Stupidity, as well as profundity, is in the eye of the beholder. Movie watching can be a very personal experience. It’s often difficult to articulate why some work and some don’t, but there’s a special category of film that taps into a primal need – we’ll call it the cheesy center of the brain. Based on our natural predilections, tolerance level varies from person to person, but I would venture to opine that it exists in everyone. We all have our guilty pleasures that we enjoy, without any pretense to good taste, aesthetics or believability. It could be the (gasp!) Twilight films for some, or anything starring Adam Sandler or directed by Ed Wood, but we all have our dirty little secrets.
The following list is a sampling of some of my more notorious guilty pleasures. The normal standards of quality (or in some cases competent) filmmaking do not apply. I can’t always explain why I feel affection for some films that are nothing more than the cinematic equivalent of junk food. Instead of paying for my transgressions in empty calories, however, I’m paying in minutes deducted from my life. I tend to give points for originality and sheer chutzpah, and deduct points for generic sameness. I can overlook a lot when it comes to logic, acting and common sense, but I can’t forgive tedium. Tread carefully! If you choose to watch any of these wonders, you might not respect yourself in the morning, but to quote an old beer commercial, they’re less filling and tastes great. Do the costs outweigh the benefits? You’ll have to decide.
All titles are three stars, unless otherwise noted.
Tron (1982) *** ½
I’m sure I’ll be marked on some geek hit list because of this, but let’s face it: take away the novelty of the computer-enhanced visuals and themes of a “real” world and a virtual world existing side by side, what do you have left? At its heart is a standard good versus evil story, saddled with some tremendously cringe-worthy dialogue. Tron’s saving grace has always been its unique look, loaded with more eye candy than you can shake a digital stick at. Jeff Bridges and everyone’s favorite bad guy, David Warner lend their talents to give the film some much needed credibility.
The Internet has been buzzing for some time over the long-awaited sequel. Disney’s banking on Tron Legacy to score big at the box office, going so far as to talk further sequels and a TV series, but I can’t help but wonder if they’re putting the cart before the horse. I’ll step out on a limb and predict that regardless if the sequel is good or not, it will not be the huge hit they’re anticipating. Even though it arguably inspired a whole generation of geeks, the original Tron was not a big hit in the first place. Geek interest doesn’t always correlate to mainstream acceptance (witness the recent poor performance of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). Then again, maybe it will be a case of Disney being in the right place at the right time the second time around. Time will tell.
The Beastmaster (1982)
After the success of Conan the Barbarian many filmmakers tried to ride its coattails with their own hastily made entries in the sword and sorcery genre. Don Coscarelli jumped into the mix with this follow-up to Phantasm. Nothing says 80s cheese like Marc Singer dressed up like a He-Man/Conan hybrid, with his trusty faux black tiger by his side. The Beastmaster shouldn’t work, but somehow does, thanks to a likable hero, hateful bad guy played by Rip Torn, and some creepy vulture things that digest men whole in their wing/stomachs. Good brainless fun.
The Black Hole (1979)
There is a force in the universe so powerful that nothing, not even logic or credibility can escape its gravitational pull. At first glance, this seems like a Star Wars ripoff, but The Black Hole borrows extensively from earlier films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey and Disney’s own version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Maximilian Schell stars as the enigmatic Captain Nemo-esque commander of the starship USS Cygnus, which was thought to be lost years ago. The rest of the cast is a veritable who’s who of B actors, including Anthony Perkins, Yvette Mimeux, Ernest Borgnine, and cutesy robots voiced by Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens. High points include some impressive old school optical effects, a stirring John Barry score, and one of the most imposing robots ever committed to cinema, Maximilian (proving conclusively that fitting your robot with spinning blades for hands is a monumentally bad idea). The Black Hole contains what might possibly be the single most ridiculous scene in sci-fi history, when a giant meteor smashes right through the center of the USS Cygnus, and the rest of the structure remains intact. The silliness is topped off by an ending that’s simultaneously pretentious and dumb, but a ballsy choice nonetheless. All in all, it adds up to a wonderful failure that took me a few decades to fully appreciate its bizarre mixture of craftsmanship and ineptitude.
