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Criticwire Survey: Right the First Time

It seems like every day there's some once-derided movie being hailed as a misunderstood classic. But what about movies that were terrible then are are terrible now?
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Showgirls

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: It's starting to seem, with only a little exaggeration, that if you wait long enough, eventually every once-derided movie will be proclaimed a misunderstood masterpiece. (See, among other examples, "Showgirls" or the my-neighbor's-a-porn-star comedy "The Girl Next Door.") But surely there must be cases where critics and conventional wisdom got it right the first time around, and the movie everyone thought was terrible is still terrible. What's a case where you find yourself defending history's first draft against people who want to revise the record?

Greg Cwik, Wall St. Cheat Sheet, Indiewire

I'm going to eschew films that are so bad they're good, like "Battlefield Earth" and"Troll 2" and the "Wicker Man" remake, which remains outrageously fun, if only for Nicolas Cage being enveloped by bees and abusing women. I've heard a few critic-friends vehemently defend "Vanilla Sky" recently, and I hope this is a series of coincidental isolated contrarian outbursts, because a mass reevaluation of that movie, and the subsequent subtweet war that would surely ensue, would kill me. It's painfully bad, and I've watched it three different times, trying to understand how a movie with such an eerily beautiful opening (a people-purged Times Square and Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place") and a fantastically unhinged performance from Cameron Diaz could be so unbearable. It's as if Crowe filmed three separate films with three separate audiences in mind and suddenly realized, "Oh shit, I have to put these together to make one coherent thing." And, unlike John Lennon circa "Happiness is a Warm Gun," Crowe wasn't up to the challenge. Following in the wake of Cruise's self-vivisecting turns in "Magnolia" and "Eyes Wide Shut," "Vanilla Sky" is suffused with ambition but its jarring tonal fluctuations render the film insufferable. 

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second

The film maudit is one of my most keenly observed areas of cinema. In the last 12 months alone I've fallen for and written passionately of a love for "Only God Forgives," "The Lone Ranger" and "The Canyons" (which made my top 5 of the year), while I rank the likes of "One From the Heart," "Heaven's Gate" and the grandaddy of this curious phenomenon, "Lola Montes" amongst my very favorite films. That said, I've never seen what others seem to see in Paul Verhoeven's "Showgirls," the reappraisal of which even I find baffling. 

Carrie Rickey, the Philadelphia Inquirer

There's that great John Huston line in "Chinatown" that goes something to the effect, "Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough." To that list you may add movies that flopped. A movie I didn't get the first time around -- and still don't -- that gets increasing respect with age is "Heaven's Gate." It's a beautifully shot, class-conscious Western that hammers the audience over the head with its theme that Ivy-League educated land and cattle barons exploit the immigrant underclass. All this and a skating rink, too.

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

What drives me crazy is when people assume that the reason a movie was derided the first time around is that people just didn't understand it. The prime example: "Heaven's Gate." I do understand that it's a revisionist western, and I like that it's trying to demythologize. But that doesn't mean I want to see Kris Kristofferson dancing around in fucking roller skates for minutes on end. "Heaven's Gate" doesn't suck because of a lack of ideas. It sucks because it's super self-indulgent and needs a decent editor.

Sean Chavel, FlickMinute

"Heaven's Gate" from 1981 is a lumbering bore with no flow. Don't listen to the revisionist opinions. You're wasting your time not seeing a real worthwhile film.

Richard Brody, the New Yorker

In the age of all-availability for those who know where to look, the most paradoxical reevaluation is of classic-age Hollywood overall. What came to life as a love of the art of directors who worked within the studio system has largely morphed into a fetishism of studio styles as such, its main signs being a fascination with actors, a close focus on the minutiae of studio business, and a celebration of any directorial identifying marks at all. Auteurism started as the recognition of vast inspiration packaged in commercial formats; as the availability of revivals expanded, it academicized itself to taxonomizing any degree of directorial personality at all; today's neo-classicism often involves seeing past mediocre direction to the far greater personalities of stars and then ascribing a modicum of those merits back to the journeyman directors in their service. If the recognition of great artists in the business had to fight upstream against the daily distortions in a nationwide company town, when Hollywood seemed, as Norman Mailer wrote, like "a mother-in-law's mother-in-law," now the love of the old involves those who (like me) had no experience of a monolithic ballyhooey Hollywood in the age before the independents were around both to counterbalance and to reinvigorate it. Even the mediocrities of yore are adored because nothing new will ever be mediocre the same way again. What started as a love of the exception has become a love of the rule -- with all that this implies. So what's the problem? The more love, the better, no? Except that the rampant devotion to old styles is a built-in counter-taste against the truly new, a bulwark of condescension by the knowledgeable against the original, if not simply by the older against the younger. Where partisans of the earlier arts formerly condescended to the cinema, partisans of the earlier cinema, nostalgic for what they never experienced, condescend to the contemporary except in its most conservative forms, to the modern. I'm reminded of a passage from Joseph Heller's "Good as Gold": "...Gold's father would move after dinner to the television set in whatever home he had decided to be driven to that evening and begin watching old movies with the energetic vigilance of a custodian of dead souls."

