Friday, January 4, 2019

Reserved Seating: Unpopular Movies We Shouldn't Like But Really Do

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who are defending the undefendable.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: This week, Rob and I are both naming five movies we really enjoy that are not commonly held as being good by movie fans. We’ll mount our defenses and see if we can change anyone’s mind.
My first pick is Congo, a movie I’ve loved from the first time I saw it in theaters back in June 1995. I think the biggest issue Congo faced was that most people (myself included) expected the film to be at the same pitch as Jurassic Park since both were adapted from Michael Crichton novels and featured some of the same players behind the scenes. Congo is much sillier than Jurassic Park, but I think in an exhilarating Saturday afternoon adventure serial sort of way. It’s never dull. It keeps moving. I love the performances in the film from supporting players like Ernie Hudson (maybe never better) and Tim Curry (who crafted one of the best comedic characters of the '90s with Herkermer Homolka) down to actors who only appear in a single scene and destroy like Delroy “Stop eating my sesame cake!” Lindo and the invaluable Joe Pantoliano. The script by John Patrick Shanley (of Moonstruck and Joe Versus the Volcano fame) is peppered with bizarre and interesting dialogue, the action sequences and stunts are exciting, and the movie is utterly fearless in its conviction. Want a gorilla protagonist who practices sign language? You got it. How about people shooting missiles out of the sky with flare guns from a moving plane? Here it is. Or going on a diamond hunt so you can stick the priceless stone into a laser gun and mow down evil albino gorillas? Say no more. I get why people hate Congo. I also think those people are denying themselves joy. If you watch as many run-of-the-mill blockbusters as I do each year, something like Congo is a miracle and should be celebrated.

Rob: I’m a huge fan of Congo’s goofiness, sense of fun, and total disregard for scientific accuracy. It’s one of those movies that my friends and I grew up watching so much that I really had no idea it was critically maligned until much later in life.
My first pick is 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the pulpy, art deco fantasy starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Angelina Jolie. While films like Sin City and 300 generally get the credit for bringing stylized computer-generated environments into vogue (for better and worse), Sky Captain’s writer/director Kerry Conran was the first major voice to take the risk. The result is an odd mix of science fiction, film noir, World War II mystery, biblical mythology, dieselpunk, Indiana Jones, and The Iron Giant. It’s weird as hell and, of course, was a box-office bomb, but it certainly captured my imagination. Every time I see Captain America: The First Avenger or episodes of The Man in the High Castle — alternate history properties set against World War II fantasy — I’m reminded that Sky Captain should have been a bigger thing.

Adam: I need to see that movie again before having an opinion about it. We talked about Sky Captain once in a Ticket Stub Time Machine column for Reserved Seating once where I described how my one-time viewing was wrought with interpersonal drama. I suspect I would like it more today than I did in 2004.

My next pick is Hollywood Homicide, which is a totally disposable action comedy from 2003 that most people include when they’re throwing shade at either Harrison Ford or Josh Hartnett. I really like Ford’s “fuck it” period filmography (others include Extraordinary Measures and Paranoia) because his grumpy miserableness on screen is endearing and funny compared to Bruce Willis, for example, who is just uncomfortable to watch. Over the years I’ve really grown to like Josh Hartnett, too, for some reason. He’s easy screen company and I appreciate that we see him trying in real time. He’s nothing if not earnest. Reportedly, Ford and Hartnett hated each other when they made Hollywood Homicide, and that tension is palpable in the movie to an oddly fun degree. I also really enjoy the unique take Ron Shelton brings to this cop film, where being a cop isn’t a dogged lifestyle as much as a side-job you do when you’re not selling real estate or teaching a yoga class. This movie’s really goofy and like most films from 2003 (it was a weird year), very rewatchable 15 years later.
Rob: I only just saw Hollywood Homicide last year and, while I agree it’s a disposable pitstop on Ford’s mid-career “fuck it” journey, I actually found a lot to like in it.

My next pick is 2012’s Pitch Perfect, which probably comes as little shock to anyone who understands my crush on Anna Kendrick. However, her vibrant luminescence aside, the real attraction of the movie is the writing. Based on Mickey Rapkin’s book and adapted for the screen by 30 Rock’s Kay Cannon, it’s a smart and funny play on the traditional sports movie formula that deserves a much better reputation than it currently enjoys. I think the runoff from Glee, High School Musical, and probably the overexposure of Rebel Wilson’s particular brand of gross-out comedy pigeonholed it a bit, and the terrible sequels’ obnoxious aca-obsessive marketing campaigns probably sank things for good. Regardless, I’ll continue to champion it on our site and use its screenplay as a model for effective act structure in my classroom. I still maintain that if Pitch Perfect were about a football team or a group of martial artists, there’d be more affection for it.

Adam: I’ve never seen Pitch Perfect and I think you’re right that there’s a certain resistance to it. It’s very in-your-face, take-it-or-leave-it. Your enthusiastic recommendation might get me to finally give it a chance.

