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There is Nothing Guilty About Finding Pleasure in a Movie


The longer that I've reviewed and written about movies, the more I've grown to detest the term 'guilty pleasure.'

We like a movie, or we don't. A movie connects with us, or it falls flat. We like elements about a movie but not fully get into everything to find ourselves on a proverbial fence. But we should never feel guilt or shame about our opinion on a movie.

I have read professional critics say a movie is not good or is derivative or badly made, and they would never recommend it, but they find themselves rewatching it or that they secretly like it. Or they claim this is a movie that they feel only they like and so, they bury it deep.

That is stupid.

If one finds they rewatch a movie or continue to get joy from it, then one likes it and should recommend it. Maybe even concede that they love it, and it is one of the best movies ever. Why rob others the chance for joy, pleasure, and happiness because of a foolish fear that their audience may not share the same feelings. A movie critic should be braver and more in tune with their convictions to not worry if others may reject a lone recommendation because it had a low Rotten Tomatoes score or the consensus is that it is a bad movie.

Blah to Rotten Tomatoes and critical consensus. 

One should like the things that immerses them, pleases them, moves them, and gives them joy. They should be open about the movies that push them to rewatch it no matter what other critics said or that it doesn't fit under some arbitrary declaration of what qualifies as a good movie. If a movie feels deeply personal and only for them to like, then it is more crucial to be honest and champion it, because it has a piece of our soul.

I have wrote in the past that when it comes to art (which movies obviously fit), I don't think there really is a difference between a favourite movie and a great movie. Art is subjective, and so its value comes from how it speaks to the viewer, reader, or listener. 

A movie critic's value is not that they are some magical mystic that summon upon us the movies that can be deemed great and good, but rather it comes from their knowledge and extensive amount of movie watching that they should be able to communicate why a movie worked for them, and then of course, the hope it leads readers or listeners to experiencing that movie with the chance they can share that magic. A properly constructed review should give a reader or listener a good idea of what worked about a movie and if it could work for them no matter what star rating was bestowed.

Sometimes a critic or movie goer is confronted with a movie that could be formulaic or derivative, a movie with shoddy special effects or poor cinematography, performances that cause eyes to roll to the back of the end, or various other glaring flaws, but find that experience was a pure pleasure. My argument is that obviously there had to be something that elevated the movie for the viewer, and they should not run away from such an experience. They should embrace it and share it. Or least not diminish the movie by putting it in a ridiculous category like 'guilty pleasure.' It is pure pleasure, and we need to have the guts to admit that.

My challenge to those that review movies, it is their task to try to solve why such a movie soared despite all its possible deficiencies. A critic must champion the picture for its clear positives even if it is currently swimming around with an 8% on Rotten Tomatoes and has made the majority of worst movie ever lists. Who cares? Those things are all subjective, and a critics job is to dig into a work and explore it, and there they can find what makes it shine.

This is why I will often point out that Rotten Tomatoes and a star rating doesn't in any way define the value of a picture. Rotten Tomatoes is not a score, but rather the percentage of certified critics that recommended a movie, which as I often note, could have just mildly recommended (or on the other hand, just mildly did not recommend). 

A star rating should not really be seen as a score or some objective grade either. A star rating is nothing more than a critic showing a scale to their emotional response to a movie. A critic watches a Jean-Claude Van Damme action movie that far exceeds their expectations and they had 90 minutes of pure joy, so they give it four out of four stars. Is it a movie that should be discussed among The Godfather and Citizen Kane? Probably not. But a star rating is not a movie passing a checklist of criteria to be good that when it gets every box checked that it is now considered four out of four stars. That is silly. Star ratings is just a gut response based off the expectations for the movie and all the different things like belief, feelings, company, and emotions that one brings with them everywhere. 

This is why a reader or listener should never just look at a star rating. It means nothing on its own. They need to go on the journey with the critic who explores their own experience with the picture and delves into how the movie interacted with them. A good critic should write about the form, process, technical aspects, and demonstrate some knowledge of filmmaking, but while all of that is helpful in dissecting why a movie may have worked, in the end they need to be honest about their personal reaction with the work.

The more one learns about filmmaking or the more they watch various types of pictures, and they learn more about the technical aspects and the decisions behind filmmaking then the more their tastes will likely lean towards pictures that demonstrate mastery of the form. But sometimes it doesn't turn out that way, and it is the duty of a critic or a movie goer to be honest when many things fail but a movie still soars in their heart. And they definitely should not just pass it off as some secret shame they keep bottled up and only watch when the family is gone for the weekend.

I recently watched 1987's Masters of the Universe with Everett. I was not happy when I saw it as a He-Man fanatic in the theatre with my dad way back in 1987, I was annoyed that it outright ignored canon and left out major characters from the toyline and cartoon. It was nothing like the He-Man and Masters of the Universe that I loved so much that I had countless toys based on it, watched every episode of the cartoon, was part of a He-Man fan club, and subscribed to the official magazine. The movie was not a faithful adaptation, and so, it makes sense why the younger version of me came out disappointed.

Despite that disdain, I remember rewatching it several times after it left theatres and came to premium cable. I don't think I ever confessed to liking it, yet here I was blocking out some time to return to the world. It was likely a case that any He-Man live action adventure was better than no He-Man live-action adventure.

