Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, May 23, 2022

Director Report Card: Michael Lehmann (1996)

None of Michael Lehmann's movies had ever made much money. “Heathers” quickly became a beloved cult classic but flopped in 1986. Nobody saw “Meet the Applegates,” “Hudson Hawk” was a notorious failure, and “Airheads” came and went without much notice at all. Yet Lehmann was able to continue working, by shifting his focus to television. Between 1994 and 1997, he would direct five episodes of beloved comedy series, “The Larry Sanders Show.” That obviously showed that Lehmann could still get something made on time and under budget. This was presumably a factor in him getting hired to direct “The Truth About Cats & Dogs,” an entry into that most light-weight and predictable of genres: The nineties romantic-comedy.

Abby is the host of a radio advice show geared towards pet owners. Every day, she fields advice from people with sick or misbehaving pets. One day, she receives a call from Brian, a dreamy-sounding photographer who is having trouble with a dog he's photographing. The two immediately hit it off. Abby, however, lacks confidence in her appearance. In a moment of insecurity, the short, mousy woman describes herself as looking like a tall, leggy, blonde model. Coincidentally, that model – a woman named Noelle – happens to live in Abby's apartment. The two become friends and she talks Noelle into posing as her in-person, while Abby continues to romance Brian over the phone. As feelings grow more complicated, the question arises over how long the two women can keep up the deception.

Within a few minutes of watching “The Truth About Cats & Dogs,” you figure out what the movie is doing. This is a gender-flipped “Cyrano de Bergerac,” updated for the nineties. Many of the classic story's themes, such as the fear of presenting yourself honestly to someone you love, are timeless. Yet the screenplay, from late writer Audrey Wells, is also clearly about issues that were facing women at the time. As a woman, Abby feels how physical appearance is valued over anything else, much more than personally. One assumes that Wells' script was inspired by the pressures put on women to align their personal value with their beauty. This is a pretty important topic to discuss and one that easily could've made “The Truth About Cats & Dogs” an insightful and cutting motion picture.

Instead, “The Truth About Cats & Dogs” is a nineties rom-com, a style notorious for relying upon formula and cliches. The film uncritically follows many of the hallmarks of the genre. Naturally, Noelle begins to develop feelings for Brian too. This leads to a wedge being driven between the two women, the dramatic events that shakes the story up in the last third. Simple misunderstandings that easily could've been talked out are instead allowed to escalate into big arguments. Despite that, everything works out for a syrupy, happy ending. “The Truth About Cats & Dogs” even includes a wise best friend character for Brian, played by future superstar Jamie Foxx in a role absolutely anyone could've done. At least he's not a sassy gay man. (Though the Cool Black Friend feels like as much of a cliché on its own.)

The most ridiculous contrivances of “The Truth About Cats & Dogs” is irrevocably baked into its premise. Brian has to be a pretty enormous idiot not to immediately figure out what is going on here. Noelle sounds nothing like Abby. She clearly has a totally different personality from Abby. The type of conversations she has with Brian are completely unlike his talks with Abby. Meanwhile, he never notices that “Donna,” “Abby's” friend, happens to sound and act exactly like the woman he talks on the phone for hours with. It's a hard pill to swallow. Also difficult to swallow is the idea that nobody would be attracted to Janeane Garofalo. Maybe she's not a supermodel – and I understand that it's more Abby's hang-ups holding her back than her appearance – but she's hardly a Cyrano either. Garofalo is lovely all throughout the film and suggesting otherwise is honestly insulting.

But maybe complaining about the cliches and contrivances of the rom-com genre is besides the point. I love eighties slasher movies and action films, finding the reoccurring tropes and stereotypes in those movies to be charming and fun. For fans of this type of thing, maybe "The Truth About Cats & Dogs'" commitment to formula is a feature, not a bug. Yet I still think this movie fails on its own standards in some big ways. If this was meant to be a vehicle for Janeane Garofalo, it definitely lets her down. Garofalo got famous for her sarcastic stand-up. The character of Abby allows her few chances to flex this muscle. Only the scenes where she talking to increasingly ridiculous callers, or a brief moment where she has to improvise a personality for "Donna" in seconds, show Garofalo's gift for snark.

Abby is obviously the film's protagonist but Uma Thurman as Noelle gets top billing. Because Hollywood marketing pays more attention to leggy blondes than short brunettes too, I guess. Noelle is one of many roles where Thurman, a versatile and intense actress, is underserved by the material. Noelle is flighty, shallow, and impulsive. She repeatedly points out she never eats anything. She dates a jerk, despite everyone around her pointing out he's a jerk. She gets caught up in the act and starts making out with Brian. While the film seems to be making some sort of point about how society's expectations twist women up, Noelle is never given any real depth. Thurman plays a goofy, ditzy blonde and is rarely given a chance to expand beyond that archetype. Only the scenes where she interacts with Garofalo generate much interest. 

Brian, the third corner of the story's triangle, is played by Ben Chaplin. The minute Chaplin appeared on-screen, my brain just kept thinking "Who the hell is this guy?" Chaplin is a blandly handsome leading man, distinguished more by his British accent than anything else. Chaplin presumably got cast because of his prior appearance in "The Remains of the Day" and would go on to a largely forgettable character actor's career. He's fine here, I guess. Again, it's hard to get over how gullible the character must be to accept this fabrication, making it hard for the viewer to get invested in Chaplin's performance. If the guy is so blinded by Noelle's beauty, that he barely even notices Abby, you wonder why she's attracted to him in the first place. I suppose Chaplin and Garofalo do share some okay chemistry during their phone conversation scenes but that's about the only thing that's memorable about him. 

The best romantic comedies build their humor out of the interactions between the characters. "The Truth About Cats & Dogs," on the other hand, goes for increasingly broad slapstick to try and inject some humor into the proceedings. This is really evident in two scenes. When Abby and Noelle are getting lunch together, a random guy attempts to impress the blonde with a random act of fly snatching, a sequence that feels totally out-of-place and adds nothing to the film. Similarly, the scene where Noelle plans on revealing the truth to Brian escalates to a silly scene of him driving her to the radio station, the knob on his car radio getting yanked off as Noelle crawls around the vehicle. These moments stick out badly and feel like desperate attempts to generate some laughs. 

Like all nineties romantic comedies, "The Truth About Cats & Dogs" is visually indistinct. There's little about its use of color, camera movement, lighting, or framing that's memorable or interesting. It mostly just looks like a TV show. You see little of the trademarks that distinguished Michael Lehmann's earlier movies. The exaggerated set design or surreal dialogue of "Heathers" or "Hudson Hawk" are not present. Really, the only element of "The Truth About Cats & Dogs" that sticks out to be are its montage sequences, which feel distinctly nineties in a way I can't quite describe. A scene where Abby and Brian have phone sex has the kind of soft focus and slow dissolves that just define the decade of my youth for me.

One thing about "The Truth About Cats & Dogs" did surprise me though. While watching the opening credits, I did not expect to see Howard Shore's name pop up. You did not expect the guy best known for composing sweeping scores for "The Lord of the Rings" or intense music for the films of David Cronenberg to work on an ephemeral rom-com like this. I guess not every gig can be "The Silence of the Lambs." Shore provides a light jazz score that is not especially memorable, though occasionally gives the movie a fitting peppy energy. Shore's music is frequently subbed out for a series of pop songs from Adult Contemporary hitmakers like Sting, Blues Traveller, or Suzanne Vega. This was from the days when even mid-tier studio products had soundtracks filled with notable names. The needle drops are pretty intrusive, though I did like the random Ben Folds Five song that pops up. 

