August 26, 2011


Poor Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is the scapegoat at school because she's awkward and quiet and plain. She lives with her raving lunatic of a mother (Piper Laurie), who's such an avid fundamentalist she makes up her own damning scripture verses and then utters them with gospel fervor. On top of all Carrie's problems, she's noticing some strange behavior: she can move objects with her mind if she concentrates hard enough. It's telekinesis, and director Brian De Palma has never had so much fun with it than here. (He takes the theme and runs--in too many directions--again in The Fury).

It's interesting to note that Carrie was Stephen King's first novel, but that we really don't think of Stephen King as much as we think of Brian De Palma when we think of Carrie. De Palma had begun making Hitchcock-influenced thrillers with 1973's Sisters, and some consider Carrie to be his ultimate thriller (that or 1980's Dressed to Kill). More than any of his other thrillers, Carrie has become part of pop culture. There's something sleazy and irresistible about it.  

Carrie is the outcast who simply snaps after she's been pushed too far. She's hated because she's stuck in a shell of social ignorance and otherness. But no one can really blame her for her ignorance, given her home life. In the opening scene, she panics when she experiences--rather late, biologically--the first signs of menstruation, and then pays for it when the other girls in the locker room begin hurling tampons at her. When Carrie gets home, her mother treats her like she's a harlot. Femininity is the enemy in Carrie's house, a sign of weakness and uncontrollable appetites that must be hemmed in by a rigidly dogmatic denial of pleasure.

Despite whatever it's saying about repression and fundamentalism, the movie is really just a big buildup to its grand finale, where the pig's blood prank turns Cinderella into the Medusa, and the Love Under the Stars dance into the prom from hell. De Palma uses a lot of European techniques to endow Carrie with a certain artful trashiness. It's visually very entertaining. Even in its most disturbing moments you find yourself laughing--it's all too histrionic to take seriously, unless you want to view it as a morality tale about the dangers of sexual repression.

Pino Dinaggio's score, which frequently rips off Bernard Herrmann's staccato violin from the Psycho shower scene, is very elegant but also over-the-top. It echoes De Palma's sensibility as a director all the way: violent, chaotic, and sensual, driving yet richly beautiful. Except for the Hermann imitations it's good.

The revenge element--the reason I'm including Carrie in my series on revenge in high school--points, partially, to the movie's endurance in popular culture. Sissy Spacek is so pathetic in the lead that it's hard to really see Carrie as the monster. She's been spit on by everyone, and stifled by her mother, who comes off as the movie's true villain. This might explain why Sissy Spacek did not become typecast as a horror movie star the way Anthony Perkins did for playing Norman Bates in Psycho. People seem to view Carrie as a validation of their wretched high school experiences, and they take comfort that they weren't alone. Carrie's always having a worse day than you, and her telekinetic meltdown elevates high school into the Shakespearean tragedy that everyone falsely makes it out to be in real life. She validates the stupid drama by sending the school up in flames. At least they had the guts to in Carrie what they ultimately couldn't do in Heathers.

With Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, Betty Buckley, John Travolta, and P.J. Soles.

August 21, 2011


In Heathers (1989), Winona Ryder plays Veronica, a member of the most popular, and powerful, clique in her suburban Ohio high school. The other three girls are all named Heather, and one of them in particular, Heather Chandler (played by Kim Walker), rules the social circles of the school with an iron fist. She's an elevated stereotype, a bitchy promzilla with really bad taste in clothes. (I'm not sure how the girls' wardrobes looked good even at the time this movie was made. Oh, the 80s.) Veronica feels torn--she wanted to be popular, but now she's paying the price as a social prisoner, bound by the rules of the Heathers and all their heathering ways. The she meets J.D. (Christian Slater), the new kid in town, who's a cocky rebel with a violent streak. The film is about Veronica's descent into a hellish world of violence and murder--murder made to look like suicide--as she tries to rearrange the social hierarchy of high school.

Heathers wasn't a box office hit, but it has acquired a cult following, probably because of its bizarre story. It explores death and violence and the cruelty of high school in a way I've never seen in the movies, except maybe in Brian De Palma's Carrie (which will be Part Two of this series). The thing that makes Heathers rather distasteful--its unapologetic look at teenagers and violence--is what makes it more truthful than the myriad of teen comedies that portray high school life with a safety line. In most movies in the genre, nothing's ever really as serious as life or death--everything stays on a sitcom level where you know things will be okay in the end. In Heathers, the problem is that you want things to stay the same, but they refuse to. The characters themselves are time bombs, ticking away at a feverish pace.

