The Big 2-9

Aside from the fact that this day sealed my fate as the “Never Gets a ‘Happy Birthday’ from the Teacher or Your Classmates Because School’s Out for Summer Kid,” June 28 never seemed like a terribly interesting day to be born.

Until I realized that’s also the day sublimely talented actors Kathy Bates, John Cusack, the late Gilda Radner and the late Pat “Wax On, Wax Off” Morita headed toward the light of the birth canal. June 28 also gave King Henry VIII to England (bet that’s one pregnant lady the Great Holy Aardvark wishes he could have uninseminated). And June 28 happens to be the only day every year where the month and the day are different perfect numbers*.

But really, the only reason I ever get all jacked up is because the 28th of June is when the World’s Greatest Director — the reason I love movies and the reason I have such a warped, wacko sense of humor — Mel “Lepetomane” Brooks classed up Planet Earth’s population.

This year, though, looks be far more exciting because Andy at Fandango Groovers hatched a brilliant idea: Write a post listing favorite films for every year I’ve been breathing. Later in 2010 Andy’s planning a blog event on this theme, so start thinking about your choices, readers. Without further adieu, here are my favorites from 1981-2010:

Ash will saw off your nose.

1981: “The Evil Dead” — Maybe directors did horror-comedy before Sam Raimi’s cult classic, but those movies did not feature the unstoppable Bruce Campbell as erstwhile hero Ash, who would later go on to coin the phrases “boomstick” and “hail to the king, baby.”

1982: “First Blood” — The first in the Rambo franchise, Sly Stallone’s “First Blood” combines jaw-dropping action, buckets of bloodshed and a surprisingly poignant message about the treatment of Vietnam vets in America.

1983: “The Big Chill” — College pals Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum reunite to mourn a friend’s suicide. This much acting talent on one set is a recipe for goodness.

1984: “Blood Simple” (full review) — The fact that this is Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film is almost as astounding as the film itself. Almost.

1985: “The Breakfast Club” — The late John Hughes showed us, in this poignant ode to real teen issues, that lurking inside everyone there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a basket case and a criminal in search of connection. And a little doobage.

1986: “Aliens” (full review) — Twenty-four years later and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains a female action hero with smarts, guts and muscles. What a novel idea.

1987: “The Untouchables” — Most gangster movies offer plenty of bloody shoot-em-ups, slick double-crosses, dark double-breasted suits and bank accounts stuffed like you wouldn’t believe. Brian De Palma’s “Untouchables” also has something else: a conscience.

Velcome to vaxwork...

1988: “Waxwork” (full review) — There are crappy films, and then there are films that revel and delight in their own crappiness. Guess which kind “Waxwork” is.

1989: “Heathers” (full review) — No matter how cruel the queen bees in your school were, they don’t hold a candle to Idi Amin wannabe Heather Chandler.

1990: “GoodFellas” (full review) — Powered by the performances of Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta, “GoodFellas” set the bar for gangster movies impossibly high.

1991: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” – The follow-up to Cameron’s impressive “Terminator,” the sequel blasted the volume up to 11, boasted some thrilling chase scenes (the semi rundown is iconic) and reached the level of Whoa, I’ve Never Seen That Before! with its ice-cool villain T-1000 (Robert Patrick). 

1992: “Reservoir Dogs” (full review) — Quentin Tarantino gives the Cuisinart treatment to the traditional caper-gone-wrong and ends up making one of the most inventive films of the ’90s.

1993: “Schindler’s List” — Steven Spielberg’s sweeping, horrifying and heartbreaking retelling of the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) mission to rescue Jews during the Holocaust is emotionally punishing, but it’s a film that must be seen. It can change your life if you let it.

1994: “Pulp Fiction” (full review) — It’s got John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen, a booty-shaking soundtrack and scene about Christopher Walken wearing a watch up his ass two years. That’s all you need to know. 

Will the real Keyser Soze please stand up?

1995: “The Usual Suspects” (full review) — Not only does Bryan Singer’s noirish, twisty thriller feature a killer-good ensemble cast (Kevin Spacey AND Gabriel Byrne AND Benicio del Toro AND Chazz Palminteri), “The Usual Suspects” also has the best twist ending. Ever written.

