The topic for this weekend’s Roundtable discussion comes from Dick. (As does the whole concept of the Roundtable itself, I should note.) Since we’ve spent the last couple of sessions dwelling on such negatives as movies we hate and biggest pet peeves, now we’re going to turn it around and accentuate the positive. Our new topic: Most pleasant movie surprises. Oh, and because it’s usually such a sausage-fest in here, we also have a special guest blogger weighing in with us.
The rules are simple. These are movies we went into fully expecting to dislike, but came out loving instead. Here we go:
- ‘Bring It On‘ – So there are two types of “movie surprise.” The first is thinking that you’re going to actually hate a movie when, in fact, you love it to little bits and pieces (and then you love those bits and pieces even more). Such was the case when, as an angry teen working in a video store, I took home a screener VHS copy of a little film called ‘Bring It On.’ I had just gotten into a fight with my girlfriend and thought to myself, “Well, I want to hate on something real bad and this stupid cheerleader movie sure can do the trick.” Well, it turns out that by the end of the movie I was standing up, shouting at the television for my favorite cheerleading squad to win. (Hint: it’s the one with all the ‘Buffy’ alums). It has since become one of my favorite sports movies, thanks in large part to director Peyton Reed’s whip-fire execution of a potentially soggy premise. Oh, and lots of strong, cute girls in short skirts never hurt anybody.
- ‘Bronson‘ – The other type of “surprise” is just not knowing anything about a movie and being blown away by it. That’s what happened last summer when I went to a screening of Nicholas Winding Refn’s ‘Bronson.’ All I knew about the movie was that it was coming out that October and that the title was cool. (I was fairly sure that it wasn’t about action star Charlie Bronson.) I WAS BLOWN AWAY. The movie was soooo good, so cool and sexy and funny and smart. And earlier that day, I had no idea what it was even about. (It’s about Britain’s most violent prisoner ever). The very definition of a “pleasant surprise.”
- ‘Speed Racer‘ – I went to see ‘Speed Racer’ as a bit of a laugh. The previews looked awful and I didn’t expect anything else. To be honest, I quite like seeing once famous people at their worst. In this case, I was hoping to catch the Wachowskis at their lowest point. From a financial standpoint, ‘Speed Racer’ may have been it. But as a movie, it’s close to their best. The thing about ‘Speed Racer’ is that you really have to appreciate silliness to enjoy it. It’s ridiculous and whimsical and fun, and that’s something that so few movies are able to pull off. The effects in the movie are also horribly underrated. The Wachowski Brothers could easily have gone for quick cuts and unclear action sequences like most directors do when they’ve got digital characters to work with. They didn’t. The racers are surprisingly easy to follow.
- ‘Crank 2: High Voltage‘ – This one did a number on me. I expected ‘Crank 2’ to be awful. With good reason, too, since the first ‘Crank’ film did absolutely nothing for me. I prejudged the movie as a mindless, pointless action flick with absolutely no merit. It started off that way, but at about the half hour point, I turned to my friend for confirmation that ‘Crank 2’ was actually really good. The dialog is funny, the action is crazy, and Bai Ling is absolutely perfect in her role. The only thing that bothered me throughout the film is the question of whether it’s an intentional satire with an unrivalled self-awareness or actually made seriously. I’d be seriously remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention the brilliant score by Mike Patton, a favorite of mine in all his bizarre musical forms.
- ‘Wimbledon‘ – Because the final weekend of Wimbledon is currently upon us, I thought it fitting to recall this surprisingly accurate and appealing sports film (I refuse to call it a romantic comedy) from 2004. When I first saw previews for this tale of a yeoman yet past-his-prime British tennis player who makes an unlikely run at the world’s most prestigious tournament, I’m sure I let out an audible groan. After all, most tennis films are absolute stinkers. From the TV ads (played incessantly during that year’s US Open), Richard Loncraine’s film appeared headed down the same dull path by focusing not on the sport, but rather on what looked like an insipid romance between stars Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst. I normally would have avoided the picture like the plague, but my tennis fanaticism fueled by a creeping curiosity led me to the multiplex like a lamb to slaughter. What I discovered, much to my delight, was a crisply made, funny, largely intelligent, and altogether thrilling sports movie that beautifully captures the insecurities, drive, angst, and passion of professional tennis players. The on-court scenes are realistically filmed, the romance seems genuine, and the acting is first rate, all of which led to a thoroughly satisfying, emotional experience.
