Monday, 27 August 2012

Heathers (1988)

Did your high school have a know-it-all? A too-smart-for-his-own-good kid in a uniform of Converse sneakers, plaid shirts and sunglasses, with ambitions of facial hair? A kid who always arrived late for class, then sat in the back row peppering the teacher with cynical asides, smugly correcting the grammar mistakes in handouts and generally making it impossible to get any real work done? A kid who later spent his college years in a shitty garage band "without a genre" or as a half-baked political activist before abruptly selling out and going to law school? I know this isn't a standard high school cliche like The Jock or The Cheerleader, but am I sort of ringing some bells here? Well, Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1988) is the cinematic equivalent of your standard high-school know-it-all. It's almost always right; it's almost never kind; and its caustic wit is sharp and clever, but too cruel to be really funny.

September from the "Croquet Babes in Blazers" calendar.
Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) has bitten and scratched her way up Westerburg High's pecking order, only to find that being at the top of the food chain disagrees with her stomach. Her peers in the teenage aristocracy -- the totally vile Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) and slightly less monstrous Heathers Duke (Shannen Doherty) and McNamara (Lisanne Falk) -- entertain themselves by tormenting their classmates, a hobby their victims passively accept until transfer student J. D. (Christian Slater) comes to town. Before you can say "Swatch dogs and Diet Cokeheads", J. D.'s seduced Veronica into serving Heather Chandler a fatal antifreeze cocktail. Her death kickstarts a vogue for teenage suicide at Westerburg, and when Veronica tries to right matters, she's nearly offed by the nutso J. D. Our heroine finally manages to save the day seconds before J. D. blows up the school: Heathers' ending, in which Veronica lights a cigarette off the explosion that consumes J. D.'s body and wryly declares "there's a new sheriff in town", is among the most deeply satisfying I've seen, despite its being a studio-mandated rewrite.

Heathers falls prey to an assumption that's pretty pervasive in high school genre flicks: that all high school kids, from the 7th graders to the seniors, are equally barbaric to each other. I don't buy this. Maybe my senior high school years were sheltered, but no one was really that horrible to me. I endured the same insecurities I assume my peers did, but most of my highly tragic inner turmoil was self-inflicted; no one else really messed with me. That's why I'm always a little skeptical regarding movies about the wanton cruelty of 11th and 12th graders. By the time kids are talking about college, most have matured beyond torturing each other for the sheer joy of it. The kind of malicious cafeteria politics depicted in films like Heathers (or the more recent, and funnier, Mean Girls) as taking place between older kids seems more suited to 7th or 8th graders. In my experience, by the time they're old enough to drive, high schoolers more closely resemble the characters of Daria, Election or The Breakfast Club -- they endure tiffs and rivalries, but they don't dogmatically despise less "popular" classmates simply by virtue of their existence.

Heathers has a fantastic script, not a single line of which sounds like anything a real human being would ever say, some ravishingly bizarro costumes, and a bevy of drop-dead (hee hee) gorgeous actresses who do not resemble any 16-year-old who ever walked this planet. Best of all, its heart is in entirely the wrong place. This movie is not interested in exploring the deep, underlying causes of teenage anguish. It doesn't want to make you feel better. Instead, it's an extended snigger at the expense of the common enough adolescent misconception that unhappiness is somehow ennobling. Self-destruction is one of this society's last sacred cows, and Heathers' amoral inconclasm is occasionally obnoxious, but also endearing in spite of itself. Its heroines are from a different, darker valley than the Disney dolls who populate teen movies nowadays: they drink and have sex, and how complicit Veronica is in Heather Chandler's murder is admirably left ambiguous. All in all, I do recommend Heathers, although it can be more bewildering than enjoyable. I'll stand by any movie where a band called Big Fun releases the single "Teenage Suicide: Don't Do It!"

