Heathers

September 28, 2012

The wicked new film Heathers plays a bit like Dr. Strangelove Goes to High School. In other words, the problems, fears, and anxieties of the teen years are handled here with a blackly comic edge that occasionally topples over into surrealism.

The fact that Heathers treats teen murder and suicide as appallingly funny has led it to be deemed controversial, although it must be so only among people who have no sense of humor. Heathers is unblinking and uproarious, and like any good black comedy, its exaggerations seem uncannily on target. (Has any nuclear-anxiety film been more accurate than the exaggerated Dr. Strangelove?)

Heathers focuses on the most powerful clique in school, three snotty girls named Heather, plus their newest member, Veronica (Winona Ryder). The Heathers are ruthless and iron-willed, given to pulling unspeakably cruel pranks and delivering withering put-downs. (When an unpopular student tries unsuccessfully to kill herself after a rash of apparent suicides strikes the school, a Heather shrugs: “Just another example of a geek imitating the popular people and failing miserably.”)

Soon Veronica chafes at the horror of the Heathers, especially after she meets an anti-social rebel named J.D. (Christian Slater) who talks like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. They team up to take revenge on the Heathers, a revenge that quickly turns to murder.

Like many black comedies, Heathers has some problems resolving itself. But along the way it bristles with savage invention: Veronica and J.D. arguing over whether to included the word “myriad” in an invented suicide note for one of their victims; a Heather absent-mindedly moussing her hair with holy water at a funeral; two high school studs in their open coffins with their football helmets on.

Along with another winning performance by Winona Ryder (the morbidly inclined daughter in Beetlejuice), Heathers introduces two first-timers behind the camera: director Michael Lehmann, whose dead-on approach perfectly suits the wild happenings, and screenwriter Daniel Waters, author of some of the most quotable dialogue of the year.

I interviewed Waters when he was in Seattle for the film’s debut at the Seattle International Film Festival. Waters is a 26-year-old who, upon arriving in Hollywood, worked at a video store for a year and a half while writing Heathers, his first attempt at a feature script.

“My naivete paid off,” he said, “I didn’t write something to be commercial, and it sold.” Independent studio New World made the film, but during filming, Waters said, “there was great suspense over whether New World would find out what we were making, and come and close down the set.”

New World did balk at the movie’s original ending, in which the heroine blows herself up and attends “A prom in heaven, with all the dead characters coming back to life.”

Incidentally, Waters swears that Heathers is not the revenge of someone who hated his own school. “It weirds a lot of people out,” he said, “but I liked high school.”

First published in the Herald, May 18, 1989

Twenty years later Waters returned to the Seattle International Film Festival with his movie Sex & Death 101, and I interviewed him again. His manner was about the same, I am glad to report. Heathers turned into kind of a classic, which it deserves.

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Deepstar Six

September 27, 2012

Not every movie released this January is going to be a thoughtful, serious film along the lines of Mississippi Burning or The Accidental Tourist. No, there’s also room for trash. And trash describes Deepstar Six, a dopey but curiously welcome little science-fiction contraption.

Deepstar Six is utterly without an original concept, but it does have a certain B-movie kick. It borrows from Alien, Jaws, and just about every other successful horror film of recent years, with a bit of The Poseidon Adventure thrown in.

It takes place in a high-tech research lab sitting on the bottom of the ocean, where scientists are doing whatever it is scientists are always doing in these movies, and the military is preparing an undersea base for nuclear missiles. When a cave under the ocean floor collapses, something nasty gets out. Something nasty and, apparently, hungry.

You can see Alien creeping in. Actually, this sea monster is something of a red herring (ahem) since the crew’s real problem is in leaving the lab before a nuclear detonation occurs (a boneheaded engineer mistakenly set the controls to self-destruct). So the valiant scientists must find a way to liftoff while keeping shy of the sea beast.

Okay, it’s dumb. But if you have a fondness for the conventions of funky 1950s sci-fi movies, Deepstar Six is easy to take. For instance, it is traditional in these movies that the women scientists are shapely PhD.s who like to wear tank tops. That tradition thrives in Deepstar Six.

Director Sean S. Cunningham, whose place in cinema history is assured thanks to his creation of the Friday the 13th series, takes his time about setting up the situation and then letting the good times roll. Granted, the characters are cardboard and the special effects are cheesy, but that’s part of the fun.

Even the actors are a surprisingly decent bunch. Taurean Blacque (of “Hill Street Blues”) is the captain. Greg Evigan and Nancy Everhard are the young couple in love. Cindy Pickett (“St. Elsewhere”) is the capable doctor, and Miguel Ferrer steals the show as the crew’s coward (there’s always one).

Plus, they’re not writing dialogue like this anymore: “That thing killed half our crew. I want it dead.” And: “When we get out of this, I’ll marry you in a minute.” And my favorite: “Wait a minute. There’s something in the airlock!” So who can resist?

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

“Dopey but curiously welcome” strikes me as a legitimate subgenre of movies. But I haven’t found this one welcome enough to view since then.


Dangerous Liaisons

September 26, 2012

Dangerous Liaisons is the slightly more pronounceable title given to the movie version of the Broadway hit, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Christopher Hampton. In any language, the movie is witchy fun, though overall it’s a bit underwhelming.

Hampton’s play was drawn from the 1782 French novel by Choderlos de Laclos, in which a pair of cold-blooded aristocrats play a sort of sexual parlor game with other peoples’ lives, only to trigger their own comeuppances. The central character seems to be the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), a “conspicuously charming” seducer; but he is in fact manipulated by the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close), a waspish widow.