1996: “Fargo” (full review) — Dear Coen brothers: Thank you for showing me that it’s never impossible to take an old formula (best-laid plans gone to hell) and put a devious, violent spin on them. Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies

1997: “Chasing Amy” – Too few directors of romantic comedies have no interest in showing relationships as they actually are. Kevin Smith is not one of these directors. His “Chasing Amy” is raw, frank to the point of crudeness and deeply heartfelt, and it examines the problems all lovers — gay and straight — face.

1998: “The Opposite of Sex” – “The Opposite of Sex” is the best black comedy you’ve never seen. Don Roos puts the screws to the traditional narrated film formula with Dee Dee (Christina Ricci), a heroine who may be plucky but isn’t the least bit lovable. She’ll ransom your dead gay lover’s ashes and not think twice about it. 

Move Milton's (Stephen Root) desk to Storage Room B and see where that gets you.

1999: “Office Space” (full review) — Mike Judge takes a maze of cubicles and turns it into a feature-length film that’s the personification of Dante’s limbo, then sets it to a fantastic rap soundtrack. It’s good to be a gangsta.

2000: “Quills” (full review) — No other actors slips so effortlessly into the part of the villain as Geoffrey Rush can, and that mirthful, slightly evil glint in his eyes makes him the perfect (and only acceptable) choice to play the infamous Marquis de Sade.

2001: “The Believer” – Based on the true story of Dan Burros, a Jew who became a Neo-Nazi, Henry Bean’s “The Believer” looks unflinchingly at all aspects of faith and features what may be Ryan Gosling’s most gripping performance. Ever. 

2002: “City of God” – Fernando Meirelles’ crime drama plays out like an elegaic marriage of the best parts of Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”  and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” capturing the bloody, grim realities of a life lived in Brazil’s rough Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela.

2003: “Mystic River” – Author Dennis Lehane understands, deep down in his soul, the rhythms of Boston’s shady, bleak underworld. Director Clint Eastwood understands the people who have fallen through the cracks. Together, “Mystic River,” about three childhood friends dealing with a murder, they make an unbeatable team.

Javier Bardem's performance is anything but bleak.

2004: “Mar adentro” (full review) — Is it possible to make a film about a quadriplegic (Javier Bardem) who wants nothing more than to die and have that film turn out to be an affirmation of life? Look to “Mar adentro” for the answer.

2005: “The Constant Gardener” – Taut political/medical conspiracy thrillers ordinarily don’t offer emotions as complex as the plotlines. But director Fernando Meirelles etches characters (Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes) who matter to each other, and so they matter to us.

2006: “The Lives of Others” (full review) — Movies about Big Brother rarely take the time to humanize the enemy, but director Henckel von Donnersmarck finds humanity even in the most ardent supporter (Ulrich Mühe) of suppressing free will.

2007: “No Country for Old Men” (full review) — Call it the Coens’ Law: Every time you think they’ve made their best movie ever, they top themselves. How they’ll top this gritty, violent and blackly funny caper is something this reviewer has gotta see.

2008: “The Dark Knight” – With “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan single-handedly revived a years-ailing franchise; in the inspired sequel — part Greek tragedy, part action flick, part sweeping character drama — he let Heath Ledger reinvent the iconic Joker in the spirit of creation.

Get in my bell-ay, Jew Hunter!

2009: “Inglourious Basterds” (full review) — In terms of sheer imagination and cojones, almost no director working today can match Quentin Tarantino, who in this misspelled epic rewrites the ending to WWII and gives cinema one of its greatest villains (Christoph Waltz).

2010: So far? “Shutter Island.” The predicted winner? “True Grit.”

*It’s my birthday and I’m giving you a math lesson. Can you say “nerd”?

Groovers and Mobsters Present: The Dark Comedy

Horace Walpole had an enduring observation about the world, calling it “a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.” Who says it can’t be both at once? Certainly not the writers, directors, producers and stars of films that fall into the grimace-with-laughter dark comedy genre. From the emotionally violent to the downright macabre, dark comedies buff a funny and acidic sheen on the devastating realities of everyday life. Read on to discover how “Heathers” accomplishes this, and visit the Movie Mobsters site for a complete list of must-see dark comedies.