My next pick is a movie with an equally devoted fan base, and that’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Just kidding, I’m the only person who likes this movie. It feels made only for me: Chris Pine stars as My Jack Ryan, Kevin Costner is his mentor, Keira Knightley is the new Anne Archer and wears beautiful dresses for 105 minutes. If that weren’t enough: Colm Feore! Kenneth Branagh doing a funny accent (“You think this is game, Jack?”) etc. This is a real meat & potatoes Jack Ryan movie. It doesn’t have the gravitas of the Harrison Ford entries. It feels much more like a mall movie. I love how stripped down and efficient it is. The film was a bomb at the box office and I’ll never forgive audiences for that, because all the elements were in place for a sustainable franchise. Now we have stupid John Krasinski as Not My Jack Ryan (he’s fine, he’s just NOT MY JACK RYAN) on that shopping channel (you call it Amazon). I’m being bitter. Look, you can’t dangle Chris Pine in my face and then snatch it away like that. It’s unfair. I almost forgot to mention that a set piece in this movie involves Chris Pine needing to stop Keira Knightley from biting down on a lightbulb that Kenneth Branagh put in her mouth. What other movie has that?

Rob: I think Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit might have been the first movie I ever Redboxed. I don’t remember too much about it, but I know I liked it quite a bit. Definitely deserves a revisit.

My next pick is the one and only sequel in the James Bond series, 2008’s Quantum of Solace. I know, I know. It’s a mess. Written in haste during the 2007 Writers’ Guild strike and directed with a kind of unsettling darkness by Marc Foster, it’s also the shortest film in the 007 series (just 107 minutes!) and centers around a boring water contract plot masterminded by Mathieu Amalric as the dull and inscrutable Dominic Green. These things are all true, and had 2012’s Skyfall not been so good, Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond might have been permanently tainted. But since we Bond fans have so much variety to choose from, there’s nothing wrong with a darker, more introspective episode every now and then. It’s a great companion piece to Casino Royale (For the record, I think Quantum should only be watched as part of a double feature) with a strong turn from Olga Kurylenko as a would-be Bond girl who resists his charms long enough to actually teach him to cope with loss and betrayal. It’s an oddball in the series, for sure, but it keeps growing on me.
Adam: I’ve never been a fan of this movie but it’s one I dislike less over the years. I find myself rewatching Quantum of Solace before every new Craig Bond movie so there’s something to be said for that. It’s just such a change of pace from Casino Royale (one of my very favorites of all the Bond movies) that I can’t help but be a little disappointed by it. I’m going to try your double feature idea next time I watch it. I’ve never gone into Quantum of Solace immediately after watching Casino Royale.

My next pick is Rocky V. I adore Rocky V. Everyone seems to hate it but love Rocky III and Rocky IV, which I never could quite understand. I think Rocky V is a perfect blend of the subtler parts of the series (down and out Rocky returns to his neighborhood) and the garish, goofy aspects (the Don King proxy George Washington Carver character). Rocky V has an interesting story too - it’s like a bizarro Creed, where Rocky trains a guy (Tommy Gunn) with equal drive but zero integrity. What’s not to like? I also really enjoy the sweet relationship between Sylvester and Sage Stallone in this film. Is Rocky V one of the best in the series? No, but it’s one I grew up with and will stop to watch on cable every time it’s on. Also, without Rocky V, would Rocky Balboa have ever happened? Rocky V was the bridge movie back to reality from Rocky III and IV, which grew increasingly ludicrous.

Rob: I can’t claim to be the biggest Rocky V fan, but I absolutely agree with you on two of your key points: It’s a cooldown from the campy spectacle of Rocky III and IV, and Rocky Balboa would not be possible without it. I love Rocky Balboa, and I think Rocky V informs a lot of the character’s hesitance to take Donnie on as an apprentice in Creed. For those reasons alone, it’s an essential part of the series.

My next pick is 2006’s Running Scared. No, not the Billy Crystal one. The hyper-violent Grimm’s fairy tale written and directed by Wayne Kramer and starring the late Paul Walker, Vera Farmiga, and Chaz Palminteri. Though the critical opinion remains middling, my real concern is that I never hear this movie talked about in cult and exploitation circles the way it needs to be. It’s an Up All Night movie on speed, an angry and desperate odyssey featuring a cast of terrified kids, nasty gangsters, corrupt detectives, slimy vagrants, and — in an unforgettable sequence that should have earned Vera Farmiga a career as an action hero — vile pornographers. I shout my love for this movie from the rooftops whenever possible, but it never feels like enough. I think it’s Paul Walker’s best performance and (like Sky Captain) an example of a writer/director taking a big swing on a genre picture and suffering the financial consequences. That’s an injustice I’d like to see righted in any way possible.

