Category: 1989


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Since American Pie took over the box office in 1999, mainstream American teen comedies run on sex and raunch and little else. I’m not arguing that’s a huge problem. Raunchy teen sex comedies like Sex Drive are something of a guilty pleasure of mine, but I miss the day when teen comedies dared to be darker and more subversive (the closest we’ve come of late is the far more dramatic Perks of Being a Wallflower). And in today’s age of market-tested audiences and butter knife sharp satire, I can’t imagine a scenario where a teen comedy as pitch-black and razor sharp as Heathers could ever be made.

Cause let’s face it; if a studio head heard a pitch today about a comedy where a girl starts dating a psychopath and stages the murder of all of the popular kids at her high school, he would laugh the writer out of the conference room.But, somehow writer Daniel Waters and director Michael Lehman make all that and more work in their scathing satire of teen status, bullying, and the hell of growing up in the modern world (even if this movie’s complete 80s-ness dates the hell out of it).

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The obvious spiritual predecessor to the modern (and less edgy) Mean Girls, Heathers charts the trials of Veronica Sawyer (Reality Bites‘s Winona Ryder), a bright and halfway decent girl that’s been sucked into the orbit of the popular “Heathers” clique at her school, where three beautiful and incredibly bitchy girls named Heather rule the school with Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) currently running the roost. They get their kicks from brutalizing the rest of the school and employ Veronica’s masterful handwriting mimicry skills to trick overweight losers into thinking jocks have written them sexually graphic love letters.

And Veronica’s life is upended with the arrival at Westerberg High of J.D. (Christian Slater), a mysterious loner who pulls a gun filled with blanks on two of the high school’s jock bullies on his first day of school. The roguish and mercurial J.D. is a breath of sincere, genuine air in Victoria’s artificial, plasticine existence. And though the pair get off on an immediate wave of young love, Veronica’s plans to prank the evil Heather Chandler spins out of control into murder when J.D. puts liquid drainer in her morning drink. And when Victoria agrees to write Heather’s suicide note, it sparks a string of murder-suicides that are beyond Veronica’s ability to control.

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No one is spared from the barbed tongue that is Heathers‘ delicious wit. Although the film is clearly a condemnation of the clique-ish bully culture that has dominated American high schools for so long (I was fortunate to grow up in one of the few high schools in the country to legitimately not have a clique problem), it also spares no sympathy for those that think J.D.’s solution to the problem is the right one and paints them as the psychopaths they clearly are (even if their psychopathy is more sincere than the bullies’ sociopathy). But the movie’s harshest criticism are at the adult world’s attempts to commercialize and aestheticize the suffering and suicide of the young.

Like it’s bomb-throwing anti-hero, Heathers takes no prisoners and doesn’t know when to stop. When it’s on point, exploring the seemingly bottomless depths of cruelty that high schoolers commit on one another or the way that hippie-dippie adults exploit youth culture to its own means, Heathers is one of the most insightful and piercing films of the 80s. But, when it comes to the actions of J.D. and Veronica, Heathers isn’t quite as apt at handling the balancing act of showing us why Veronica would fall under J.D.’s homicidal spell but also why the film thinks he’s stark raving mad (and that Veronica has her guilt for the role she played in all of these proceedings).

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I’ve often wondered why Winona Ryder never had a bigger career. In countless films in the 80s and early 90s, she was the perfect incarnation of rebellious teenage/young adult angst, and she had a presence and “I don’t give a fuck” attitude that is sorely missing in today’s many homogenous and easily replaceable starlets. It could be her kleptomania but I suspect there’s more there. Regardless, Heathers is one of her most iconic roles, and when Veronica says she wants her friends dead (but doesn’t really), Winona captures all of the complexity of teenage rage.

Christian Slater’s performance is just one cocaine-tinged Jack Nicholson impersonation, but it’s one hell of a Jack Nicholson impersonation. There is no other character in the American cinematic canon quite like Slater’s homicidal and increasingly deranged J.D. To this day, my sister is creeped out by any (even later) Slater roles because he so thoroughly embodies the nihilistic rage and desperation of J.D. J.D. might not be the most fully realized comedy in a satire chock full of caricature (excepting perhaps Veronica), but Slater’s psychotic turn can’t be missed.

