Heathers (1988)

Heathers (1989) movie poster

director  Michael Lehmann
viewed: 01/27/2018

This viewing of Heathers was for my teenage daughter. This was to give some context of Winona Ryder for my little millennial, who was primarily familiar with her from Netflix’s Stranger Things. We’d watched Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorshands, but that was some time back. It seemed that watching Heathers would explain a lot more about Winona Ryder than anything I could come up with.

Of course, my daughter told me that though she had never “seen” Heathers, that she was very familiar with it. After watching the 1988 movie, I was treated to  a variety of Heathers the Musical animatic YouTube videos.

Apparently the levels of meta-Heathers at which we’ve arrived is a little mind-boggling to those of us who didn’t come of age in this current century. There is a re-boot coming. There is also apparently a TV show coming?

Before you roll your eyes too hard at this inescapable modernity crisis, keep in mind that we all still have Heathers, the original and Winona Ryder, too. And that was always a wonderful thing in the first place, here 30 years out.

I also noted to my daughter that I once attended a lecture by Timothy Leary, who was Winona’s godfather, with half the goal to see if I could get her phone number.

I was also friends with the band The Wynona Riders. I wish I still had that t-shirt.

My daughter liked the movie a lot. Still really digs the animatic videos too.

Destiny (1921)

Destiny (1921) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 01/21/2018

Recently reading that Luis Buñuel found Fritz Lang’s 1921 film Destiny the inspiration that drove him to cinema, I made the mental note that I had to see it.

I got introduced to German Expressionism in my very first film class at 17, by way of Lang’s own M (1931). It was then that I realized that all my childhood fascination with horror films and the birth of horror films pretty much dovetailed with the German aesthetic in its silent heyday. I’d longed to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) (often cited in those childhood texts as the first horror film of all time rather inaccurately), Nosferatu (1922), The Golem (1920), and Lang’s Metropolis (1927). I had to good luck that my mother took me to see the Lon Chaney silent films The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Though those latter ones aren’t German or Expressionist, I had a yen for these films from a young age.

Destiny is an exemplar of Expressionism while not at all really being a horror film. The film’s main story is the heart of the film: a young bride (Lil Dagover) loses her husband to death, and she goes into the realm of death to try to bring him back. Death is a human figure (the imposing Bernhard Goetze), but he is a monster in deeds only, giving Dagover three chances to save a lover from dying. Her failures in each of the stories leads her to plead with other people to give their lives for her husband. Her final realization, when she saves a baby from a fire, is what allows her to accept her “destiny”.

While it’s not my favorite of Lang’s films or the Expressionist genre, it is a very fine film. I try to take myself back to imagining a 21 year old Buñuel in 1921, encountering real cinema for the first time. It’s little wonder the Surrealists loved cinema so much.

The Void (2016)

The Void (2016) movie poster

directors Steven Kostanski, Jeremy Gillespie
viewed: 12/27/2017

The Void is action-packed but maybe a little too ambitious for its own good. It is the kind of throwback horror that tends to excite fans of various stripes. And it does it well for the most part.

It’s John Carpenter meets Cthulhu at an isolated hospital. And seemingly more practical visuals than computer-generated.

But there’s just a little too much going on, plot-wise, even in its lean runtime. Maybe trimming about half the ideas, backstories, characters, sequences could help.

Overall I liked it. It has a lot going for it.

The ‘Burbs (1989)

The 'Burbs (1989) movie poster

director Joe Dante
viewed: 08/20/2016

In 1989 when The ‘Burbs was released, director Joe Dante was enjoying a hitting streak.  Leading up to it, he’d made Gremlins (1984), Explorers (1985), and Innerspace (1987) and his darkly comic style was jelling in mainstream Hollywood.  I think back in ’89, I had liked but not loved most of Dante’s films, and The ‘Burbs fell into that criteria as well.

These days, I’m a lot more fond of Dante and his films.  He’s a great presence in interviews about movies, the characters he’s known and worked with, his own childhood love of films (which is nigh encyclopedic), just about everything.  And I’ve come back around to his films, appreciating them more than I did on the first round.

The ‘Burbs meets my new Dante criteria.  I liked it more than I remembered.

The satire about the weird neighbors in an otherwise totally WASPy neighborhood stars the still young Tom Hanks and an almost criminally underused Carrie Fisher as the average nuclear family next door.  Throw in chummy Rick Ducommun and a gung-ho Bruce Dern and the suspicions of the newcomers turn the would-be middle American street into paranoiacs on parade.