After "The Truth About Cats & Dogs" wrapped up, I found myself wondering something: What was the truth about cats and dogs supposed to be? Brian adopts a big slobbery dog early in the film, while Abby has a fluffy cat she cuddles in a few scenes. It's easy to compare Brian, so stunned by a pretty lady that it takes the whole movie for him to figure out the obvious truth, to the absent-minded goofiness of a friendly dog. Yet if we are meant to presume anything about Abby from her being a cat person, I didn't catch it. Lots of people have observed that men are more like dogs while women are more like cats but the film doesn't really offer any insight on that. The title, which is also the name of Abby's radio program, seems to have been chosen because it was catchy and not because it reflects anything about the film. Maybe that's a petty complaint but, if your title is professing to reveal some truth about our animal friends, the actual contents of the film should probably attempt to do that. 

"The Truth About Cats & Dogs" does mark an important turning point in Michael Lehmann's career: It was the first one of his movies to actually be a box office success. The film would gross 34 million in North America and a little more than that overseas. I can't find what the movie's budget was but I'm betting it was a lot less than that. The reviews were fairly positive too, though there was at least one notable detractor. Janeane Garfalo herself would dismiss the film years later, saying the original script had a lot more nuance and that the final product was a bland studio product. Which I would agree with. The film would successfully launch the career of screenwriter Wells, a former radio DJ herself who would go on to write similarly light-hearted comedies like "George of the Jungle" and "The Kid," and direct two movies of her own, before passing away unexpectedly in 2018. As for Lehmann, he'd get to make a few more movies, so I guess that's good. [Grade: C-]

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Director Report Card: Michael Lehmann (1994)

How do you come back from making one of the most notorious critical punching bags of the nineties? This was the question facing... Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, after writing the widely loathed “Problem Child” films. The screenwriters found themselves emphasizing with a man widely considered the worst filmmaker of all time: Edward D. Wood Jr. They wrote a script about the man, that celebrated him, instead of mocking him. The duo found a kindred spirit in Michael Lehman, whose own career had been stained by making “Hudson Hawk.” The project would've been a fitting comeback vehicle for Lehman. The “Ed Wood” script ended up in the hands of Tim Burton, who loved it and desperately wanted to produce it... But only if he could direct it too. And, I guess, if you had to choose between the guy who made “Batman” directing your movie and the guy who made “Hudson Hawk,” you'd choose Burton too. 

Instead of “Ed Wood,” Lehmann chose a goofy comedy script from Rich Wilkes as his next project. “Airheads” follows Chazz, would-be rock star and lead singer of struggling metal band The Lone Rangers. After another failed attempt to get a record exec's attention, and getting dumped by his girlfriend, Chazz and his band mates – scheming bassist Rex and simpleton drummer Pip – get desperate. Armed with water pistols filled with hot sauce, the trio break into radio station KPPX. Things accidentally escalate into a hostage situation. Left on the air, the band tries to locate a playable copy of their demo, struggle with their newfound infamy, butt heads with the cops, reconnect with the women in their lives, and become rock folk heroes. 

There's an underappreciated little subgenre that I'm unusually fond of. I call them “dude movies.” These are motion pictures, always within the comedy genre, that follow goofy best friends on some sort of wacky adventure. There are usually two of them. They are almost always male. (Though a “dude movie” starring women would be a really neat twist.) Frequently, though not always, these dudes are made dudes by their surfer slang and love of heavy metal music. “Bill & Ted” and “Wayne's World” are the superstars of this small subgenre. “Airheads” fits comfortably into the dudes template, even if it follows three metal-obsessed screwballs who get into some shenanigans. A built-in fondness for exactly this kind of wackiness means I might be more susceptible to “Airheads'” questionable charms then some might be. 

While many dude movies just use the metalhead aesthetic for ambiance, spinning their stories off in off-beat directions, “Airheads” is explicitly concerned with the value of rock music. Like all true rock 'n' roll movies, it's really about the struggle to maintain the integrity of the music. Chazz and his band mates consider themselves “real” rock musicians, compared to the posers that fill the scene. Upon discovering that KPPX is going to be converted into a soft jazz station, everyone is outraged. When their infamy as criminals seemingly secures the Lone Rangers a contract, he's ultimately aghast. He wants to be famous for his music, not his reputation! The film repeatedly puts these clueless rock wannabes in conflict with feckless executives and square authority figures. This puts “Airheads” in a long line of movies and stories in which rock musicians struggle for authenticity in an industry built upon selling out.

The dudes genre is, in many ways, forever linked to the eighties idea of what a rock star is. “Airheads” is too. At one point, Chazz dismisses the music coming out of Seattle at the time, which is obviously a reference to the grunge genre that would completely displace metal's prominence in popular culture for most of the decade. Yet, watching “Airheads” tonight, I can't help but feel it's one of the most nineties movies I've ever seen. The central trio wear a lot of sleeveless flannel, headbands, Doc Martens, and acid-wash jeans. CDs and cassette tapes are reoccurring plot points. Rex works in an unnamed toy store that is pretty clearly a Toys-R-Us, back in the days when that chain was a series of dingy warehouses. The shelves are lined with then relevant but now retro toy lines, like “Crash Test Dummies” or the 90s version of “Stretch Armstrong.” The film begins with a stop-motion animation opening credits scene, which just hangs heavy with the atmosphere of my youth. And Beavis and Butthead have a cameo. Through no intentional moves, “Airheads” became an amusing time capsule of a specific time. 

Watching “Airheads” after seeing Michael Lehmann's first three features, you don't see too many of his trademarks. The stylized production design and heightened cinematography of “Heathers” and “Meet the Applegates” is nowhere to be seen here. Cinematographer John Schwartzman and production designer David Nichols do largely forgettable work. Yet there is a little taste of “Heathers” in “Airheads,” largely thanks to its frequently surreal dialogue. The metalheads toss around a number of bizarre insults, such as shouting “penis” in a weird way or referring to each other derisively as “femmes.” The script even mocks its own weird language, in a moment when the radio station owner attempts to replicate the style of speech. There's nothing here as iconic as “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” but someone does threaten to stab a person with his dick.

Truthfully, what ends up making “Airheads” really work for me is, I think, its cast. Years before Brendan Fraser would be critically reevaluated as an incredibly charming matinee idol, and even before the peak of his goofy action hero stardom, he made wacky comedies like this. There's no doubt that “Airheads” makes good use of Fraser's himbo charms. From any practical perspective, Chazz is sort of a dick. He does disregard his girlfriend's feelings in favor of obsessing over his rock star dream, which definitely seems increasingly pathetic as the story goes on. Yet Fraser manages to make him more lovable than not. Chazz is definitely a doof but Fraser also gives him a vulnerable side, allowing us to warm up to him and even root for him eventually. 

“Airheads” is also notable as an off-beat starring role for Steve Buschemi. Buscemi has starred in a couple of comedies over the years but he's not usually playing a long-haired metalhead type. Yet he's good casting in the role of Rex. Buscemi, after all, has an edgy, slightly unhinged quality. When you pair that with long hair and punk fashion, it really makes Rex look like a greasy weirdo. (A fitting addition to any metal band.) The character also fits comfortably into the kind of comedic roles Buscemi usually plays: That of someone who grossly overestimates his own brilliance and frequently rushes into plans without thinking them through. It's a good use of the eccentric character actor. 

If “Airheads” is remembered for nothing else, it's for being an early role for Adam Sandler. This one was released a year before “Billy Madison” came out, taking Sandler from a popular stand-up and beloved “SNL” cast member to the biggest comedy star of the decade. And even this early in Sandler's cinematic career, his screen persona was fairly well established. Pip is utterly child-like in his personality. He talks in a stilted way, often makes bizarre leaps in logic, and is prone to mistakes. The explosive rage and inexplicable talent Sandler characters usually have is, in Pip, replaced with an mysterious popularity with the ladies. Women find Pip irresistible, which plays like another one of “Airheads'” absurd jokes. Whether you find Sandler's act charming or obnoxious is a matter of opinion but he does provide a nice counterbalance to the other characters in the film.

