|An alternative version of Romeo and Juliet in Porky’s II: The Next Day|
It was when Time Out sent me off to review Porky’s II: The Next Day that I had my watershed moment as a fledgling film critic. Looking forward to impressing readers by exercising my coruscating wit on what I confidently expected would be the film’s crass sexism, scatological humour and all-round political incorrectness, I was taken aback to find myself… laughing.
And so I was faced with a choice. Go ahead and get a couple of cheap laughs by ripping Porky’s II to shreds, in the knowledge that it was the sort of film no self-respecting film buff would do anything but scoff at? (This being the early 1980s, by the way, when the chasm between critical and popular opinion was even more pronounced than it is nowadays, when you can usually find apologists for any old dreck.) Or own up – in print! – to having laughed, with the risk (or so it then seemed) that I was scuppering my career as a serious film critic before that career had even begun?
I decided to tell the truth. Having never had any sort of official film critic training (if Film Studies existed in the UK in the early 1970s, I hadn’t been aware of them) and without even the sketchiest familiarity with any sort of academic film theory, there would be only one method of criticism I could ever rely on, and that would be my own opinion, as honest as I could make it. It might be stupid, misguided, uncool – but at least it would be my opinion and no-one else’s, and no-one would be able to call me on it.
|Two cops about to get boogey-boogeyed in Porky’s II: The Next Day|
And that’s what I’ve tried to do, more or less, ever since. If I like something, it’s not important to me if everyone else likes it too. Conversely, if I find myself out on my own, I will stick it out, even if the isolation becomes embarrassing. Here, then, are six occasions when I swam against the tide. I could have listed Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which was booed at Cannes and dismissed by most critics when it came out – except it appears now to have found a loyal following; the same goes now for Heaven’s Gate, which has been reappraised since its first disastrous release. I might also have chosen Hudson Hawk or Wild Wild West, both of which were roundly rubbished, but – incredible as it may seem – they too have their supporters.
Not that the following films are perfect. I know they’re not, but I’m fond of them anyway, the way one is fond of gawky adolescent offspring, and I don’t think any of them deserved the savage kicking they got, and continue to get.
Batty scientists on a covert military-run space station resurrect Ripley as a clone with alien DNA. When captive aliens stage a prison breakout and go on the rampage, she teams up with an oddball crew of space smugglers to try and escape.
What I like about it: Sigourney Weaver giving another world-beater of a performance; the fact you’re never quite sure which way she’ll swing; Brad Dourif drippings with goo; the recurring motherhood/reproduction/abortion motif; a chest-bursting with a difference; the clone laboratory scene; the dreamlike scene of aliens swimming through a submerged kitchen; the twisted yet morally agonising ending.
Sandra Bullock plays a socially challenged cruciverbalist (crossword puzzle compiler) who mistakenly gets it into her head that TV cameraman Bradley Cooper is her soulmate, and duly stalks him and his self-regarding reporter (Thomas Hayden Church) all over the country as they cover quirky human interest stories.
What I like about it: of the films on this list, All About Steve is the least likely to be reappraised – just look at that Rotten Tomatoes rating! But I like Bullock playing an irredeemable girl geek (possibly with some sort of Aspergers), and that her character is annoying in a way that female characters are rarely allowed to be; that she doesn’t get a makeover in the final reel and – indeed – ends up unattached, which is almost unheard of in a Hollywood rom-com.
Not all the humour works, but I liked some of the Pythonesque incidentals and particularly enjoyed a scene involving a bunch of orphans that some critics found in bad taste (I bet they wouldn’t have objected to it in a Farrelly brothers comedy) but which reminded me of a choice moment from Hancock’s Half Hour. Bullock won an Oscar for the ingratiating, platitude-filled The Blind Side, but I prefer her performance here – it’s brave, challenging, prickly, embarrassing – and obviously rubbed everyone up the wrong way. Everyone except me, that is.
James Wan and Leigh Whannel, who inadvertently kick-started torture-porn with Saw, try something a little different with this non-Saw writing-directing collaboration – a creepy little tale of a young man trying to discover why his wife was murdered by a ventriloquist’s dummy, with results that are creaky, scary and barmy in equal measure. (And why is there a theatre in the middle of a lake? Don’t even ask.)
What I like about it: Critics didn’t really go for this, but I bet they saw it at 10 o’clock in the morning in a packed screening room. Me, I had to follow it with three episodes of Arrested Development before I dared go to bed. Ventriloquist dummies are always spooky, and have already featured in several scary movies (most notably Dead of Night); but if you think the dummy’s creepy, wait till you see the ventriloquist!