They wager that Valmont will seduce the most virtuous woman in France and also deflower a young bride-to-be (Uma Thurman), all during a summer stay at a lavish estate. Valmont is successful, of course, but he finds himself uncharacteristically moved by the innocent Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer).

The web that Hampton and director Stephen Frears are spinning here is designed to catch their amoral characters, and it is, for the most part, elegantly managed. The script is laced with sharp, pointed insults and double entendres; when Valmont flatters himself over seducing the young virgin, the Marquise derides the conquest as “insultingly simple. One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat.” You can’t help thinking that the whole thing plays like “Dynasty” in powdered wigs.

Through all of this, as enjoyable as it often is, I had a sense that it wasn’t quite coming off. Frears, who is better known for his looks at English blue-collar life (My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid), is a fine director and he handles the change in scenery adeptly. Like Amadeus, the movie features American actors, without pretentious posturing or the traditional stuffy approach to such material. (Frears told Premiere magazine, “It’s a film like all my others; about sex, power, money…I enjoy playing off the modern sentiments against the facny dress. Of course, scholars of French literature will undoubtedly be appalled.”)

Some of my reservations have to do with the cast. The smaller roles are fine: Swoosie Kurtz as an anxious mother, Thurman as the young virgin, Keanu Reeves as her doe-eyed suitor. But Close and Malkovich dominate. Close, who carries over a certain Fatal Attraction vibe to the role, is small-eyed and crafty, and suitably wicked.

Malkovich (the black marketer in Empire of the Sun) is such an odd actor, and this is an odd part for him. Malkovich is not a conventionally attractive guy, and the Casanova role seems an awkward fit. He remains a cold figure, although what happens to him at the end of the film clarifies the character. It’s something of a stumbling block for the movie, and it’s one of the reasons I doubt Dangerous Liaisons will seduce its way to being a hit.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

It was enough of a hit, and won three Oscars, and probably should have won one for Glenn Close. Malkovich’s lizard-like qualities threw me, but it’s a casting inspiration, no doubt about it. The competing DL movie, Milos Forman’s Valmont, had to wait for this one to get out of the way, and then quietly died when it opened a year later. Too bad it wasn’t made in the era of the instant reboot.


Until September

September 25, 2012

An American woman stranded in Paris. A handsome Frenchman whose wife is away for the month. An accidental meeting. A budding affair. The lights of Paris, the wine, the music….

But, mon ami, we have seen all this before, non? Well, oui, dozens of times. Still, Until September has the courage of its clichés—problem is, it just tries to run right over them, rather than trying to find a way around them.

Karen Allen, of Raiders of the Lost Ark, plays the American divorcee who misses her plane in Paris. She drops into a friend’s pad, but the friend is on vacation for the month of August, as most Parisians are.

Living next door is a gorgeous banker (Thierry Lhermitte, of My Best Friend’s Girl) who is alone and fair game: his wife is out of town and his mistress has left him. He is more than willing to help our heroine find the best restaurant and the coziest bed in town. She resists the latter for a while, but comes around finally. Which leads to the exposure of much bare skin, and a splendid time by both.

But those nagging questions about his wife and children, visiting relatives until September, are bound to crop up in stories such as this. Otherwise things would be disgustingly blissful, and there’s nothing dramatic about that. So they bicker, but it’s all set against the Eiffel Tower and the Seine River (and set to John Barry’s rather nice romantic music).

It’s a pretty sappy movie, but a somewhat likable one. Actually, Until September is leavened with a sprightly sense of humor about itself. Until the Serious Questions start getting raised in the last third of the movie, there’s some fun to be had.

Karen Allen is obviously enjoying herself as the spunky Yank. And Lhermitte displays a smooth comic style, including  physical comedy, which he gets to do in the film’s final sequence: a chase through an airport. Don’t romance movies always end in airports?

The director, Richard Marquand, most recently helmed the final installment of the Star Wars series, Return of the Jedi. It’s understandable that he would want to make a small film after that gargantuan job, and Until September is certainly modest in its ambitions.

Marquand’s Eye of the Needle, made a couple of years earlier, marked him as a director to watch. In that sense, Until September is a disappointment, because it certainly isn’t a director’s film. I assume that most of the film’s naïve twists and turns are the work of the first-time scenarist, Janice Lee Graham.

At its heart, Until September is really a Harlequin Romance, dressed up in summer clothes and—through Allen’s occasional speeches about being a big girl and putting Lhermitte in his chauvinistic place—given a superficial women’s lib slant.

That summing-up will either be a recommendation or a dismissal, depending on your susceptibility to such things. But if you’re the kind of person who leafs through those trashy novels while standing in line at the check-out stand—just to kill time, of course—you may find yourself lured into the world of Until September.

First published in the Herald, September 1984

Nothing too special here, either as a movie or review. It’s a shame about Richard Marquand, who did Brit-TV work and a fine job on Eye of the Needle; he completed two more films, Jagged Edge and Hearts of Fire, before dying at age 49 (of a stroke, according to IMDb).


Autumn Break

September 4, 2012

In which What a Feeling! pauses for a spell, so you can catch up on all the Eighties reviews here. Also so that the author can head to the Eurozone for a fellowship, thanks to RIAS and the Radio Television Digital News Foundation.

I will attempt to blog the trip. Catch that action at North by Nordwesten.

What a Feeling! resumes its tread on September 24. See you then.