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The Terrible, Terrible Movies We Still Ride For

Take a glimpse into our secret cinematic shame

The idea of a “guilty pleasure” is an inherently dumb one (fun fact, you can like what you like!), but even so, most of us have a movie we love that we’re aware is, shall we say, not the most critically revered. A movie that will never crack any self-important “100 Movies to See Before You Die (Of Reading Too Many Pompous Articles)” lists, but that, for whatever reason, has found its place deep in our hearts. 

For me, that movie is 1993’s Blood In Blood Out.

I don’t know if it’s a terrible movie, exactly, but it’s certainly not a good one. A three-hour epic that follows three Chicano cousins in East L.A. over the 12 years between 1972 and 1984, it clearly has noble intentions, attempting to show the devastating effects of institutional racism, prison violence, the proliferation of narcotics and the inability of white law enforcement to grasp the actual issues they’re supposed to be tackling. At 14-years-old, and to that point mostly raised on a cinematic diet of slasher flicks and Schwarzenegger movies, it seemed practically highbrow. “Yes,” something deep in my early teenage brain concluded. “This is indeed an authentic and harrowing portrait of urban strife, and full of valuable lessons that I should endeavor to remember.” 

A decade or so later, I showed this important document of young Latin struggle to my (then soon-to-be) wife, who comes from a large family in Mexico City. She laughed hysterically throughout the entire film.

In his review for the L.A. Times, critic Kenneth Turan described the film as “three hours of violent, cartoonish posturing incongruously set in the realistically evoked milieu of East Los Angeles,” and, well, he’s not wrong. This was certainly my wife’s reaction, veering between snorts and belly laughs (“It’s just so over the top, it’s like a parody!” she kept giggling) as characters gurned, wild-eyed, for the camera, spouting lines like these:

So, yes, in retrospect, perhaps putting my faith in 49-year-old white guy director Taylor Hackford to bring me a documentary-accurate portrayal of teenage Chicano gang life was, shall we say, naive. But it’s too late for me now — I have seen the film too many times, and its imagery and dialogue are too firmly cemented into my memory. As an adult, I can see the film for what it is — a well-crafted and shot but ultimately misguided failure — but it somehow doesn’t detract from my enjoyment, and it’s something I end up watching every couple of years, normally as a hangover accompaniment. 

I know these characters too well now to not get caught up in their exploits: I fear for Miklo as he first sets foot inside San Quentin; I root for Paco as he tries to reconcile his past with the man he wants to be; my heart breaks for Cruz as his artistic potential is lost to a cycle of drug addiction and grief. I can be 100 percent relied upon to snivel hopelessly during the emotional graveside family reunion on Día de Muertos (it is not a subtle film).

So, Blood In Blood Out, even though I’m embarrassed by our relationship, I still ride with you. How could I not? Vatos Locos forever, homes.

But enough about my terrible taste — let’s hear what the rest of the MEL staff deems a quality moviegoing experience.

Johnny Mnemonic 

Isabelle Kohn, Staff Writer: The year is 2021. Society has become reliant on a 3D virtual internet that’s weaseled its way into every facet of daily life, and the technological overload has poisoned humanity so badly that millions of people are dying from a mysterious Wi-Fi-based disease. 

In this digitized world, it’s no longer safe to transmit information. Computers and satellites are vulnerable to cyber-attack, so people implant sensitive information into the brains of human couriers in order to send it safely. One of those couriers is an icy and determined Keanu Reeves, a hot-shot information smuggler who brags that he can “carry nearly 80 gigs of data in [his] head.” It’s his job to outsmart the East Asian mega-corporations and gangs who’ve rapidly overtaken the world, and he’ll do anything it takes to make sure the precious information implanted in his brain doesn’t get hacked. 