I have stuck with the stance that Masters of the Universe is a bad movie for several decades now. I have a Rotten Tomatoes score and several critical pannings to back me up. Plus, the movie has a lot of flaws including the cost-cutting decision to keep most of the movie on Earth rather than Eternia, being very derivative of past popular sci-fi works, having some pretty cringe-worthy acting with dialogue to match, and a story that is best described as predictable. Most great movies are not made from such things to be sure. 

It has been decades since I watched the movie, and Everett has been showing interest in discovering the things that I liked as a kid, which means I have showed him the many toys and castles that I owned as part of my Masters of the Universe fandom. He really wanted to see the movie, and I felt 30 years distance from that initial trauma was enough time to revisit what had to be a very bad movie.

Right at the start of the movie, Everett remarked that the musical score and introduction seemed heavily inspired by Star Wars. Inspired may be too nice of a word. It wasn't much longer that Everett remarked that Skeletor's soldiers sure reminded him of Darth Vader colliding with Stormtroopers. Or that Skeletor seemed to have the powers of the Emperor. Without outright ever saying it, Everett was sorting out that this movie was mining many things from one of the most successful movies of all-time. As the movie went on, it was very clear it took many things from Star Wars. and many other more successful sci-fi and adventure movies.

Here is the thing. He-Man was initially just a knock-off of Conan the Barbarian. And as much as I love Star Wars, it is extremely derivative of many things including Akira Kurosawa movies, Flash Gordon, and John Carter. The major difference is that John Carter and Flash Gordon were several decades old by the time Star Wars came around, and so, now it was declared homage rather than rip-off.

While I watched Masters of the Universe 35 years after its release, I find the derivative aspects of the movie charming now. It makes me smile, and it is a feature rather than a bug. And while the transporting to Earth for much of the movie rather than exploring an interesting magical planet is a bummer, I am also now well-aware that the filmmakers where battling against being funded by B-movie and low budget film studio, Cannon. Based off that, I was actually impressed how well most of the special effects hold-up. While it doesn't have the army of cool monsters like Star Wars or the Masters of the Universe toyline, a few of the creature designs are masterfully crafted and even the sets while sparse, still are created with personality.

That is what I realized while watching this movie with painfully stiff lead Dolph Lundgren and a hook of Earthling teenage girl who just lost her parents to a plane crash in one of the most glaring 1980s tropes, this picture has personality. Billy Barty was charming as the gnomish inventor, Gwildor. Frank Langella is playing Skeletor so over the top and with so much joy that he deserves a retroactive Oscar (the story is his 4-year-old loved Skeletor, so big star Langella really wanted the part and loved playing it). Courtney Cox proved why she would become a star, as she is charming and likable, even if I don't want teenagers in my He-Man. The picture seems to have always been aware it is silly but does it without any shame or parody, and mostly just daring to be a fun little romp. For its budget and the fact most passed it off as a feature length ad for more toys, it is a very ambitious pictures, and it is often that ambition that wins me over on movies that I'm supposed to declare as bad.

Plus, one of the biggest negatives as a kid was that it wasn't faithful to the source material. Now, that it has been 35 years and I am well-aware of that fact, I can enjoy it as a campy little space adventure. One that has a post credit scene many decades before Marvel, so you could even say it reshaped cinema. Or maybe not. Still waiting on that promised sequel though.

The same experience of liking a many decade-old movie that was derided for being derivative was when I finally got around to watching Starcrash a few years ago. I was well-aware it was a knock-off of Star Wars, and at times, it is quite jarring how much it leans in on that successful movie. It also has a very low budget with special effects that showcase that fact, and the story is a 'dogs got into the diaper bin' mess. But it charmed me. Despite its budget, it tried to create several worlds and a bunch of different characters, and it is really well-paced as it blows through its adventure. In both movies, I wouldn't say good acting is displayed, but it is performances that add to the charm of the movie.

So, I'd recommend them, even though some critics would say it should be under a 'guilty pleasure' label. Or should make it clear that I know its bad, and this is a tongue-in-check endorsement.

Nah.

I recommend what I like. and I liked my experience with the movies. It is just my job to sort out why did this derivative and low budget picture hit a sweet spot, when many others of the same type did not. For me it is often what I interpret as a true sign of ambition and a movie that despite all flaws can still have its charm and personality shine. 

My favourite end of the year lists are when I see movies like Wish Upon or Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City make the top ten (yes, I picked two movies that ended up on a critics Best of the Year), because I know this critic is being honest with how a movie spoke to them. They are creating a list without shame, and more importantly, a list that is personal to them. I don't care about writing reviews or making top tens to validate other people's opinions, or to see if my tastes match the critical consensus. Such things are futile and useless. The fun is when one dares to champion something like a Gods of Egypt or The Strangers: Prey at Night, because now we may be willing to give a critically panned movie a watch or give it a second chance.

One of the major lessons that I've learned as a critic is feelings for a movie can change. I probably would have hated Starcrash when it first came out, because it would have been so close to the original release of Star Wars. Decades later such derivative aspects are endearing and fun, just like how some movies in the 1980s may now age much better due to practical effects or being part of a genre that was popular then but rare now. Times change our views of a picture. We must always be open to liking a movie as we grow and change in time, and our own expectations shift.

Don't rob a movie of its true magic by labelling it a 'guilty pleasure.' Just like it for it what it is; something that deeply entertained us in its own way.

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