Adventures In Pookie

Run For The Hills: The World’s Best Feel-Bad Films

Making a “feel-bad” movie is not always as easy as some people think; it’s easy to ladle on the misery purely for it’s own sake but this rarely works, eventually your audience will get bored, or worse, laugh. It’s all about context, and with that in mind, let me introduce my picks of those films that it may hard to like, but you have to admire, even if you’re in no hurry for a repeat viewing.

Lilya 4EVER (2002) - You can tell a lot by a movie when you see that one of the extras is a UNICEF documentary, and so it goes with Lukas Moodysson’s third feature, possibly the most upfront account of human trafficking in the modern former Eastern Bloc, and how forgotten some of its young people have become. Featuring an astonishing central performance by Oksana Akinshina, it is a deceptively simple tale of how many little trials and travails in a young life can lead to some deeply disturbing places. Lilya, 16 and recently deserted by her mother and left in the “care” of her aunt, falls foul of local gangs, some dubious friends, and ultimately finds herself on a trip to Sweden to escape her aimless existence, only to find that homelessness at home would have been the least of her worries. As unapologetically grim as it is, it never once gives into self-pity, and with Lilya’s sole friend, the equally erratic Volodya, gives the film real heart, and at the end, a chilling reminder of the pitfalls of complacency in “modern” Europe.

Punishment Park (1971) - I really could have picked anything by Peter Watkins, the king of the faux-documentary, be it “Culloden” showing the eponymous battle as a Brian Hanrahan-style frontline report to devastating effect, or “the War Game” daring to tell the truth about nuclear war at a time when official government advice amounted to little more than “duck and cover”, but it has to be this altogether more ferocious beast, all the more potent for being made at the time of the conflict it satirises, the Vietnam War. Watkins has us follow a camera crew in an undefined near-future, as they document the fate of a group of mostly students with liberal views, held for being deemed a “risk to internal security”. After being tried by a jury of their “peers” they are given the option of serving time in a federal prison or risk three days in “Punishment Park”, 53 miles of scorching California desert, without food or water, and they will be freed. That is as much of the plot as it is safe to give, but Watkins’ genius lies in his casting of non-professional, real people in the roles, firstly in the trial scenes, which give a frightening view of the human condition as it is quite apparent that many of those playing the “authority” figures actually held these abhorrent views, and most specifically in the chase scenes across the park, where the “officers” giving chase are eerily reminiscent of those from the infamous “Stanford Experiment”. Factor in the fate of the poor film crew, and you have possibly the best political treatise on film.

Pretty Woman (1990) - No, this isn’t a joke, I genuinely find this film astonishingly depressing for many reasons; the only positive to come from it is that Julia Roberts somehow managed to forge a career and inexplicably used this as a springboard. The story is a simple one, lonely businessman Richard Gere can’t face going to function alone, so hires hot hooker Roberts for a few days to pose as his girlfriend, which would have made for an interesting morality tale, especially at turn of the 1990’s. Instead what we get is Gary Marshall’s grotesquely offensive take on “Cinderella”, right down to the ugly sisters in the clothing store. The irony is that both central characters are essentially rather likeable, but the story arc is so ludicrous, and the villains of the piece so caricaturish, that by the “happy” ending, all you can really do is either laugh or shake your head at the crassness of the stereotypes and the dubious message the film sends. How this monstrosity has become a chick-flick classic is beyond me.

Dancer In The Dark (2000) - OK, so I shamelessly admit to being a worshiper of both Lars Von Trier and Bjork as artists in their own right, and it is not a secret to anyone who knows me how much I adore this film, but even taking an objective view, I really believe it is a masterpiece, and also has the distinction of being the world’s foremost feel-shit musical. Bjork plays Czech immigrant worker Selma, working for a pittance in a sink factory in backwoods 60’s America, living in a trailer park, and saving for an operation for her young son to stop him succumbing to the hereditary degenerative condition which is slowly but surely blinding her. Not exactly the happiest of settings and, this being a Von Trier movie, needless to say further misery is never far away. But where in the hands of lessor mortals this could have been a Dogme take on “Madam X”, Lars’ assembled cast, including Daivd Morse, Jean-Marc Barr, Catherine Deneuve and of course a devastating Bjork in the lead, give this real clout.

Even for those not particularly familiar with, or fond of, Bjork’s music cannot deny the power of the musical sequences, as Selma becomes overcome in her circumstances, she begins to “see” the world around her as one of her beloved Hollywood musicals, complete with melodies and rhythms made from everyday surroundings, from the clatter of sinks in the factory to even simply footsteps. And with her landlord the local police Chief having a wife with an unfortunate spending habit, it’s not long before Selma’s money is going missing and her life starts to spiral. Bjork’s performance is the glue holding all this together, and gives one of the most unforgettable performances ever in film, and the ending is one of the bravest in cinema history.