It’s a prescient premise for a film released in ye olde 1995, but it’s so much more than a forecast of the future — it’s also, more importantly, a total meathead shit-show. Reeves spends about half the movie “browsing the internet” in a 3D headset and special gloves that mimic today’s douchiest virtual reality; Ice-T stars as the embattled leader of a cyberpunk resistance; Black Flag’s Henry Rollins cameos as an anarchist brain surgeon; Dolph Lundgren plays a crazed preacher on the loose for absolutely no reason at all; the only being who can offload Reeves’ head data is an all-knowing Navy porpoise who lives in a tank connected to a bunch of wires. 

Do I even have to explain why I ride for this? 

Apparently I do, because this thing has a shameful 12 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I don’t see why — it contains many wonderful scenes. Take this one, for example: About halfway through the film, Reeves and his sexy female counterpart are in the middle of running away from the Yakuza — don’t ask — when he stops, pulls her aside and barks, in a moment of monumental irrelevance, “You got parents and stuff?”

“Yeah,” she replies. “Once.”

Then, as if to throw his overly personal question back in his face, she tugs at his arm, preventing him from walking away. “But what do you think about?” she demands. “WhEn yOu’Re aLoNe?”

After a tense pause, he gets right up in her face. “I want to get online,” he hisses. “I. NEED. A. COMPUTER.”

“Oh, fuck,” I thought to myself when I first watched that scene, popcorn dribbling out of my constantly agape mouth. “I also need a computer.” And with that, I was hooked — not because of my own reliance on technology or the extremely relatable fact that Reeves effectively doesn’t exist when he’s out of WiFi range, but because the entire film is nature’s perfect self-trolling meme. I mean, an internet disease? People who REALLY need to get online? Encryption? Biohacking? Evil corporations? Endangered porpoises? The whole thing reads like the cover of yesterday’s New York Times, and I can’t help but think that it’s nothing more than the year 1995 pointing at us and laughing in our face like, “Look what you idiots did!” 

To be perfectly honest with you, I appreciate the scolding. Though, not nearly as much as I appreciate Reeves’ epic rant about how badly he wants room service. Anyone can stan for that. 

Mommie Dearest 

Brian Smith, Staff Writer: Every time Mitch McConnell outmaneuvers the Democrats, I think of Faye Dunaway’s line in Mommy Dearest after her character, Joan Crawford, repeatedly defeats her six-year-old daughter in a swimming race: “Nobody ever said life was fair, Tina. I’m bigger, and I’m faster. And I will always beat you.” Whether maniacally jogging through Brentwood, decapitating a rose garden with hedge clippers after being fired from MGM or beating her daughter with a wire hanger she discovers in her closet, I’m here for every white-faced, melodramatic and overacted moment. There’s a reason Dunaway’s Crawford is depicted so commonly among drag queens: It’s just so deliciously and unrelentingly bad. But just as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room was deemed “the Citizen Kane of bad movies,” Mommy Dearest is a masterpiece in unintended camp, savagely embraced by queer audiences since its release in 1981. “Tina, bring me the axe!!” Yes, mommie dearest. Every. Time. 

Batman & Robin

Brian VanHooker, Staff Writer: The conventional wisdom about the quality of the 1980s/1990s Batman films is that each film was successively worse than the last. While Prince’s weird “Batdance” badly dates the first film, it’s still regarded as the best of the series. While Batman Returns is still beloved, Danny DeVito’s sharp-toothed, fish-gobbling Penguin may have been a bit too bizarre. Batman Forever is rightfully panned, though some still have a fondness for Jim Carrey’s Riddler. The last film, Batman & Robin, is universally considered the worst, abandoning any of the supposed darkness of the Tim Burton aesthetic and replacing it with a campy, quippy style filled with bat-nipples and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze throwing out bad one-liners.

Now, I don’t wish to challenge the order of things, as I genuinely agree that Batman & Robin is horrible, but I contend that the film is absolutely watchable and — to take that even further — a joy to experience. See, while Batman Forever is near-unwatchable because it’s halfway in between Burton’s gothic style and Joel Schumacher’s brand of flash, Batman & Robin is fun because it fully embraces the Schumacher style.

