Film #114: Good Vibrations (2012)

film 114 good vibrations

Rating: 4/5

“When it comes to punk, New York has the hair, London has the trousers, but Belfast has the reason.”

Based on stories from Terri Hooley’s biography Hooleygan: Music, Mayhem, Good Vibrations, Good Vibrations wisely concentrates its attentions on the more uplifting aspects of the music fanatic-turned music store owner’s life. This rose-tinted approach is, however, a relief, and it manages to be possibly the only film I’ve seen set against the backdrop of the Troubles in Northern Ireland that I’ve enjoyed. Perhaps more surprisingly, it’s also the first I’ve seen that really offered a sense of what it was like living in Belfast during the particularly turbulent 1970s. The extent of the civil war, and the direct impact it had on those trying to simply get on with their lives, looms over the film throughout – its setting is crucial – but the tone is neither self-pitying nor exploitative. And, it’s not the violence that is foregrounded, but (and apologies if this sounds cheesy) the overwhelming ability of music to break down the social and political boundaries that plagued the country.

Punk fans may well be aware of Hooley who, despite the ongoing problems in Belfast, decides to open a music store. It’s a brave move at a time when everything is affected by the Troubles, and entrepreneurial spirit is virtually non-existent. As Hooley (Richard Dormer) reminisces, he once had friends, but the civil unrest was such that it turned everyone into one of two things: protestant or catholic. As someone who considered himself neither (he appears most influenced by his father’s socialist leanings), his inability, or unwillingness, to pick sides meant that he fit in nowhere. Despite this, Hooley’s enthusiasm and, so the film goes, the allure of music enables him to step back from the problems. His gift of vinyl to the two opposing sides comes with a proviso: to keep politics out of his record store. It seems to work, for the most part. Yet it’s only with the discovery of Northern Ireland’s underground punk movement that Hooley finds a group of friends for whom politics and religion don’t matter – they reject authority in general; in his words, they “don’t give a shit.” This attitude is refreshing, uplifting, enlightening, and Hooley becomes a man on a mission, determined to bring punk to the masses.

The impact of Hooley’s dedication should not be underestimated. Despite terrible business sense and a self-destructiveness (presented in the film more as boyish naivety than anything sinister), he is responsible for bringing The Undertones to the public sphere – the band that, according to the film, led legendary radio DJ John Peel to do something he’d never done before, and play the same song, Teenage Kicks, twice in a row. Hooley barely seems to know what he’s doing, but still manages to create a small record label, to get the kids into the studio, and even get them on the radio. All this despite the ongoing Troubles, and the achievement is perfectly revealed when he and the bands are stopped by British police at a road check point. Asking the bandmembers where they live in Belfast, the soldiers are astonished to discover they’re from all over the city (this being a time when simply your geographical location immediately implied your political and/or religious leanings). “You’re saying some of these boys are catholic and some are protestant?” the soldier asks incredulously. “I never thought to ask,” replies Hooley. For him and the other punks, it’s the shared love of music that matters – they are not one denomination or the other, they are music fans first and foremost.

Good Vibrations is deliberately uplifting, but it’s best to go with it, rather than sour the experience with rationalism. The punk bands are all lovely individuals – one of the funniest scenes involves a store-full of them carefully stuffing vinyl records like a mohawk-clad, safety-pin-adorned team of Santa’s elves. Dormer is excellent as Hooley, bringing a real energy and likeability to the character. In truth, he was probably a difficult person to live with, but this is only touched upon, with his wife Ruth (Jodie Whittaker) largely remaining loyal and supportive. His alcoholism is implied, but it’s all presented with a good-natured tone, with the film clearly preferring to focus on the good. With the main action keeping a fairly tight focus – this is a biography, after all – the troubles are relayed through genuine footage interspersed throughout the narrative. This brings a realism to the film, serving as a more sober reminder of the conditions under which Hooley was working. Yet this is the backdrop, and Hooley remains front and centre. In many ways the film adopts a very formulaic structure, relating the most successful portion of his life, culminating in a big spectacle, a moment of triumph. What happens afterwards is consigned to a few intertitles at the end, though anyone interested can read the biography. Yet it’s appropriate that Good Vibrations should focus on a small part of Hooley’s life, considering how brief the punk movement in general really was, and although the Troubles continued long after the narrative here stops (and even continues today), we’re asked to look back fondly at the small but significant impact one man made.

