Bad Pennies

“The whole idea that a movie should be seen only once is an extension of our traditional conception of film as an ephemeral entertainment rather than as a work of art.” ~ Stanley Kubrick


Good films make an impression upon first viewing only to then recede from memory. Great films do not give up their secrets easily. They demand and indeed reward repeated viewings. These are not to be confused with the bad pennies: deeply flawed films that continue to turn up for all the wrong reasons. These are the films that you return to full of hope - whether it be through force of genre or the pedigree of talent involved - only to be reminded how mediocre they are. Here’s a selection of my cinematic ‘bad pennies’, the films which never fail to disappoint and yet I know I’ll give them another chance someday.


Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

I’ve seen this film several times over the years and to this day I could not tell you what the story is. I think it has something to do with a mistaken identity. So why do I go back to it? Well, it stars Rosanna Arquette and Madonna in their prime, the latter giving what is generally considered to be her best performance. But, more than that, it’s a feminist twist on one my favourite sub-genres, the Yuppie Nightmare - a fusion of film noir and screwball comedy - which reached its apex in the mid-80s. After Hours, Into the Night (both 1985) and Something Wild (1986) all feature a ‘square’ protagonist, bored with his routine life, who is drawn into a dangerous but titillating nocturnal adventure by a ‘kooky’ i.e. free spirited, slightly manic woman - a precursor of the controversial Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. By the end of these films the hero has learned a valuable lesson: either he must loosen up and take risks if he is to live a fulfilling life, or he must see the folly of his latent self-destructive impulses and be grateful for what he has.

Sadly as a sub-genre it was relatively short-lived, mutating by the end of the decade into violent erotic thrillers in which a WASPish man is victimised by a deranged femme fatale (a sub-genre of which Michael Douglas is patron saint). This trend was probably a result of widespread cultural panic at the height of the AIDS crisis, when the prospect of illicit sex with strangers was suddenly a genuine threat to one’s life, the inevitable response being to demonise women who don’t conform to traditional WASP values. A decade later, when the AIDS panic had somewhat receded, the genre came full circle with the underrated The Game (1997), followed by a flurry of superior pre-millennial films about repressed white collar men indulging their darker instincts. Fight Club and Eyes Wide Shut are undeniably the artistic high point of the genre, acknowledging that the chaos is not Out There - unconsciously projected onto the Other - but within ourselves, though they lack the playful romance of their progenitors. Not that you’d know this from Desperately Seeking Susan - a forgettable, lumpen mess that squanders its cast with bland direction and a meandering narrative.


Alien³ (1992)

Alien³ (1992)

It could have been so very different. The future director of Se7en and Fight Club paired with a beloved science fiction title at the height of its popularity. Sadly, 20th Century Fox had different plans, which have been well documented elsewhere and which I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say I’ve seen the theatrical release version and the extended version, both since disowned by David Fincher, and neither works. Fincher's intention, as a devotee of the original Alien (1979), was to return the series back to basics, hence the radical decision to ban 'weapons of any kind' from the scenario, much to the chagrin of Aliens fans with a hard-on for Cameron. Although the concept had potential - the Alien as a monster of the Id, unleashed after Ripley crash lands on a male-only prison planet - the hotchpotch of half-baked ideas fail to cohere into a compelling narrative. The ropey visual effects also don’t help. 

Curiously, another of Fincher’s key influences on Alien³ was Withnail and I (1987), of which he was a huge fan at the time and which manifested itself in his casting decisions - specifically Paul McGann and Ralph Brown, while Richard E. Grant was Fincher’s first choice to play the part that went to Charles Dance - and in the penal colony’s dim lighting and foul weather, which recalls the candle light and incessant rain at Crow Crag, the cottage in the Lake District owned by Uncle Monty. This latter fact is not so strange when you consider that Blade Runner’s dystopian cityscape was inspired by the industrial landscape of the Tees Valley (which, by the way, you can see on the homepage of this very website).


Dark City (1998)

Dark City (1998)

I knew exactly what this film’s problem was within five minutes upon seeing it in the cinema nearly twenty years ago, and after rewatching it again recently on Amazon I haven’t altered my opinion: it’s all in the editing. The rhythm of the cutting is all wrong, it’s too fast. If only the film was ten minutes longer it would make all the difference, the scenes would have time to breathe. Sometimes this is a deliberate choice by the filmmaker - Ang Lee springs to mind - but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was studio interference in this case. It’s a shame, as the film has lots to recommend it: a cool concept, lavish production design, and a solid cast that includes Rufus Sewell, Ian Richardson and Jennifer Connelly. To be honest, how anyone could cut away from Jennifer Connelly at all is mystifying to me. She’s typically stunning in Dark City, but blink and you’ll miss her.


(Dis)honourable Mentions:

Bringing out the Dead (1999)

Domino (2005)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Miami Vice (2006)

Elysium (2013)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)