The Running Man (1987)
An entire post – or site – could easily be devoted to the films of former body builder, politician and master thespian Schwarzenegger, and it was difficult to list just one. It was a toss-up between listing this and Commando, but I decided to go with the film that boldly decided to clad its protagonists in yellow spandex. Nominally based on a Stephen King (under alias Richard Bachman) novella of the same name, The Running Man takes place in the not-so-distant future, when the country’s number one television show involves contestants in a life-or-death struggle to win their freedom. Hmmm… doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore. It’s a battle of the accents between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Conchita Alonso, as they trade goofy one-liners and fight goofier villains. The Running Man does away with Stephen King’s original bleak ending in favor of something a little more box-office friendly, ensuring that social commentary is kept to a minimum.
Logan’s Run (1976)
I saw this one in the theater as a kid, and it left an indelible impression despite the fact that it has not aged well. Who had any idea that the future would resemble the 1970s? Thankfully, its primary conceit that the population is limited to age 30 has not come to pass, or I wouldn’t be here to write this commentary. Michael York stars as Logan, and he does in fact run. The filmmakers spared no effort to convince us that we were glimpsing the world of the future through the skillful employment of chintzy models, a robot that looks like the propmasters slapped it together from common household items in 15 minutes, and the initial setting of a thinly disguised shopping mall. A description of the lame elements doesn’t do the overall film justice. Somehow it all works, in the end as a movie that’s so cheesy, it’s cool!
From the fertile minds of Frank Miller and Zack Snyder, two people who know little about restraint, comes this improbable retelling of a momentous battle between the Spartans and the Persian Empire. A lot of criticism was lobbed at this movie because of its many historical inaccuracies and questionable politics. Duh! This is a popcorn flick, pure and simple (emphasis on the simple), rife with non-stop posturing, male bonding and CGI carnage. I don’t think anyone could have confused this with a PBS documentary. This may as well have been set on another planet or Middle Earth, for all the filmmakers cared about being faithful to the reality of the time. As depicted here, the Persian army certainly has no resemblance to anything terrestrial. 300 pays homage to a bygone age when men could not control the volume of their voice, and everything that was spoken was a solemn proclamation. This is the best video game movie that’s not actually based on a video game.
Pet Sematary (1989)
This horror “classic” stars Fred (Herman Munster) Gwynne and several other actors who should have known better. Its clunky attempts at inducing scares generally fall flat, but it still gets a pass from me due to a few saving graces: the eponymous Ramones song, some unintentional humor, and one of the most cringe-inducing scenes involving a knife and an Achilles tendon (shudder!). Is it a good movie? Nope, but applying Sturgeon’s Law (see my review of the superior Trick ‘r Treat) it’s still better than 90% of everything else that’s out there.
Heavy Metal (1981)
What do you get when you combine cut-rate animation, a mixed bag of popular music tracks, and juvenile storytelling? In this case, they add up to an inconsistent but oddly amusing early 80s artifact called Heavy Metal. Producer Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Stripes) and a wealth of voice talent including Harold Ramis, John Candy and Joe Flaherty (Ghostbusters, Stripes) are largely to blame or applaud, depending on which side of the fence you stand. It’s undeniably misogynistic and shallow, like a 14-year-old boy’s fantasies come to life, but when I feel the need to regress to a simpler, less socially responsible time, Heavy Metal fits the bill. Just don’t expect anything more insightful than the doodlings on a 9th grader’s Pee Chee folder.
Troll 2 (1990)
The only inarguably bad movie on this list. I can’t imagine anyone thinking this was actually a good movie, but it exists as a perfect example of complete incompetence in action. So much has already been written about this movie that it really needs no introduction at this point. Whether you find this an enjoyable excursion into cheese or an excruciating test of your sanity depends on your tolerance for bad cinema. Remember: If you only take away one message from Troll 2, it’s that evil can be conquered by a double-decker bologna sandwich. How can I justify a three star rating? I just used this simple formula: * (As a Horror film) + ***** (As a Comedy) divided by 2 = *** stars.
The Protector (2005)
Tony Jaa is no Jackie Chan, but let’s just keep that to ourselves, okay? If he would cross the ocean from his native Thailand to Australia just because his village’s prized elephant was stolen, what would stop him from beating my head in just on general principle? The dialogue-driven scenes are nothing to write home about, but the fight scenes, which are many, are the real reason that The Protector exists. Words cannot adequately describe one amazing continuous take scene that’s worth the rental price alone, where he single-handedly takes on an entire gang in a hotel. We need more people like Jaa. If PETA or the World Wildlife Fund had him on their side, the only endangered species on the planet would be poachers. Lesson learned: if Tony Jaa comes around demanding, “Where’s my elephant?” you’d better have a damned good answer.