ThinkMovies: Five movies that are far better than they should be

ThinkMovies: Five movies that are far better than they should be

by Alan Grant
article from Friday 15, May, 2020

HAVE YOU EVER gone with low expectations to the cinema (Remember them? From before time, from long, long ago?) As a critic, I do my best to avoid going in with preconceptions or prejudice, it’s my main reason for avoiding trailers beforehand, but it sometimes proves impossible to live up to. I will admit freely that if I see the words “Rebel Wilson”, “Adam Sandler”, or “Michael Bay” anywhere near a film, I have to struggle to prevent my eyes rolling so hard that the person standing behind me can hear them spin. 

What makes this even worse is that, either by virtue of knowing my own taste or as a result of a simple case of confirmation bias, I’m usually right. If a film looks terrible, there’s a good chance that’s what I’ll think about it.

Sometimes, however, something magical happens. 

Occasionally, I get into a screening or start streaming a film that causes my spinning eyes to snap forward and become stuck on the action. There are some films that have not only surprised me  but have impressed me  so much that they become part of my regular rotation. 

This list contains five such films.

No real notes, clauses, parameters, or prefaces this week folks – these are just five films that were far better than they had any right to be and the reasons why I think that’s the case. They’re not the best films, of course, but from where they started, being good is excellent.

Back to the Future Part III

Back to the Future is one of my favourite films. I love its campy, fun, and surprisingly clever dialogue. I think Michael Fox and Christopher Lloyd are brilliant together and it’s as well-paced and staged as any movie I can think of. The sequel, Back to the Future Part II, is that rare sequel that carries on the good work of the original without feeling totally unnecessary. 

However, there is no denying that the second instalment of Robert Zemeckis’ knockabout bit of time-travel silliness doesn’t feel particularly essential to the story. Had the first movie not had a slightly contrived, plot-lengthening, few minutes stuck on the end – we could have made do with one Back to the Future film.

Therefore, when it came time to sit down to watch Back to the Future Part III, my tolerance for the tomfoolery was as low as it could be. The proposal of Doc Brown, Marty, and the others finding themselves in the Old West felt like a shark jump extraordinaire cynically designed to extract money from the wallets of those who went to see it at the time. 

However, Back to the Future Part III does what very few third children can do… it lives up to its parent’s legacy.

Part of that might be because it was made almost immediately after part II and part of it might that I’ve already gotten over forgiving the BTTF franchise for unnecessary indulgences, but I suspect the reason I think it works is that it sticks with a winning formula. 

The plot points, reactions, and big pay-off are practically the same as in previous instalments which would be a downside in a lesser franchise – but not so with this one. It’s more of the same, but when that ‘same’ is such a classic, who cares?

Watchmen

It really shouldn’t have worked, should it? Based on the best-selling comic book by Alan Moore, whose other work includes The Killing JokeV for Vendetta, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, of the same name and subsequently disowned by the author, Watchmen had everything going against it. 

As mentioned, the author of the original material disowned it and, as far as I’m aware, has refused to watch it, while the whole project began life in 1986 and ran into pretty much every production issue it possibly could. For some time, it was thought of as simply being ‘unfilmable’ and a doomed project 

So, in 2009, when this near-three-hour, neo-noir, niche, complex, ultra-dark, and serious, boulder of a film crashed into theatres, the knives were out for it. 

The consensus was that it had been too long in development purgatory, was too long, and just could not succeed. My God! It’s based in an alternate Cold War universe filled with slightly rubbish-sounding masked crime fighters… how could it be good?

Well, how silly those knife holders must feel now because Watchmen  isn’t just better than expected – it’s bloody fantastic! 

Watchmen  brings together a cast of people who, up until that point, deserved better. Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl and Malin Akerman’s Silk Spectre both show what they can do with a good script and solid direction. Billy Crudup’s God-like Doctor Manhattan manages to encapsulate the childlike naivety and frustration that underlies his character while Matthew Goode oozes as Ozymandias. However, as will come as no surprise to anyone, the film belongs to Jackie Earle Haley’s masked vigilante Rorschach and Jeffery Dean Morgan as the demented Comedian.

The writing is bang-on, direction is terrific, the soundtrack is visceral and haunting, and the whole thing comes together beautifully. As Bob Chipman, the movie critic, puts it, “you could teach a class on this movie… hell, you could teach a class with this movie!” Not bad for a film that nobody thought would work. 

Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia! is a film that, in addition to frustrating autocorrect, is made out of not very good component parts. It’s been described as a “jukebox musical romantic comedy” but I’d suggest that first word ought to be “junkbox” as it’s made almost entirely from junk. 