“Heathers” (1988)

“Your society nods its head at any horror the American teenager can think to bring upon itself.” ~~J.D.

Back in the 1980s, there was a clown car-esque release of movies about teens — their dweeby friends, their terminally unhip parents, their Saturday detentions, their proms and (most important) their neverending quest for carnal treasure. Then came Michael Lehmann’s vicious “Heathers” in 1988, which hammered a croquet mallet on the clichés and the squishy afterschool love-ins that came before. The film leveled an unblinking eye at the quick-n-dirty politics of high school as well as the obliviousness of the adults in charge and, in the process, became the standard not just for dark comedies but for all future teen comedies, too.

The teens in “Heathers” have adapted to the unspoken Darwinian laws of high school. Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) rules her clique of yes women – fearful Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), bubbleheaded Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and Veronica (Winona Ryder), a precocious student of human nature – with such ferocity that the likes of Pol Pot would bow before her. No one dares to question her authority until shake-up-the-establishment loner J.D. (Christian Slater) pops onto the radar. Not one to become any dictator’s collateral damage, he draws Veronica in his plot to murder Westerburg High’s aristocracy and make their deaths look like scandalous suicides. Soon Veronica’s “teen-angst bullshit” begins to amass a formidable body count.

Commonly labeled as a “teen movie” (and it is a stellar one), “Heathers” is, above all else, a spot-on dark comedy that spins stereotypes into macabre yet revealing jokes. Dark comedies, be they sneaky and subtle or bloody, are meant to shine unwelcome light on the twisted inner workings of human nature and society. They are meant to be fearless. In “Heathers,” scriptwriter Daniel Waters mercilessly skewers the fluffy clichés to get at the mean, cold truths about high school. Societal satires don’t come gutsier or smarter than this. Waters presents all the usual suspects – the fat girl, the lone wolf, the jock – in their natural habitat with a kind of ruthlessness not seen before in movies about teen-agers. Every offhand observation, particularly Veronica’s “She’s my best friend. God, I hate her,” is blisteringly and hilariously accurate. But these aren’t the belly laughs dumb comedy serves up; no, these laughs lump in your throat because it’s all truth and no artificial sweetener. That’s the kind of truth you need a Slushie to wash down.

 

No. 19: “Heathers” (1989)

“It’s one thing to want someone out of your life, but it’s another thing to serve them a wake-up cup full of liquid drainer.” ~~Veronica Sawyer

“Hell is a teenage girl.” It’s inconceivable that Diablo Cody, when she penned that line for “Jennifer’s Body,” didn’t have visions of Daniel Waters’ caustic high school satire “Heathers” dancing in her head. With “Heathers,” Waters did nothing if not create teen black comedies as we know them, spawning scads of wannabes and copycats. None have reached such dizzying and brutally comic heights. Pause and ponder, though — is that such a shock? With its inventive one-liners, shrewd observations of high school and its million pecking orders and outstanding characters, “Heathers” didn’t set the standard; it became the standard.

Exactly how “Heathers” did that lies in smart, calculated execution of a very familiar and universal setting: high school. Ohio’s Westerburg High School is a medieval torture chamber for students not popular enough to register on Heather Chandler’s (a snarling-good Kim Walker) radar. And considering that the ubercool Chandler is essentially Idi Amin in off-white tights, that’s everyone except timid Heather Duke (Shannon Doherty), ditzy Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and brainy Veronica (Winona Ryder), the mute devotees who populate her social circle. Though all live in fear of Heather’s wrath (“I’m worshiped at Westerburg and I’m only a junior,” she observes astutely), only Veronica musters the courage to rebel — indirectly by dating precocious loner J.D. (Christian Slater) and more openly by challenging Heather at a college party (the iconic “lick it up” clip). Fed up with Heather’s reign, Veronica goes along with J.D.’s “fake” plan to murder her best friend/worst enemy (“same difference,” she notes) using a cup of liquid drainer. But something goes wrong, and Heather’s off to the afterlife, presumably to take over, leaving Veronica in need of a cover story. J.D. obliges so quickly and readily we wonder how long he’s been plotting this, then dreams up more deadly schemes. Waters pulls no punches with J.D., who comes off not as a harmless misfit but as a perceptive, smooth-talking sociopath with murder on the brain. He can coerce Veronica to do his bidding because he’s that cunning.