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The film is overflowing with memorable throwaway dialogue and to this day, I’ll yell out “I love my dead gay son!” for seemingly no reason other than the fact that I laugh my ass off every time it’s uttered in this film. Without question, elements of the film’s quintessentially 80s dialogue and fashion have dated it to its severe detriment. The film’s consistent usage of the word “very” as some synonym for “excellent” or “good” began to grate. But, they don’t make comedies like Heathers anymore, and for fans of satire that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty, it’s still worth a watch 25 years later (sweet Jesus, I was born in 1989. Christ, I’m getting old).

Final Score: B+

 

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After the Steven Soderbergh disaster known as Bubble back at the beginning of September, I was hoping that it would be a while before I was forced to watch another complete trainwreck of a movie. Apparently, the blog gods hate me more than I suspected (after a surprisingly strong go around for my current 50 film block). Because 1989’s Shag is a strong contender to be the most unintentionally abrasive and tedious films that I’ve ever forced myself to sit through for this blog. Recently earmarked by Buzzfeed as a film from the 80s that all kids should see, let’s just say that I disagree heartily with that assessment. With absolutely reprehensible behavior rewarded in both its male and female characters, Shag is a loathsome moral lesson that indulges in the worst kinds of casual misogyny despite being a buddy comedy for women.

I sat through the kitschy schlock known as Forrest Gump, The Help, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close without letting my attention wander too greatly. Despite my immense dislike for those films, I sat through their entirety while giving them my total attention. But, like How to Marry a Millionaire, it took around an hour or so before I realized I had devoted all the mental energy that I possibly could. And even though it seemed like maybe the movie was finally finding something resembling direction or meaning for it’s last thirty minutes, the damage done by the film’s first two-thirds was irreparable and Shag had lost its ability to make me care. That’s a tried and true axiom of film-making. If you can’t grab your audience in the first ten minutes, you’ve lost. Shag failed to make any positive impact whatsoever for the first hour and was mostly insufferably bad.

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In the summer of 1963, four Southern Belle best friends straight out of high school, straight-laced Luanne (Page Hannah), wild child Melaina (Bridget Fonda), self-conscious Pudge (Annabeth Gish), and engaged Carson (Phoebe Cates), whisk themselves away for one last weekend of fun before they become adults once and for all. Luanne and Pudge are off to college, Carson is set to marry the dull Harley (Tyrone Power Jr.), and Melaina wants to pursue a career in Hollywood. And, so the girls head off to Myrtle Beach to spend time together one last time, meet boys, and have the last hurrah of youth. And at Myrtle Beach, they meet Buzz (Robert Rusler) and Chip (Scott Coffey) who begin to woo the engaged and hesitant Carson and the overly shy Pudge respectively. And, the whole time, you wish you were enjoying this movie 1% as much as these girls were enjoying their beach weekend.

I made the joke on twitter last night that Shag was the kind of thing the U.S. government might show to prisoners of war in order to get them to divulge military secrets, and while the movie may not actually qualify as torture, I’m probably going to regret the 98 minutes I lost to this movie for the rest of my life. There were three aspects of this film that weren’t utter failures. The soundtrack is actually really spectacular with lots of great early 60s/late 50s numbers and classic beach tunes. The soundtrack was easily the best part. Also, it featured Bridget Fonda at the peak of her undeniable attractiveness (she was even better looking than her aunt Jane in Jane Fonda’s heyday). And, Annabeth Gish (related to silent film darling Lillian Gish) was adequately relatable as the insecure Pudge.

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Everything else about the film was an abject failure. From its focus on absurdly self-involved Southerners (an aesthetic that is sure to drive me away) to its total misunderstanding of how bohemians actually acted (apparently, in Shag, they’re just cut-out copies of Rizzo from Grease) that it’s alright for a man to more or less sexually harass a girl until she falls for him, everything about the first hour or so of Shag drove me absolutely nuts. And, even if it looked like the final act was making things better, it wasn’t enough for me to suddenly start caring about this film. Roger Ebert gave this movie three stars out of four, and I have no idea what crack pipe the otherwise esteemed critic was smoking because this movie is bad, and unless you long for this fantasy world presented in this film, I can’t imagine any reason to ever watch it.