Standing atop this pile of scrap is Meryl Streep as hotel owner Donna whose super-serious portrayal of this cinematic Butlin’s rep shouldn’t work. Amanda Seyfried is, at this point in her career, nowhere near experienced enough to carry-off what’s asked of her. It’s got erstwhile James Bond Pierce Brosnan attempting to sing but sounding more like someone knocking over a series of wardrobes onto a tiled floor alongside Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard who are equally tuneless. The direction is meandering, plot makes very little sense, and the stakes never seem to really matter.

But out of this bag of broken parts and sticky tape, Phyllida Lloyd manages to put together something really fun and, as Mark Kermode noted in his review at the time, it’s all because of how good the songs are. 

Watching Mamma Mia! is a bizarre experience for those with a critical eye. The obviously silly and badly chosen bits are evident from the beginning and then, slowly, surreptitiously, and seductively, the “bullet proof”, to borrow Kermode’s term, songs just creep out of the speakers and lodge themselves in the ear until you’re really invested in this wedding, its guests, and the search for who Seyfreid’s father is. 

Abba are rightly lionised for their music and the decades of unironic pleasure it’s given to people but perhaps its biggest achievement is taking Mamma Mia! from a movie that shouldn’t have worked and, by simply taking a chance on it, making it very much the winner that takes it all! 

The Lion King 1½ (The Lion King 3: Hakuna Matata)

Generally speaking, with a few notable exceptions, Disney sequels aren’t great. Frozen 2 was pretty good, as my review on this site will attest, but for every Frozen 2  there’s a Return of Jafar or Kronk’s New Groove that is best avoided. Disney is a very good movie maker, there’s no doubt about that, but, being the nostalgia-Bogarting conglomerate that it is, it never seems to know when a good thing should just be left alone. 

This general rule is particularly observable in the case of The Lion King and its immediate successor – The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride. It’s a simpering, pointless, and ultimately boring bit of cash-in tosh that not even the most hardcore Disney nut will defend without caveat or admission of bias.

That’s what makes the success of the third movie in the Lion King series so remarkable. 

For the uninitiated, Hakuna Matata essentially tells the story of The Lion King but from the perspective of Timon and Pumba, Disney’s answer to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In this delightful feature, we follow the duo from their origin, through their time with Simba, and through the events of the original classic.

There’s lots to like in this movie – especially a really catchy song sung by Timon and his fellow meerkats – but, from where I sit, it’s the setting that makes it. The story is told by our twitchy and porcine protagonists as they sit in a movie theatre. It’s delightfully self-aware without being smug and provides a series of laughs and air punch moments that genuinely feels like a lovable bit of director’s commentary on a DVD. 

There’s a reason that Timon and Pumba are most people’s favourite characters in the series and getting to spend a bit more time with them is a delight. For that reason, you should have absolutely no worries about checking out this little feature. 

Psycho 4: The Beginning

How do you follow-up a film as iconic as 1960’s Psycho? It’s a movie that added more to the cinematic language than most of the films before it and most of those that came afterwards and is, putting it mildly, a hard act to follow.

In reality, what happened was a not bad sequel, Psycho 2, and a steaming pile of garbage in the form of Psycho 3. Neither of which were really up to the impossibly hard, lightning-in-a-bottle, impact that the original had.

Much like Hakuna Matata did for The Lion KingPsycho 4 does for the context and background behind the original murder in the shower movie. 

We find Norman Bates, thankfully still played by the wonderful Anthony Perkins, having been released and rehabilitated from his time in prison, talking to a radio call-in show about “what makes boys kill their mothers?” As the story unfolds, we get an insight into Norman’s perspective behind the events in the Bates Motel and find out exactly what his relationship with his mother was like.

Psycho 4 could well have ended up as a dreary cash-in on a franchise but, and I won’t spoil things here as you should absolutely watch it if you can get a copy of it, but it takes a bold choice in narrative terms and absolutely sticks with it to its thundering conclusion. And that word “conclusion” is important because it does what some franchises are scared to do – it ends conclusively. 

This is why it was better than I expected. It concludes the story of Norman, mother, the motel, and the entire Psycho-verse and I valued that immensely. 

* * * *

Putting together this list was fun as it helped me, personally, remember that sometimes things turn out far better than expected and I think that’s a very important message for us all at this time. Things can, and will, surprise you – so please, stick with it. 

As always, I’ll say that if you’re having a tough time – please reach out on Twitter @alangrantuk.

Until next time.
All the love,
Alan

 

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