Author Archives: Alex Good

Rawhead Rex (1986)

*. “Cheesy” is a word that gets used a lot when people talk about bad movies. And more so with movies than when discussing books or other works of art. But what does it mean?
*. The Oxford English Dictionary labels it slang and offers as a definition “inferior, second-rate, cheap and nasty.” To this I think I’d want to add that, like cheese, people like it. Even though you know it’s crap that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. Also like cheese, it ages well. For some reason, cheese made in the 1980s seems to taste better today than it did thirty years ago.
*. Rawhead Rex is a cheesy horror flick. It’s very bad. Some people consider it one of the worst horror films of the 1980s, which is high praise indeed (and it’s usually meant as praise). It is also a lot of fun.
*. The keynote is the monster Rawhead. The movie opts to show him to us in all his glory as soon as he’s raised from his burial pit at the beginning, not bothering with the suspense of a slow reveal. And he is laughable: a big guy with a stupid, immobile rubber orc mask that has hypnotic red Christmas-tree lights in its eyes. He is, in other words, a total block of cheese.
*. The rest of the movie is just as terrible. Incompetence is demonstrated in every department of the film’s making: wrong-footed editing, terrible sound, stiff acting, and a ludicrous script. And then there are moments of sheer bad-movie hilarity, like the “baptism” in the graveyard (I won’t give this away) and pretty much the entire last ten minutes, which is capped with a predictably nutty final shot.
*. It’s loosely based on a Clive Barker short story and he also wrote the script. Perhaps the one good thing that can be said for Rawhead Rex then is that Barker hated it so much he insisted on making Hellraiser himself.
*. So definitely inferior, second-rate, cheap, and nasty. But also fun. Not a movie you’ll want to watch more than once, but well worth checking out sometime if you get the chance.

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Quiz the seventy-first: Where in the world? (Part one)

In previous quizzes I’ve given you the when, and sometimes the when and the where. This week, however, all you have to go on is your knowledge of film geography. So get out your movie GPS and see if you can track down the following, not always precise, locations.

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His Kind of Woman (1951)

*. A lot of movies have complicated back stories. Some are as interesting as the films themselves. But while of interest to film historians and other odd sorts, the story behind the making of a particular movie isn’t always that significant when relating it to the movie itself. Does it matter who directed The Thing from Another World? Or Gone with the Wind?
*. His Kind of Woman is a movie with just such a muddled biography, and I think its origins are relevant to any discussion of it. The credited director is John Farrow (Mia’s father) but Richard Fleischer was called in to shoot a lot of new material, including the entire final third of the picture. The reason this is important is because it’s clear from a first viewing that His Kind of Woman is two movies. Or really, as Vivian Sobchack puts it on the DVD commentary, it’s a “very strange blend of a number of things.”
*. It was a strange mix not just because of the two directors, but also because of the assistance/meddling of producer Howard Hughes. Hughes was the one calling the shots on the reshoot, and rewriting parts of the script. He also called for the recasting of the Nick Ferraro character, replacing Lee Van Cleef with Raymond Burr even after Fleischer had finished filming.
*. As you might expect given such a production the script comes apart at the seams. There’s some great dialogue — snappy lines and sultry double entendres — but it’s a hopeless mess of a story. At two hours it’s a very long noir, and it is so because it’s got a lot of stuff thrown in that’s kind of pointless. Sobchack mentions the plane landing in the storm as not advancing the plot and being “a somewhat extraneous” element. But Hughes liked planes, so.
*. There are also too many characters introduced, not all of them important. Jim Backus is always fun to watch, but Winton isn’t connected to anything here. Nor are the newlyweds, though they all get together in a fun card game where Milner plays the hero.
*. Perhaps chief among these superfluous, however, is Jane Russell’s Lenore. What is she doing here? She isn’t a femme fatale (Sobchack only refers to her as “a femme fatale, but hardly”). She has no relation to the Ferrrao plot. I wasn’t even entirely sure what she was doing at the lodge in the first place. Seducing the married Cardigan seems like a long shot, and when she gets to the lodge she doesn’t seem interested in him at all (or he in her). It’s shameful the way she’s tossed in a closet for the entire final act of the picture (“This is man’s work! Women are for weeping!”), but even worse is the fact that I didn’t miss her.
*. As for Russell herself, it’s hard not to seem reductive. David Thomson thought her “no actress . . . but dryly skeptical and physically glorious.” By dryly skeptical he may be referring to the fact that she rarely smiles, preferring to curl her lip back in what looks like a sneer, even at the most inappropriate moments (look at her after her first kiss with Mitchum, or upon discovering Lusk’s body). As for “physically glorious,” that can only refer to her décolleté. I guess ever since The Outlaw, which is to say the beginning, this is what she was known for. And it’s certainly what gets put on display here.