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Cinema Lottery #14

cinema 14 into the storm

Into the Storm; Two Days, One Night; Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For; Obvious Child

Into the Storm
Release date: 20 August 2014
Rating: 2.5/5

Almost twenty years after Twister, it’s quite surprising that it’s taken this long for a new tornado-themed disaster movie to make it to the big screen. The trailers for Into the Storm looked mildly promising: trashy, no doubt, and clichéd, naturally, but with the promise of some full blown destruction. Yet what the trailers don’t show is that the whole film is shot as a found footage movie – a pointless, incoherent decision. Whether the footage originates from professional tornado-chasing documentary makers or by two redneck adrenaline morons, it all looks the same. Even worse, there are frequently unmotivated camera angles – conversations are framed in the classic shot-reverse-shot technique, despite there being only one cameraman in the scene, overhead shots come from nowhere. Ostensibly the “found footage” style exists to add tension, but it never achieves this.

The characters themselves are all nondescript, and subplots like a blossoming teen romance are abandoned quickly. At one point a character instructs another to look after the footage because the film “might save lives one day” – how it could ever achieve this is unknown, because the science is non-existent. Like Twister, the final setpiece involves characters seeing the eye of the tornado – as though this is something new, when it’s already been achieved by both professional and amateur storm chasers in real life. Yet this is a film with the most generic, uninspiring of screenplays, so it’s little surprise that the motivation is mundane. That being said, some of the destruction is pretty nifty. It makes no sense, of course – whether a tiny little spout or a mile-wide behemoth (all of which instantaneously appear), all the tornadoes cause the same amount of damage: total carnage. Yet although it’s no doubt fun (for disaster movie fans, at least) to watch an airport be destroyed, or to see a fire-nado (a real thing), the best bits are all shown in the trailer. There’s simply not enough in the rest of the film to be worth watching. Perhaps the biggest problem is it takes itself too seriously. It appears to actually have honourable, educational intentions, despite being little better than a SyFy original movie. Truth is, if you want a good disaster movie, watch Twister and, if you want a bad one, why would you watch this when you could watch Sharknado?

Two Days, One Night
Release date: 22 August 2014
Rating: 3.5/5

The latest film by the Dardenne brothers, this is a gentle drama following Sandra (Marion Cotillard) over a weekend as she attempts to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job. It’s a simple premise but an interesting one, and there are no real villains here – just normal people, trying to survive in a difficult world where, unfortunately, being selfish is often a necessity. Cotillard is entirely convincing as Sandra, who is hoping to return to work following extended sick leave due to a bout of depression. Her problems are cited as one of the reasons why she should not be brought back – her work may be compromised by her mental state. And if there is a problem with the Dardennes’ screenplay it is that she doesn’t seem to be ready. She cries over the smallest thing, is clearly stressed and fragile, and seems to barely be keeping herself together. Gaining equal support and rejection, as Monday looms closer she takes even more drastic measures, surely indicating that there is still a long way to go before she is truly stable, but it passes by with almost as little ceremony as any other moment in the film.

Despite the film’s simplicity, it’s not boring, largely due to the variety of characters Sandra meets. Two Days, One Night adopts an almost segmented structure, as Sandra goes to speak to each of her sixteen colleagues, hoping to sway them to her side. Although some of the conversations become a bit repetitive (particularly her having to explain why the vote is being recast), such is the strength of the performances that it feels authentic rather than tedious. Although Sandra is the film’s focus, Cotillard is fully supported by the rest of the cast, all of whom bring the characters to life, if only for a scene or two. There are no real surprises, no significant twists (apart from the aforementioned, which seems to have been included for a moment of drama, but I could have happily done without) – it’s a gentle, simple, well-crafted yet quite unremarkable movie, one that is pleasant but, ultimately, largely forgettable.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Release date: 25 August 2014
Rating: 3/5