Final Score: D

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Ridley Scott is one of Hollywood’s most hit-or-miss directors. For every Blade Runner or Thelma & Louise, he makes a Hannibal or Black Hawk Down (seriously Black Hawk Down is awful). Although even his worst films are visually dynamic and interesting movies; sometimes, he just gets bad scripts to work with (or the studio meddles too much with his final product, ala the underrated Kingdom of Heaven). I think the man just doesn’t know what movies to pass on. Or perhaps it’s just an ability to constrain himself in his films. Anyways, his 1970s to early 90s productions were generally pretty great, and for a very 1980s style action flick, 1989’s Black Rain was a compelling, smart, and stylish action thriller with just enough original gimmicks going for it that you didn’t care that the story followed a fairly predictable path.

Nick Conklin (Fatal Attraction‘s Michael Douglas) is a semi-dirty cop with the NYPD. With a penchant for fast motorcycles, Nick is also under investigation from internal affairs for skimming money off the top of a drug bust. When he and his partner Charlie Vincent (The Untouchables‘ Andy Garcia) bust a Japanese crime lord for murder, they are tasked with escorting him back to Japan. However, the crime lord’s associates pretend to be cops and help the crime lord escape at the airport. Now, it’s up to Nick, Charlie, and Japanese inspector Masahiro (Ken Takakura) to recapture the criminal Sato  and get at the heart of a Yakuza-fueled gang war that is tearing the Osaka criminal underworld apart.

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I thought I was going to have trouble buying Michael Douglas as a bad-ass biker cop with an attitude. He’s such a stereotypical Hollywood pretty boy (not an insult. just a fact), but then I remembered that Romancing the Stone existed, and his turn as the cocksure Nick was a pleasant surprise. Douglas has just the right sensitivity to make the character more than just a one-note caricature of arrogant American swagger, and a natural chemistry arose between him and Andy Garcia as well as Ken Takakura. Andy Garcia brought the necessary comic relief to the movie and provided one of the film’s most memorable sequences when he and Ken Takakura did a Ray Charles number at a karaoke bar. I’m unsure if Ken Takakura is a native English speaker, but regardless, he also turned the initially unsympathetic Masahiro into a three-dimensional figure as well.

It’s odd (knowing my usual tastes in movies) that I truly enjoyed Black Rain as much as I did. There was nothing especially insightful about the film. But, the way that it painted the differences in demeanor between the brash hotshot New York detective and the traditional, group-oriented Japanese inspector was something that hadn’t been overdone to death yet at the time, and most films of the same ilk that I’ve seen since don’t do it half as well. As someone who’s lived abroad, the film captures quite well how easy it is to get lost in other cultures and the clashes that can occur when two very strong-willed people/groups collide. Ridley Scott’s direction is also great. Like his whole ouevre, Black Rain is gorgeous to look at, and when the story hits more predictable lulls (cop says he can’t help Nick. comes back to help Nick at key moment, etc), you can always count on the film grabbing your attention visually.

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I’ll keep this review short cause this isn’t exactly an art-house piece. If you’re looking for a really fun and smartly made movie that you can watch and not have to think too much during, you could do a lot worse than Black Rain. Michael Douglas continues to solidify his reputation in my mind as one of the great stars of the 80s and 90s, and I’ve always wondered why Andy Garcia didn’t become a bigger star. The only thing about this film that makes me sad (besides a certain decapitation scene… poor guy) is that it reminds me how great Ridley Scott can be when he isn’t trying to be Mr. Highbrow. With the exception of Blade Runner and maybe Alien, he’s not actually talented enough to be Mr. Highbrow. But, when he’s making great, crowd-pleasing popcorn pictures like Black Rain, he hits ’em out of the park.

Final Score: B+

 

I’m sad to admit for the first time in almost 200 days (literally just 5 days shy), I forgot to do my Song of the Day. I’ve gone stretches without doing it before, but there was always an unavoidable reason. I.e., I was at Bonnaroo, or we didn’t have power for several days in a row. The power thing cock-blocked me twice over the summer. I just straight up forgot last night. I didn’t get off work til after 9:30 and I picked my sister up from her dorm after work. We got some pizza, and then a friend came over and the three of us hung out and watched TV/movies (a review of the excellent Cabin in the Woods is forthcoming). And i managed to just completely forget that I needed to do my Song of the Day. I realized I had forgotten at (I kid you not) 12:01 so it was too late to put up even a really quick post. Sorry long-time readers. I’m sure you were very disappointed to not get a random musical musing from my head (hoping people realize that last bit was sarcasm). Anywho, I’m in a very “The Cure” mood today so without further ado, I present “Lullaby.”