Sandler isn't the only adored “Saturday Night Live” cast member of the nineties to appear in “Airheads.” Chris Farley appears as one of the cops assigned to meet the Lone Rangers' ridiculous demands. Farley steals the few scenes he's in, as a nervous guy who is eager to please and prone to occasional outbursts of genius. “Airheads” actually has a surprisingly stacked supporting cast. Ernie Hudson is Farley's commanding officer, doing a good job of being a straight man to the movie's wackiness. A young David Arquette has a largely unnecessary appearance as an oddball guy in the station, who doesn't contribute anything to the story but is appreciated. Michael McKean appears as the duplicitous manager of the radio station, who is suitably whiny and square. Joe Mantegna is well utilized as the deejay, who is sympathetic to the band's scheme and gets off a couple of good one-liners.

Another way you can tell “Airheads” was made in the nineties is that it contains an extended parody of “Die Hard.” And it stars Michael Richards, back when he could've parlayed his status as Kramer into some sort of stand alone career. Richards plays an incredibly neurotic radio employee who unwittingly ends up hiding in the ventilation system of the radio station, communicating with the cops on the outside. Richards gets to enact some amusing slapstick in these sequences, hurting himself in increasingly unlikely ways as he stumbles through the vents above. He also has a line to the cops on the outside, who – in a funny gag – constantly misunderstands what he's saying. Honestly, I could imagine someone trying to expand this entire concept into its own movie. In “Airheads,” it's just one amusingly silly component of the story. 

It's hard to say a movie like “Airheads” is really about anything. This is a gleefully dumb comedy and not one to be thought about that deeply. However, a theme of sorts does emerge. At the beginning of the story, Chazz doesn't really respect his girlfriend. He prioritizes his own ambitions over her's, expecting her to do all the work while he pursues his wild dream. Similarly, a minor character in the film is a police captain who is going through a psychotically tense break-up with his wife. Ya know, maybe it's just the standards of nineties comedies aimed at teenage boys, but it definitely feels like men having issues with women is a topic rolling around in this movie's empty head. Notably, Chazz' girlfriend comes to forgive him largely because he drops his macho demeanor and not so much because he changes his behavior, so don't think the film is progressive in any way. Yet it's kind of interesting. 

And, of course, it's only fitting that “Airheads” has a pretty good soundtrack. It features some choice cuts from White Zombie, Motorhead, Dim Stars, and Primus. (Rob Zombie and Lemmy both have cameos in the movie, to boot.) While mocked throughout the film, the Lone Rangers' single actually isn't a bad vaguely hardcore style punk/metal number. Despite seemingly having a lot in its favor, “Airheads” was not successful upon release. It grossed far less than its 11 million dollar budget at the box office. Critically, it was reviled and even made a couple of Worst Of lists at the end of the year. That definitely seems like a bit of an overreaction to me. “Airheads” is goofy, kind of dumb, and light-weight as can be. Yet it's also frequently charming, has a surprisingly good cast, and made me laugh a decent number of times. This has earned the movie a small cult following, that has kept it being totally forgotten. When watched on a lazy afternoon, with no expectations, it can definitely scratch an inch for a silly comedy. [Grade: B-]

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Director Report Card: Michael Lehmann (1991)

“Hudson Hawk,” your reputation proceeds you. If you’re a movie nerd of a certain age, the name “Hudson Hawk” is practically short-hand for a movie so horrendously misguided that its only plausible fate was to become a massive box office bomb. How did a misfire like this come to be? The idea was conceived by Bruce Willis and his friend, music producer Robert Kraft. Bruce wanted to do a Bond style super-spy movie with the sense of humor of his “Moonlighting” character. After the success of “Die Hards” 1 and 2, Bruce convinced mega-producer Joel Silver to turn this in-joke into an actual motion picture. Eighties action scribe Steven E. de Souza turned Willis’ pitch into a fairly straight-forward heist film. Bruce wanted it to be crazier so Silver hired “Heathers” screenwriter Daniel Waters, who had just wrote “The Adventures of Ford Fairlaine” for the producer, to make the movie wackier. Waters seemed like a natural addition, since Michael Lehmann was already signed on to direct. (As Silver was supposedly a big fan of “Heathers.)

But “Hudson Hawk” was always Bruce’s movie. Rumors persist that he took over filming, rewriting the script daily, and constantly changing his mind about what tone the project should have. The budget ballooned and shooting went way over-schedule. By the time this “Hawk” nested in theaters, the film had already garnered the reputation of a fiasco. Critics barred their fangs, audiences stayed away, and it’s only by the grace-of-god that Willis’ career survived. In the decades since the movie became a synonym for excess and failure, some have tried to reclaim “Hudson Hawk” as a wrongfully maligned gem. Where do I stand on this particular debate? Am I pro- or anti-“Hawk?” As with everything concerning this frequently baffling film, the answer is not as clear cut as that.

Eddie Hawkins has earned a reputation as the Hudson Hawk, the greatest cat-burglar and safe-cracker the world has ever known. Recently paroled from prison, he wants to change all that and begin a normal life. Forces conspire to get him back to his old ways. His old partner, Tommy, convinces him to pull off a daring robbery of an auction house, with a Leonardo de Vinci relic as the prize. This soon entwines Eddie in a conspiracy between the C.I.A., the Vatican, and a pair of evil millionaires known as the Mayflowers. They are all seeking control of de Vinci’s thought-lost designs for an alchemy machine, which can turn lead to gold via a series of reflective crystals. Running around Rome and pursued by various forces, Eddie seeks to save the world, get the girl, and drink a cappuccino.

Part of why “Hudson Hawk” probably flopped so spectacularly is because it was sold as a typical Bruce Willis movie. The trailers focused on the punching, shooting, car crashes, explosions, stunts, and wise-cracks. Aside from an oddball fairy tale style prologue with the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” narrator, the movie more-or-less feels like a typical Bruce Willis movie in its first half-hour. Yes, the dialogue is a little punchier and the characters are a bit zanier. Hawk has a fixation on cappuccino and trades barbed dialogue with his buddy, Tommy. The two time their heist by singing songs at the same time, as Hawk seems to obsessively know the complete lyrics and length of every entry in the American Standards songbook. Yet all of this is well within Bruce's typical smart-ass action hero wheelhouse. The initial heist scene is breezy and entertaining. If you know nothing about the movie up to this point besides its reputation, you might wonder why it was so despised in 1991.

This is before an auctioneer explodes suddenly and in a totally cartoonish manner. That scene is quickly followed by a ridiculous sequence where Bruce is dragged behind an ambulance on a gurney, cracking jokes the entire time as he improbably swerves his way through traffic. From that point on, “Hudson Hawk” only gets sillier. By the last act, you have James Coburn doing exaggerated karate kicks while Willis contorts his body to avoid the strikes, wacky sound effects playing on the soundtrack. The situations and one-liners just get more ridiculous, until you have Bruce delivering one of the most hilariously clunky postmortem quips in action movie history. If you are unprepared for “Hudson Hawk's” abrupt shift into a live action cartoon, its wild tonal shifts can be utterly blindsiding, its increasingly ludicrous direction baffling. But if you know what you're getting into, it's definitely kind of fun.

The movie's progressively zanier atmosphere does reel itself in slightly from time-to-time. Mostly when it's focusing on the romantic subplot. Andie MacDowell appears as Anna, an agent of the Vatican's anti-espionage sector that has been sent to seduce Hawk and prevent him from stealing da Vinci's codex. Of course, she does too well a job of that and the pair fall in love. McDowell and Willis actually have a likable chemistry together. The scene in her apartment, where they start to get close and she comments on his tattoos and scars, has an easy-going and likable energy to it. These moments are totally at odds with the rest of the movie's over-the-top goofiness but, taken as respites from the slapstick, they entertain well enough.