That take-no-prisoners attitude extends to every aspect of “Heathers,” really. Whether he’s an ex-nerd with a vendetta or simply an imaginative writer with a flair for satire, Waters is vicious in his treatment of Westerburg’s elite, particularly Heather Chandler, and Heather Duke (Doherty’s enthusiasm is perversely infectious), who treats her leader’s death as a stepping stone to her own coronation. Waters writes both Heathers as ruthless bitches, but with hints of depth. There’s a throwaway scene early on where Chandler stares down her reflection in the mirror; somehow, she looks worn down by the duties attached to her position. When she dies, Duke steps in without pause. Can we blame her? She’s running on years of insults and sublimated rage. Her ascension is a reminder that the tease of power turns the meekest of souls bad — an ’80s retool of, like, that whole “absolute power” warning.

Waters tosses some hate grenades, too, at Westerburg’s administrators, all as clueless as the ruling Heathers are evil. The principal (John Ingle) couldn’t care less about the students’ grief; his only concern is figuring out appropriate grief timetables. The P.C. guidance counselor (Pauline Fleming) goes the opposite route: She stages pointless, hand-holding love-ins in the cafeteria while never once offering real solace. Everyone’s so self-absorbed that no one notices how phony the suicides are, or pays attention to the students in real pain, like overweight loner Martha Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn). Only Veronica, played with quippy horror by Ryder, and J.D. (this was back when Christian Slater really wanted to be James Dean), see through the B.S. Waters skewers the administrators to show the truth: They’re not in charge, and they’re too dumb to notice.

Though he’s since fallen from grace (the hideous “Sex and Death 101″), “Heathers” proved that for one moment, Waters understood the nature of high school better than anyone. J.D. calls Westerburg “a school that self-destructed not because society didn’t care, but because the school was society.” That’s wicked-deep. Anybody feel like a Slushie?

What’s your damage, Fox TV?

The unthinkable has happened, and I hesitate to tell you about it because then you’ll be thinking these same wretched thoughts, too. But misery loves company, so ready yourself to be hit by the big, fat, yellow Truth Express:

Fox TV is turning “Heathers” — that acidic, twisted teen comedy classic from 1989 that inspired countless (and inferior) copies — into a television show.

Someone, please, pass me the Draino. I have nothing left to live for.

If that’s an overreaction, well, it isn’t much of one. Fox Television? All the great, edgy, risk-taking stations out there — Showtime and HBO, for starters — and Fox Television is the final answer? I shudder to think all the things that will be lost in translation from the big screen to a network TV station — the scalding one-liners, the hilariously creative use of profanity, the inventive death scenes, the beautiful, tragic satire of it all. Yes, I expect writer Mark Rizzo (who has served as a designer on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”!) and Producer Jenny Bicks (“Sex and the City,” which only makes me feel slightly less nauseated) will murder all the things that made this movie so incisive and wonderful.

Click here for the full story, and try to keep down your lunch. Remember, bulimia’s so 1987.

 

15 bitchin’ high school movie lines

Oh, Heather. You're my best friend, but God how I hate you.

The Heathers: the kind of best friends Paris Hilton really needs.

I blame John Hughes (bless his wounded, dark, departed soul) for my inexplicable fondness for teen movies. He had me at “hot beef injection.” After that, I embraced his movies with all the zeal that a weird, slightly morbid, terminally misunderstood high school pariah could. “The Breakfast Club,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Pretty in Pink” — all these films stand up today as well as they did more than 20 years ago. These are smart movies about teen-agers, not “teen movies.”

And Hughes, above anyone else, taught me to appreciate the value of a really great line, especially when spoken with that particular brand of defeatist teen sarcasm, disdain, poignancy or unexpected stunning insight. So inspired was I that I created a list — it’s five or 10, but an odd number just the same — of such lines I’ve seen in high school movies over the years. Some are classics, some are more recent, some fall somewhere in-between the two poles. Enjoy, and offer up your suggestions…

15. “Courtney, this is not a democracy, it’s a cheerocracy. I’m sorry, but I’m overruling you” (Torrance Shipman, “Bring It On) — Even if you hate cheerleading, there’s no denying that “Bring It On” trotted out a whole mess-o-barbs like this beauty. It’s hard not to love a movie with that kind of clear-sighted quippery.

