Wiener Dog

This review was originally written for Blueprint: Review.

Todd Solondz is almost the dictionary definition of an acquired taste when it comes to film. For most directors, subjects like rape, dead parents, domestic terrorism and a lifetime of remorse wouldn’t necessarily inspire a comedy, yet they’re all par for the course with Solondz in this darkly comic anthology following the various owners of an ambivalent female dachshund.
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Batman Returns

33 years after being dumped into the sewers as a baby by his horrified parents, Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), a disfigured, disgusting man, wants to surface and claim his rights as a human. Meanwhile, shy secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) works for business tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), who constantly belittles her. When she discovers his plans for a power station will actually drain and store Gotham’s surplus energy, he tries to kill her but fails, causing her to seek revenge. Also, there’s a bloke going around dressed as a bat, but clearly, he’s not as important.
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Terms of Endearment

This review was originally written as part of my USA Road Trip series at French Toast Sunday.

Terms of Endearment tells the story of a mother and daughter, Aurora and Emma, played by Shirley MacLaine and, from adulthood onwards, Debra Winger. As a young girl, Emma’s father and Aurora’s husband passes away, leaving the two of them alone with one another. Aurora was always an overprotective mother, who also doesn’t seem to leave the house in order to make money, so her daughter is essentially the main focus of her life. Thus when Emma grows up, marries a young Jeff Daniels and has to move away, both her’s and her mother’s lives are forever altered.

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Terms of Endearment has a reputation for being a thoroughly depressing story. I knew very little about it, other than it featuring a mother/daughter relationship, so I was expecting an almost constant barrage of one sad thing after another, culminating in literally everyone dying, horribly and slowly. Image It’s A Wonderful Life, but instead of the upbeat ending, James Stewart drowned in an ocean of orphan’s tears. That’s how I imagined Terms of Endearment, so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this viewing. As it turns out, whilst there is a certain degree of sadness to the story, there’s also plenty of uplifting and even funny parts too. Continue reading

The Virgin Suicides

Completely unintentionally, this was the second film in a row I watched where a young girl burns her own record collection (after Heavenly Creatures), and also the second in not too long a time in which Kirsten Dunst has sex in a field (after Melancholia a few months ago). With a title like The Virgin Suicides, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to watching this film, as it seemed like it was going to be joining the ranks of those thoroughly depressing films I’d been trying to avoid lately, and the fact that it was directed by Sofia Coppola, whose Lost in Translation I wasn’t overly fond of the last time I watched it, and who I still haven’t completely forgiven for The Godfather Part III, made me even less excited. Plus, its a story of the multiple suicides of a clan of teenage sisters, which always leads to a laugh riot in my books.

The girls in question are the Lisbons, five sisters aged 13 to 17, who are kept under the watchful eyes of their strictly religious parents, Kathleen Turner and James Woods. The girls are largely kept under lock and key, only allowed out to go to school, where they are lusted over by the local boys, as that which you cannot have will always be that which you want the most. Cecilia (Hannah Hall, Forrest Gump‘s young Jenny), the youngest girl at just thirteen years old, attempts to kill herself in the bathtub. After she survives and recovers, her parents throw a party for the girls and some of the local boys, during which Cecilia excuses herself, goes upstairs and jumps out of the window, impaling herself upon the railings in their front garden. Hey, I warned you, this ain’t the happiest of films. The death of their youngest sibling seems to have little effect upon the sisters, though their parents ratchet up the levels of over-protectiveness, coming to a head when eventually the girls are taken completely out of school, never being let out of their parents’ sight.Kirsten Dunst is a revelation in this film, and I’m not normally her biggest fan. She displays a confidence on screen that’s almost otherworldly. At the time of making this film, aged just seventeen (though playing the second-youngest Lisbon, 14-year old Lux) she had appeared in no less than fourteen films, including Jumanji, Interview with the Vampire and Small Soldiers, and her level of experience is clear as she is this picture’s main focus. Even as the youngest, after Cecilia’s demise, Lux appears more world-weary and equipped with a greater level of confidence and intelligence than her oldest sisters (Chelse Swain, A. J. Cook and Leslie Hayman), so much so that the sisters all seem to merge together in a largely forgettable blur. The adults are all impressive, particularly Woods in an unusually repressed role, but be prepared to be taken out of the film when Danny DeVito pops in for one scene as the psychiatrist Cecilia is sent to after her first suicide attempt.

