I’ve spent more time than I care to recall watching movies. A good film is like quality time with a cherished friend, while a truly bad film can be compared to a rectal exam. If I thought about all the 90+ minute segments that have been stolen from my life and added them up, well, that would be a hell of a lot of wasted minutes. There’s a special breed of movie that exists somewhere in the netherworld between good and awful. While they’re technically not good, these films possess a high entertainment factor that transcends conventional notions of awfulness. You won’t find anything by Stanley Kubrick, or David Lean or Akira Kurosawa in the titles below, but you might discover a new favorite…or not:
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
The setting is a presumably alternate-history 1930s when zeppelins never left the skies, men were men and women were dames, and the fate of the world rested in the hands of a lone fighter pilot known as Sky Captain (played by Jude Law). Gwyneth Paltrow is go-getting, ace reporter (Is there any other kind?) Polly Perkins, who’s determined to find the big story, no matter what. It’s an homage to the pulp sci-fi/fantasy magazines of the 1930s and 1940s, displaying a menagerie of giant flying robots, ray guns, weird creatures, a mad scientist and a huge rocket. Director Kerry Conran spared no clichés from pre-WWII movies when bringing his labor of love to sepia-toned life.
Law and Paltrow actually appear to have some chemistry together, trading barbs while dodging numerous computer-generated scenarios. An eyepatch-wearing Angelina Jolie, with a special guest appearance by her lips, tries out her best fake English accent as one of Sky Captain’s old flames. The dialogue never rises above cornball levels, and none of the action is remotely believable, but taken in the right vein, it’s a fun waste of 106 minutes. It’s a trip down nostalgia lane about an era that that never actually existed.
Rumble in the Bronx (1995)
It’s not really NYC, but an incredible simulation! Vancouver, British Columbia is cost effectively substituted for The Big Apple in this Jackie Chan action flick. Of course, the New York I’m aware of doesn’t have a mountain range in the background, but that doesn’t stop the filmmakers from trying to convince us otherwise. Chan fights a street gang that appears to have stepped out of a mid-90s Hot Topic. The drama is on par with a TV Movie of the Week, but it’s all just a flimsy excuse to showcase Chan’s trademark dangerous and elaborate stunts. Rumble in the Bronx is a fun and slight diversion that’s the perfect solution when you need a mental vacation.
This might actually be the best example of Robert Zemeckis’ recent infatuation with motion capture CGI. I don’t normally enjoy this medium, but in this instance it works in spite of itself. Zemeckis’ superficial take on the literary classic turns the title character into a non-stop action hero, fit for the attention deficit generation. It’s audacious, entertaining, and well paced, if not terribly cerebral. The action is accompanied by one of Alan Silvestri’s best scores in years. The motion capture animation could never be accused of looking real, but it certainly allows one to view a fully rendered fantasy world that could not be adequately realized in a more conventional live action film. Only in this world would you believe that Angelina Jolie could be Crispin Glover’s mother.
Flash Gordon (1980)
Dino De Laurentiis’ schmaltzy production updates the old 1930s serial with imaginative sets, large doses of red and gold, and some iffy effects work. Sam Jones stars as Flash, an affable lug who’s over his head, and acting chops, after he’s shanghaied by Topol (the actor, not the toothpaste) to help protect the Earth from certain annihilation. Max Von Sydow chews up the scenery as Ming the Merciless, and a pre-007 Timothy Dalton makes an appearance as Flash’s rival turned ally. It’s like watching a train wreck. You can’t look away, because you’re strangely compelled to see what’s thrown at the screen next. It shouldn’t work, but it does, thanks to the fact that everything is played to maximum camp effect. It’s straight out of the comic book pages, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else or aspire to make any profound statements about the human condition. In a lot of ways, it’s the anti Dark Knight. A word of warning: Once you hear the Queen-penned them song, you won’t get it out of your head for days. Don’t say I didn’t tell you.
Kindergarten Cop (1990)
What’s a dumb movies list without Arnold Schwarzenegger? It’s like a cake without frosting, that’s what! Kindergarten Cop is an uneasy mix of drama and comedy, with a rapid shift in tone in the third act. The dramatic scenes seem weak and incongruous when compared to the comedy scenes, with the whole not adding up to its parts. It’s almost as if two completely different movies were crammed together in an effort to appease Arnie’s action fans while showing audiences that he had a lighter side as well. His scenes as an ersatz kindergarten teacher, completely out his element, are what work for me. Maybe it’s just hearing him exclaim “It’s not a toomah!” that makes me chuckle. Things only get problematic when he steps outside of the kindergarten.