With the "suicide" of the first Heather, the school becomes a media circus, and the school administration unintentionally elevates the topic of teen suicide to a sort of cult status. It's suddenly "hip" to kill yourself, or something like that. If you think Heathers is trying to glorify all this, you're mistaken. It's showing the stupidity of people who try to gloss over it, who try to patronize the young by acting as though they don't have the power or the will to take their own lives.

Winona Ryder gives a solid lead performance. She plays Veronica as smart, affected, a girl who's aware of her merciless friends and her unhappy existence, but who lacks the nerve to stand up for herself. She finds relief in J.D., who's willing to go there--to express the violence she's been bottling up inside herself for so long. He's letting her do more than live vicariously through him. He's helping her to unearth feelings and desires in herself the existence of which she'd rather deny. And when she looks and sees what she's capable of, she panics.

Heathers is like Dante's Inferno Inferno mixed with Bonnie and Clyde and set in the 1980s. As a black comedy, it's never as funny as you'd like it to be. As a hyper-real portrait of high school life, it captures marvelously the social hierarchies and the shame and deception that occurs between people, and these hierarchies do not start, or end, with adolescence, as the movie is so apt to point out.

It was the first feature directing effort by Michael Lehmann, one which garnered him much acclaim. He's done very little work of note since. And even Heathers, which is not great but has moments of greatness, is itself too muddled and nasty to be fun. Maybe that's my fault for wanting the sitcom level offered by a Sixteen Candles or an Easy A. I think those movies capture the truth of high school to a degree. Heathers takes that truth and turns it inward--you are the vicious social tyrant you despise.

With Shannen Doherty and Lisanne Falk as the two other Heathers, and Penelope Milford, Glenn Shadix, Lance Fenton, and Patrick Layorteaux.

August 20, 2011

Fright Night

The original Fright Night (1985) was a celebration and a send-up of camp. The movie opens to a dimly lit suburban neighborhood around midnight, and the audio of a late-nite horror movie program leads us into the bedroom of our hero, Charlie Brewster, who's too busy making out with his girlfriend to notice what's going on at his new neighbor's house, at first. Fright Night 1985 is something special to me, so I felt ambivalent toward the idea of a remake.

The 2011 remake gives Fright Night a contemporary make-over. It would seem like a refreshing antidote to the banality of Twilight, which is pure drivel as romance or as gothic horror.

We'll start with the good things: Anton Yelchin makes for a convincing Charlie Brewster, the put-upon boy-who-cried-wolf of the movie, who's unwilling to accept his nerdy friend Ed's claim that Charlie's new neighbor, the dashing Jerry Dandrige, is a bloodsucking vampire. As Dandrige, Colin Farrell is wonderfully ominous. He's so enjoyable as the vampire that you have a hard time sympathizing with the would-be victims. Dandrige likes screwing with his prey, playing darkly funny little mind games with them. Unfortunately, the scenes of Dandrige attacking his victims fall flat. There's something unconvincing about the way he tears open their necks (and their deaths seem meaningless the way they do in slasher movies). Only the satisfaction in Jerry's face works for those scenes--his insatiable appetite for blood is momentarily soothed, and he reminds you that the vampire is the ultimate junky.

The Peter Vincent character, played as a doddering old coward by Roddy McDowall in the 1985 version, has been altered for humorous affect to be a Las Vegas hack occultist with a nightly horror show. David Tennant plays him, and he invests some momentary comic relief, but his part never gets knitted into the story with any real panache. He and Charlie don't really mesh as a duo--they aren't given enough time.

Which brings me to the not-so-good stuff. The movie plays all its cards too soon. Characters aren't developed, relationships either, with the right pacing or momentum. We're meant to assume a lot about these relationships that, without experiencing them in the right ways and amounts of time, end up hurting the movie. It's harder to care about the characters let alone be scared for them. The humor in the movie is good because it keeps things light and helps avoid heavy-handedness, but at the same time no one seems very invested in what's happening. And there isn't that affection for the genre that makes a good horror-comedy click and resonate the way it should.

The rest of the cast includes Toni Collete as Charlie's mom (well-played for more comic effect), Imogen Poots as his girlfriend Amy, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Ed. He doesn't even come close to the off-the-wall performance of Stephen Geoffreys in the first film. He's too subdued, too nerdy to be frightening when he inevitably turns into an enemy. And that's the real problem with the remake: it's not all that scary. But it's good for a laugh, and probably worth seeing for Colin Farrell's performance alone.

The scene at the end with all the vampires is another problem. It reminded me of the part in Salem's Lot when they stumble upon Barlow's coffin under the house but are accosted by all his vampire henchmen. It's also mildly reminiscent of that wonderfully giddy moment in Re-Animator when all the corpses shoot up out of their gurneys in unison. Unfortunately, director Craig Gillespie doesn't seem to know how to make that scene pop the way it should. It feels deflated. The only other thing I'll say about the ending is that its kind to the viewer in not subjecting us to twelve phony climaxes the way so many action and horror movies feel obliged to do---the finale is nicely compact.