The film has been shot with an air of beauty and nostalgia –  opening with an upbeat yet mellow soundtrack of a bright sunny days, the light dappling through the trees of a suburban Michigan town – but this is immediately contrasted to the stark sterile blue of Cecilia lying in a bathtub, being carted away by the paramedics. This jarring emotional toggle switch occurs a couple more times throughout the picture, and each time it is effective. The narration, by one of the boys waiting outside each day just to catch a glimpse of the girls, is largely unemotional and distanced from events, as though bored of a story told many times before.

From what I know the 1970s was recreated well, particularly in the fashions and vile interior design. Every shot was reminiscent of an old photograph, saturated and hazy, almost sepia and fading at the edges. Unusually, a lot of the scenes didn’t play out as I originally expected, even more of a surprise when you consider they have such standard high school movie tropes as a prom, featuring parents enthusiastic at their daughters’ dates, fumbled first dances and peach schnappes under the podium (“Babes love it.”) The script is at times comic, and occasionally blackly so, with my favourite moment being when, after awaking in the hospital, her doctor tells Cecilia she shouldn’t have tried to kill herself because she’s “not even old enough to know how bad life gets,” which is a pretty terrible way of convincing someone not to try and kill themselves again, but her response is perfect, “You’ve never been a 13-year old girl.”

I suppose I should mention Josh Hartnett, who appears as the local dreamboat, Trip Fontaine, adored by students, parents and teachers alike, all except Dunst’s Lux, which only makes him want her more. Hartnett is his usual self, and I’m not too much of a fan (his only good films in my opinion are Sin City, The Faculty and Black Hawk Down, which surprise surprise don’t feature him all too heavily), and his abominable curtains-style haircut almost ruined the film for me. It was nice to see him playing such a prick though. Hayden Christensen is also in there somewhere, which is never a good thing.

So, whilst it’s not really going to cheer you up after a long day’s work, this is still a very well made and easily appreciated film, far better than I was expecting from Coppola. The ending in particular left me reeling for days afterwards.

Choose film 8/10

L.A. Confidential

In 1950s Los Angeles, mob boss Mickey Cohen has been put away, and rival crime factions are warring for his place. Against this backdrop, three very different cops are following three very different cases; brutish Bud White (Russell Crowe) despises wife beaters and is more than willing to frame a suspect in the name of justice as he works as hardman for James Cromwell’s kindly police chief. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the straight-laced, ambitious son of a deceased police hero, investigating a multiple homicide at greasy spoon the Nite Owl, whilst Kevin Spacey’s smooth headline-hunting NARC Jack Vincennes traces a lead found on a drugs bust, uncovering a ring of hookers cut to look like movie stars. Throw into the mix Danny DeVito’s sleazy journo, David Straithairn’s oily businessman and Kim Basinger’s high class whore with a strong resemblance to Veronica Lake and you’ve got a top notch cast all bringing their A-game in a stunning film with tight script and direction. Spacey especially is sublime, stealing every scene in a movie full of memorable ones. The little moments are the finishing touches – Exley removing his oversized glasses and pouting for a photographer, Vincennes bumping into a man he put away on the set of TV show Badge of Honor where he acts as technical adviser, but the big scenes – the masterful interrogation of 3 suspects, several showdowns and a final act with all guns blazing are the parts best remembered. Credit of the month: Ginger Slaughter.

Choose film 10/10

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Jack Nicholson, in an arguably career best (so far) performance, is R.P. McMurphy, hopes to complete a short prison sentence without resorting to hard labour, and therefore pleads insanity and is transferred to a psychiatric hospital run by the steely Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).  Ratched’s treatment methods, including humiliation and a mind-numbing daily routine appall McMurphy, as he realises the other patients are more focused on their fear of her than of functioning in the outside world. Although the main two performances are excellent, both winning well deserved Oscars, the film remains memorable more for the supporting cast that makes up the other inmates. Each has a specific and instantly recognisable personality, be it Brad Dourif’s stutteringly naive suicide risk Billy, Danny DeVito’s childlike Martini or Christopher Lloyd’s crazed loose cannon Taber, used whenever anyone is required to awake to a surprise situation, as Lloyd owns the greatest instant ‘what the Hell’ face on the planet.

The film is remarkable, not only for the acting but also the depths to which the story plunges, with an ending both horrific and genuinely surprising. Throughout the film it is obvious that McMurphy will be discovered as a fraud (something never actually stated during the film), and will of course be sent back to prison where he belongs (the sentence he is attempting to avoid is the statutory rape of a 15-year old girl), but the fate in store for him is far worse than could possibly be imagined. It also features possibly the most elaborate plan to have sex ever, hijacking a busload of patients, commandeering a boat and teaching said loons how to fish.

Choose film 9/10