*. When Vincent Price shoves Russell in the closet you know he’s taken over the film. Is that a bad thing? He’s a lot of fun and gets to do the sort of Shakespearean camp that he’d still be reciting over twenty years later in Theater of Blood. He also relives the Ernest Hemingway story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” while quoting from it. He’s a literate ham.
*. The difficulty with all the Price stuff is that it’s slapstick farce, and farce is an odd combination, especially when it’s directly intercut, with brutal violence. A very strange blend indeed, and I can’t say it works that well. The stuff with Mitchum being beaten and threatened with the needle is dragged out to a ridiculous length just to give Price more gags to play with, like the sinking of his boat (an expensive folly that Hughes insisted on).
*. According to Sobchack one of the scenes that Hughes took a personal interest in rewriting was the business with the doctor and his needle. I wonder why, since none of it struck me as being very scientific. In fact, I’m not sure how the identity switch was supposed to work. It sounds almost as though what is being proposed is a sort of face transplant, not just plastic surgery to make Burr look more like Mitchum. Why else keep Mitchum alive? But since the whole idea is nuts to begin with — wouldn’t it be easier just to set Ferraro up with some fake ID? — there may be no point in pursuing this.
*. With a little bit of everything and not too much of anything this is a movie that’s easy to like but hard to rate critically. Leonard Maltin saw it as a precursor to Beat the Devil for its send-up of masculinity, but that seems to me to only be part of it. Perhaps the biggest difference is that John Huston seems to have thought of his film as a joke right from the start and His Kind of Woman didn’t at least start out that way. Beat the Devil was deliberate chaos. His Kind of Woman is more of an accident. Or a train wreck. Either way it’s fun to rubberneck.

Swordfish (2001)

*. Swordfish is a stupid movie about (supposedly) smart people.
*. John Travolta plays Gabriel, a criminal mastermind. He employs genius hackers like Hugh Jackman’s Stanley (who boasts of a preternatural ability “to see the code in my head, I can’t explain it”). You’d think that with conspirators like these there would be something very clever afoot, but as far as I can tell the only thing going on is a plot to break into a bank’s computer and transfer $9.5 billion into a secret account in Monte Carlo. That’s it. I don’t understand how they were going to get away with it aside from the fact that it all had to do with computers and you can (or at least could in 2001) do anything with computers.
*. Or take the scene where a pair of Gabriel’s henchmen simply walk into the police station and kill the Finnish computer hacker and his lawyer in the interrogation room. On the DVD commentary director Dominic Sena says that he thought that having the thugs just barging into the police station and shooting the two men “wasn’t smart enough.” So he added something “you weren’t expecting,” which is that they get Cheadle’s character out of the interrogation room by way of a prank call and then shoot their victims through the one-way mirror. This made them seem smarter? Really? Does such a laughably improbable hit qualify as smart?
*. So, no, this is not a smart movie. This is a movie where the women are all crazy sexy and cars crash into things and blow up. I mean, a lot of cars blow up. And Halle Berry is served up like a piece of meat. Berry is a very sexy woman, and I have nothing against a bit of cheesecake, but she’s also a good actor and she’s just put on display here for no other reason except to be ogled. She deserved better treatment. It was reported, however, that she was paid $500,000 just to take her top off for her sunbathing scene.
*. Why even bother introducing the character of the senator (Sam Shepard)? I wasn’t sure what his role was in all of this. Sena: “something covert is going on and we just leave it at that.” In the end Travolta has to kill him and all of his henchmen off in the middle act just to get rid of them.
*. Originally Agent Roberts (Don Cheadle) was going to be killed halfway through the movie too. Sena had to argue to keep him in, though to no good purpose. He’s just there to run along behind the action, showing up a bit too late to all the parties.