Requiem For A Dream (2000) - And so we come to what may now be one of the most infamous “feel-bads” around, Darren Aronofsky’s brutally literal adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr,’s hymn to addiction and loss featuring arguably two of the finest ever female performances in film, courtesy of the wonderful Ellen Burstyn and Jennifer Connelly. The story of a mother her son, his girlfriend and his best friend, this is a stark portrayal of four people dealing in their own way with the shit life has thrown at them, and how they try to block ignore these scenarios, be it through television, prescription medication or drugs and prostitution. It is a film that is given little justice by giving a plot synopsis, but is better to be experienced, featuring as it does career-best performances from all involved, particularly from Damon Wayans showing what he dramatic potential he really has, and Connelly starring the world’s least erotic sex scene ever, but most of all Burstyn, proving why she is really the only person on the planet who can outdo Meryl Streep in terms of sheer believability and characterisation. Truly unforgettable.

Threads (1984) - Notorious among children of the early-80’s as the BBC docudrama that terrified a nation, this must sit as the pinnacle of grim film-making but also as the best piece of television ever produced in Britain, possibly anywhere. Made at a time when the pressing of the “big red button” was still very real, this takes the microcosmic view of a nuclear holocaust as seen through only the eyes of two families in Sheffield, starting before the attack with the courtship of Ruth and Jimmy, to thirteen years later, when Britain has almost reverted to a Year Zero scenario. A minuscule budget meant that writer Barry Hines (of “Kes” fame) and director Mick Jackson (who would later direct the rather more commercial “Volcano”) had to be inventive, but by God do they make you believe. Every eventuality of the aftermath is played out in excruciating but never gratuitous detail, from the failure of local government in the immediate weeks after the bombs drop, to the nuclear winters that follow. Add to this is the semi-documentary feel complete with voice-over by Paul Vaughn and on-screen factoids informing us of the increasing death toll, and you have what to my mind is the most important piece of broadcasting of any era.

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My Favourite Movie Casting Oddities

OK, so after talking to many friends about this I have decided to make a proper go of this blogging business. Like many people, my fantasy occupation would be as a critic of some sort, preferably film, so if I’m serious about it I have to start somewhere, wish me luck, all opinions welcomed, even if it’s to correct my typos. Also let me know if you want a piece written on any particular subject and I will happily oblige. Here goes…

For my first article I thought I’d begin with those moments when you’re watching a movie and suddenly an actor or actress appears in a role and your mind just boggles, for better or worse. It would be very easy to take the piss here, but I’m going to try to be constructive. Here goes…

1 - Denise Richards as Dr Christmas Jones in The World Is Not Enough: OK, so I admit it’s hardly difficult to find fault with the lovely Denise, but even with her limited range (she can just about do ditzy comedy) this really is pushing it for her to be believed as a nuclear scientist, especially when they relegate Sophie Marceau to little more than a cipher, and the “Christmas” joke at the end still makes me clench.

2 - Richard Burton as Father Philip Lamont in Exorcist II: The Heretic: A hard one to get my head around this, as was the film in general as the original is my favourite film of all time; I just don’t get who was directing Burton here, and how. The film has flashes of great ideas, and God knows Louise Fletcher wrestles bravely with a bonkers screenplay that takes in synchronized hypnosis, Linda Blair’s Regan as a “healer” and some wildly bizarre African set nonsense, but the real oddity is Burton. He’s not awful per se, but rather seems beamed in from a completely different movie, him treating it as a Hammer-esque skin-creeper in his amazing baritone (“She warned us!”) against Fletcher’s more modern, straight-faced take. No studio would touch it now, but one that I feel deserves a proper attempt at a remake.

3 - John Wayne as The Centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told: Director George Stevens was never knowingly subtle in his storytelling or direction, but having John “don’t let him speak more than two lines at a time” Wayne as a southern-accented centurion - “This man is truly the Sonnagaad!” - is an unintentional comedy masterstroke.

4 - Alec Baldwin as Lamont Cranston in The Shadow: Not a bad casting here, just sadly before it’s time, as back in 1994 superhero movies were treated with as much respect as slasher horrors. Shame really, as Baldwin turns in a really good, thoughtful performance with a good character arc in a faithful story with some great (for the time) effects. If made today with someone like Guillermo Del Toro attached, this could be great fun. As long as they keep the Jim Steinman theme tune too though.

