A good critic really tries to go into everything with an open mind and at least a little bit of hope, but that isn’t always possible, particularly given that we also try to stay tuned into the zeitgeist, and we can be really aware when the judgment on something is overwhelmingly negative even before it becomes publicly available. Which is why I walked into Real Steel with a couple of people I normally hook up for to watch really bad movies, and why I expected a profoundly, hilariously terrible movie—essentially, as everyone was saying at the time, Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots: The Feature Film. But while it had way too much child-mugging and too many broad, sweeping underdog-story clichés to be a really good movie, it was surprisingly, unironically fun, and all three of us wound up giving each other the side-eye after the credits, because none of us wanted to be the first to admit “I really enjoyed that!” It’s a prime example of a movie that’s really more fun than it looks, and possibly more fun than it deserves to be, given what it is.
First, totally agree regarding Real Steel. That was way better than it needed to be for a movie about punching robots! The first example I can think of a movie I was pleasantly surprised by was Gattaca, which I’d always assumed was just a mindless future-space-chase-race-type film, but turned out to be a much more complex, bittersweet movie, tackling eugenics and identity. (Plus, the still-fresh Jude Law was pretty easy on the eyes.) More recently, I was really happy I checked out Our Idiot Brother. God knows I love Paul Rudd, but not every comedy project he’s involved in is a grand slam for me. I didn’t adore I Love You, Man, and I projected those feelings onto OIB, before I saw it, figuring it was just another movie about a slacker man-boy. However, Rudd’s character was a lot more complex than just some foolish sloppy pothead, while the B-stories of his sisters and family were also very fulfilling. It was a much sadder movie than I assumed it would be—but in a good way!
The one upside to the generally dreadful nature of trailers and commercials these days—the aim of which seems to be to depict every film as an endless succession of climaxes, just barely held together with the faintest hint of a plot—is that they generally engender expectations so low, films can’t help but exceed them. The commercials and trailer for 2009’s Next Day Air, for example, made it look a like a toxic cross between a crude, scatological comedy and a generic thriller. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover the film is actually a nifty, nicely cynical, brutally unsentimental neo-noir inhabited by a memorable gallery of rogues, crooks and ne’er-do-wells, a tight, efficient genre movie the likes of which they just don’t make anymore. I don’t want to make any great claims for the film, but it’s crackerjack entertainment, and far better than I anticipated.
I’m not particularly a fan of either Guy Ritchie or Sherlock Holmes, so there was very little reason for me to go see Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes. In fact, I never would have seen it if a friend hadn’t called me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to go. Since I hadn’t seen him in a while, I said sure, figuring it’d be terrible, but at least we could make fun of it while we caught up. Then a funny thing happened—it ended up being pretty decent. It was certainly nothing to get excited about, but Robert Downey’s reliable, smirky charm and the quasi-steampunk take on Holmes combined to make a pretty entertaining way to waste an afternoon. Ultimately, it’s pretty lightweight and forgettable, but it was a fun popcorn flick, and since that was a fair bit more than I expected, I ended up liking it quite a bit.
I liked Prometheus. Quite a bit, actually, and while I’m pretty sure I’d like it even if I’d seen it on opening night, I’d be lying if watching the entire Internet go apeshit in the week following the movie’s release didn’t set a certain tone. I knew going in that the movie wouldn’t go out of its way to explain itself, that characters would behave mysteriously and often idiotically, and that it definitely wasn’t going to be Alien 2.0, however much I might wish otherwise. All these things are basically true (although—he said, not wanting to start an argument, but unable to help himself—I like a movie that doesn’t explain much, and I didn’t think the actual concepts were that hard to parse out), and none of them surprised me, so I was able to enjoy the frequently gorgeous visuals, the eerie tone throughout, and Michael Fassbender, who is awesome as the most compelling character in the entire cast. Yeah, there was stupidity, and the script wasn’t tight, or even all that logical, but the movie had a core that worked for me. It’s unique, flaws and all, and I’m willing to meet a film three-quarters of the way if it gives me something I haven’t really seen before. I’m not sure I would’ve appreciated it the same way if I hadn’t been prepared by the frustrations of those who went before me.