When Sin City was first released in 2005 it burst onto the screens, a grimy, dirty, adults-only noir the likes of which had never been seen. It’s a shame, therefore that, nine years later, the once eagerly awaited sequel proves to offer absolutely nothing new. Gone is the innovation of the first film; this one looks and sounds the same. Whether it could have done something vastly different is less the point than the fact that this is nine years later, and what was impressive in the mid-2000s is barely noticeable today. A Dame to Kill For, then, is in many ways the worst kind of sequel – outdated, unimaginative, uninspiring, routine. Yet for all that can be criticised about it, stylistically it still ticked the boxes for me. There are no complex characters or profound storylines here, of course, and anyone expecting them has been sorely misled. Instead, there is the usual bevy of hot, scantily clad, ass-kicking females, Eva Green in her typical vamp seductress role, heavy use of voice-over, and a bunch of actors punching well below their weight technically and well above their weight figuratively. Josh Brolin in particular is wasted in his role, while Joseph Gordon Levitt is adequate but largely irrelevant. I’ll always have a soft spot for Mickey Rourke, however, and despite the heavy prosthetics, he’s the only one who brings any life to his character – it seems he understands best of all that he need not take himself entirely seriously.

Sin City was a triumph of style over substance, and its sequel is no different. It may not be as original as the first (obviously), but visually it’s still quite beautiful. Heavily stylised, it’s hyper-noir, deliberately fantastical, explicitly acknowledging its graphic novel roots. In a time when the primary goal of most comic book movies appears to be realism, it’s quite a relief to see a film that rejects any guise of authenticity so entirely. That being said, the 3D is completely pointless – in a film that’s deliberately flat, all the 3D does is dull the bright white of the contrasting monochrome. As a final point, it should be said that, while A Dame to Kill For is violent (stylishly so), it barely seems to warrant its 18-rating – though perhaps this says more about the relaxation of the BBFC’s rating system than anything else. At a time when even Saw films can be a 15, Sin City‘s violence barely even matches that of a post-watershed television show – indeed, with shadows conveniently covering people’s lower halves, and blood shed in pretty arcs of white light, this is actually tamer than many series. Perhaps this is the final nail in the coffin for the movie, proving that in the nine years separating it from its predecessor, the world has changed, but Sin City has failed to keep up.

Obvious Child

Release date: 29 August 2014
Rating: 3/5

There’s usually a wild card at these press days – the film that no one’s heard of. Today, this was it, a small indie “comedy” about womanhood and the issues that matter. Whether you like it or not will most likely depend on a few factors: are you a woman, are you a feminist, do you enjoy jokes about bodily functions, how do you feel about abortion. Personally, I find it tedious that these films by women, for women still seem to be incapable of thinking outside the box, instead focusing, inevitably, on relationships and pregnancy. Is that really all that matters to the female human? If this film is anything to go by, as a gender we reclaim our femininity by discussing stains on knickers and saying the word “vagina” a lot (literally airing our dirty laundry in public), we drunk-phone ex-boyfriends like lunatics, and believe that it’s somehow acceptable to make the decision to have an abortion following a one-night stand yet – this is the important bit – not feel the need to inform the man about any of it. Obvious Child, the title taken from a Paul Simon song, offended me in the way that Sex and the City offended me, with its crudeness and self-obsessed whining.

Here, despite a strong performance from Jenny Slate as Donna, the almost-thirty woman-child forced to grow up after discovering she’s pregnant, it was difficult to really empathise with anyone on screen. Gaby Hoffmann, once a child actor seen saving LA from a volcano in Volcano, is one of the only recognisable faces, and her choice of roles in recent years seems to be deliberately based on feminist ideals, but her tirade about “a woman’s choice” is uninspiring. It’s particularly annoying that the men of the film are given such a raw deal. Donna’s dad pops up briefly, but serves no purpose. The ex boyfriend, ditto. The most rounded male character is gay (but stereotypically so), while the one-night-stand-turned-possible-love-interest (despite Jewish Donna worrying that he’s too “obviously Christian” to date) is easily one of the blandest characters ever – having not been told about the proposed abortion, he learns of Donna’s pregnancy when she uses the entire tale (including the forthcoming abortion) as part of her stand-up comedy routine. Yet even this isn’t enough to rouse Max, who is infuriatingly placid, supportive, and doesn’t even think to question Donna’s decision. Surely he should be at least the slightest bit annoyed at learning something so important at a comedy club? Shouldn’t he demand answers, or an explanation? Well, apparently not. In this movie, it appears to be only the females that are afforded any depth or complexity. Yet in the end, the writers seem to equate female empowerment with discussions about farting and defecation, as though that’s somehow something to aspire to. I remain unconvinced, and unamused.

