A few years ago, buoyed by all the positive reviews, I finally got around to watching Atonement. Setting aside my aggressive antipathy towards its female star, you know – the one with a chin like a Seth MacFarlane doodle, I was fully prepared to give it a fair hearing. It was beautifully filmed, reasonably well acted, and managed to keep me engaged, right up until the ending. Now, maybe it was the fault of the critics. They were the ones who’d billed its rug-pulling dénouement as a jaw-dropper to rival the best of M Night Shyamalan, but to me, the whole thing just felt like obtuse narrative retconning. It took the concept of the unreliable narrator and violated it with a rolled up manuscript. In my red mist-addled mood, I made the fatal error of taking to the IMDB message boards to voice my indignation. I even outlined how I’d expected the film to end, being unfamiliar with its source novel by Ian McEwan.
Unsurprisingly, the backlash was swift, brutal and unfailingly condescending. I quickly discovered that Atonement is one of those special films that inspires a loyal, almost obsessive following. And to speak ill of the object of their affection is to invoke the ire of an entire army. They labelled me a troll, a hater and, most annoyingly, too stupid to understand the film’s poetic sophistication. Bollocks. I just didn’t like it. But that’s not enough for some people – they have a pathological need to defend their favourite films from attack, no matter how valid or even-handed the criticism might be.
Nonetheless, this backlash has made me wary of speaking out against the majority opinion where films are concerned. But I’ve had enough. No longer will I be silenced by outspoken enthusiasts. It’s time to tip some cinematic sacred cows.
Let’s start with the most recent item on this list. In many ways I can understand why people fell for Nicolas Winding Refn’s modern masterpiece. After all, it certainly looks and sounds fantastic. Then again, so does Katherine Jenkins, but I could only stand about twenty minutes in her company before making a grab for the Hedex. Looking for a loving recreation of a 1980s aesthetic? You’d be better off playing Grand Theft Auto Vice City – at least that lets you change the radio station.
Drive was released at the perfect time to capitalise on Ryan Gosling’s man-of-the-hour ubiquity, inspiring a tsunami of breathless appreciations of his manly perfection. Unfortunately, I struggled to get past the ugly bomber jacket and the repartee of a trappist monk. He’s supposed to be the strong, silent type, but he makes Harold Lloyd look like Robert Downey Junior. It’s one thing to aim for quiet introspection, but without any dialogue, Gosling resorts to gurning like a spare Grumbleweed.
If you’re going to build a film around the powerful connection between two mismatched characters, they have to have some kind of rapport. I’m no relationship expert, but it takes more than a few coy smiles over a bowl of Cheerios to see into someone’s soul. When Drive was released two years ago, one litigious movie-goer tried to take the studio to court for misrepresenting the film. She claimed that she’d gone in expecting a Fast & Furious knock-off, so she attempted to sue for emotional distress. Maybe she’d have stood more of a chance if she’d blamed it for triggering involuntary narcolepsy – I’d have happily stepped in with some supportive testimony.
Remember all the buzz last year about Prometheus, before the world discovered it was derivative pile of pretentious horseshit? Much of the pre-release excitement trumpeted Ridley Scott’s long awaited return to science-fiction after a thirty-year absence. As the rest of the world worked itself into a state of lightsaber-like tumescence, I was busy preparing for the worst. You see, I’d never fallen for Scott’s style-over-substance approach to futurism. It may cast me firmly in the minority, but I found his adaptation of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? to be an overblown masturbatory tribute to the conceptual designer’s art. As cold, emotionless and synthetic as the androids that Decker is tracking, the Blade Runner dresses itself in spectacular sci-fi drag, but nothing can disguise its utter lack of narrative momentum.
The big concepts around mortality, identity and sense-of-self could have been portrayed just as effectively in a minimalist film noir milieu, and made for a far more compelling experience. Instead, it’s almost as if Ridley was contractually obliged to spend a shitload of cash on building the world outside, when what was going on internally was far more interesting. While Harrison Ford was struggling to locate the man behind the emotionless façade, Ridley’s camera kept rushing to the window to point out another flying car.
When it comes to style over substance, this film wrote the stunningly typeset, immaculately laid-out, limited edition, leather-bound coffee-table book on it. Its fans love the fact that Ridley’s first cut (there have now been 117 different versions released on various home entertainment formats) left the question of Decker’s true nature unanswered; leaving audiences to guess whether he was actually a replicant, like the androids he was hunting down. But surely that’s the whole point of the story? In which case, it’s like The Usual Suspects ending the moment Verbal leaves the detective’s office.