Adam: I love Running Scared. Both this one and the one with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines. I couldn’t agree with you more on the odyssey aspect of watching this movie. It puts you through the wringer in a good way. I second your awe of Vera Farmiga in the film, too. She’s one of my favorite actresses working today and she’s incredible in Running Scared.
My last pick is The Matrix Reloaded. I like The Matrix better, but I’m the crazy person who in 2019 would rather watch Reloaded than the original. I think the first sequel is interesting in a way most tentpole movies aren’t. It has too many ideas and almost none of them manifested into anything satisfying in the awful The Matrix Revolutions, but the action sequences in Reloaded are stellar (especially the freeway chase) and I love this movie’s corny, romantic center. The whole Neo-Trinity dynamic feels like two high school kids who are in love for the first time and I really like that about the movie. I’m always going to have fondness for Reloaded because it was a prime IHOP movie for me growing up. Those were movies where I would go on opening night with my friends and we would head straight to IHOP afterwards to analyze it. We were so pumped by everything Reloaded threw at us. I made my ex-girlfriend see it three times with me during the summer of 2003 (it was payback for making me see The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers four times over one winter break...that’s two too many times for a three-week period). I have never understood the pre-Revolutions backlash to Reloaded to be honest. I get it that the movie is sort of pointless in many ways after seeing how Revolutions plays out, but I still really dig Reloaded from a nostalgia perspective and because it’s this big, expensive thing that dared to be different. And the soundtrack is still good. And it coined my old roommate’s famous line: “This is the time in Zion when we dance,” which was followed by him putting on club music in our apartment.

Rob: I agree with you that it has too many ideas (probably its fatal flaw), and I agree even more that it deserves credit for being a tentpole with the balls to be different. I remember The Matrix Reloaded being the first trailer that I really anticipated, the first one I downloaded off the internet and watched over and over. I’ll always be disappointed with how that series turned out, but if Reloaded is on, I’m definitely watching it.

My final pick is 1993’s Last Action Hero, the movie that taught me to love movies. I’ve spoken about it before, and I don’t have much else to say aside from the fact that it taught me that being a movie lover was special, that movies had rules and structure that could be studied academically and — perhaps more importantly — broken when necessary. Watching it now, I can’t abide the terrible third act that abandons all the promises made by the first two, but I can still appreciate the first hour or so as a brilliant love letter to movies and movie lovers. It’s proof of Schwarzenegger’s range and his awareness of the role he played in Hollywood at a very specific place and time in history. And I mean, come on. Danny DeVito voices a talking cat detective. I rest my case.

Adam: It’s a movie I find twice as enjoyable as I do frustrating. I was a huge Arnold fan at the time of its release (who wasn’t?), but Jurassic Park overshadowed Last Action Hero so much during the summer of 1993 and I didn’t get to Last Action Hero until years later. It’s a movie that’s grown on me as I’ve gotten older because, as you said, it’s for movie lovers and rewards you for knowing a lot about movies.

This was fun! What are we talking about next time?

Rob: We’re going to have another grab-bag type episode, this time a trip through our Netflix disc rental histories. Should be fun and educational! Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.


  1. Great stuff guys! Rob I can't believe you shouted out not one but two movies that I feel like I'm always beating the drum for in Running Scared and Last Action Hero.

    I randomly rented running scared back when it first came out and was blown away. Especially the scene with Farmiga you mentioned. That scene is brilliantly constructed and it builds to the perfect crescendo. Just a great one crazy night movie (with some cool elements of dark fairy tales added in) and my favorite Paul Walker performance.

    Last action hero was one of the first movies I remember seeing in theaters and I've loved it ever since. I wasn't even aware it had a bad reputation until years later. I won't go on too much about it because I could write an essay on my love for it, but yeah, it's great, and I wish more people would see it and appreciate it.

  2. I've been on a real Ebert kick lately, reading lots of his reviews. Just happened across this in his hilarious panning of "Unforgettable" (1996) in which he writes: "I have nothing in principle against goofy films. Hey, I'm the guy who liked "Congo."

    You're in good company Adam.

    1. I still miss Ebert every week! I like your idea... maybe I'll pull all his books off my shelves. <3

  3. The "twist" ending of Running Scared really soured me on it, but yeah that Vera Farmiga scene a chilling slice of darkness.

  4. Pitch Perfect is a popular movie everyone absolutely should like!

    I'll always be an avid defender of the matrix sequels. Both deliver incredible action sequences while exploring some very cool ideas. The trilogy came together to a logical, satisfying conclusion at the end. I never quite understood what people expected from the sequels that created such backlash.

  5. The main problem with Quantum of Solace is that Marc Foster cannot direct action. Good action sequences are a legit art form, because they make chaos comprehensible (think the truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Helm's Deep in Two Towers). The action scenes in Quantum are so chaotic you spend your time trying like hell to figure out what is going on. There is a YouTube clip (I wish I could remember who did it) that spelled out how in the opening, giving the bad guys a car the same color as Bond's made the scene that much more confusing. The clip also explained how the scene's editing contributes to the chaos and confusion.

    That being said, I really love parts of Quantum of Solace. I really dig the opera sequence (that's a real production of Tosca, by the way, at the Bregenz festival), and the relationship between Bond and M remains a highlight.