Film #113: Monster A-go Go (1965)

monster a go go

Rating: 1.5/5
Enjoyment Rating: 3.5/5

“What you are about to see may not even be possible, within the narrow limits of human understanding.”

Widely considered to be one of the worst films of all time, Monster A-go Go owes much of its reputation to Mystery Science Theater 3000 – before it screened on the cult show, it hadn’t made much of an impact. It’s not mentioned in any of the Medved’s books, gets just a passing mention in Incredibly Strange Films, and in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, Michael Weldon claims that “unless you lived in the South in the 60s, you probably… haven’t seen it.” Since its screening on MST3K, however, it is now firmly situated among the most notorious bad movies – I think at one point it occupied top spot on IMDb’s Bottom 100 (it’s currently number 80). It’s one of the most incoherent films I’ve ever seen – and that’s saying quite a bit. It’s only after multiple viewings that I’ve been able to work out some kind of narrative timeline, and even now I still get confused about who all the various characters are. What’s interesting, however, is how many myths and legends follow the film, as viewers try to justify, rationalise, and explain the baffling illogic and ineptitude evident on screen.

It is widely accepted as fact that director Bill Rebane began shooting a low-budget science fiction film called Terror at Half Day in 1961, but ran out of money and was forced to sell the unfinished movie to hack producer Herschell Gordon Lewis (best known for his exploitation pictures 2000 Maniacs and Wizard of Gore) who added in voice-over narration and a number of scenes, and released the movie four years later under a snappy new title designed to cash in on the “go-go” dance craze of the time. From here, the story varies, with the level of Lewis’ involvement remaining in dispute.

The film’s plot is, initially at least, fairly straightforward: a space capsule, has returned to Earth, but Frank Douglas, the astronaut on board, is nowhere to be found. The helicopter pilot who discovers the capsule has been horrifically killed, and there are unusual burns nearby, leading scientists and army personnel to believe that Frank has become radioactive somehow and is now roaming the countryside. Ruth, Frank’s girlfriend/ friend/ wife/ sibling (it’s never quite clear: she has a son and says that Frank has been “like a father” since the death of the boy’s real dad) is concerned, obviously, but disappears about thirty minutes into the film, along with most of the rest of the cast. A brief scene between two new characters explains (badly) that the case has been passed on to them, and the rest of the film follows the scientists and military men as they attempt to track and contain Frank, now a giant, radioactive monster (Seven-feet-six-inch Henry Hite plays Frank and, though he’s tall, he’s never an imposing presence, seeming more bumbling and awkward than intimidating).

While Wikipedia implies that Lewis is responsible for all the scenes involving the new cast, Rebane himself has said (in the film’s commentary) that 80-90% of the picture was already completed before he passed it over. According to Rebane, all Lewis did was add a few brief shots (various people listening to a radio announcement, the girls sunbathing in the park) and the voice-over, which sporadically interjects to offer mostly redundant observations and to destroy any possibility of surprise (it tells us of shocking deaths before they happen, explains major plot points a scene or two before the characters explain the same plot points and, most entertainingly, uses bombastic language to infuse the film with a sense of grandiose self-importance: “the line between science fiction and science fact is microscopically thin,” it tells us by way of conclusion). Despite denouncing the film as “shit”, Rebane accepts responsibility for the majority of its content. The unexpected change in cast was due to the many problems he had with the unions – indeed, it was union fees, he says, that resulted in him running out of money.

What the truth of the situation is, we might never know – though Rebane’s remarks at least come from an identifiable, reasonably reliable, informed source. Knowing this may explain some of the more confusing elements of the film, but it renders it no more coherent as a result. The changing cast is particularly discomforting – most bizarrely, one of the characters, Dr Logan, dies early on and is replaced by his brother, Dr Conrad Logan (who is also just referred to as Dr Logan), who (legend says) is the same actor, albeit older and with less hair. It’s true that the two bear more than a passing resemblance, but such is the film’s inadequacies that even this remains unverified.