TBS’ My Boys wasn’t critically reviled so much as basically ignored upon its première. And if you go back to the first season, such apathy is pretty much earned. As such, I gave it little thought through its first few weeks. But near the end of that initial season, the overly wrought sports metaphors gave way to a breezy show featuring some of the best ensemble work on television. The show was so low-stakes that many mistook it as lightweight. But the camaraderie between the core cast pushed aside the need for plot to drive the action. Simply watching the group banter during their weekly poker games produced more pleasure than other comedies working so hard to produce laughs, I can see the actors’ flopsweat. I only came across this show haphazardly one night, and was almost instantly hooked by its low-key charms. Those looking for a prototypical hang-out show (like Cougar Town and Bent) would do well to seek this out.
I resent being told how to feel about things, especially when I’m told how to feel as a woman. Nothing was sold harder to ladies last year than Bridesmaids, which seemed to have the tagline, “Did you know ladies are in it and created it?! Oh man, ladies love ladies, amiright?!” I knew it wasn’t going to be terrible, because I love every single person in it and associated with it, but I was way put off by how it was marketed. The news coverage seemed to mostly be about whether women can be funny, and the commercials weren’t correcting my impression of the film as loud and a little misguided. So when I finally saw it about a month after it came out, I wasn’t expecting to leave the theater crying to a Wilson Phillips song. I was ready for a broad, raunchy comedy that was going to try too hard to make me laugh. Instead I got a personal, familiar story about best friends, told just about as well as I could hope for. I get that an ad campaign about friendships changing isn’t going to fill as many seats as an ad campaign about diarrhea in wedding dresses. But it would have gotten me to the theater a lot quicker, instead of making me wish everyone would shut up about how groundbreaking it was already.
When I first started getting into The New Pornographers (which was in 2008, because that is just how hip I am to what the kids are listening to nowadays), I was told that the band had a strong first three albums, then an almost-disastrous fourth one. Reviews for Challengers were of the kind-but-disappointed variety, and the fans of the group seemed even more put-off by the album, which is more ballad-heavy than the group’s others. (And by “more ballad-heavy,” I mean that it has ballads that don’t grow to some sort of power-pop triumph.) Yet while I love all of the band’s albums (now numbering five), I have always found Challengers to be the best of them, and the one I return to most often when I want to put one on. This may be because the album got me through some tough times in my life. It might be because it’s the easiest album to write to. Or it might just be because it puts into words and music an idea that’s hard to portray: that point in life when you’re relatively happy and stable, but still feel as if everything around you could swallow you up. It’s got some of the group’s most beautiful songs, plus some solid power-pop, and c’mon, any album featuring “Myriad Harbor” was going to be at least a little bit awesome.
The phrases “better than I expected” or “worse than I expected” always make me cringe a bit, because it’s such a vague, useless, hype-based form of aesthetic judgment. If you’ve been told Citizen Kane—or now, Vertigo—is the greatest film ever made, chances are good that if you’re checking either one for the first time, it’s going to be worse than you expected. You’re stuck reacting to other people’s reactions (or often, just your perception of other people’s reactions). On the other hand, going into a movie with certain expectations is almost unavoidable, based on how you feel about the filmmakers, the actors, the genre, and whatever opinions have happened to slip through the filter. And by that standard, I was just this week surprised by Hope Springs, which is precisely the type of movie—starring actors of advancing age, dealing with relatable adult problems, acknowledging that old people get it on occasionally too—that Hollywood rarely does, and almost never handles well. It was better than I expected, but I’ll do my damnedest not to say that out loud.