The romantic-comedy scenes do not represent "Hudson Hawk's" only unexpected departure from its tone of "Looney Tunes" absurdity. This is, after all, a Joel Silver action movie. That means there's a shit ton of explosions and gratuitous violence. The last act features Willis goofing around with a rocket launcher and there's multiple car crashes throughout. However, the movie makes the weird decision to play a lot of its violence as not cartoony slapstick, but semi-realistic. A throat is slashed early on, blood gushing out. The main villains are graphically killed by exploding shrapnel. It comes off as more than a little mean-spirited. Another Willis flick that year, "The Last Boy Scout," was similarly graphic. So maybe this was just the inevitable climax of eighties action excess. Yet considering "Meet the Applegates" was also weirdly mean-spirited at times, I'm wondering if it's not a Michael Lehmann thing. 

Overall though, I found that “Hudson Hawk’s” atmosphere of tonally inconsistent ridiculousness mostly worked for me. When focused on its goofy characters bouncing off each other within increasingly off-beat scenarios, it’s entertaining enough. Things only truly become a problem when it asks us to actually care about the people and events happening around them. The plot, to prevent world domination, has ostensibly important consequences that are mostly treated seriously. Late in the film, a supporting character seems to die, an event which the story tries to attach some seriousness too. It turns out he’s fine, in probably the most bullshitty plot twist in the film, but that sole moment of gravity sticks out like a sore thumb. You can’t have 99% of your movie be a parody and then have 1% be totally sincere. That’s just not going to work. 

Then again, it’s not like making sense is much of a priority here. To read that Bruce was rewriting the film’s plot all through filming is not surprising, as “Hudson Hawk’s” storyline is often convoluted. The general gist of the story — to prevent a da Vinci invented magical relic from falling into the wrong hands — is simple enough and maintained throughout. Yet the film’s need to pile on more conspiracies frequently gets confusing. First, Hawk is being blackmailed by the mob into stealing again. Then the C.I.A. is pulling the strings. After that, the evil Mayflower corporation gets involved. Their plan — to make themselves more powerful by sabotaging the world gold supply by flooding the market with alchemy-created gold — also seems unnecessarily convoluted. The movie then feels the need to throw in a plot from the Vatican as well. It’s all a little too much and it’s unsurprising that the exact details get a little lost with so much going on.

As much of a mess as “Hudson Hawk” undoubtedly is, the film is still an entertaining watch throughout. Daniel Waters’ script makes sure that not a minute passes without something wacky or unexpected happening. The C.I.A. agents pursuing Hawk are all named after candy bars for vaguely explained reasons. The one named Butterfinger, played by a fittingly gronk-ish Andrew Bryniarski, is a total simpleton that is nearly indestructible. Another one, named Kit Kat, is a mime for no reason at all that often wears outlandish outfits. A particularly bizarre scene involves the agents shooting people with paralyzing needles, that causes them to babble incoherently. The mob bosses are named the Mario brothers, one of several references to Nintendo. (A console a game adaption of "Hudson Hawk" appeared on.) There's a testicle-fixated dog, that meets a ghoulish fate. A little girl's stuffed elephant is a plot point in one sequence. The Vatican agents communicate via glowing statues of Christ. And every scene is filled with usually funny one-liners, many of which display the mastery for memorable dialogue Waters showed in "Heathers." "Hudson Hawk" uses every opportunity it can to grow more surreal. As nuts as the movie is, this is actually toned down from the initial cut which also featured a subplot about Hawk seeking revenge for his murdered pet monkey.

I think a big reason why so many critics had their knives out for "Hudson Hawk" is because it was perceived as a hideous vanity project for Bruce Willis. And, ya know, that's not totally unfair. It's obvious that Willis and Kraft dreamed up a whole elaborate mythology around the Hudson Hawk character, which this movie only gives us a peek at. Whole scenes are built around Willis singing, around the same time he was pursuing a rather misguided musical side career. And, of course, Eddie Hawkins is depicted as preternaturally cool, always ready with a funny quip, fighting off tough guys, and getting into incredible adventures. He gets the girl and does things like assemble a collection of magical crystals with ease or outrun a fireball in da Vinci's flying machine. The entire advertising campaign was built around Bruce posing in a fedora. While "Hudson Hawk" unquestionably is an ode to Willis' ego, the title character is as much Daffy Duck as he is Bugs Bunny. He is clowned on as often as he clowns on others. The movie probably would be stronger overall if Hawkins was always the butt of the joke. But at least Bruce knew not to write himself totally as a wish fulfillment figure. 

While Willis is obviously the star of the show, a game supporting cast is assembled here. Danny Aiello has a good rapport with Willis, giving their scenes a frequently breezy energy. James Coburn's cocksure smile and smart-ass demeanor makes him a likable villain. Lorraine Toussaint is the sole intimidating member of the candy bar club, as Almond Joy. The movie's surreal atmosphere is increased by the presence of human memes like Frank Stallone and David Caruso, though there's no way the filmmakers knew that at the time. Camping it up above all the movie's other camp elements are Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard as the kinky, preening, utterly villainous Mayflowers. Grant and Bernhard absolutely tear the rafters off with grotesquely over-the-top performances, cackling and screeching during every second of screen time they have. While I can easily see people being off-put by such theatrically performances, Grant and Bernhard are having such a gleeful time. It's hard not to share in their utterly unhinged joy.

The fallout of "Hudson Hawk" was immediate. Many suspect Willis took the movie's savaging personally. He would never attempt writing a movie again and he rarely strayed from his action hero persona in the years afterwards. Though Lehmann and Waters would continue to get work, they never quite recovered from having a bomb as infamous as "Hudson Hawk" on their resumes. The movie flopping was a sign that the kind of campy action cinema excess Silver had popularized in the eighties needed to be recalibrated for the nineties. Yet, despite its notoriety, "Hudson Hawk" is too defiantly unique to be hated. I think it's definitely more of a fiasco than a secret success. I totally understand why many people despise the movie, then and now. But I get why it gathered a cult following eventually too. As all over-the-place as "Hudson Hawk" may be, there also aren't any other would-be blockbusters like it. (And, for what it's worth, the movie performed better overseas than domestically.) [Grade: B-]

Friday, May 20, 2022

Director Report Card: Michael Lehmann (1990)

"Heathers" didn't make any money but someone at New World Pictures must've liked the cut of Michael Lehmann's jib. I'm betting that someone was Denise Di Novi, the quirky producer who was also instrumental in getting Lehmann's feature debut made. Di Novi would also produce Lehmann's follow-up, an even stranger movie called "Meet the Applegates." Of course, New World was in the depths of bankruptcy and restructuring at the time. Lehmann's weirdo comedy would sit on a shelf for two years and not see theater screens until 1991. And even then just barely, as the film only made a little less than 500,000 dollars against its 5 million dollar budget. Despite its relative obscurity, "Meet the Applegates" has gone on to gather a small cult following

An American power company is currently cutting down large swathes of the Amazon rainforest, This disrupts a species of giant, highly intelligent, shapeshifting praying mantises called the Brazilian Cocorada. After discovering an English language text book, a family of four disguises themselves as humans and move to the small town in Ohio where the power company is based. Calling themselves the Applegates, they plan to sabotage the nuclear power plant and destroy the town. They present themselves as an ideal American family: Father Dick, mother Jane, teenage daughter Sally, and younger son Johnny. (Plus a dog named Spot.) Yet the Applegates soon find themselves distracted by the excesses of modern American society, forgetting their mission. This is bad, as the Cocorada Queen is on her way with an army of pissed-off bug people. 