It’s not just the cast that is confusing, however. The film’s narrative makes almost no sense, and it’s not clear whether this is the result of a shoddy screenplay or Lewis’ subsequent interference. Somewhere midway, there’s a pretty massive shift in narrative, relayed by voice-over, which reveals the monster’s whereabouts, but the time line is completely illogical. Scenes are thrown in – the dance sequence is a standard for low-budget, teen-aimed pictures of the time, at least, but a later sequence involving a flirty girl, a car that won’t start, and a travel-weary lorry driver seems to have no relation to anything else. Yet it’s the final scene that truly throws the entire film into disarray. With a bizarre plot twist (when I first watched the movie I was quite impressed, because it’s so unexpected, but I quickly realised that it’s unexpected because it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever), the film suddenly stops, leaving a million questions that are never answered: is the sound of the telephone ringing really a person off camera going “brrrp”? Where is Ruth’s front door? Are Conrad and Logan really the same actor? Why did no one think to edit out the dog barking the entire way through the smooching couple scene? Why does the voice-over claim a man was “mangled in a way no one had ever seen before” when there’s not a mark on him? Why does Ruth emphasise that she wants TWO olives in her cocktail? How is Logan allowed to stay on the case, when he’s so obviously incompetent, incapable, unreliable, and downright untrustworthy? And are we really expected to believe that any human could travel anywhere in that space capsule?!

Film #112: Southland Tales (2006)

film 112 southland tales

Rating: 5/5

“This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper, but with a bang.”

Having attained cult status and acclaim for his feature debut Donnie Darko, writer-director Richard Kelly’s second film was eagerly anticipated by many – until it premièred at Cannes in 2006. Having already been significantly delayed, it received arguably the worst reception at the festival: audiences were not even interested in booing it, preferring to simply walk out. The film ended up with the lowest ratings of the festival, a meagre 1.1/5, and Kelly returned to the editing suite in a last-ditch attempt to salvage what was widely acknowledged as an incoherent mess. The work is visible in the film, which was eventually released at the end of 2007 – extensive voice-over, a mass of information at the beginning overloading the brain with facts and throwing the audience straight into the action, strange animated shots taken from the prequel comic books (another attempt to provide some coherence to the plot), new special effects. Characters who once possibly featured prominently now pop up for brief scenes – an unrecognisable Kevin Smith, for example, or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Janeane Garofalo in one of the final shots. It still barely makes sense – I’ve seen it dozens of times by now, and every time I realise something new, notice something crucial that I’d completely missed, lose track of the plot. It emerges like a fevered dream, hypnotic and surreal, a bizarre mixture of pop culture and theology, a supremely convoluted plot with a vast cast of eccentrics and weirdos spouting nonsense. It’s a marmite movie: you’ll either love it or hate it. I love it.

To recount the plot would, quite simply, take too long, but it goes something like this. It’s 2008, the future, and the government has become a paranoid Big Brother. Travel is restricted between states, but an actor with amnesia called Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson, billed as his real name for the first time) has somehow ended up writing a screenplay with a psychic porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar) that foretells the end of the world. Meanwhile Sean Patrick Scott is identical twin brothers, one impersonating the other, while the Neo-Marxists, a rebel organisation, collect fingers in an attempt to bring down Usident, the government surveillance operation led by Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson), wife of senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osbourne). Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a war veteran turned drug addict also monitors from his platform above Venice Beach, looking over the newly built Fluid Karma factory, a new technology developed by Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) that could spell the end of global fuel shortages. And so it goes on. In this confused, and confusing, tangled web of a narrative, characters come and go, scandals are revealed, and the apocalypse begins. No pressure or anything.

It could either be a criticism or praise (I mean it as the latter) that Kelly’s screenplay throws the audience right into the middle of the story. The film is divided into three chapters, which are parts four, five, and six, each one named after a song (Temptation Waits by Garbage, Memory Gospel by Moby, and Wave of Mutilation by The Pixies). The first three chapters have subsequently been released in comic book form, but they, like the Donnie Darko director’s cut, are a complete disappointment, revealing that, in reality, Kelly never intended his story to be incoherent. The comics are far more linear – still bizarre – and much of the film’s impact is lost as a result. A brilliantly bonkers scene in the middle of the film, when a large number of the cast meet and all accuse each other of betrayal, is made redundant if one has read the comics, for example. The beauty of the film is that, like Donnie Darko, the audience is expected to fill in the blanks, to reach its own conclusions – the comic books take away that authority, reducing the film’s power to something far more mundane.