I love low expectations, because they can make so-so stuff just so much better. And on the flip side, I hate having movies built up too much, because they can never fully meet them. (So when Scott Tobias says Meek’s Cutoff is the greatest movie he’s seen since he began reviewing movies, it’s going to have a hard road as far as I’m concerned.) But something like Joe Carnahan’s 2010 movie version of The A-Team really just had to be halfway decent to exceed any hopes I might’ve had for it. And it was at least halfway decent! It’s fun, funny, and in the spirit of the TV show without trying to be cute or retro. Sure, it gets mighty stupid at the end, but it’s more fun than it has any right to be for a while. (By the way, I’m not endorsing The A-Team movie as any sort of lost classic—just another action flick that’s easy on the eyes and brain.)
Mark 2012 as the year I had to officially change my opinion on one Mr. Channing Tatum. Though I was aware of the dancer-turned-thespian’s work and had even seen a few of his films (Step Up, Public Enemies, The Vow), I had decided he was simply pretty window dressing; nothing else was there. Enter 2012. First, I saw “Morgan And Destiny’s Eleventeenth Date: The Zeppelin Zoo,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s short film that is a formidable contender to become My Favorite Thing Ever. (I know this short is a couple of years old, but I just saw it this year.) Then I saw Haywire, and didn’t hate it with the fire of a thousand suns. (Let it be known that I am decidedly not the target demographic for that ephemeral piece of art, the action-thriller film.) Next was 21 Jump Street; my expectations could not have been lower for this one. My friends had to drag me to the theater for that, and damn if I wasn’t charmed by The Tatum! Who knew? I’m not even upset about the inevitable sequel. This brings us to Magic Mike, and while I was not immune to Mike’s sorcery, I found myself even more enchanted by the plot. Hypnotic setpieces aside (Wow, Matt Bomer. Damn, Alcide from True Blood.), that is quite a poignant film about pretty significant things… including the importance of G-strings in show business.
Not to jump on the bandwagon of people picking films that were deemed rip-offs of earlier, far better motion pictures, but I’d always heard that the 1978 flick King Of The Gypsies was like The Godfather, except a) instead of being about the Mafia, it’s about gypsies, and b) it isn’t nearly as good. While the latter statement is more or less inarguable, I finally had a chance to see the film when it hit DVD in 2008, and although it carries some of the same family themes as Mario Puzo’s epic tale, it definitely has its own identity, thanks to a star-packed cast which, in its own way, rivals the one compiled by Francis Ford Coppola. In addition to offering the feature-film debut of Eric Roberts, it also brings together such disparate figures as Sterling Hayden, Shelley Winters, Susan Sarandon, Brooke Shields, Annette O’Toole, Judd Hirsch, Annie Potts, and future teen sensations Matthew Laborteaux and Danielle Brisebois. No, it isn’t the best picture ever made, but it’s way better than its reputation had led me to believe.
Given Whitney’s sketchy pilot, its throwback ’90s-era advertising campaign, and the presence of Whitney Cummings, I was pretty much ready to write it off as dreck. But with the knowledge that sitcoms do improve over time as they try to figure out where the funny comes from (remember that horrible first season of Parks And Rec, people?) I decided to keep watching, figuring that the show had nowhere to go but up, and that NBC’s woes would give the show the entire season to find its comedic legs. Lo and behold, as the season went on, the show got away from the concept that Whitney was afraid of marriage, and cut back on the silly romantic war between Whitney and her boyfriend Alex (Chris D’Elia). The writers actually managed to explore and deepen the previously one-dimensional side characters. By the end of the show’s first season, it actually grew into a decent-but-not-great ensemble sitcom, with some potential to make a leap in its second season. It’s actually ironic that this show managed to accomplish what Cummings’ other show, the CBS hit 2 Broke Girls, couldn’t, in spite of all 2BG’s bad reviews and the publicity generated by Michael Patrick King’s contentious TCA session in January.