Motel Hell (1980)
“It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters.” Mostly forgotten and slightly underrated, Motel Hell plays like a redneck Sweeney Todd. It never takes itself too seriously, but it does have some memorable scenes, along with a buildup to a great final line. Rory Calhoun is Farmer Vincent, who manages a small motel off the beaten path, and sells his famous smoked meats based on a secret family recipe (Can you guess what the main ingredient is?). Nancy Parsons plays his sister, who probably should have stopped putting her hair in pigtails 40 years ago, who assists Vincent with the motel and other nasty business. Motel Hell’s biggest fault is that it probably winks at the audience a tad too much with regard to some of the victims, such as a cartoonish rock band called Ivan and the Terribles, and an annoying S&M couple. Minor quibbles aside, it’s still a unique and oddly effective horror film. At any rate, it might make you think twice before stopping at a roadside stand for beef jerky. What’s really in a Slim Jim, anyway?
I must confess that I wasn’t crazy about this the first time around, but similar to The Black Hole, it’s grown on me over the years. Krull is the sort of epic adventure story that just isn’t done much anymore (with the notable exception of The Lord of the Rings). One of the film’s selling points is a starfish-shaped weapon called the Glaive. It should be the Krull equivalent of a lightsaber, but it’s actually quite underutilized in the picture, and it doesn’t amount to much more than a MacGuffin. It’s not all that effective either, but at least it looks cool. It’s the usual prince rescuing the princess story that borrows liberally from the Seven Samurai, Star Wars, and many, many others, but it’s a fun romp nevertheless. The milquetoast hero, played by Ken Marshall, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, but you find yourself rooting for him anyway. He somehow manages to round up a band of loyal followers and outlaws to help him rescue the princess from the clutches of the vile Beast. They battle the Beast’s soldiers, called Slayers, who look like a cross between a storm trooper and a crustacean. A definite highlight is a great stop-motion spider and a rousing James Horner score that borrows heavily from his Wrath of Khan score. The whole thing is like sloppy seconds from other adventure flicks, but it’s still worth a watch.
Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)
William Shatner is at his smarmy best, playing small town veterinarian and nature’s gift to womankind Rack Hansen. Hansen likes his beer and the ladies, and not necessarily in that order. He quickly gets up to his knees in killer spiders, as masses of the arachnids gradually take over the town. Kingdom of the Spiders is better than you would think, managing to build a fair amount of tension as the spiders become unstoppable. Will the townspeople survive? Can any woman resist Captain Smirk’s formidable charms? Pop in the DVD and find out!
Clash of the Titans (1981)
Blame the public school system for turning me on to this one. I think this film served as the backbone for any well-planned junior high mythology curriculum, as it showed up in not one but two of my classes. How Laurence Olivier and a lot of other veteran actors got hoodwinked into starring in this, let alone allowing themselves to be billed beneath Harry Hamlin, I’ll never know, but they certainly lend a touch of class to the proceedings. The true stars of the show, however, are the various animated creations of Ray Harryhausen. The stop motion effects might look quaint by today’s standards, but they still possess a timeless quality that could never be duplicated by CGI. Medusa, the main attraction, represents the culmination of Harryhausen’s best work, while Bubo the owl is a definite lowlight.
Godzilla vs. Hedora (AKA: Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) (1971)
It’s the one Godzilla purists love to hate. I’m more of a Godzilla admirer than a purist anyway, so I can say without too much shame that I dug its groovy vibe. Godzilla vs. Hedora is truly a product of its time with funky songs, a trippy dance segment, and random animated interludes. Hedora is the product of sludge and filth that had been dumped into the ocean, resulting in a shape-changing monster that spreads a cloud of smog wherever it goes. It’s a Godzilla movie like no other, with humans taking a bigger role in combating the monster. The film carries a not-too-subtle message about how we are creating our own monsters by destroying the environment, and how it’s up to us to solve it. On that note, Godzilla vs. Hedora remains as timely today as it was 40 years ago.