It's honestly astonishing that "Meet the Applegates" managed to get made at all. If theater-goers found the premise of "a comedy about teenage suicide" alienating, I can't imagine anyone thought they would flock to a film with a set-up this weird. And this film was two million dollars more expensive than "Heathers" too! Di Novi must've been doing it for the art, as "Meet the Applegates" makes no concession to audience's taste. It is a bizarre comedy that revels in its own weirdness. The main characters have the goal of killing humanity. They behave badly, as does almost everyone around them. The film frequently pauses for extended sequences of grotesque body horror, as the Applegates' human forms shift into their buggy natural states. There's a key scene where a teenage girl gives birth to a squirming pupa, which then burst spectacularly, This is a movie that was only ever going to appeal to a limited breed of cult movie freaks. Which makes me thankful it exists at all.

"Meet the Applegates'" aggressive weirdness is obviously in service of cultural satire. The Applegates pattern themselves after every statistic they can find about American life, making themselves as "average" as possible. This leads to them resembling a 1950s sitcom version of a suburban family. The dad has an office job, mom cooks and clean, they have a white picket fence and a green lawn. This disguises the truth that they are hideous killer bugs. The film goes even further after that, as the Applegates quickly befall to every vice of modern life. Dick begins to have an affair with his secretary. Sally becomes addicted to spending, signing up for multiple credit cards and maxing all of them out. She eventually turns to booze and crime to cope. Johnny quickly starts selling and using drugs while Sally is immediately trying teenage sex and getting impregnated. The joke is obvious: That the "average" American family is, despite idyllic appearances, completely fucked-up. That something innate in our culture breeds and encourages this seediness.

This is not too dissimilar to "Heathers'" point, that the restrictive structures of American society inevitable leads to dysfunction and self-destruction. Yet, where "Heathers'" satire was focused and razor-sharp, "Meet the Applegates'" social commentary is a lot fuzzier. The people around the Applegates are presented as dunderheaded buffoons. The high school jock is a date-rapist, the town minister is a corpulent overeater, and their immediate neighbor is a bozo. Yet you can't help but notice that the Applegates are way more grotesque than anyone around them. When the outsiders are more depraved than the Americans, you're just making the outsiders look bad. Things get more muddled as the movie goes on, suggesting that the Applegates and the people in the town are growing fond of each other. Moreover, the evil energy corporation that should be the story's true antagonist is never developed much, leaving any clear point about the evils of capitalism hard to decipher. 

Muddled satire could, perhaps, be forgiven if "Meet the Applegates" was as funny as "Heathers." Sad to say, it's not. In fact, there aren't very many laughs here at all. There's a number of belabored gags that simply aren't very amusing. Such as the exterminator next door testing out a sonic frequency bug deterrent, which secretly torments the Applegates. There's a running gag about the mantises subsisting on a diet of trash and sugar, a potentially amusing bit of silliness that the film just dourly accepts as a matter-of-fact. "Meet the Applegates" is Lehmann's sole screenwriting credit, as he co-wrote the script with Redbeard Simmons, his "Beaver Gets a Boner" scribe. The two seem to find the act of presenting grotesqueness humorous enough, as the film largely has weird or gross shit happen without doing much of anything to make it funny. 

The film is at its most amusing when there's some sort of straight man to play off all the crazy shit happening. Such as when Greg, the exterminator neighbor, discovers a huge dead bug that used to be Spot the dog. His bemused reaction to something so unusual made me chuckle a few times. So did the sequence were the Applegates' averageness makes them the winner of a contest. The lottery runners arrive with the prize, just as the family is at their lowest moment, leading to a series of horrified reactions from the squares. Another such scene has a straight-laced border agent negotiating with the Cocorada Queen, who has taken the human form of a macho Dabney Coleman. I feel like the movie should've used the similarities between the already weird Applegates and normal suburban foibles for more laughs. There's a moment where an antenna-sporting Dick tries to initiate some insectoid sexy time with Jane and she is disinterested. It's clever and funny. The movie needed more stuff like that. 

Perhaps this is what happens when you try to write a script like "Heathers" but don't have someone like Daniel Waters behind the typewriter. Like "Heathers," "Meet the Applegates" touches upon a lot of controversial topics. Sally is unambiguously raped by the high school football star she thinks is cute, an ugly scene. The idea that the star athlete doesn't care about consent certainly deserves to be made but the inclusion here is mostly just uncomfortable. This is far from the only content that people would probably object to in 2022. After getting pregnant, Sally attends a support group for wayward girls... Where she begins a romance with a butch lesbian. This is presented as another way in which the Applegates have fallen from the American ideals they strive for. After Dick is caught screwing his secretary, they both get fired... And then the woman tries to blackmail him, the film depicting her as the villain in this situation. Most prominently, there's the matter of the mantis queen presenting as a mustachioed man, despite telling everyone she's female. I don't think the movie was intentionally making fun of trans people but the scenes of Dabney Coleman in drag sure haven't aged well. 

So "Meet the Applegates'" satire is uncertain, its laughs are few and far between, and some of its gags would get the cast and crew canceled in 2022. What does the movie have going for it? Those giant praying mantises sure are charming. Veteran eighties monster maker Kevin Yagher handled the make-up and creature effects. Yagher's creature designs don't exaggerate the features of a typical praying mantis much. The goofy pupils of the insect are maintained, as are their distinctive antenna and mandibles. The puppets' pinchers and bodies flop around as they move, in a way that can't help but be amusing. Honestly, the scene just devoted to the mantises being adorable goofballs are my favorite parts of the movie. When the Applegates go on a road trip and sit around a campfire in their natural state, chattering in their clicking language, I loved that. Or how the confrontation at the end with the other Cocorada involves spitting copious amounts of slimy bug juice. Showing the absurd contrast between these oversized human notions and traditionally insectoid behavior is a lot funnier than most of what the movie offers.

“Meet the Applegates” notably doesn't look as good as “Heathers” either. Mitch Dubin, a camera operator on that film, takes over as cinematographer and he's clearly not as talented as Francis Kenny was. There's one or two shots similar to the church scenes in “Heathers” but nothing overall as distinctive as that movie. “Applegates” does have the same production design as “Heathers,” Jon Hurtman. And that's very obvious. This film has the same exaggerated, slightly surreal style to its sets. The colors are bright. The angles are overdone. Everything is just a little off. This is a good fit for a story like this one. It's certainly a lot easier to handle the reality of giant bugs disguised as people if the costumes and sets around them are little larger than life already.

While there's a lot of things about “Meet the Applegates” that just aren't on-target, its cast isn't one of them. Ed Begley Jr. stars as Dick, with Stockard Channing as Jane. Both seem to be on the movie's bizarre wavelength. There's frequently something a little weird about Begley's energy as a performer. He's frequently had this style of putting on a fake smile and sounding slightly insincere, which makes him an ideal pick for the role of a giant praying mantis disguised as an average American dad. And Begley is always a fearless comedic performer. Channing, meanwhile, generates some laughs with her extremely dry approach to the material. This is most apparent when she turns to crime to support her spending habit. Cami Cooper and Bobby Jacoby – also seen in “Shocker” and “Tremors,” respectively – are both pretty good as Sally and Johnny.

Yet the supporting cast really steals the show more often than not. Dabney Coleman gives easily the funniest performance in the film. Coleman maintains the composure of a hard-ass military man, even when subjected to indignities like being in drag or having a suggestive banana in his pants. Also returning from “Heathers” is Glenn Shadix, who plays the nosy neighbor. Shadix's perpetually surreal delivery is also suited to a story as odd this one, that sort of magnified sense of authority bouncing off the story's absurdity's well enough. Shadix is even given a few posturing speeches, similar to the preacher role he played in Lehmann's previous film. 

