up entirely. It also helps that Serkis, as well as the team of SFX experts obviously, bring Caesar to life in the way few actors could ever bring a character to screen. I almost wish this film hadn’t lead to Fox green-lighting sequels. I don’t know how a sequel could possibly live up to how awesome Rise of the Planet of the Apes is.
Tron: Legacy (2010)
Positioned to be the next Avatar, Tron: Legacy entered theaters in December 2010, where it was a moderate box office hit for Disney. Despite not being the enormous hit the Mouse House bean-counters probably expected, the film still left enough of an impression on me that I revisit it once or twice a year. There was a lot of contention over the production of this film behind the scenes, and the final product is a bit janky. Tron: Legacy however is also visually stunning, having some of the most effective special effects I’ve ever seen in a movie. The Grid, presented gloriously in 3D, is a joy to look at, as are the light-bikes, flying contraptions, and other nifty gadgets presented throughout the film. The costuming department deserves credit as well, but the biggest kudos go to the sound/music. The sound effects are absolutely stunning, and the film has the best original score (famously contributed by Daft Punk) of any film from 2010 that isn’t The Social Network.
I know a lot of people that walked out of Tron: Legacy disappointed by what they had seen, and the film has its share of plot holes, inconsistencies, and internal logic/world-building issues. But I was able to look past these and enjoy Tron: Legacy as pure spectacle. At one point during the movie, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “That was AWESOME” during an action sequence. Though the lead actor, Garrett Hedlund, might as well be Blandy McBlanderson, Jeff Bridges, Olivia Wilde, and Michael Sheen (in a glorious extended cameo) are all entertaining. I also love that they brought back Bruce Boxleitner (Ahh, Boxleitner!), even if it was only momentarily.
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)
I had almost every reason to hate Scott Pilgrim before I had even seen it. Based off a mega-popular Canadian comic, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is filled with cloying, obnoxious video game in-jokes, hipster sentimentalities, annoyingly hyper-kinetic performances, and worst of all, Michael Cera. Once an actor I used to enjoy, Cera became completely insufferable somewhere around the time Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist was released and has never quite returned from the realm of over-exposure. And yet, despite my embarrassment at some portions of the final product, I actually enjoyed Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World quite a bit.
I found some of my criticisms of the hipster aesthetic behind Scott Pilgrim to be disarmed almost right away. Cera plays Scott with a sort of early 90s slacker, Gen X mentality rather than as the complete hipster douche I expected, which helps a lot. Supporting characters (as well as brilliant cameos) surrounding Cera are strong as well, and contributed to my enjoyment of the film. Actors such as Kieran Culkin, Anna Kendrick, Alison Pill, Brandon Routh, Thomas Jane (Homeless Dad himself!), Clifton Collins, and Jason Schwartzman pop up in this film. The best performance, however, is from Chris Evans, playing the type of role he was absolutely born to play.
The work behind the scenes for Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, notably from director Edgar Wright, screenwriter Michael Bacall, narrator Bill Hader, and editors Jonathon Amos and Paul Machliss also elevate the source material. The direction and editing in Scott Pilgrim may be some of the most creative work done in a film this side of a David Fincher property. The soundtrack is also strong, with original music contributed to by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich among many notable others. There are still moments in Scott Pilgrim that I find to be absolutely cringe-worthy (the Indian boyfriend with the devil girls, for example, is embarrassingly stupid), but the overall product ended up being something of a surprise to me.