Suspenders: are they right for you?
SCENE STEALER: Shannen Doherty's Heather Duke gets the clearest narrative arc of all the Heathers: the second she gets her hands on the deceased Heather Chandler's trademark red scrunchie, Duke goes from the sweet, long-suffering underdog of the Heathers to the wicked queen of Westerburg High. Absolute power corrupts her absolutely, and Veronica's disbelief and horror at the change that has been wrought upon her "friend" are believable enough: Doherty's china-doll face and doe eyes belie the horrible transformation that has taken place. I haven't seen Shannen Doherty in anything else, but my understanding is that she got to be kind of a big deal later, which doesn't surprise me. She's the only actress playing a "Heather" who's able to imbue her character with a soul, twisted though it may be. Hooray for Shannen Doherty! P. S., I know this is not a big deal and does not have the slightest bearing on her talent as an actress at all, but have you noticed the way one of her eyes is higher up than the other one?


Yikes.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

To Rome With Love (2012)

I'm a Woody Allen fan, in a mild, non-committal sort of way. Luckily (or not) To Rome With Love (2012) is a mild, non-committal sort of movie. It mostly gives the impression that Woody Allen wanted to take a vacation, chose Rome, and as an afterthought, decided to make a movie while he was there.

Rome if you want to.
To Rome With Love anthologizes four stories: provincial newlyweds Milly and Antonio (Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi) have their small-town naivety shattered while vacationing in Rome (good), a sage old architect (Alec Baldwin) gives a wet-behind-the-ears architectural student (Jesse Eisenberg) romantic advice (better), an ordinary man (Roberto Benigni) wakes up famous (boring), and a retired producer (Woody Allen) discovers an operatic talent (Fabio Armiliato) who only sings in the shower (irritating). If the latter two stories had been cut and the spare time spent focusing on the first two, To Rome With Love would have been the better for it. As it stands, it's a bit like one of those "grab bags" you can sometimes buy from online shops: one or two good things, and the rest is stuff you have no interest in.

If I was to rate each of these stories on its own, I'd give the architects a 4/5; the love triangle is the oldest story in the book, but the young student's disappearing-reappearing mentor is a refreshing conceit. I'd give the newlyweds a 3/5: the coquettish Milly is allowed to surprise us, and Penelope Cruz is amusing as the hooker Antonio forces to impersonate the absent Milly at his important business meeting. I'd give the opera singer 2/5: it's a one-note gag (pardon the pun) strained to the breaking point, but Woody Allen and Judy Davis are at least diverting as bickering retirees. And I'd give Benigni's famous/not-famous switcharoo a 1/5: it's briefly entertaining, but there's really no story here. Even if this is how Allen feels about fame deep down -- that one day you just wake up and the entire world wants to know what you had for breakfast -- he might have been better off venting his frustrations to his shrink than to paying audiences.

Rome around the world.
SCENE STEALER: I'd be a bad Haligonian if I didn't plug Ellen Page, who plays pretentious starlet Monica in the tale of two architects. Casting Page as the selectively heartless Monica was a clever move on Allen's part -- a more traditionally bodacious femme fatale would have consigned the character to cliche, but Page is elfin and sad-eyed and the audience, like her target, doesn't see the danger until it's too late. Even then, we're all like "is she really going to sleep with her best friend's boyfriend on her best friend's couch? Really? Oh, they're going to do it in the car? That's fine, then." Who can stay mad at Ellen Page?

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

I saw The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012) at a midnight screening on opening night, and I wasn't impressed. In fact, I fell asleep in the middle. That said, it was 2 AM and I'd been watching Batman for eight hours (they were showing Batman Begins and The Dark Knight beforehand, and I can't resist a movie marathon), so I thought I'd give the film another shot before I said anything mean on the internet. Now that I've seen it twice, though, I've made up my mind: The Dark Knight Rises may be enjoyable, but it's definitely disappointing. The film is smarter (not to mention longer) than most summer blockbusters, but it doesn't reach the bar set by Begins and TDK. This trilogy deserved a better finish.