(A quick aside before the review. Weirdly enough, even though I’ve reviewed nearly 300 films for this blog in the last year and a half, this will be the first movie I’ve reviewed from the year that I was born, 1989. I’ve done three Song of the Days from then but not a single film. It’s crazy.  How fitting [and this was purely by chance] that it was a Woody Allen movie. He’s my favorite director of all time. And I’ve reviewed, by far, more of his films than any other director. To wit, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), Manhattan, Radio Days, Match Point, Vicki Cristina Barcelona, and Midnight in Paris. And now Crimes and Misdemeanors. He’s made like 40 films so it’s not shocking that he’s showing up a lot.)

There’s always an inherent danger when writers try to split their films into two or more mostly separate stories. While ensemble pieces usually give the audience a chance to pick one section of a film to passionately support and love (ala the Dylan Baker scenes stealing all of Happiness or John Locke and Ben Linus regularly upstaging their cast-mates on Lost), they also run the risk of having a crucial segment that is simply far less engaging than the best elements of the film. These elements may not even be bad. They can be very good. But if a writer/director hits the sweet spot with one segment of a film, everything else will seem like a drag in comparison. Much like his earlier film Radio Days, Woody Allen’s 1989 dramedy Crimes and Misdemeanors is split in half. One section is a serviceable, typically “Allen” romance while the other is a stunning, Ingmar Bergman-esque examination of morality and responsibility. It should have been the entire film.

In the lighter romantic dramedy portion of the film, Woody Allen plays Cliff Stern, a struggling documentarian whose wife convinces her brother Lester, a successful but boorish television comedian (Alan Alda), to allow Cliff to shoot a documentary for the network about the day-to-day aspects of Lester’s life. Although Lester would rather shoot a more personal documentary about a college philosophy professor with profound insights into the universe, he takes the job while hoping that he can use it to kickstart his static career. Stuck in a loveless marriage, Cliff falls for the documentary’s producer, the intelligent and warm Halley (Rosemary Baby‘s Mia Farrow). Determined to leave his wife for his new love, Cliff is tripped up by his own neuroses and the pressing question of whether Halley shares the same feelings that he does.

In the more serious, existential dramatic portions of the film, Martin Landau is Judah Rosenthal (Ed Wood), a wealthy ophthalmologist and philanthropist, sees his whole world crashing down around him when his neurotic and obsessive mistress (The Grifters‘ Anjelica Huston) threatens to tell his wife about their affair as well as inform the police about some fiscal improprieties that Judah has committed. When he refuses the advice of his rabbi (Sam Waterston) to simply admit to his wife what he’s done, Judah eventually decides to accept the help of his criminal brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) and have his mistress killed. As the reality of what he’s done sets in, Judah finds himself overwhelmed with guilt and begins to question the moral and ethical constructs that were the basic building blocks of his life, such as guilt, responsibility, and the nature of God.

Martin Landau’s Academy Award nomination was well-deserved. Judah’s story was by far the most compelling, and Martin Landau navigated the morally turbulent waters of Judah’s life like the seasoned pro he is. Judah lives in a self-created universe which refuses to acknowledge any responsibility for his actions, even before he begins to contemplate the murder of his mistress. He can’t admit that he led Dolores on, that he made promises to her about a future relationship he was never going to  keep. He can’t comprehend that what he did with his charitable foundation’s money was morally bankrupt. He calls his mobster brother up to discuss the problem with Dolores and when Jack suggests the ugly options (which are the only options Judah ever wants from Jack), Judah acts offended. And as Judah finds himself continually overwhelmed by more and more guilt, he fabricates more ways to rationalize his behavior.

Perhaps because Woody was at the tail end of middle age when he shot this film (and Martin Laundau was himself in his early 60s), both the film and Landau’s performance take on rueful and remorseful overtones. The specter of the past always hangs over the film. Whether it’s the words of Judah’s rabbi father or the literal shades of Judah’s past which return to haunt him at his most vulnerable moments, Martin Landau makes Judah a man whose rational (and rationalized) existence is being torn apart by the metaphysical philosophies of his childhood. In one of the film’s best scenes, Judah visits his childhood home only to be confronted by visions of his childhood where an atheist aunt debates his father over the nature of morality and whether men or inherently good creatures, and Martin Landau shows Judah’s dawning realization that he’s twisted his aunt’s philosophy to rationalize murdering an innocent woman.