Wan, who directed, has clearly been inspired by the films of Mario Bava, though lacks Bava’s unerring sense of composition and build-up, and during the big shock-horror set-pieces tends to chop everything up and throw it in your face instead of having the confidence to let his imagery and effects speak for themselves. But I love the attempt to make an Italian-style scarefest that owes nothing to current Hollywood horror trends; the town of Ravens Fair, haunted by back story; True Blood‘s Ryan Kwanten is a personable hero; and the ending is clever.
Kurt Russell reprises his role as buccaneering one-eyed anti-hero Snake Plissken, injected with a lethal virus by presidential lackeys and promised the antidote only if he plunges into futuristic Los Angeles (turned by earthquake into a lawless island) and undergoes ordeal by basketball to recover a Doomsday Device from ruthless guerrillas.
What I like about it: You can take the director out of the low-budget 1970s exploitation, but you can’t take the low-budget 1970s exploitation out of the director. Predictably, critics sneered at this belated sequel to Escape From New York (which – Plissken and brilliant premise apart – I was never that wild about to begin with. If the Isaac Hayes character is top of the food chain, why is he so desperate to escape into the outside world where, presumably, he will simply be just another low-rent convict on the run?) but die-hard John Carpenter fans (like me) lap up the director’s endearing ability to reduce everything to the level of a tacky B-movie populated by refugees from a heavy metal video clip (see also Ghosts of Mars).
I like the satirical rejig of Los Angeles; Bruce Campbell as the crazed Surgeon General of Beverly Hills; Peter Fonda as a superannuated tsunami-surfer; Steve Buscemi as Map to the Stars Eddie; Pam Grier as a windsurfing transsexual; and the ending is one big in-your-face fuck-you. And did I say it’s got SNAKE PLISSKEN in it? Come on – I can’t believe I was the only person to enjoy this.
America prefers its flabby misfits to be loveable as opposed to deluded, psychotic and bipolar, like Seth Rogen’s character in this fearless black comedy, the uncomfortable flipside to Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Rogen, obsessed with guns and violence, is determined to catch the flasher who’s been exposing himself to women in the carpark, so he can impress shallow blonde salesgirl Anna Faris. Ray Liotta plays a cop who’s the rival for her affections.
What I like about it: Writer-director Jody Hill set out to make the comic flipside Taxi Driver and to my mind succeeds, though you’re more likely to cringe than laugh. The film was condemned – mostly by people who never actually bothered to watch more than the trailer – for its supposed depiction of date-rape; setting aside, for now, my contention that if this is rape, I would have spent half my twenties trotting back and forth to the police station to accuse my sexual partners of it, Faris is clearly shown as consenting.
But even if she weren’t consenting, where in the film does it say that any of what’s happening is admirable behaviour, for heaven’s sake? Rogen and Faris are fearlessly unlikeable and there’s an extended male full frontal scene that shocked some young and tender-hearted viewers. The easily offended should stick to Paul Blart. On the other hand, fans of, say, The Cable Guy may find this right up their street.
Gus Van Sant’s colour replica of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 slasher movie is the film everyone loves to hate, but this is not your average remake. Of course it no longer works as a thriller, because by now the world and his wife knows whodunnit, and the most shocking thing on display is Anne Heche’s orange Wonderbra.
And it isn’t quite shot by shot; Van Sant, working from the original shooting script, films as he reckons Hitchcock would have done had technology and censorship allowed, which means Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn) is clearly masturbating as he peers through the peephole – just the sort of tacky detail Hitch himself would probably have loved – but also slips in odd inserts of sky, of a goat, of a nude woman – at unexpected moments.
What I like about it: I find it hard to understand the vitriol, since this is so obviously not a commercial venture but an experimental art movie variation on a classic artefact, in the spirit of Picasso’s variations on Velasquez’s Las Meninas, or Duchamp’s appropriation of Mona Lisa for his L.H.O.O.Q.. Van Sant’s Psycho is certainly not intended to replace Hitchcock’s original – the way recent remakes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween are updates for a new generation familiar with the titles but too young to have seen the original films – but rather to complement and comment on it.
The result is an oddly compelling art movie that not only makes you look at the original through fresh eyes, but shows how radically dialogue, editing and acting styles have changed over the past 50 years. Last but not least, a lot of is just downright weird; most of the cast look as though they’ve wandered in by mistake from an American indie film. And why is Heche wearing those distracting earrings?