There’s so much to praise about Southland Tales. The cast, largely comprised of character actors and those who had previously been typecast in specific roles, all ham up their roles to perfection. Gellar is great as Krysta Now, the porn star with lofty intentions. Timberlake excels, and features in one of the film’s finest scenes, a surreal drug trip that comes out of nowhere. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson took a chance here, but it remains my favourite role of his – he’s charismatic, ironic, twitchy, funny and sympathetic – none of his other roles to date have offered him the chance to expand his repertoire as much as this one.

Kelly’s style is evident as well. There are moments that are reminiscent of Donnie Darko: the importance of music (he has been criticised for basically delivering a series of music videos); the slow motion dance sequences that become unsettling and strangely sinister; the apocalyptic narrative with, at its core, one man’s opportunity for salvation; that stunning tracking shot in the mega zeppelin near the film’s end, as the camera follows Bai Ling through the crowd. Southland Tales is an assault on the senses, each scene filled with beauty and chaos and new things to look for. It’s hectic and manic, seemingly spewing forth without direction, but it all ties together just enough. With references to Revelations, Robert Frost, TS Eliot and others, the characters diverge together, each one responsible for bringing the end of days a little closer, yet all the philosophy is ultimately reduced to one simple question: are you a pimp or not? It’s this kind of audacious combination of high concept and low culture that emphasises the film’s tongue-in-cheek stance – it’s not meant to be taken entirely seriously, but there’s plenty to think about regardless.

I have always maintained that, given enough time, Southland Tales will be reclaimed as a masterpiece. That has yet to happen, but time has been favourable for the most part. In its year of release, it was – like Only God Forgives last year – found on both the “best films” and the “worst films” lists. Its almost perfectly average rating on IMDb (5.5/10) is the result of extreme opinions – everyone either gives it one or ten. For me, this is precisely the kind of film that is interesting: not the average and mundane, but the divisive, the controversial. For better or worse, Southland Tales is the latter – a film that has so much to say it perhaps forgets to say any of it properly, a film that is messy and muddled, stylish and superficial yet complex. For me, it’s one of the finest films of the last ten years. I welcome the counter-arguments!

Film #111: She’s All That (1999)

film 111 shes all that

Rating: 3.5/5

“I feel just like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. You know, except for the whole hooker thing.”

If any film could hope to challenge Clueless as the ultimate high school movie, surely it’s She’s All That. So filled with clichés that in some ways it’s difficult to figure out whether it was the first of its kind or just another lame copy, it’s stupid but likeable, with an impressive cast including Freddie Prinze Jr, Rachael Leigh Cook, the late Paul Walker (I always forget he’s in it), Anna Paquin, Clea Duvall, Kieran Culkin – even Usher pops up, proving the movie’s pop-culture credentials, and so does Sarah Michelle Gellar, for a split second, in homage to the fact that this was shot in the same school as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

To be honest, it’s quite difficult to review She’s All That without being constantly reminded of Not Another Teen Movie, which quite perfectly parodied the more ridiculous moments – and, the fact that it’s this film that forms the basis of the spoof’s plot indicates how popular and influential it was. Cook is Laney Boggs, an anti-social poor girl filled with inner darkness, as evidenced by her moody abstract art. She’s beautiful, of course, but has the misfortune of wearing glasses, never plucking her eyebrows, and wearing paint-covered dungarees (see, I’m already slipping into Not Another Teen Movie…) Nevertheless, she’s the one popular-but-recently-dumped jock-hunk Zac (Prinze Jr) is tasked with transforming into the prom queen – the result of a bet between him and his jock buddy Dean (Walker). To be fair, she is not considered a challenge because of her looks, really, but because of her personality – but, naturally, a makeover is imminent, thanks to Zac’s sister Mackenzie (Paquin), and it seems to be mostly a result of her newfound contact lenses that, overnight, inexplicably, she becomes the most popular girl in school.