Personally, I love every one of Schwarzenegger’s cornball puns and I find it hilarious that he spends his downtime smoking frozen cigars and watching Christmas movies. While Bane is nothing to write home about, Uma Thurman hams it up as Poison Ivy in delightful fashion. As for Batman’s sidekicks, both of them are fine and play well off of George Clooney’s Batman, who’s noticeably chummier than the two men who preceded him in the role. For all these reasons, I believe that Batman & Robin was actually a fine Batman film in the tradition of the 1960s Adam West series. Much like that old TV show, Batman & Robin takes a lighter approach to the Dark Knight, with a Batman who is more charming than brooding, villains that are deliberately cheesy and overdone and set pieces that are utterly ridiculous. 

To offer a specific example, I present to you this scene from Batman & Robin when the duo is in a rocket set to explode. To get to safety, they both surf down from the skies on metal surfboards. Is there any better way to honor Adam West’s Batman, who actually did surf in costume back in the old show? No, there isn’t, which is why I say that Batman & Robin is an utter delight, even if it is a heaping pile of shit.

The Saint 

Andrew Fiouzi, Staff Writer: For reasons that have everything to do with the fact that my dad left Iran in the 1980s to attend school in England and therefore soaked up British culture as though it was his own, I have watched and enjoyed more 1990s adaptations of classic British TV shows than most. When The Avengers with Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman and Sean Connery came out in 1998 we were there to see it in theaters. It was, despite its reviews, deeply enjoyable and entertaining. But no film has ever gripped my attention (and based on the reviews, my attention alone), more than the 1997 remake of the classic British TV show The Saint. Y’know, the one where Val Kilmer dresses up as an American spy who goes undercover as a Russian spy but also a Russian scientist and also a British scientist and then, of course, a South African(?) sad-boi artist. 

The plot of the story isn’t important, although I did learn from Wikipedia that unlike most action movies from the same era, Kilmer’s Saint refrained from killing his enemies. But again, that’s beside the point: This is the sort of movie that really accentuates an actor’s acting chops. Kilmer, to my seven-year-old self, seamlessly transformed into whichever character he needed to use as his disguise, to the point where just when you think you’ve figured out the true identity of his character, he reveals himself to be someone else entirely. Bravo, Val Kilmer. I didn’t much care for you as Batman, but as the Saint, you were and still are my hero. 

Little Nicky

Magdalene Taylor, Staff Writer: It’s extremely uncool to love Little Nicky, a problem that only grows worse with time. Portraying a disabled person as an able-bodied person for the sake of comedy is in pretty poor taste. But there is something irresistible to me about this Adam Sandler movie, regularly cited as one of his worst with only 22 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. 

For starters, it’s thematically and aesthetically rich, easily one of Sandler’s most imaginative movies, even if it lacks in originality. At its most basic level, the movie is about the battle between Good and Evil embodied in a literal battle between Heaven and Hell on Earth. That could be totally sanctimonious, but it’s not. It’s actually just completely stupid and fun, because the film relies too heavily upon cartoonish caricatures of these themes. For example, Hell literally looks like a Hot Topic store. Nicky’s room is lined with Korn and Black Sabbath posters, and Ozzy himself makes an appearance. The Devil is played by a weirdly sexy Harvey Keitel in crushed black velvet, and Quentin Tarantino cameos as a blind street preacher. Notably, there is also a talking bulldog named Mr. Beefy. 

Little Nicky is truly a trashy nu-metal fantasy. While I do not dream of New York City being swallowed up by Hell, I do somewhat wish I could stand in the street wearing a full-length bright red faux-fur coat, consuming Peppermint Schnapps and pizza as the city’s slogan becomes officially changed to “I Love Hookers.” Part of me understands, though, that my allegiance to this film isn’t entirely voluntary. I’ve been regularly watching Little Nicky since I was probably 5. Still, as we near its 20th anniversary, I continue to see it as a classic Sandler-style romantic comedy with a fun, goth element his other films don’t have. I won’t ride for the weird disability plot point or the uncomfortable themes of sexual assault as punishment in Hell, but I will ride for the P.O.D. and Deftones-filled soundtrack and idiotic jokes about the “Deep South.”