John DeCarli, FilmCapsule.com

There will always be an ebb and flow to critical opinion reacting against itself. We see it every year, with hyperbole, backlash, and backlash to the backlash. Still, I think this influence can be helpful and instructive to the prevailing views of the time. It only seems strange when they fluctuate so wildly even in just a year. Since the question mentioned it, I'll say that critics got "Showgirls" right the first time. I'm a big Verhoeven fan, but I still don't see "Showgirls" as scathing satire so much as over-the-top camp, which would be fine if it weren't tedious and overlong, as well as flippant and mean-spirited. Depicting despicable behavior isn't the same as condoning it, sure, but it doesn't automatically equate to commentary either.

Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture, RogerEbert.com

"Top Gun" was terrible when it came out and it's still terrible. Every time somebody online tries to stick up for it as some sort of American pop classic, I just roll my eyes. It's a burp from the Reagan era, no more worthy of serious consideration than "Rambo: First Blood Part II."

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

You're asking this question to the guy who thinks we need a critical reappraisal of both "Pootie Tang" and "Howard the Duck," so take my answer with a grain of salt. I'm always astonished to hear people defending "Starship Troopers." When it first came out in 1997, I gave the film a very negative review, as did many other critics. The whole thing seemed overwrought, stupid, and not half as clever as it thought it was. Since that time, a cult following has sprung up around it. I keep hearing phrases like "brilliant satire" used to describe it. If that's what passes for brilliant satire, I don't want to know what awful satire looks like. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to see "Starship Troopers" again on the big screen, at a RiffTrax screening. For about five minutes, I thought that perhaps I'd been wrong all those years ago. Nope! The movie digressed into the same obnoxiousness that turned me off in the first place. Hearing the RiffTrax guys incessantly mock it was the only thing that kept me in my seat. "Starship Troopers" is, was, and always will be a work of cinematic insipidness. Oh, and "The Boondock Saints" is probably the ultimate answer to this question, but it seemed so obvious that I opted to pick something else instead.

Kenji Fujishima, Slant Magazine, In Review Online

Is it too early in the historical record to answer this question with last year's "The Counselor"? Actually, I'm far from a hater of this Ridley Scott/Cormac McCarthy collaboration that already had critics within, like, a week of its general opening-weekend thrashing proclaiming it to be some kind of misunderstood masterpiece. I had a perfectly enjoyable time watching the film (Cameron Diaz's mediocrity aside), but... well, maybe it's my allergy to McCarthy's brand of hopeless cynicism, but I have yet to read a defense that convinces me that "The Counselor" is actually worth taking seriously beyond its occasionally delicious perversity. In other words, it's totally fine, but I can take it or leave it. Maybe the extended cut will turn me around?

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com

In light of Fernando Meirelles' divisive "The Constant Gardener" and the universally-derided 360 and "Blindness," many were tempted to go back and say "City of God" was actually bad, but anyone unable to resist that temptation will meet with strong words from this quarter because a) "City of God" is amazing, and b) the lesson to be learned from Meirelles' subsequently underwhelming output might be that his co-director Katia Lund is the one who should get the authorial credit for "City of God" being so good. Because it is. Maybe it was the synergy of the two of them working together, maybe the story, actors, and so forth were just good. Whatever the case, we were all right about it being one of the best movies of 2002 and the '00s in general.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

As someone who loved "The Girl Next Door" when it first came out, sometimes I find myself on the defensive early on, but one film that I really hope stays just an incredibly bad one and nothing more is "Movie 43." I break out into hives at the mere thought of a piece asking us to reconsider that one. My initial reaction after having sat through it says it all. I sent out this missive to my various social media profiles: "Movie 43" has convinced me that either there is no god (since nothing this bad should ever be allowed) or that there must be one and that this is some sort of punishment. I just can't decide which. Hopefully we can avoid this one developing some sort of a second life.

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

With all due deference to 4/20, "Reefer Madness" is still a really bad movie. 