There’s no greater example of the gender divide than the films that each sex takes to its collective heart. For those of us who grew up in the VHS era, there were only ever two contenders – Dirty Dancing and Top Gun. While the fairer sex was busy wearing down the heads in the toploader with scenes of Patrick Swayze molesting a school-girl, the boys were expected to fantasise about buying a pair of Ray-Bans and getting it on with the teacher. Thanks for that, Top Gun.
Tom Cruise had been toying with leading man status for a couple of years, but it was the role of Maverick that cemented his place as the ever-grinning crown prince of Hollywood. With a killer soundtrack, a tried and tested concept (this was An Officer and a Gentleman Part 2 in all but name), and the full support of the US Navy, the film had success written all over it. And it bored me fucking stupid.
As jingoistic military recruitment propaganda goes, Top Gun is a stone-cold classic. As entertainment, not so much. It just doesn’t really work as a film – the characters are as complex as the nicknames they’re all assigned, and the plot is similarly vacant. And yet, despite its egregious simplicity, I always struggled to follow what was going on. There’s never had any real sense of whether the aerial acrobatics taking place are part of a training exercise, or an actual conflict. So the viewer is unsure when they’re supposed to be feeling the adrenalin rush. Stunning aerial photography aside, watching someone else learn to fly a plane is about as compelling as watching Maureen struggle with an Austin Maxi in Driving School. It didn’t help matters that the only fatality took place during a bungled routine - something about jet wash and premature ejections. Is it any wonder that the film’s homoerotic undercurrent has taken on legendary status?
No-one’s ever going to argue that this was a classic film by any conventional critical standards, but I know a lot of people who’ve showered an improbable amount of love on this baffling mess of a movie. It could be that my distaste for Highlander has simply been compounded by the number of times I had to sit through it as a student. My housemates only had one video – this one. And they insisted that we watch it with a torturous regularity.
Over the next couple of years I was able to identify my main problems with Highlander, besides its utterly bewildering plot. For a start, there’s the soundtrack – which turns the film into a musical where no-one sings. Given the cast’s inadequacy at expressing basic human emotions, we have Freddie Mercury to take us through it instead. “Who wants to live forever?” he sings, as Christophe Lambert sets up home with his flaxen-haired beloved, only to watch her age and die. By the time she checks out, we too have felt the crushing ennui of immortality.
The second problem I have is with the casting. Everyone knows that accents are the toughest part of an actor’s gig. So who the merry fuck decided to cast a Frenchman as a Scot, a Scot as an Egyptian, and an ironing board as the love interest? Sean Connery only ever sounds like himself, and Lambert would have been better channelling his grunting ape-man from Greystoke.
And finally, we have Highlander to thank for ushering in a new cinematic phenomenon – the music video director turned film-maker. Mulcahy’s background couldn’t be more obvious if the artist and album details appeared in the bottom left of the screen every three and half minutes. Everything about this film feels like it was lifted from the derivative video of some generic mid-eighties power ballad – all flashing neon, billowing curtains and venetian blinds. So next time you’re suffering through another Michael Bay or McG monstrosity, just remember who blazed this particular trail for them.
From Dusk Till Dawn
Perhaps the most frustrating film on this list, From Dusk Till Dawn should have shoulder-barged its way straight into my top ten of all-time favourites. Tarantino and Rodriguez were a match made in heaven, Clooney was all set to channel his potent charisma onto the big screen, plus it had vampires and a supporting role for the incomparable Tom Savini. What could possibly go wrong? Pretty much everything, as it happens. Starting with Quentin’s decision to take on one of the lead roles, despite an acting career that had peaked with an appearance as an Elvis impersonator in an episode of The Golden Girls.
Tarantino’s self-indulgent performance is just one of many aggravating elements in this shrilly objectionable film. Aside from the “Fuck it, that’ll do” approach to plotting, pacing and characterisation, my real issue was with the ugly seam of misogyny running through it, like ‘Cunt’ through a particularly offensive stick of Blackpool rock. And before you start, I know that this was a film about vampire strippers. Character names like Chet Pussy and Sex Machine didn’t exactly promise an intellectual dissection of the male gaze. But the film lost me early on, with a scene where Richie Gecko gets bored and accidentally rapes and mutilates the woman that he and his brother had kidnapped. The bloody aftermath is bad enough, but the fact that the recriminations between the two siblings are played like an astonishingly dark episode of the Chuckle Brothers, was what really bothered me.
One of the most meaningless phrases in film criticism has to be “It looked like everyone had a blast making it,” largely because watching other people enjoying themselves is no guarantee of fun for the observer. That’s why tramps always look so miserable when they stare through restaurant windows. So Tarantino’s grin as he gets to drink the whisky trickling down Salma Hayek’s thigh is effectively a ‘fuck you’ to everyone in the audience: “I’m having a ball here, and you idiots have paid to watch me do it.”