14. “All my memories from high school are from tonight” (Denis Cooverman, “I Love You, Beth Cooper”) — Does this adaptation of Larry Doyle’s book deserve to have a line here? Based on the strength of this one line (the kind of wistful thing we all wish we’d said), my answer is “yes yes, Hell yes.”

13. “Good morning, Mr. M. Looks like you could use a cupcake!” (Tracy Flick, “Election”) — The A-grabbing overachiever is a staple in movies about teens, but rarely is that character as nuanced, precocious or mercenary as Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon’s best work, I’d say). 

12. “What is it with this chick? She have beer-flavored nipples or something?” (Patrick Verona, “10 Things I Hate about You”) — Heath Ledger had range beyond supervillains and gay cowboys. Witness his most enjoyable turn as Patrick Verona, a bad boy possessed of a wit as sharp as his manly jawline.

11. “I’m off like a dirty shirt” (Duckie, “Pretty in Pink”) — Any girl who tells you she didn’t love Jon Cryer as the hyperkinetic, big-hearted free spirit nicknamed Duckie is a plain ole’ liar … or the kind of girl one shouldn’t associate with, anyway.

10. “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age” (Wooderson, “Dazed and Confused”) — Who doesn’t remember that drawling loser, closing in on 30, who haunted high school football games hoping to score? Matthew McConaughey is that guy — only hotter and infinitely cooler.

9. “Searching for a boy in high school is as useless as searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie” (Cher Horowitz, “Clueless”) — People don’t give “Clueless” credit for being the incisive, witty, satirical look at high school that it was. Lines like this make me wish I could unwatch Amy Heckerling’s gem so I could rediscover it.

8. “Donger’s here for five hours, and he’s got somebody. I live here my whole life, and I’m like a disease” (Samantha Baker, “Sixteen Candles”) – Remember that fear, so specific to the ages of 15-16, that you’d never find love? I’d wager that it’s universal, and nobody taught us that more than Samantha.

7. “We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all” (Andrew Clark, “The Breakfast Club”) — Hughes always did love to encourage us to let our awkwardness flower. When A-crowd wrestler Andrew finally let his out, it felt like a small miracle.

6. “I gave her my heart. She gave me a pen” (Lloyd Dobler, “Say Anything…”) — Oh, the pain, the agony, the pure horrifying angst of true first love encapsulated so neatly into 10 words! That Cameron Crowe, he knew a thing or two about dialogue.

5. “All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine” (Spicoli, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) — Spicoli is the burnout we all knew in high school, but he was something of a philosopher, too. May we all heed these pearls of stoner wisdom.

4. “Don’t go mistaking paradise for a pair of long legs” (Watts, “Some Kind of Wonderful”) — Hughes’ ability to reduce big truths into one-liners is legendary, and this is a prime example because it captures the wisdom and plaintive angst of unrequited love.

3. “I’m still here, asshole!” (Angus Bethune, “Angus”) — A fierce battle cry for all of us who never screwed up the courage to stare down our high school tormentors. Three cheers for smart fat kid Angus, who said what so many of us could not.

2. “How would you like to have a sexual encounter so intense it could conceivably change your political views?” (Gib, “The Sure Thing”) — Everyone has a favorite John Cusack line. This is mine, and I am unwavering in my devotion to it.

1. “Dear Diary, my teen-angst bullshit now has a body count” (Veronica, “Heathers”) — In the way of smart, sharp, observant comedies about teen-agers, nothing beats “Heathers,” a perfect satire of the dark tensions that underwrite teen social interactions.

Real-life movie moment

The movie: “Heathers” (1988); dir. by Michael Lehmann; starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannon Doherty, Kim Walker.

The moment: I found my glasses … the day after I picked up my new ones.

The correlation: My initial reaction — and I quote — went something like: “Well, f**k me gently with a chainsaw.”

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