*. Why is Ginger wearing a wire anyway? I think the point was that it was all a deliberate misdirection of Stanley. But this is another part of the script that really doesn’t stand much looking into. Like how she gets roped into the game of fooling Stanley at the end with her mock-hanging and fake death. How did they know in advance to have that whole bit of theatre ready to go?
*. There were several different or alternate endings included with the DVD. This is usually a bad sign, suggesting an awareness on someone’s part that what they had just wasn’t working. I can see why. I understand they didn’t want the sort of conventional happy ending that Gabriel mocks at the beginning of the film. Plus Sena wanted to show how smart Gabriel is by getting away with it. But the moral calculus is never made clear.
*. I want to be careful what I’m saying here. I have nothing against a heist movie where the bad guys get away. What I object to is a movie where the motivations and morality of the characters remain so opaque.
*. Sena remarks on the commentary that “Travolta is one of the few actors I think who can actually play this sort of disgusting, reprehensible, evil, villainous character and you still like him.” But should we? I mean, he does kill innocent people. A lot of them. But Sera wanted the ending to make it clear that Gabriel truly is a patriot because there isn’t “a glimmer” of this in the rest of the movie. It seems to me that this is leaving things till rather late in the day.
*. Roger Ebert, who is usually a pretty good stand-in for the opinions of the common man (albeit one with a solid understanding of the art and the industry), began his review noting this confusion: “Swordfish looks like the result of a nasty explosion down at the Plot Works. It’s skillfully mounted and fitfully intriguing, but weaves such a tangled web that at the end I defy anyone in the audience to explain the exact loyalties and motives of the leading characters. There is one person in the movie who is definitely intended to be a hero, but are the villains really villains? Are they even themselves?”
*. Personally, I felt confused by all of the endings. I didn’t really know what Gabriel was up to (was he still working for the government or was he a freelancer?) or why. He just seemed to me like a cocky jerk. Not smart, just arrogant and unaccountably rich. Again: I don’t mind that a heel gets away with it at the end, I’m just unsure of whether or not he was supposed to be a heel. It seems a stretch for me to see him as a hero, even if he is a patriot (which also seems dubious).
*. The car crashes and explosions are really good. It’s about the only positive note I made while I was watching the movie. Apparently I was not alone in being impressed by the fireworks. Producer Joel Silver told Sena that the car blowing up in the parking garage was the best explosion he’d ever seen (and he’d seen a lot). So give credit where it’s due. And the bus flying above the streets of L.A. was spectacular. Aside from that it’s all pretty dumb, and not quite as much fun as it should be.

The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger (2010)

*. I might as well begin with the end credits, where the producer is described as a “fancy burger lover” while the director, Bill Plympton, is (only) a “burger lover.”
*. Why is this significant, or necessary to say? I think because it’s easy to see The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger as being, among other things, an argument for vegetarianism. Cartoon cattle frolicking in an idyllic rural environment are rounded up and taken to the slaughterhouse, where they are shocked onto a conveyor belt and duly fed into the familiar (indeed iconic) meatgrinder, coming out hamburger. It’s a voyage from heaven to hell, told in a conventional idiom, and one wouldn’t expect it to come from a pair of burger lovers.
*. But while that’s one reading of the film, the credits would seem to suggest that it’s really about something else. What that something else is appears to be a message about the effect of advertising on body image. The calf in the pasture sees a burger billboard and wants to attain the status of a pure object of desire: literally, a piece of meat. So she becomes a workout warrior and bulks up and is finally chosen to be America’s Next Meal. One should be careful what one wishes for. Our goals may be self-destructive.
*. That’s a simple enough idea, and I don’t think this is a complicated film. For a “Plymptoon” its style is a little surprising, being rendered in enamel-like primary colours with thick if trembling outlines around the figures. This is not what you expect a Bill Plympton cartoon to look like. It made me think of a children’s book, with the various characters and objects being like plastic shapes that you could reach out and play with on the page/screen. Why this particular look for this particular film? Perhaps to highlight the incongruity. Body image and the meat industry are actually serious, painful subjects. But here they are presented in a fanciful, playschool kind of way.
*. I think that does undercut the message though. At the end of the day this is a playful bit of fluff without anything very serious to say, something that is underlined by those end credits. Cartoons can be serious stuff. (See, for example, Call of Cuteness, which is an animated short dealing with similar themes.) But this film isn’t. That doesn’t make it bad, just not as interesting as it might have been.