The use of the single neighborhood as a setting is a clever device, and Dante’s knack for subversive humor in mainstream fare hits a number of solid notes.  It’s not a runaway success, but it’s funny.  Henry Gibson and Brother Theodore are aces.

I always liked the poster for the film.

We Are Still Here (2015)

We Are Still Here (2015) movie postet

director  Ted Geoghegan
viewed: 07/10/2016

While a lot of people noticed all the homages and references in Ted Geoghegan’s horror film We Are Still Here, I was a little more keened in on the cast.  Noted “scream queen” Barbara Crampton heads a solid cast including Andrew Sensenig, Larry Fessenden, and Lisa Marie in this haunted home story set in rural New York state.

It’s set in the 1970’s, I guess for style (and maybe a lack of technology), and it follows a couple, Crampton and Sensenig, who abandon the city after the death of their only son.  My favorite characters were Fessenden and Marie, their spiritualist hippie friends who come to help them through their grief and potentially reach out to the world beyond.

At 84 minutes, it’s almost deft, but Geoghegan who also wrote the script, seems to want to pack a lot into the story.  There are plot twists and histories spelled out that complicate what might have been more effective if kept a bit more in the moment.  I try not to surmise what could “fix” a film generally, but for every little element that worked, there were others that fell a bit flat.  So, in the end, I found it a mixed bag.

I would have liked to have seen more of Fessenden and Marie’s characters, almost an alternate universe Ed and Lorraine Warren a la The Conjuring (2013).

The Ward (2010)


The Ward (2010) movie poster

director John Carpenter
viewed: 06/26/2016

The Ward may come to be known as horror legend John Carpenter’s final feature film.  Or it may not.  Who knows?  At this point, Carpenter has turned to his music and The Ward may be his last outing in cinema.  He’s only 68, so who knows what the future holds?

It takes place in 1966, in an all female mental ward in Bend, Oregon.  The star of the film is a pre-Johnny Depp Amber Heard.  She’s just burned down a farm house and gets placed in the old facility, only to quickly become beset by spooky happenings and a gnarly old lady ghost thing.  She’s ensconced in a room that belonged to a girl who mysteriously disappeared.

She’s surrounded by thinly drawn inmates who are all a little too pretty, some have more quirks than others, and are slowly getting picked off by the weird evil of the place.

The whole thing pivots on a twist.

Jared Harris provides a slippery presence as the doctor trying to help.

I concur with the majority that this film is no great shakes, but still is some improvement on Carpenter’s last feature film, Ghosts of Mars (2001).  It’s not completely terrible, but if it had been made by any other un-John Carpenter director, it would probably be completely unmemorable.  My biggest gripe was the really terrible editing, seemingly made to keep the pace rolling — again, who knows?

Queen of the Damned (2002)

Queen of the Damned (2002) movie poster

director Michael Rymer
viewed: 06/18/2016

That Queen of the Damned is a pretty awful movie, well, that seems common knowledge, as is the fact that at this point in time, it’s most compelling element is star Aaliyah who died in a plane crash before the film was even released.  Her mere existence on film, capturing her as a living being, was already a thing when the film went into general release in 2002.

That this was Anne Rice’s vampire Lestat’s second cinematic incarnation, and still last to date, that possibly is important to her readership.  This film is all millennial grunge and goth way up the yin-yang, aching, aching, aching.  Everyone is so SEXY, and I mean that in the objective sense: they are meant to be very sexy, they think they are very sexy, probably to someone they in fact ARE sexy.

Rice’s notion of turning the retro-gothic modern vampire into a rockstar might well have been innovative on the page in the time it was published.  I can’t speak to that exactly as I’ve never read her books (only seen the movies).  And I’m even having a hard time placing myself in 2002 in the context of this film’s initial release, so what I speak for is the now, the present of 2016: this stuff is silly, dated, and cheesy.

It’s hard not to offer some semblance of appreciation, though, for sexy vampires, since Stephanie (Twilight) Meyer turned them into chaste yearners who shine in the sun.  It’s kind of refreshing to return (if still campy and passe) to the sexy hedonist vampires who lust and love and are moody about their eternity.

But yeah, this movie is awful.  The special effects are cheap and stylized, even for 2002.  They’re bad enough to single out for commentary.  And so I have.

I guess if you want your sexy vampires you’ve still got True Blood, or at least can visit it.  But for my money, I like my sexy vampires straight out of Jim Jarmusch.  Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) has only continued to grow in my thoughts.  That’s where my current sensibility resides.