Mother!

Tim Grierson, Contributing Editor: I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you like something, even though lots of people don’t, then you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. No need to be apologetic, but you shouldn’t start acting like some brave truth-telling rebel, either. Sometimes you’re part of the consensus, and sometimes you’re not. That’s the way this whole thing works — that’s how you discover your own personal taste.

With that in mind, I decided to look at the list of movies that have received an F on CinemaScore, the polling service that asks opening-night viewers to grade the film they just saw. Getting an F is rare, but in theory, these are movies that people think are “terrible.” I could easily defend several of these films — Dr. T & the Women, Killing Them Softly and Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris remake are all great — but the obvious choice is Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, which received plenty of good reviews when it came out in 2017 but was nonetheless a commercial bomb and culturally derided. The consensus was Mother! was “pretentious” and “weird.” I loved it back then, and I love it now.

The film stars Jennifer Lawrence, who was dating Aronofsky at the time, as the titular mother. (The character doesn’t have a name, the sort of narrative device that can drive people crazy.) She and her husband, identified only as Him (Javier Bardem), have moved into a gorgeous home, which she spends time renovating while he suffers through writer’s block. (He’s a poet of some acclaim, apparently.) Suddenly, strange individuals start arriving — including an unnamed married couple (Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer) — but Bardem welcomes them like old friends, even though Lawrence has no idea who they are. Soon, more and more people appear, all of them celebrating Bardem, as Lawrence is pushed further and further into the background. Her job is to be the loyal wife and expectant mother — he gets to be an artist and enjoy a rich life.

Part psychological horror movie, part Biblical allegory, part ecological tale and part dissection of the myth of the male genius, Mother! is mostly a film of pure madness. Aronofsky, the man behind Black Swan and Pi, has a knack for conjuring feverish dreamstates on screen, and with his swirling camera (which is often close to Lawrence’s anxious face), we get the sense of a young woman who discovers that she’s a prisoner in this poet’s world. This is one of her very best performances, escalating the character’s terror and eventual defiance as she realizes that she’ll need to fend for herself in this surreal house. (At one point, the home inexplicably has enough space for a whole war-movie sequence.) She’s our anchor through this nightmare, and we see how she’s imperiled by this sexist, cruel ecosystem that the poet has built up around him. She’s “just” the wife: Why doesn’t she know her place?

Mother! deserves comparison to another great female-driven horror movie about motherhood and the patriarchy, Rosemary’s Baby, which similarly gave male viewers a glimpse of how terrifying and lonely pregnancy can be — how women are reduced to subservient baby-carriers and stripped of their humanity by the second trimester. Aronofsky takes those themes to dizzying extremes, and what he and Lawrence came up with was a suffocating, deeply disturbing thriller about how men destroy women. (If you also want to see the film as a metaphor for destroying “mother earth,” well, that works, too.) 

Plus, it’s fascinating that Aronofsky essentially made a movie with his girlfriend that argues that male artists are selfish creatures who think the world should cater to their every whim. That makes Mother! play as autobiography, too. If so, it’s a damning self-portrait — and one audiences rejected. Filled with some of the most upsetting images I’ve seen in a studio movie in years — what happens to their baby is a dealbreaker for a lot of people — Mother! is also one of the most visceral experiences I’ve had at the theater in recent times. 

Amusingly, Mother! has been playing on cable in the afternoons recently. I’m trying to imagine the poor unsuspecting viewer who stumbles onto that and figures, “Oh, I like Jennifer Lawrence, I ought to give this a try.” Be warned: This is a challenging, thought-provoking horror movie that will definitely get into your head. Mother! isn’t for all tastes — that’s part of its greatness — but if you’re willing to meet it halfway, it’s a film like no other. 

Another person’s “terrible” may very well be an exhilarating mindbender for you.

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