There are actually quite a few interesting possibilities borne out of this new popularity, but the film mostly ignores them. Honestly, if you scratch the surface of this movie, there’s mostly just more surface, and attempting any in depth analysis is a fairly pointless exercise. Laney’s nomination for prom queen doesn’t make her become a brat (a la Cady in Mean Girls, for example) but it does appear to bring all the nerds out of the woodwork – whereas the school initially seemed to be entirely populated by beautiful twenty-somethings (Walker was twenty-six; the only person even close to being actual high school age was Paquin, and she looks like a child in comparison; on a side note, realising this made me feel particularly old), following her nomination the student-extras more fully represent the less fortunate too. Yet this isn’t a “nerd-uprising” sort of film, and the likes of the Hygiene Club remain firmly in the background. There’s never even the slightest pause to consider how Laney actually feels about her makeover – she stops wearing her glasses but continues with her (more figure-hugging) paint-covered clothes, for example. What matters is not the exterior changes, but the internal ones – having avoided her classmates for years, she finally begins to realise that they’re not all as bad as she might have thought. Of course, some of them are precisely as bad as she thought: Dean has ulterior motives, while Zac’s ex Taylor will let nothing stop her from becoming prom queen. While Taylor is the pre-Mean Girls mean girl, her new flame, reality “star” Brock Hudson (Matthew Lilliard) is great fun – egotistical, self-obsessed and utterly deluded, his overly energetic moronics brighten up the film and provide arguably the best dance scene of the piece (sorry Usher, the prom dance is unexpected, but Brock’s fist-pumping worm takes the biscuit).

Seeped in pop-culture of the 90s, perhaps I’m again showing my age when I say that in many ways the film hasn’t dated as badly as it might have. Yes, there are several references to Hanson and yes, kids today might not know what The Real World is, but it’s by no means inaccessible today. Its biggest problem (if you can call it that) is the fact that, like I said earlier, everything seems so clichéd – and even that’s not really its own fault, but that of Not Another Teen Movie. Everything in this film reminds me of that one: the token black guy who features solely to react in exaggerated ways to the white kids; Laney contemplating her latest expression of artistic pain, which is really not particularly good, but we’re supposed to think it is; her father’s strange terms of endearment (“pumpkin nose”?!); Zac’s misunderstood rich-boy problems; Laney refusing to let anyone see her cry at the party… Every moment has been lampooned, highlighting the inanity of it all, and it’s really difficult for me to separate the two movies now. Yet I’ll happily watch She’s All That any time – its lead actors have a nice chemistry, its got a happy ending and, while I remember Clueless with great fondness from my childhood, it’s this film that captures the essence of my teen years. Besides, any film with a Buffy cameo gets my vote.

Film #110: The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

film 110 the beast of yucca flats

Rating: 1.5/5
Enjoyment rating: 5/5

“Flag on the moon, how did it get there?”

Time for another bad movie classic, Coleman Francis’ directorial debut, The Beast of Yucca Flats. I couldn’t even count how many times I’ve seen this film, but it never ceases to be anything other than a joy to watch. It’s currently sitting at #89 in IMDb’s Bottom 100, though in the past it’s been among the top (bottom?) ten, and Francis’ other two films (The Skydivers, Night Train to Mundo Fine) have also featured until recently – now it seems there are just too many dodgy, terrible comedies around taking up all the space.

Like The Creeping Terror and Manos: The Hands of Fate, The Beast of Yucca Flats was shot without sound. Unlike the aforementioned films, it attempts to conceal this deficiency by almost never showing its characters speaking – in fact, I can think of only one instance where anyone other than the Beast himself is shown talking (and, curiously, the Beast’s grunts were dubbed by the director, not the man on screen, Tor Johnson, meaning that although we see him as he makes noise, the sounds we hear are not his own). Instead, Francis either shoots his cast in long shot or, disconcertingly, only shows the reaction of the listener, while the speaker remains off-camera. In theory it shouldn’t necessarily be as bizarre as it is – there’s an argument that showing a speaker talking makes the image redundant, precisely because we can already hear them – but it is sufficiently unconventional that it just draws attention to the filmmaker’s limitations, rather than hiding them. It doesn’t help, of course, that the dubbed dialogue is minimal, or that the actors are utterly terrible, or that the script doesn’t require even the slightest hint of character development. Some characters aren’t even given names, though they play fairly important roles: the Beast’s first victims are introduced by the voice-over narration simply as “man and wife.”