Edwin Arnaudin, Asheville Citizen-Times, Ashvegas

Well, this response is going to undo the goodwill of my "there are no wrong opinions" message a few weeks ago, but I'll bite. A lot of the modern terrible movies came out before I was writing reviews, so I relied on critics to steer my wallet away from the duds and have since not felt moved to give "Battlefield Earth" or "Gigli" a try. I've also had the good fortune of not keeping company with loonies who champion the failures I have seen, so no, I don't have an entertaining argument to share in this regard. I have, however, seen folks on Twitter and Facebook defending "Southland Tales" and "Elizabethtown" several times, but in each instance found it best not to argue with the mentally unstable.

Ethan Alter, Film Journal International

In the more recent past, I'd cite last summer's "The Lone Ranger" misfire, an ungainly, bombastic attempt to revive a dormant character that was correctly greeted with a collective shrug by the masses even as a small posse of defenders courageously sang its praises. Venturing back a bit further, although I've read some very persuasive arguments for the merits of "The Cable Guy" over the years, I've never been able to sit through the entirety of it again since my first viewing in a near-empty theater opening weekend, summer 1996. Jim Carrey's great in it, but Ben Stiller's amped-up direction overwhelms the comedy and Matthew Broderick's awkward, grating presence feels like less of a performance choice than a personality clash. It's a shame because the movie that "Cable Guy" fans lionize is right up my alley -- but the movie that I actually see turns wearisome before it hits the 30-minute mark. 

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News. 

"The Room." It was bad when it came out and it's still awful. But that's why we love it. Folks seem to jump on the bandwagon but no one has ever said it's any good. Oh, Hi, Tommy. 

John Keefer, 51 Deep

I can't think of any recent examples where I had to keep punching a person to get them to admit that, no, "Hellraiser 3" is not a forgotten classic or secret masterpiece, but I do see these pieces cropping up more and more and frankly I don't like them. I blame sleepless nights, recreational drug-use and fast-approaching deadlines. In this dreamy haze the young critic may catch the last twenty minutes of a movie on HBO and get an idea for an article, maybe even the angle they will take on it. They then will themselves to scribble something down about the critique of meritocracy present in "America's Sweethearts" before falling back asleep. Upon waking they convince themselves that, no, this is relevant and it needs to be taken to the people! Or it's a stab at being the first to recognize hidden genius and thus receive the praise of the faithful. It's a fake incite, an ironic yet not ironic take, it's clickbait in place of returning to a work for legitimate reasons or to shed light where once there was only darkness. Or it could be something far worse. The next time you see one of these articles look up the age of the writer. If they were between the ages of 7-12 when the film was released, or would have been playing on HBO, it's purely driven by nostalgia and should be dismissed immediately as a cry for help. Everyone gets older, it's okay. We all die. It's okay. "Hellraiser 3" was lousy, but at least it was better than "Hellraiser 4." Adam Scott is in "Hellraiser 4" and he has a really silly ponytail. Just look at his silly ponytail. Feel better now? Okay good, now stay inside and watch an Ozu film and everything will be better. I promise.

Josh Spiegel, Sound on Sight

Outside of the few movies that everyone still seems to agree are the worst (like, say, "Gigli"), I'd probably go with "Hocus Pocus." (I was tempted to say "Hook," but I'd be lying if I said I think it's outright terrible; it's very close, but there are a few aspects of the film I genuinely like amidst an otherwise turgid and overlong modernized fairy tale.) A couple of years ago, for the first time in nearly two decades, I ended up watching "Hocus Pocus" with my wife, who enjoys the film, and was genuinely aghast at exactly how obnoxious, unfunny, and generally terrible it is. And yet, in the last few years, a lot of people in my generation -- I was almost 9 when the movie opened in the summer of 1993, a release date that makes tons of sense seeing as the story is set at Halloween -- have argued that it's secretly a lot of fun and full of wit and charm, and no thank you. I could maybe accept the film as a campy, so-bad-it's-good experience, but I get the feeling that some (though perhaps not all) of "Hocus Pocus'" fans enjoy it sincerely, and that it was created without its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. To which I say, again, no thank you. 

Alan Zilberman, Brightest Young Things, Tiny Mix Tapes

This might be obvious, but the Star Wars sequels deserve the original scorn they received ("The Phantom Menace" in particular). I respect Topher Grace's attempt to streamline the prequels into one good film, but there's no point in saving them. The dialogue is that bad.

Under the Skin

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: "Under the Skin"

Other movies receiving multiple votes: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

This article is related to: Criticwire Survey


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