August 14, 2011

Rear Window

I'm going to take a moment to plug the beautiful Florida Theatre, a landmark of downtown Jacksonville. Every summer they show a handful of classic movies, giving many of us a rare opportunity to see films that were decades old by the time we were born. Even if you've already seen a movie at home, nothing compares to experiencing it in a theater with an audience, especially a theater as elegant (and historical) as this one. Seeing Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train there several years ago got me fired up about about going to as many of these retrospective showings as possible, and this year I got to see my second Hitchcock film on the big screen, Rear Window, from 1954.

Rear Window has been reviewed too many times for me to go deeply into familiar territory, but I will briefly synopsize its plot and its critical reaction: it's about a photographer (James Stewart) who, when confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg, begins spying on his neighbors from his conveniently-located rear window, which overlooks a large courtyard. Soon enough he begins to suspect that one of his neighbors (Raymond Burr) has committed a murder. Stewart's chic fashionista girlfriend (Grace Kelly) and no-nonsense rehab therapist (Thelma Ritter) become his Girls Friday in an attempt to prove a murder without a body or any real physical evidence.

As you may be able to imagine, critics have long focused on how Rear Window mirrors the act of watching a movie: Jimmy Stewart uses a telescope to anonymously spy on his neighbors the way we slip into dark theaters and stare at the characters on the screen. The drama that happens between the people in the movies is typically the stuff of closed doors, but to us, the door has been opened, all unbeknownst to the characters in the movie. This is what some critics and philosophers (such as Jacques Lacan) have characterized as scopophilia, the act of looking, and deriving pleasure from it. Rear Window pokes fun at our own voyeuristic curiosity, but it also indicts us in the process.

What struck me about seeing Rear Window with an audience was how much of its wittiness still survives. The humorous aspects of the neighbors--who have very little dialogue and must restrict themselves almost to pantomiming their roles--come through gloriously, and you begin to develop odd little attachments to them. They become endearing or bothersome, the way neighbors do in real life, and Jimmy Stewart, the Everyman of the classic movie days, becomes us...and we him. Hitchcock employs the reaction shot exhaustively in this film (something happens, we see Stewart react, something happens, Stewart reacts, and so forth). That rhythm of shooting was perhaps never more apropos than in Rear Window, which is purely the cinema of reaction (often reaction based on no real knowledge, merely assumption). The visual becomes the hyper-real, rendering communication unnecessary and frankly undesirable.  

Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter deserve mention in this. Kelly of course never looked better, but she also turns in a marvelous performance. She's head-over-heels in love with Stewart. He loves her too, but he thinks their social and vocational differences are insurmountable. Yet she pursues him with reckless tenacity, and becomes a willing pawn in his sleuthing--often risking her own safety--in order to enter into his world. She's trying to prove that she's not just frivolous, that she's game, and I think her performance works because Kelly possessed both qualities: she was glamorous but also tough, and smart. Thelma Ritter is a character actress who I don't think ever got her due. She spices up just about any movie she's in with her dry wit. These three form some kind of bizarrely funny mystery-solving trio. Without them Rear Window would have been a lesser entertainment.

August 12, 2011


Too pretentious to be interesting. Beginners feels like a movie that's supposed to be good for you: it's full of realism, a somber dose of the tragedies of life and the breakdowns in human relationships that stay broken and unmanaged for years, often going to the grave that way, in a state of arrested development, shell-shocked critical condition. In that sense, Beginners has no actual feeling at all. We begin to acquire a sense of having been sedated as we watch real life unfold and wonder when the movie is going to start.

The story, which meanders with little actual purpose, can be summed up in about the sappiest, most harebrained fashion imaginable: it's about lost chances and new beginnings: 38-year-old Oliver can't seem to make a relationship last, so he's full of doubts when he falls for a French actress (Melanie Laurent). He's also trying to make sense of the loss of his parents within a relatively short span of four years (not to mention their cold and loveless relationship for 44 years, which he learns stemmed from his father's latent homosexuality). Bereft of his wife, the father (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet and embraces his inner Gay.

The movie reaches for something powerful and moving but stops short deliberately to avoid being pegged as sentimental or sappy. It wanders in search of the movie it refuses to become. We keep being confronted with these kinds of movies: they're largely independent, and they're largely marketed as some kind of realistic alternative to the high drama we saw in those glossy 1950's soapers, like All This and Heaven Too and Suddenly, Last Summer. Those movies hovered precariously into the atmosphere of camp, whereas movies like Beginners go the opposite way, reaching, rather limply, toward indifference. Maybe that's why Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven (2002) made such a strong impression on me. It was throwback to those 1950s movies where the emotions ran the gamut. If nothing else we could laugh at them. In Beginners it hardly seems appropriate. Like giggling at a funeral.