Dancing cheek to cheek.
The Dark Knight Rises has the dubious distinction of being a Batman movie which features very little Batman. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has holed himself up in Wayne Manor, Howard Hughes-style, and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is the first person to see him in eight years when she pops upstairs to steal his fingerprints and his mother's pearl necklace. Pursuing Kyle leads Wayne to Bane (Tom Hardy), but not in time to keep the masked baddie from imprisoning the entire Gotham police force and turning the city into a lawless no man's land (sound familiar?). Anarchy isn't what Bane really wants, though. Bane is with the nefarious League of Shadows, and what he really wants is to blow Gotham to smithereens: in fact, he's acquired a nuclear weapon for the occasion. Bane breaks Wayne's spine and tosses him into a Middle Eastern prison to keep him out of the way, but these are piddling trifles to Batman and soon enough he's back to save the day. This is accomplished through a large number of dull action sequences, and finally Batman and Catwoman are able elope to Europe (either that or Alfred [Michael Caine] is going senile). In the end, a young Gotham ex-cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is left to take over as Gotham's newest masked sheriff.

Many, many critics have identified the parallels between Bane's ragtag anarchists and the Occupy  movement (there's even a scene where Bane and his goons storm the Gotham equivalent of Wall Street, terrorizing the poor, helpless capitalists). Chris Nolan has been very coy on the subject, but he's not fooling anyone. This movie's politics are abhorrent, not because they're conservative but because they're cheap. Think about the function of the nuclear bomb in this movie: why does Bane need it if Gotham's common folk will tear each other apart in the absence of the law? TDKR's nuclear MacGuffin exists so that Nolan doesn't have to follow the logic of Bane's "villainy", and Batman's "rescue" to its inevitable conclusion: that Batman must save Gothamites from a world without prisons, police, and the Patriot Act (which the film renames the Dent Act for easier digestion). In essence, he must save the people of Gotham from an enemy worse than the Scarecrow, Two-Face, or even the Joker: themselves. Some studio bigwig must have clued in that this was a moral which mere commoners might find unpalatable, and demanded that the nuclear weapon be added in as well just to make it really clear that Batman was the good guy. Ain't nobody gonna argue with a nuke.

I'll let the Green Arrow handle this one.
Even apart from its politics, The Dark Knight Rises retains the weaknesses of the previous two Dark Knight movies without retaining their strengths. Bloated runtime? Check. Hokey script? Check. The B-movie tricks Nolan puts his A-list actors through here are cringe-worthy. Michael Caine is made to deliver a bathetic monologue to a grave marker. Gary Oldman is made to spend three quarters of the film gasping pithy truisms from a hospital bed. Marion Cotillard is made to die very slowly while delivering death-rattle exposition. It's like watching race horses being forced to give pony rides. And unfortunately, the dark realism that sold Nolan's previous films is on shakier ground here. Between his ridiculous mask and his shallow motives, Bane never quite makes it out of comic-book territory. Additionally, the mask muddies his dialogue: since Bale's bat-rasp is back full force, "dramatic" conversations between the two verge on incomprehensible. Also, why is it that every time Bruce Wayne leaves America, it's suddenly Batman in Clicheland? I've counted exactly four geographical locations in The Dark Knight universe: the Middle East, the Far East, Russia (where they make ballerinas), and Gotham. TDKR's treatment of Talia (Marion Cotillard) and Bane's far-off origins reminds me a little of the "filthy Eastern ways" gag in Help! (1965), but Richard Lester was playing it for laughs and Nolan apparently means us to believe that there's a prison somewhere out there that is literally just a huge hole in the ground. How can anyone be expected to take this seriously? What happens when it rains?