“Meet the Applegates” as barely released in cinemas but did a little better on video and cable. I recall, years ago, seeing an advertisement for a Sci-Fi Channel screening of it. The strange premise always stuck with me and I've been curious about the movie for years. That curiosity only increased after learning the guy who made “Heathers” directed it. Truthfully, I want to like “Meet the Applegates” much more than I actually do. I'm glad a movie this fucking weird exist. I'm glad as much time, effort, and money was expended on bringing a story about giant praying mantises pretending to be human to life. In the abstract, it's perfect for my off-kilter sense of humor. In execution, it leaves a lot to be desired. Still, if this ever gets released on a fancy Blu-Ray, I would probably pick it up. (It's never been released on DVD and isn't legally streaming anywhere.) “Meet the Applegates” might not be all that successful yet I can't help but find it a little irresistible. [Grade: B-]

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Director Report Card: Michael Lehmann (1988)

Sometimes, these Director Report Card projects happen because a filmmaker has a deep filmography full of classics. Sometimes, it's because a director's trademarks are so immediately recognizable that you almost have to talk about their work within the context of their entire career. And sometimes, I do these things just because someone happened to make one of my all time favorite movies. This is the case with Michael Lehmann. Here's a guy whose career has had some wild ups and downs in quality. He's spent the last twenty years mostly directing television. But he also made “Heathers,” a movie that I've loved for almost as long as I've been passionate about film. So here I am, talking about all his movies mostly so I can talk about one of his movies... Yet maybe Lehmann's deep cuts contain some oddball surprises too. 

In 1986, Daniel Waters was working at a video store and had an idea. After absorbing one John Hughes high school movie after another, he decided to write the ultimate high school movie. Or, rather, an evisceration of the American high school movie that would run four hours and be directed by Stanley Kubrick. The script never crossed Kubrick's desk but it did catch the attention of Michael Lehmann, an up-and-coming filmmaker. He took the project, now entitled “Heathers,” to Denise Di Novi, then an executive at New World Pictures. Somehow, Di Novi looked at this ambitious, caustic project and decided to make it into a movie. Of course, the rest is history. “Heathers” would prove impossible to sell in 1989 but very quickly became one of the premier cult movies of its time. And it has remained one of my favorites for many years. 

Westerburg High in Sherman, Ohio is ruled with an iron fist by the Heathers. That's a trio of teen girls, each named Heather, who are the school's most popular (and most ruthless) students. This trio is made a quartet by Veronica, a more sensitive and intelligent girl who is increasingly questioning her decision to become one of the popular girls. That is when J.D., a mysterious would-be rebel at the school known for pulling a gun on a pair of jocks, catches her eye. The two fall into a whirlwind romance. After a shitty night at a party with one of the Heathers, J.D. tricks Veronica into poisoning her friend. They frame the death of Heather Chandler as a suicide, Veronica forging a suicide note. The incident unexpectedly causes the entire school to reassess Heather's personality and sets off a media frenzy. And its the first of a killing spree J.D. has pulled Veronica into, each one disguised as a suicide. 

When Waters conceived of “Heathers,” teenage suicide was becoming a hot button topic in American culture. It's never really stopped being one, adults everywhere still wondering why young people might want to take their own lives. Yet “Heathers” really gets at the heart of why teenage suicide is such a topic of fascination for grown-ups and the media. When the vicious Heather Chandler dies, she's embraced as a tragic figure by the faculty and student body. When hyper-macho jocks Kurt and Ram (seemingly) kill each other in a homoerotic murder/suicide pact, a pair of bullying meat-heads become deeper figures. Nobody is actually interested in understanding or knowing who these kids were. Instead, they all mean something different to everyone. The fictional deaths of this film, and the real ones that occur all the time, become blank slates that any message or feeling can be projected onto. Look at the way every school shooting – a topic “Heathers” grimly predicts in some ways – is followed by endless speculation and debate in the media but almost never by serious attempts to address the problems that cause these tragedies. 

Even though “Heathers” is a movie about teenage suicide, it actually contains very few teenage suicides. In fact, it's more accurately described as a movie about teenage murder. And, at least in movies, murder can sometimes be cathartic. As is reiterated several times throughout the film, the high school in “Heathers” is American society in microcosm with social clout standing in for money or power. The Heathers and Kurts and Rams of the school have lots of it, usually using their status to degrade and torment the lower classes of the school: The nerds that Ram attacks and call a gay slur or Martha “Dumptruck,” a morbidly obese student who is a frequent target of the Heathers' bullying. Do the Heathers deserve to die? Probably not, as they are just teenage girls themselves with traumas and complications in their own lives. Heather Chandler is desperate to be accepted into a good college and performs sexual favors on date-rapist frat boys to gain their favor. Heather McNamara is a target of bullying herself and suffers from an eating disorder. Yet the movie's opinion on the power structures and forces of oppression that the Heathers represent is less ambiguous.

Part of why “Heathers” can get away with such arch social satire is because it so clearly takes place in a world that is unlike our own. From the very first scene, the colors are a little brighter, a little more exaggerated. Even by the standards of the late eighties, the fashion seen here is a little more ridiculous than it was in reality. The shoulder pads, pastel colors, and big hair of the time are crossed with a somehow more retro, 1950s aesthetic. The weird sweater/mini-skirt combination Winona Ryder wears to the college party seems just on the other side of actual goofy eighties fashion. Each of the Heathers have a primary color that takes up most of their wardrobe – Chandler is red, McNamara is yellow, and Duke is green – as if they're Power Rangers or something. This unreal approach is also apparent in the slightly surreal set designs, from the elaborate bedrooms of the teen girls to the perfectly organized chaos of a classroom. By the time actual dream sequences are occurring, with even more bizarre set designs and visuals, you've long since accepted “Heathers'” weird world. 

Nothing about “Heathers” establishes its own unique world better than the dialogue. Daniel Waters intentionally made the slang as stylized as possible, so that the film would not be instantly dated by any contemporary teenage phrases. Much like the outfit, the dialogue is absurd and exaggerated. Character describe situations as “very.” People inquire about someone else’s “damage.” People munch on turbo dogs from the Snappy Snack Shack. More than anything else, Waters displays an ability to craft hilariously surreal one-liners. “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” and “I love my dead, gay son!” are only the most often quoted lines. The film is packed from beginning to end with unforgettable quotes and hysterical exchanges. The combination of writing, acting, and editing even manages to make single words — “Cornnuts!” “Eskimo!” — huge generators of laughs. 

Within “Heathers'” absurd world, further truths about the real world are revealed. Veronica sought to become one of the cool kids, leaving behind her true friend, nerdy and mousy Betty Flynn, for the cruel and demanding Heathers. Ultimately, she finds the life of the popular kid deeply unsatisfying. Her attempts to rebel against her new style drag her into J.D.'s murderous scheme, itself a toxic structure she must escape. Veronica isn't truly free until she casts aside the entire idea that there's a system, that must be functioned within or rebelled against, at all. In a world full of movies about high school cliques and fitting in, "Heathers" argues for real nonconformity. 

Through this premise, Lehman and Waters eviscerate the hollowness of trends. There are references throughout to real life fads, like swatches. Veronica’s dad reads spy novels and eats pate, even though he dislikes them, presumably because these are trendy things to do. The fictional band in the movie, Big Fun, advertise themselves with white T-shirts with big black lettering in them, recalling both Wham! and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. That band and their hit signal, “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It!),” is probably the movie’s most absurd parody. Eventually, the teen suicide itself becomes something of a fad within the movie’s world, seemingly everyone eager to try it. These are all attempts by the people to fit in within a social structure that hates any deviation from the expected and the norm. J.D. uses this tendency towards conformity to seal the school’s fate, putting together a petition under a false pretense. It’s a world, not all that different from our own, where drinking mineral water is enough to make a man a homosexual. Where the date-raping, cow-tipping Rams and Kurts, where the authoritarian bullies like the Heathers, attack anyone deemed an outsider. 