Anything, even camp, would be a refreshing change from Beginners, which stays comfortably at room temperature. The emotions are there, but they're stifled. We feel for the characters anyway, because director Mike Mills is adept at organizing the right images together (and he has a solid cast to work with). How could you not feel pity for a giddy, grandfatherly type--Captain Von Trapp, nonetheless--who's dying of cancer? There's a scene where he finds out it's too late to continue with treatment, and he has a painful, wrenching expression on his face: life has played a cruel joke on him, and we see the wretched irony in his expressions.

Seeing Beginners is neither cathartic nor entertaining, it's just a bummer. Especially if you were looking forward to your Friday night.

Side notes: the relationship between Oliver and his late father's Jack Russell terrier is the closest this film comes to being endearing. It's genuinely touching. Also, Mary Page Keller plays Oliver's mother in flashback, and her scenes are among the film's brightest spots. She's so jaded by the squeaky clean banality of domesticity--and the grim realities of a loveless marriage--that she likes breaking little social conventions just for the hell of it. Her son carries that tradition into his adult life, but somehow those scenes don't register as well, and the movie doesn't do enough of that--doesn't appropriate enough of that droll humor--to really get anywhere with it.

August 07, 2011

Body of Lies

This twaddle about terrorism and the CIA is mixed-up and convoluted. It's the kind of massive, dull, film that makes you think the occasional explosion or torture scene is climactic, when really it's just a minor interruption to the plodding rhythm of a movie that's too high-minded and pseudo-intellectual for its own good. It's proof that two respected actors and a well-known director (Ridley Scott). can pick a bummer.

I've never been completely sold on DiCaprio anyway. He's certainly got talent (and he shines in the right part, such as in Catch Me If You Can), but he often fails to be convincing in the roles in which he's cast. Did anyone really forget it was Leonardo DiCaprio they were watching rather than Howard Hawks in The Aviator? Blame it on the youngish face that has kept him looking 25 even at 35 (and older). You're always aware that he's acting.

On the other hand, Russell Crowe looks and sounds better than he acts in this movie. He becomes immersed in the character at the surface level, but he never gets the delicious breakout scene we're expecting. There's no meltdown. Even when DiCaprio's character pushes him out of his chair (a funny scene that gets underplayed, even dismissed, because this movie is too serious to really care about humor), Crowe's character reacts with phony finesse, and lifts higher our anticipation that he'll blow a gasket sooner or later. It doesn't pay off. Crowe puffed himself up to play DiCaprio's sleazy and slick good-ole-boy boss, a doughy Southern scoundrel who's too much of a coward to do anything but pull the strings and push the buttons. He's placed with the obvious intention of conjuring up the image of any number of politicians in recent history. but his character has nothing likeable.

This is a movie that's bungled by its own high-falutin aspirations, not to mention its relentlessly sluggish pacing. It's trying to be hip and complex, and as a result, its true intentions are too cloudy to be clear. The movie fails to resonate with the viewer. Actress Golshifteh Farahani breathes some life into the muddle for a while, as DiCaprio's Jordanian love interest, and Oscar Isaac registers well as one of DiCaprio's partners. (He played the scummy Prince John in another, better, Ridley Scott-Russell Crowe movie, Robin Hood).

Based on a 2007 novel by David Ignatius.

August 05, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The 2001 Planet of the Apes remake was so dismal that I went into this one with low expectations. But Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an entrancing diversion, with James Franco as a scientist injecting apes with a virus that makes them super-chimps. He's working on a cure for Alzheimer's, and even tries an experimental batch on his ailing father (John Lithgow), who's got Dementia.

You're never sure if director Rupert Wyatt intends for this to be funny, but it is. The movie doesn't exactly wink at the audience, but with Franco in the lead, who's never far away from being tongue-in-cheek, you feel the director has given the audience permission to laugh and have a good time. Besides, the movie is genuinely entertaining, and makes good use of San Francisco as its setting (including a well-paced and exciting showdown between apes and police on the Golden Gate bridge).

The computerized apes look fairly realistic. CGI never sells itself to me all the way. There's something not quite believable in it, but the creators of these formidable creatures accomplish quite a lot with the technology at hand, and the movie avoids hokeyness for the most part. The apes are compelling characters, and most of the time they're the more sympathetic creatures in the movie.

With Freida Pinto as a veterinarian/love interest, Andy Serkis as Caesar, the star Ape, Tom Felton, as a scummy caretaker at the facility in which Caesar becomes a captive, and David Oyelowo as Franco's boss, the man holding the purse strings behind the mad scientist's work.