This review is harsher than I meant it to be. The Dark Knight Rises isn't bad. It's maybe a 3/5. But it could have been so much more. As far as the Seven Stages of Grief go, I'm still in the "bargaining" stage with this movie. If there had only been a better script... if they'd edited more tightly... but no. The Dark Knight Rises is what it is: a sprawling, grim, and perhaps deliberately inflammatory finish for an equally dark, and often equally exasperating, series. I saw Batman Begins five times and The Dark Knight six, but with The Dark Knight Rises, I think I'm gonna stop at two. I've had enough Nolan for a while.

Meow.
SCENE STEALER: Anne Hathaway's wonderful Selena Kyle (she's never actually called Catwoman) is the high point of this movie: the only bad thing about the character is that she's underused. If every second of the usually riveting Marion Cotillard's screen time had been given to Hathaway instead, the latter would still leave us hungry and the former would hardly be missed. Kyle is wry, self-aware, and instantly more sympathetic than the film's ostensible hero -- when she warns Bruce Wayne that he's "going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us," you not only believe her, you kinda look forward to it, too. I'm glad to see that the Catwoman character has not, after all, been forever tainted by you-know-what-movie (Batman geeks: the healing process may now commence).

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Pulp Fiction (1994)

I'm going to take a break from the Batmania today to take a gander at Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994). This film was Tarantino's second home run, following 1992's Reservoir Dogs (I guess he probably spent 1993 mucking around as the screenwriter on Tony Scott's True Romance). Pulp Fiction earned Tarantino the mass approval his earlier work never drummed up (including that ultimate bourgeois booby-prize, an Academy Award) and that's the story of How Tarantino Became King of the Movies.

Long may he reign.
Pulp Fiction follows multiple story threads: gangster Vincent Vega's (John Travolta) date with his boss' wife (Uma Thurman); a boxer (Bruce Willis) accepting a bribe to fix a match, then winning anyway and leaving town; a pair of gangsters (Travolta again, plus Samuel L. Jackson) cleaning up post-wetworks. The stories don't happen in any special order, so the characters wander in and out of each other's worlds, generally to destructive effect. When the dust has settled, there have been near-death experiences, there have been actual death experiences, there have been rapes, drug overdoses, botched robberies and dance-offs. It's not too surprising that the movie wraps on Jules Winnfield (Jackson's thug) decision to retire: after a nearly three-hour run time, he's had enough of this shit.

Truthfully, I'm not interested in talking about whether Pulp Fiction is a good or bad movie. It's neither. Tarantino has been called a DJ rather than a director, and rather than taking this as an insult, I think it's the most useful way to interpret his work. His innovations are structural: they have nothing to do with the narrative content. We've seen, for instance, the aged boxer and the mob boss a million times before. What we've never seen is the boxer save the mob boss from sadomasochistic hillbilly pawn-shop owners with a handy katana. That's where things get interesting. Even Tarantino's widely-touted dialogue is not so much novel as unexpected. I've had lots of stupid conversations with my friends about TV show pilots and what to eat for breakfast. It's just that we expect people up on the silver screen to be a little more erudite.

If you know a lot about movies and pop culture in general, you are likely to enjoy Pulp Fiction. If you are not particularly fascinated by McDonald's menus from France or doing the Twist in tacky fifties diners, you might want to give it a miss. It's the cinematic equivalent of D+D's neutral-neutral, and therefore un-rateable: you'll get out of Pulp Fiction however much you can put into it. I give it a 1-5/5, depending.

Blueberry pancakes play a pivotal role in this movie.
SCENE STEALER: Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer as Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, lovesick robbers who impulsively turn their brunch into a stick-em-up. Pumpkin and Honey Bunny bookend Pulp Fiction, pulling their guns just before the starting credits roll and being politely sent packing by Jules and Vincent at the close of the film. Although this is one of those movies where you want to learn more about all the characters (the fascinating Mia Wallace disappears after the first act, one of Pulp Fiction's only major disappointments), Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are unique in that they almost seem to deserve a movie of their own. Who are these British brigands? Did love or crime come first? How did they wind up inhaling pancakes in a lousy LA diner? I guess we'll never know.