Soylent Green (1973)

*. Author Harry Harrison had no input into the screenplay developed out of his novel Make Room! Make Room! but later said he was “fifty percent” pleased with the film.
*. I wonder which fifty percent he meant. The movie doesn’t take much from the book aside from the general setting — an overpopulated NYC, now pushed back to 2022 instead of 1999 — and the central character being a police investigator. The plot starts off kind of similar with a murder in a rich estate, but from there is spins off in an entirely different direction. Note how in the end credits it’s just said to be based on “a novel” by Harry Harrison. They don’t even give the title.
*. None of the most memorable parts of the movie appear in the book. In the book: (1) there are no “scoops” clearing the streets of people; (2) Sol doesn’t kill himself by checking into a euthanasia clinic; (3) Shirl is a kept woman, but not “furniture,” and (4) Soylent Green isn’t people. Indeed, in the novel the product is only mentioned once as I recall.
*. The priest is a new addition too. I guess he’s had a breakdown, as he doesn’t seem to be all there.
*. One interesting continuity is that while the book was written as a monitory tale of global overpopulation, its particular vision of dystopia seems more inflected by climate change (the insufferable heat) and resource depletion. That’s also the case in the movie, where much of the time we’re in what appears to be an almost entirely depopulated cityscape. Yes there are curfews at night, but aside from the crowds rioting in one location for food (MGM’s back lot, just before it was turned into condos) and the bodies cluttered on stairways (not, one wold think, the best place to sleep), there’s little sign of overpopulation here. Thorn’s apartment is a good size and the city seems to have a lot of empty space elsewhere. They even have a library with stacks of books!

*. Thorn’s final warning that “They’re making our food out of people. Next thing they’ll be breeding us like cattle for food!” doesn’t make sense in terms of overpopulation. Why would you breed more mouths to feed? Surely it would be better to breed more cattle for food than to breed more humans.
*. What makes that composite crowbar so special? It doesn’t seem very high tech to me. From Richard Fleischer’s commentary: “These tools are in very rare existence at this time, they consider them like jewels.” Why?
*. Shirl is playing a very early video game called Computer Space. I’ve heard that this may be the first video game ever seen in a movie, and since Computer Space actually predated Pong (!) I can believe it.
*. Edward G. Robinson’s final film, and it’s a great performance in a not great but memorable part. On the other hand, I found I’d completely forgotten that Joseph Cotten was in this.
*. You’d think you’d get to request your own playlist for your death. Just asking for “classical . . . light classical” seems beneath a man of Sol’s refined taste.

*. Even contemporary reviews found “the mystery of Soylent Green” (as it’s called in the trailer) to be oversold. It’s pretty obvious what is going on long before we get to Thorn’s anguished cry at the end. There’s actually a lesson in this. It’s not that the big secret is so obvious. They could have got away with that. The problem is that they build it up too much, and conceal it far too awkwardly (like having the audio cutting out during Sol’s death scene). It’s OK to have a secret, but you can’t keep saying you’ve got a secret while being cute in not telling us. This just becomes irritating.
*. I wonder how ambiguous they wanted the ending to be. Is the police chief (Brock Peters) really going to tell the world? He seems pretty compromised to me.
*. Over the years this is a movie that has achieved a certain cultural status. Everybody knows the line about “Soylent Green is people!” And certain other aspects, like the “scoops,” are almost as indelible. And I guess it works well enough, even with its late-psychedelic (“more than ultra-modern” according to Fleischer) vision of the future. Thorn’s apartment looks more inviting than the ritzy disco lounge Shirl furnishes.
*. If it never becomes a great movie I’m inclined to blame Richard Fleischer. I’m in agreement with David Thomson’s judgment that “In the late sixties and early seventies, Fleischer aimed at being the most prolific and least identifiable director in America.” It’s not that there aren’t any imaginative and creative design elements, but it feels dull and the whole winds up being less than the sum of its parts.
*. So it’s an iconic movie that should be seen at least once. A second time? I think the last time I saw it was more than thirty years ago so I thought seeing it again was worth it, but I think three decades for a re-viewing is about right.