Earlier, I called the section of the film starring Woody himself as lighter but perhaps that is inaccurate. It begins as a typically Allen romance exploring commitment, lust, neuroses, and yet a love of life, but it quickly takes a darker turn. Many of the philosophical underpinnings of the film are directly stated through the footage Cliff has acquired of the philosophy professor he would rather shoot than Alan Alda’s Lester. It’s supposed to carry an uplifting affirmation of life, but when future events soil that dream, Woody’s tale takes increasingly darker turns until Cliff’s tale ultimately leaves you more devastated than that of Judah. And for the first time in any Mia Farrow role that I can think of, she actually enhanced a film. Her chemistry with her real-life husband was palpable, and she was the type of great female role that seemingly only Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman can write.

It’s not much of a stretch to say that this was one of Woody’s darkest and most pessimistic films. Much like the earlier Interiors and the later Husbands & Wives, there’s not a lot of light in the film (despite what Woody tricks you into thinking during the first half). Bad people do bad things and get away with it. Good men get crushed under the wheels of men with less talent. Love is unrequited. Wives don’t learn of their husband’s infidelities, and a cold, uncaring universe lets it all happen. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the film is that a rabbi (the film’s most reasonable character) is slowly going blind in a universe where Judah’s biggest fear as a child was his father telling him that God’s eyes saw all. In this film’s world (and by proxy, Woody’s interpretation of the real world), god and therefore morality are dying and the only meaning we can get from life is that which we choose to take from it.

When people complain about the period of Woody’s career where all he made were his more “serious” works, Crimes and Misdemeanors is certainly a prime example. Richly symbolic (with a heavy emphasis on eyes as a metaphor for responsibility as well as a running meta-commentary with classic film footage) and utterly cynical, Crimes and Misdemeanors arose from a dark place in Woody’s life (his divorce from Mia Farrow is only a few years away) that colors the whole film. Still, the story centered around Judah’s existential crisis is among the most insightful and mature of Allen’s career. And if the romance couldn’t hold a candle to the deeper philosophical meditation, that’s a small price to pay for another great film from the man who has cemented his legacy as the greatest writer in the history of American cinema.

Final Score: A-

First off, “Pixies” is the official title of the band. Yes, you usually call them “the Pixies” but the “the” is not the official part of the band’s name. Now that that’s settled (before I get any douchey comments about the title of the post being wrong), let us continue. We’ve reached the older band section of this site and what band had more influence on alternative rock in the 90s than the Pixies. One of the bands (along with the Smiths, the Cure, R.E.M., and Sonic Youth) to define what rock and roll meant in the 90s for serious music fans (cause f*** that hair metal shit), Pixies are the quintessential sloppy (in a good way), visceral noise rock/surf rock band. It’s not a stretch to say that grunge wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for them. Kurt Cobain has even gone on to say that they (along with surprisingly Boston) were the biggest influence on Nirvana’s sound. “Here Comes Your Man” off their seminal album, Doolittle, might seem like an easy choice, but it’s an easy choice for a good reason. I still can’t believe they let Jonathan Goodman-Levitt near this classic in (500) Days of Summer.

I almost forgot to do my “Song of the Day” post today, so I’ll keep my ramblings about why I love this song short. Needless to say, as someone who writes about indie music, Disintegration by the Cure is one of those timeless albums that I love and whose influence on the modern music I love is pretty much impossible to overstate. If you’ve ever been sad in your life whatsoever, there’s a chance that the Cure have written a song to match your mood. I’m feeling sort of angsty about women at the moment ( a more than common emotional state for me), and thus, I’ve got one of the many broken heart songs by The Cure to help get me through my pain. “Pictures of You” is a such a great track, and its power to speak to me at a gut level has only grown the more times I’ve listened to it. Robert Smith, you are a God amongst men.

For those who want to listen to this month’s Song of the Day playlist (or are curious about what April looked like), head on over to Spotify and listen to my Songs of the Day for May here.