I’ve spent most of this review praising Waters’ writing but Michael Lehman, the cinematographer, and the editor, deserve a lot of credit too. They say comedy is timing, a rule that is observed in “Heathers.” A montage near the beginning, concerning the collection of answers to a nonsensical lunch time poll, is so perfectly cut for maximum laughs. You see this precise editorial instinct in later moments, when the sad truth about Veronica and Heather McNamara’s double-date with the jocks is revealed. Lehman’s eye is excellent in general, visible in that wonderful moody nightmare sequence or interesting visual touches, like looking up at a ladder as it’s leaned against a house. 

If there’s any flaw in Waters’ script, it’s that Veronica and J.D.’s relationship seems a little unlikely. He’s charming, and they’re both impulsive teenagers, so it’s not too difficult to swallow that the two would have sex so soon after first meeting. Once the killing starts though, the script has to go to some lengths to convince that someone as smart and observant as Veronica would be so easily duped. These are very logical observations but they don’t account for something important and totally unpredictable: Chemistry. There’s something in the way that J.D. touches Veronica that makes her go wild, that makes her throw all reason out the window. That’s why the two are making out minutes after killing the jocks. He’s a psycho and a calculated manipulator but he ignites something in her.

The casting has a lot to do with why that works too. Winona Ryder was cast as Veronica after filming “Beetlejuice” but before it was released, so she wasn’t really a known quantity just yet. She had to beg to get the part, as the producers wanted Justine Bateman or Jennifer Connelly. Ryder, of course, is completely perfect as Veronica. She has every quality needed for the character to work. Ryder is gifted with a unique ability for withering sarcasm and biting line delivery. Yet there’s also something incredibly vulnerable and youthful about her, which makes you buy her getting swept up in a crazy passion with J.D. Honestly, Veronica shouldn’t be sympathetic. She willingly covers up three murders and goes along with a completely insane plan for way longer than any reasonable person should. But because Winona Ryder is so totally lovable and charming, you have no problem following the character. That’s the reason why I don’t think “Heathers” would have worked with anyone else in the lead. 

If Ryder has been rightly praised for her work in “Heathers,” I feel like her co-lead is sometimes unfairly dismissed. Christian Slater’s acting as J.D. — whose name invokes classical images of teenage rebellion like James Dean — is often reduced to “he’s doing a Jack Nicholson impersonation.” I think that’s just how Christian Slater talks but, okay, that’s fair. Yet I do think Slater does some good acting here. J.D. is incredibly charismatic, swaggering into every scene with an edgy, eye-catching energy that demands attention. He’s cool, undeniably so. Slater is aware enough to never let that solely define J.D. though. He’s also a manipulative, calculating killer with a demented master plan, a heightened emotion that Slater also excels at. Both the performer and the script are smart enough to rip through J.D.’s cool guy persona and allowed a wounded, vulnerable psyche to show through in key moments as well. 

Honestly, I don’t think “Heathers” would have worked if every single member of the cast hadn’t bought completely into Lehman and Waters’ weirdo vision. You see that commitment in Penelope Milford, as lisping touchy-feely Miss Fleming, or Glenn Shadix as the bloviating preacher at the multiple funerals. Waters’ script is so sharp that even minor roles can get standout moments. Like Jennifer Rhodes and Bill Cort, as Veronica’s parents, who get amazing lines about bunny rabbits or how teenagers are treated. Even the cops who discover Ram and Kurt's corpses are hilarious. I love the way the one officer stops and poses with his gun in the middle of the chase, like he's in a cop show or something. The Heathers are perfectly cast too, with Kim Walker and Shannon Doherty summoning fantastically bitchy vibes as Heathers Chandler and Duke, while Lisanne Falk is a desperately frayed nerve end as the depressed Heather McNamara. The only actor in the movie not on the film’s exaggerated wavelength is Renee Estavez as Betty Finn. But that’s okay, because her totally sincere sweetness is the ideal contrast to all the cynicism in the rest of the movie. 

Obviously, I love this movie and don't see too many flaws in it. If there's any element of the film I would contest, it would be the ending. Or, at least, the ending we got. It's a well known piece of “Heathers” lore that Daniel Waters' originally intended vision is very different from what was finally released. Originally, Veronica would have successfully killed J.D. in the boiler room beneath the school but not been able to deactivate the bomb. A dramatic cut to black would follow, heavily implying that the entire school went up in flames. The film would then conclude with a musical number at the prom, where all the different students from different social statuses would dance together. This was in reference to an earlier line from J.D., about Heaven being the only place where different people can truly get along with each other. It would be a brilliant, audacious, insanely dark conclusion. How much of this footage was shot seems to be unknown. 

Understandably, some people thought concluding a movie about teenagers with almost every single character dying in a massive fireball might be a little too dark, even for this film. So a new ending was quickly assembled. And, boy, that is obvious. J.D. surviving the shootout in the basement, walking out front with a bomb strapped to his chest, never felt right to me. Exploding himself outside the school always felt like a compromise. Veronica's final confrontation with Heather Duke is good and I don't dislike her extending a branch of friendship to Martha Dumptruck... But it still feels off that such a sharp, biting movie ends on a very sentimental note. I think the destruction of the entire social system that made assholes like the Heathers possible was the better ending, as downbeat as it might have seen. (Another ending, something of a compromise between the two, was also floated but never seriously considered.)

New World Pictures might've hoped to make “Heathers” more marketable by giving it that jollier ending but it was no use. A comedy about teenage suicide and murder proved a hard sell and the film would flop at the box office in 1989. Internationally, attempts would be made to sell it as either a horror film or an erotic thriller. (New World was also going bankrupt at the time, which was surely as much of a factor as anything else.) Of course, time has been exceedingly kind to “Heathers.” It would be reclaimed as a cult classic very quickly and its influence has spread far and wide across the pop culture landscape. The film with the audience alienating premise has even been adapted into a successful stage musical and a (short-lived, largely despised) TV series. The world around it has unquestionably changed but the creators of “Heathers” succeeded in making a timeless dark comedy that viciously, hilariously questions the power structures of high school and beyond. [Grade: A+]

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Director Report Card: Sam Raimi (2022)

In the Marvel comic books, Doctor Strange frequently tangles with other-worldly entities, elder gods, and demonic evils. His adventures are characterized as much by cosmic horror as they are wizards throwing bolts of Balthakk at each other. The first big budget "Doctor Strange" movie – which I rather like, though it seems to be considered mid-tier Marvel by most – focused more on the latter than the former. This was set to change with the inevitable sequel, director Scott Derrickson hoping to return to his horror roots with the projects. For whatever reason, this didn't work out and Derrickson left the film... Only to be replaced, in the biggest cinematic up-trade in recent memory, by Sam Raimi. This took what probably would've been a standard Marvel sequel and made it a much bigger deal for a certain breed of film nerd. After a nearly decade long break from directing, Sam Raimi was finally back. "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" has him returning to the superhero genre he helped define and touching upon a character that always seemed like an ideal fit for him.

While ruefully attending the wedding of Christine Palmer, his ex-girlfriend, former Sorcerer Supreme Doctor Stephen Strange uses his mastery of the mystic arts to rescue a young woman from an interdimensional monster. The girl is America Chanez and she has the uncontrollable ability to leap through the multiverse. In hopes of returning her home, and stopping the creatures pursuing her, Strange consults former Avenger Wanda Maximoff... But she is the source of their trouble. The Scarlet Witch has been corrupted by the Darkhold, a tome of evil knowledge. She is determined to be reunited with her lost children and will tear dimensions apart to do it. Strange and America are tossed through the multiverse as they seek the Book of Vishanti, the inverse to the Darkhold and their only hope to stop Wanda. 