Annihilation (2018)

*. I read, and reviewed, Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation (the first part of his Southern Reach Trilogy) when it came out. Even though I knew it had been optioned, I was still surprised when I heard they were actually going to make a movie out of it.
*. Knowing where Annihilation came from, however, is not a big help in coming to a better understanding of its various mysteries. I say that for a couple of reasons. In the first place, VanderMeer likes to work in a new genre that usually goes under the name of Weird fiction, which is a blend of fantasy and science fiction (mostly) that delights in being provokingly obscure. Even after finishing the trilogy I wasn’t entirely sure what it had been about.
*. The second reason knowing the book doesn’t prepare you for the movie is because writer-director Alex Garland was just doing his own thing anyway, only looking to recreate something of the dreamlike atmosphere of the novel without following its plot too closely. I actually didn’t remember the book that well, but watching the movie I was sure it was nothing like it.
*. In any event, I don’t think this is a big problem because the difficulty of Annihilation (the movie) has, I think, been greatly overstated. There are some basic points that are left ambiguous, but they are not the kind of challenging puzzles that, for example, Weird fiction likes to play with. They’re just more or less known unknowns.
*. One example is the nature of the alien force. Lomax, the man questioning Lena in the film’s frame, is convinced that whatever is in Area X has come here for a purpose. There is, however, no clear indication of any intelligence at work in the Shimmer. You can speculate about its purpose if you want, but it’s not even clear if they arrive by design or by accident. Is that a spaceship that lands in Florida or an asteroid?
*. Another example is the question of whether Kane and Lena are clones at the end. Well, if even they don’t know then how should we? Kyle Smith: “Making movies steeped in vagueness these days is proving to be an excellent way to earn critical praise, but being artfully ambiguous strikes me as a way to cover for not being able to finish the job.”
*. From the evidence the film provides it looks as though Kane is a replicant and Lena is merely infected in some way, but it’s not even clear if this is a distinction with a difference.

*. So there’s ambiguity there, sure. But I don’t see this as a film of big ideas, or as particularly thought provoking. It’s just open ended without being intellectually challenging. In fact, I’m not even sure the alien is all that interesting. It’s like the Earth has developed a tumor that’s messing around with the stuff of life, creating mutants and mimics. But from that premise, what follows?
*. I’m not sure what Garland was trying to get out of his actors. Jennifer Jason Leigh is usually a favourite of mine but she plays the part of Dr. Ventress as though she’s overdosing on tranquilizers. I’m guessing that’s the way Garland wanted her to play it, but I can’t understand why. Oscar Isaac as Kane strikes me as being terrible, even when he’s not a pod person. As for Natalie Portman, she seems to have been told to just act puzzled. She furrows her brow a lot and appears to be vaguely upset at what’s going on, but it’s not like she’s angry or on a mission of vengeance, which is what I thought was the point.
*. The script is not good. Watching it a second time I was surprised at how bad much of the dialogue is, and how many scenes are included that don’t serve any function at all. There’s also a problem with members of the team acting like the idiots in an idiot-plot horror movie. The worst of these is the paramedic Anya, who hysterically doesn’t want to watch the video of the gut python again because she just knows it’s fake. The plan for having a guard stand out by themselves at the military base was another headscratcher. There didn’t seem to be any point to that but to allow someone to get killed. Another awkward device is having the team find video recordings explaining what happened to the previous expedition. Just because that was what was required.
*. The aspect of Annihilation that got the most praise was its look. I wasn’t as impressed. It has a crayon colourfulness that’s pretty without being threatening. Meanwhile, the CGI strikes me as very bad. That alligator is awful, as are the pair of deer Lena surprises in the woods. I was expecting to be blown away and I wasn’t.