Whereas the voice-over narration in The Creeping Terror (and in plenty of other films) attempts to infuse the film with sincerity and importance through a literary, solemn style, here the voice-over (uttered by Francis himself) sounds like an abridged version of the film’s production notes. Its phrasing is bizarre, filled with incomplete sentences and strange non-sequiturs like the aforementioned (and frequently repeated) “flag on the moon” quote. “Nothing bothers some people,” the voice-over intones. “Not even flying saucers.” This in a film with no flying saucers or alien threat whatsoever. And, like his voice-over and limited dialogue, the narrative is so meagre that it barely fills the brief 54 minute running time. Tor Johnson plays Joseph Javorsky, noted scientist, who escapes from behind the Iron Curtain with a suitcase full of secrets, only to be transformed into an atomic beast after being chased onto an atomic testing site in Yucca Flats by rogue Communist assassins. Following this tragedy, he roams the barren desert killing random people “travelling east, west, north and south” before encountering the Radcliffes, whose two sons are “adventurous boys” who decide to wander off. Meanwhile, Joe and Jim, desert patrolmen, have somehow inexplicably discovered the existence of the Beast and decide to “shoot first, ask questions later,” resulting in a direct North by Northwest homage and a potentially fatal case of mistaken identity, as Hank Radcliffe (the father) gets repeatedly shot at by Jim, high above in a light aircraft.

Although practically nothing happens, and the film is actually rather slow and uneventful, it’s quite mesmerising. Every remark uttered by the voice-over is a classic – in his solemn tone, Francis repeatedly, inexplicably refers to the “wheels of progress,” states the obvious (“a man runs. Somebody shoots at him”), and constantly introduces characters: “Joseph Javorsky, noted scientist.” “Joseph Javorsky, respected scientist, now a fiend.” It’s a necessary addition, really, because the characters are less people than hollow representations of people – indeed, the only person with even the slightest bit of depth is the Beast himself, poor Joseph Javorsky. Yet he is also the most ridiculous – Tor Johnson, a former Swedish wrestler best known for his work with Ed Wood, is the least believable nuclear scientist I’ve ever seen in cinema (yes, even worse than Denise Richards’ Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough). Obviously hired to play the Beast role, rather than the scientist role (as it turns out, the suitcase full of secrets is nothing more than a massive McGuffin, like most things about the film), the already large man was severely overweight and his struggles are evident at all times – he can barely move. Anthony Cardoza, the film’s producer, has said that the crew had to literally pull Johnson up the cliff for the cave scenes, and Cardoza himself put on enough weight during filming (because Johnson insisted on inviting him around for dinner so often) that he appears in the film twice as two different characters, and is unrecognisable.

The film’s notoriety is undoubtedly helped by the inclusion of Johnson, a cult star in his own right, but it’s a thoroughly strange experience, one verging on surrealism. Despite being shot on location (there are only two interior shots in the whole film, one which opens the movie and is impossible to situate within the rest of the narrative, but does feature female nudity – in fact, Cardoza has claimed that this is the only reason for its inclusion) the editing has rendered the landscape entirely incoherent – the chase between Jim in his airplane and Hank on the ground is a spectacular example of how illogical the whole film is, with the landscape changing drastically from shot to shot.

While I would definitely argue that The Beast of Yucca Flats is a perfect example of “so bad it’s pleasurable,” others have disagreed, and I can understand why. Sections drag, while the narrative is so sparse and irrelevant that in many ways the film could be shown as a silent film. Long passages contain little or no dialogue (although when the voice-over does interrupt, it’s worth the wait) and the music, which, possibly because of the amount of times I’ve seen the film, I now think is fairly effective, transpires to have been taken from another, earlier film, The Astounding She-Monster. Imagine my surprise when I watched that movie yesterday, having discovered it on Youtube, straight after watching Yucca Flats, and was instantly bombarded by the exact same riff! It’s a small world – and an even smaller one when it comes to bad 50s movies, clearly. Regardless, Francis’ film is one that is difficult to forget – it’s a hypnotic, surreal, and downright weird little movie, with characters that look like people but act like robots, where cars drive with their headlights on despite it being daytime, where a scientist is turned into a beast yet none of the people living in the vicinity of the atomic testing site seem affected at all, where husbands abandon their wives in the middle of the desert, where desert patrolmen parachute onto plateaus for no reason, where no one seems to ever die, despite being shot repeatedly, and where an errant wild rabbit provides a final moment of unexpected poignancy.

Bonus: you can watch The Beast of Yucca Flats on Youtube here!