If there were any concerns that Raimi's playful style would be restrained by working within the massive Disney/Marvel machine, that's put to rest early on. While rescuing America from a giant green eyeball monster – who is obviously Shuma-Gorath but called Gargantos for legal reasons – there's a distinctive crash-zoom on the girl as she dangles from a ledge. From this moment on, "Multiverse of Madness" is packed full of Raimi signifiers. What might've been a dull expository conversation becomes a playful montage of overlaid images. There's stylized close-ups on people's faces, point-of-view shots, corny "Spider-Man" style dialogue, and even the occasional burst of wacky physical humor. There's absolutely no denying who directed this "Doctor Strange" adventure. Raimi goes full force. 

In fact, "Multiverse of Madness" doesn't resemble Raimi's previous superhero movies so much as it does his most cultishly beloved franchise. There's a key scene where, in an attempt to stop Wanda, Strange traps her in pocket dimension. As she escapes, the heroes listen for creaking sound effects. The camera slingshots around them. An eye glares madly from a puddle and hands leap out to grab people. This even includes a moment where Wanda touches a mirror and it ripples like water. Yes, "Doctor Strange 2" sometimes feels like the most expensive "Evil Dead" movie ever made. There's jump scares, shrieking wraiths that lunge at the camera, and a dilapidated, spooky mansion. The last act even features a blatant shout-out to "Army of Darkness" and a shambling corpse digging itself out of its grave. The resemblance to Sam's gore-soaked debut is even baked right into the narrative structure. The plot revolves around an evil book. The hero exits one bad situation to just be thrust into another. A macho one-liner is shouted before dispatching an undead foe. And not only does Bruce Campbell show up but he's smacked around by his own hand. Raimi using a mega-budget superhero gig as an excuse to return to his horror roots is unexpected and completely delightful.

In fact, "Multiverse of Madness" is so unapologetically a horror movie that it easily ranks as the superhero mega-franchise's grisliest adventure yet. A minor character is reduced to a charred, smoldering right on-screen. A bad guy gets impaled on a wrought iron fence. The story’s mid-point involves Wanda gorily dispatching a cadre of beloved Marvel superheroes. There’s way more exploding heads and bodily dismemberment in this scene then you’d probably expect from a movie marketed heavily towards children. While you can bicker about whether or not the movie is too gory or too scary for the young ones, Raimi definitely pushes against the borders of the PG-13 rating. There’s almost a sense of chaotic joy in these scenes, of an overgrown kid happily destroying his own toys. 

The "Doctor Strange" comics are maybe best known for their far-out visuals and trippy illustrations. The original movie definitely had fun with this, with its scenes of cityscapes tumbling in on themselves. With the sequel, Raimi and his team have even more fun doubling down on the wild imagery. Doctor Strange's spells, this time, seem to specialize in summoning all sorts of bizarre beasts. The opening fight scene features a giant cat head or a pair of huge, hairy hands popping out of portals to help fight a monster. This is exactly the kind of crazy shit that happened in the old comics and it's refreshing to see a big budget movie feature this kind of stuff, without ever commenting on it. In this regard, the highlight of the film definitely comes when Strange goes tumbling through a number of universes, rendered in quick succession as animation, paint, or a screaming mass of blocks. 

Marvel films are effects-driven action movies, of course, no matter how much this entry tries to move the needle towards horror. At their weakest, Marvel flicks can be indistinct collections of CGI clobbering. "Multiverse of Madness" at least tries to have fun with it. Strange's battle with Gargantos features some creative implementation of magical sawblades. A battle between Strange and an evil double has musical notes being rendered as neon-glowing shurikens, while the accompanying classical songs play in the soundtrack. That's exactly the kind of playful imagery comic book movies need more of. And it must be said that there's a pretty decent fist fight between Strange and an alternate universe version of his archenemy at one point, the kind of martial arts-tinged melees Marvel movies could use more of.

While "The Multiverse of Madness" seems most preoccupied with having fun with the sheer Raimi-ness of it all, the sequel does pause for some serious thematic concerns throughout. The multiversal premise allows the characters to see that certain elements of their lives are consistent across all realities. This can't help but bring with it a question of "what if?" What if the events that define our lives had gone a little differently? Would we be happy then? These are, I think, questions everyone can't help but ask about their lives. It's a good theme to nestle inside your superhero flick and it even helps redeem the Stephen Strange/Christine Palmer love story, which was one of the more anemic elements of the first film. The two happily have more screen time here, which helps the audience believe that the doctor really is in love with her. 

Trying to ground "Doctor Strange 2" in some universal themes is probably a good idea, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is quickly approaching the point of continuity lockout. This is a problem familiar to comic book readers, as some stories and series start to become incomprehensible if you aren't literate in eighty years of Marvel history. "Multiverse of Madness" isn't that weighed down by lore but... This is a movie essentially operating as a sequel to the first "Doctor Strange," the last two "Avengers" movies, and the "WandaVision" streaming series. It would also probably help you understand things if you've seen the "What If...?" series, the last "Spider-Man" movie, "Captain Marvel," and some superhero movies that Disney didn't even produce. I've seen all this stuff, because I'm a huge nerd, but Marvel's movies may be beginning to challenge the average person's commitment to this franchise. 

And, listen, I like shout-outs to obscure bits of comic book lore or previous installments in this sprawling fictional universe. Yet Marvel is increasingly falling into the habit of padding their movies out with self-congratulatory bits of fan service. "Doctor Strange 2" features at least two cameos designed to make the fanboys in the audience hoot and holler. These don't just seemingly fold two beloved properties somewhere into the Marvel movie multiverse but also pays homage to a popular bit of fan-casting. How necessary it is to do this, to stop the movie cold to incidentally introduce a love letter to something barely related to this story, is certainly debatable. Did a "Doctor Strange" sequel need to explain to us who Blackagar Boltagon is? I don't hate these moments but it does lead to "Multiverse of Madness" feeling a little overstuffed at times. 

The sequel making room for stuff like this while potentially shortchanging some of its supporting characters is frustrating. Superheroes jumping back-and-forth between good and evil is not an unusual occurrence in comic books. Wanda has already made the leap at least once before in this Cinematic Universe. Though it is a little jarring, at times, to have this former heroine acting like such a ruthless villain here. Granted, the movie does everything it can to make this shift work. Elizabeth Olsen's performance is full of pathos. The script leans into the sympathetic motivations for her drastic actions. Ultimately, there's a tragic conclusion to her character arc here. I don't think the movie would be anywhere near as effective as it is with another Marvel character in the villain role. But it still distracted me sometimes.

This frustrating balance in the script is most evident in the character of America Chavez. Her multiverse leaping superpowers are, more than anything else, a plot device designed to keep the story rolling. This sometimes makes her feel like more of a prop than an actual character. Xochitl Gomez is charming in the role. Seeing America finally come into her own by the end is satisfying. Obviously, this is a character designed to have further adventures in other Marvel movies. Yet I would say, with everything else this sequel is designed to do, actually giving a compelling character arc to the future Miss America and likely soon-to-be Young Avenger gets lost in the shuffle.

Ultimately, despite some reservations I have about it, "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" is a massively entertaining motion picture. Raimi gets to play in the Marvel Cinematic Universe sandbox without compromising his personal style. If anything, this is the most Raimi-feeling movie he's made since “Drag Me to Hell.” As these types of movies always must, there's a  scene teasing a sequel in the middle of the credits. While I don't want Raimi hooked to the Marvel machine for the rest of his career, I also probably wouldn't mind seeing him mess around with these characters for at least one more adventure. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” might very well be the best film to come out of Marvel's latest phase. [Grade: B+]