Bring It On (2000)

Bring It On (2000) movie poster

director Peyton Reed
viewed: 06/04/2016

My 12 year old daughter and I have developed a new measurement of her interest in a movie that we watch together on television: how many times she asks how much longer the film has to go.  The ultimate sign of interest is when she doesn’t ask at all.

So, when I asked her how she enjoyed the 2000 cheerleading competition teen flick Bring It On, she referenced that scale and noted that she not once inquired into the “are we there yet?” of movie-watching.

Director Peyton Reed’s theatrical debut was a bit of a surprise back in 2000 for me, too.  A friend of mine, known for off-the-wall but reliable recommendations, said it was great, and against my instincts, I watched it, enjoyed it, and was duly impressed.  Sports movies aren’t really a genre I enjoy overly, and really Bring It On is a sports movie, a comedy about competition, even if that competition is a so typically derided form as in cheerleading.

Kirsten Dunst is the star and brings it, and co-stars Eliza Dushku, Jesse Bradford, and Gabrielle Union all bring it as well.  And Peyton Reed keeps it peppy and fresh, clipping along, boosted by the cheer scenes and dance performances, both mocking and respectful, a coy tone of irony and self-awareness but keeping enough earnest heart that the story stays true.

The twist of having the largely white lead team guilty of pilfering cheers and numbers from a largely African-American inner city squad was innovative, a referential nod at all the times that white culture has appropriated black culture.  The film plays with aspects of progressiveness though deeper critiques are probably dubious.  It would have been nice to see more of the East Compton crew on screen.

I’d say this holds up “okay”.  I remember thinking it was pretty fun back in the day.  I guess it’s still “pretty fun”. But I qualify that more than before.

Switchblade Sisters (1975)

Switchblade Sisters (1975) movie poster

director Jack Hill
viewed: 05/30/2016

Though it depicts an uprising of a female gang against a male gang (and the cops), it’s hard to say how proto-feminist Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters really is.  You might wonder if an exploitation film can really have a proto- or full-on feminist reading, when the whole shebang rides on sexualizing and otherwise teasing up the material.  Frankly, most aren’t feminist in the least, but arguably some are.  Switchblade Sisters has modicums of empowerment but overall it’s a fantasy of sorts, playful, occasionally fun, but not terribly compelling.

No matter what Quentin Tarantino thinks of it.

I dig Jack Hill.  Maybe Spider Baby (1964) more than any other.  I think I like but don’t love Switchblade Sisters.  I like Robbie Lee as Lace, Joanne Nail as Maggie, and Monica Gayle who plays Patch.  It’s got some uncomfortable misogynies that it doesn’t entirely redeem, and it’s relationship to reality vis-a-vis high school (none of the principles look remotely teen except maybe Robbie Lee) gives it any level of realism.

Sixteen Candles (1984)

Sixteen Candles (1984) movie poster

director John Hughes
viewed: 05/13/2016

Sixteen Candles may be the same movie that I saw in 1984 and which I long thought to be the funniest of John Hughes’s films, but it’s also a very different movie than it was when it came out.  The upshot, I suppose, is that the movie itself is still the same, but the world has changed and I personally have changed, so that this teen comedy has shifted dramatically in my estimation.

I kind of knew this was coming.  Though I fondly remembered the movie from the Eighties as the funnier and more fun sibling of Hughes’s The Breakfast Club (1985), I had read some modern responses to the film’s glaring racial stereotype of Long Duk Dong (played by Gedde Watanabe) and creepy “date rape” jokes.  Watanabe’s portrayal is considered one of the most heinous Asian stereotypes ever imprinted on film, and his character has a good deal of screentime.

I warned my kids about this before we watched the movie.  I’d actually thought it was one that they would like and have had it on the back burner for a number of years.

The fact is that the film has a lot of cringe-worthy elements.  I found myself cringing far more than laughing.

On the positive side, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall in particular, are terrific.  Hall is hilarious as the spastic prince of the nerds, Farmer Ted.  He’s by far the best thing about the movie.  And Ringwald, she really was an archetype of the times, a little prissy, but sympathetic and charming.

Hughes these days equates to a nostalgia of the 1980’s.  His name is synonymous with the teen films of that time and stands out in that crowd for his particular brand of pop Americana.  I guess it’s not too ironic that these films also belie themselves in their problematic representations, depicting a culture and attitudes that reveal some very unlikable truths.