*. It’s a movie that tended to get strong responses. Meaning people loved it or hated it. I don’t see where it rises to that level, or why it should have been so divisive. It has some good parts, with the talking bear being the standout scene, but overall it struck me as only mildly interesting and overlong. Maybe Denis Villeneuve could have made something out of it, but Garland has always seemed to me to be someone who is trying too hard to seem smarter than he is. Really, if he’d stuck more closely to VanderMeer’s novel he would have probably had a better movie. But he couldn’t be bothered.
*. That may seem harsh on Garland, but watching this film I was reminded of a lot of what I said about Ex Machina. About, for example, how “His [Garland’s] work often takes an interest in science and philosophy, but never digs very deep.” Or the comparison to Tarkovsky (even more glaring, and to his detriment, in this film). Or how the direction is “formal and dull though I suspect this was mainly by design.”
*. To borrow from the film’s mythology, Garland is like the mimics in the Shimmer. He has a notion as to what a great SF movie is supposed to look like, but while he tries in various ways to copy the style and mannerisms of Tarkovsky and Kubrick and Ridley Scott he misses everything that made them special. Annihilation is a decent imitation or clone of a good SF movie, but I just wasn’t buying in.

Insterstellar (2014)

*. Interstellar is a movie I admire for a couple of reasons, though in both cases that admiration is qualified, or even contradicted somewhat by the ending.
*. In the first place, it’s a science-fiction epic that has its share of thrilling action sequences but in terms of the larger narrative it’s not afraid to take its time. It’s hard to think of many contemporary popular films that have the same pace. And, significantly, it doesn’t feel slow, even during scenes of exposition. It doesn’t feel fast or rushed either, it’s just comfortable moving at its own speed.
*. This is a good thing given the running time of nearly three hours. But now I enter the qualification: the last 30 minutes do drag. The movie has nowhere new to take us and nothing new to show us and it just works out a plot “twist” that I think most people will have twigged to in the first act. We really don’t need to spend this long closing the circle with the narrative equivalent of a group hug.

*. The second thing I appreciated was how hard it works at being, if not accurate (because I don’t know how accurate we could expect some of it to be), then at least plausible. All the science contributes to making this one of the most believable space operas and time-travel movies I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure all the paradoxes are fully resolved, but everything sort of made sense to me at the end. Though I’m still not sure how Cooper got out of that black hole.
*. Again, however, I enter a qualification because of the ending. Apparently Brand’s theory that love is a physical force in the universe holds true. It’s not that I’m cold-hearted or against the squishy stuff. In fact, I’m a romantic at heart. It’s just that this idea of a mystic connection between Cooper and his daughter in a parallel dimension is at odds with so much of the rest of the film that it seems out of place. I also found the implicit fantasy of eternal youth a little juvenile.
*. Another thing I really appreciated here were the design elements. They were going where a lot of SF movies have gone before, but even so I thought the space station was interesting, the cryo beds nice, and the non-anthropomorphic robots brilliant. Also the texture of the two failed Eden planets was beautifully rendered: the one being a shallow wave pool and the other a frozen lava field with looming ice clouds.

*. These planets must have looked particularly impressive on an IMAX screen, where Interstellar showed on its initial release. This is one of the few films I’ve seen in recent years that I actually missed not seeing at a theatre. I really felt I wasn’t getting the full effect of those mountainous waves on my TV.
*. A lot of work went into the script and on the whole I think it’s very bad. It’s a good story, but as I’ve said the final act drags. More than that, however, is the clichéd and overly dramatic dialogue that even on a first viewing you can practically speak along with the actors. I also don’t know how or why Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” got dragged into this. Perhaps it was just a poem everyone had heard of, but thematically it doesn’t seem particularly apt or relevant. It just seems like more heavy dialogue to insert at heavy moments. Even Macaulay’s “Horatius” made more sense in Oblivion.
*. Maybe it’s unfair to think a mainstream, big-budget Hollywood space epic should have been a little less conventional. I do think they took some chances here, especially with the pacing, that pay off. The library in the fifth dimension was near to my heart, plus Matt Damon plays a bad guy, which was interesting. That said, for all its length I did think Interstellar needed a bit more meat on its bones. It’s different enough to be a good movie, but not daring enough to be a great one.