5 - Sharon Stone as Gloria in Gloria OR as Laurel Hedare in Catwoman: A double-whammy of bad decisions here from Stone, a talented actress with a sad history of dubious choices. For me personally, John Cassavettes’s “Gloria” should never have been touched in the first place, being one of Gena Rowlands defining roles, so no-one was going to come close. And with the farrago of “Catwoman” already widely documented, all I can say is something must have went seriously awry between page and screen. Makes “Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction” seem quite appealing in comparison.

6 - Andie MacDowell as Jane Porter in Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan: Little to say here other than, even given that she was just starting out, just exactly HOW bad does an actor have to be before their entire voice is redubbed by another, especially in a modern, English-language film (Glenn Close in this case)?

7 - Faye Dunaway as Selena in Supergirl: A classic case of “I’m bored Mr Agent, find me a role”, the former Oscar winner pushes camp to the limit (backed by an equally hammy Peter O’Toole) in a performance that would have made Divine blush.

8 - Raul Julia as M. Bison in Streetfighter: Back in the dark days when video-game adaptations were in their infancy (not that they are exactly masterpieces today) this must have seemed like an interesting diversion for the thoroughly likeable Julia, so let’s just pretend this wasn’t his final role and try to remember him as the brilliant Gomez Adams.

9 - Frank Langella as Skeletor in Masters Of The Universe: Made almost completely after the fact of the animated TV series, one can only imagine that arguably America’s greatest living stage actor was convinced to do this piece of weak-even-for-five-year-olds silliness either for the money, or that he owed some pretty big favours to someone at Golan-Globus at the time. Just awful all round; creepy (in the wrong way) make-up, nonsensical plotting, and a leading man with acting ability and screen presence of a cauliflower, Langella at least seems to make up for it by being the only one who seems to be having any fun.

10 - Sean Connery as Captain Marko Ramius in The Hunt For Red October: Almost as notorious for his lack of effort with accents as Meryl Streep is revered for her skill with them, here even Connery seems so uninterested he may as well be reading from an auto-cue for all the dramatic tension his character provides.

11 - Peter Saarsgard as Gene Carson in Flightplan: One of my favourite movie turd-polishers (along with Julie Walters, Stellan Skarsgard (no relation) and Brian Cox), Saarsgard can normally be relied on to inject a bit of depth and reality to even the most preposterous of films. Sadly, in this case, his not-much-of-a-red-herring character is so moustache-twiddlingly obvious from the start, there is really no point bothering. And that’s before you factor in Jodie Foster’s histrionic paranoid mother and Sean Bean’s plummy-accented pilot.

12 - Ralph Fiennes as Christopher Marshall in Maid In Manhattan: No-one is denying that Fiennes is one of Britain’s finest acting talents of his time (Quiz Show, Spider and In Bruges being stunning examples of his craft) but this awful vanity project by Jennifer Lopez - determined to make her name as a romantic lead for some unknown reason - should really be forgotten by all concerned, with Fiennes’s character being bland almost to the point of non-existence.

13 - George Clooney as Bruce Wayne in Batman And Robin: Talk about second chances; here the freshly-minted Clooney almost derailed his Hollywood career before it started, in what is now famed as possibly one of the worst films of any genre, and certainly a benchmark in franchise-killing. How he must thank his lucky (Hollywood) stars for that first meeting with Steven Soderbergh.

14 - Madonna as Abbie Reynolds in The Next Best Thing: As with Ms Lopez, a woman of great talent and sex-appeal on stage that somehow assumes this will translate into celluloid presence, she really should stick to comedy (A League Of Their Own) or a film where she is willing to REALLY be directed (Evita or the little-seen Dangerous Game/Snake Eyes by Abel Ferrara), and not indulge in patronizing (to just about every demographic) schmaltz like this. And finally…

15 - Ben Affleck, Peter O’Toole, Rose McGowan and Liev Schrieber as Sheriff Bryce Hammond, Dr. Timothy Flyte, Lisa Paige and Deputy Stuart ‘Stu’ Wargle (dis)respectively for Phantoms: And we finish on a flourish (of sorts). Dean Koontz adaptations don’t exactly come with high expectations, but somehow this more-than-capable cast manages to make a fist of what is really little more than a remake of The Fog, with a screenplay that seems to require every character to try to be more obnoxious than the other in order to confuse/bore the viewers/victims into not giving a shit what is happening in their badly-designed and built movie-set of a town. Lessons were learned thankfully; O’Toole stopped doing the schlock, Affleck finally found his groove behind the camera, McGowan went on to reinvent herself as the action chick with actual acting talent, and Schrieber quietly took his place as Frank Langella’s rightful heir to the throne of the US theatre (and making remakes vaguely respectable).

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My favourite creepy holiday photo! xx

My favourite creepy holiday photo! xx