- ‘I Love You, Man‘ – I didn’t hold out much hope for what seemed to be an infantile, crass, flat-out dumb bro-mance. But John Hamburg’s guffaw-out-loud comedy totally won me over, and has become one of my all-time favorite screwball films. The reason? Beneath all the lowbrow, Neanderthal humor lies a surprisingly sweet, tender, and deceptively perceptive look at male friendship and the hugely important role it plays in many men’s lives. While “You got it, Jobin” can still make me laugh till I cry, other moments in the film make my Adam’s apple swell to the size of a lemon. (What can I say? I’m a hopeless bro-mantic!) Paul Rudd and Jason Segel make a memorable team and strike just the right tone in depicting the complicated yet fulfilling ties of friendship. Theirs is a rocky, volatile, and always hysterical relationship, which is loads of fun to revisit again and again.
- ‘Riding Giants‘ – A local art house theater used to run regular contests for free tickets to advance screenings of upcoming movies. The catch was that the movie would always be a surprise. If you won, you’d show up and learn the identity of the film when they handed you the tickets. One week, Mrs. Z and I won the contest. So we went to the theater and discovered that we’d be seeing a documentary about surfing. I can hardly imagine a topic of less interest to either of us. It also turned out that the screening had been heavily promoted to the local surfing community. We’d both just come from work and kind of stood out in our khakis and office clothes amongst a sea of Quicksilver and Ron Jon T-shirts. We decided to sit in the back row near the exit, and resolved to give the movie 15 minutes. If it hadn’t caught our interest, we’d leave. Well, we stayed for the whole damn thing. This documentary is filled with interesting characters and great stories about the evolution of surf culture, and really about American culture in general. It’s utterly fascinating, whether you’re a surfer or not. Seriously, check it out on Blu-ray. You’ll be pleasantly surprised too.
- ‘The Matrix‘ – Yeah, that’s right, ‘The Matrix’. I really thought it was going to suck. I remember clearly my first exposure to the movie. I was wandering near the TV section at Lechmere’s (a local big-box electronics store that’s long-since defunct; it was sort of a precursor to Best Buy – in fact, there’s a Best Buy in that space right now). Anyway, as I walked past, all the TVs were playing clips from a new sci-fi flick starring Keanu Reeves. My immediate first reaction was, “Who thought it was a good idea to make a sequel to ‘Johnny Mnemonic’?” I remained skeptical right up through release, and couldn’t believe it was getting such good word of mouth and huge box office. A few weeks in, I finally dragged myself to the theater to see it. I sure had to eat some crow then. As we all know now, that movie rocks!
- ‘Hustle & Flow‘ – I’m not particularly a fan of hip hop or pimps, so this movie definitely wasn’t on my Must See list when it came to theaters. It still wasn’t on my radar when it came out on video, but my husband had an interest. Since I don’t mind looking at Terrance Howard, I agreed to give it 15 minutes. I have to admit that it took a lot less than that for me to get on board with this movie. The film tells the story of a down-on-his-luck pimp named D.Jay, played by Howard, who is having a mid-life crisis and decides to pursue his dream of becoming a rapper. There really is no way for me to make the plot sound less ridiculous, but writer/director Craig Brewer brings a depth and richness to the characters and the Memphis setting that help this movie rise above the simplistic plot synopsis. Ultimately, the story is about is hope, passion and ambition. Howard and the supporting actors – particularly Tarji P. Henson and Taryn Manning – defy the typical pimp/ho stereotypes. By the end of the movie, I really felt like I knew these characters, and understood why it’s hard out here for a pimp. Even if you’re not a hip hop fan, it’s hard to deny that the music in this movie is infectious.
- ‘Grandma’s Boy‘ – Being a thirty-something woman and not a teenage boy (or someone who was once a teenage boy), I am clearly not the target audience for this gross-out comedy about a 35-year old pot smoking video game tester who’s forced to move in with his grandmother. However, I have to admit that when I came across it on cable one Saturday afternoon, I found myself laughing out loud at this raunchy comedy. The movie lists Adam Sandler as a producer and stars frequent Sandler cohort and writing partner Allen Covert. Other Sandler minions including David Spade and Rob Schneider have cameos, and the humor has a distinctly ‘Happy Gilmore’ vibe. The plot is admittedly silly and has plenty of crude humor. But if watching Nick Swardson play ‘Dance Dance Revolution’ doesn’t make you laugh, I’m afraid we can’t be friends. Legendary sitcom moms Doris Roberts and Shirley Jones are clearly having fun, and ‘Freaks and Geeks’ alumna Linda Cardellini brings just the right amount of sweetness to the love interest role. This movie was never going to win awards (although Schneider’s work in the film was referenced for his Razzie lifetime achievement nomination). Despite dismal reviews from the critics, frequent showings on cable and brisk DVD sales have made ‘Grandma’s Boy’ something of a cult favorite. It may not be for everybody, but if you’re not offended by cursing, nudity, drug references or ‘Antiques Roadshow,’ it’s worth a look.
That’s what we’ve got. Tell us your most pleasant movie surprises in the comments.