Embracing the Melodrama #38: High Stakes (dir by Amos Kollek)


High Stakes

Yesterday, I said that Dance or Die was the most obscure film that I would be reviewing for this series of melodramatic film reviews.  Well, I may have spoken too soon.  Originally, I was not planning on reviewing the 1989 film High Stakes for this series.  Until a few nights ago, I had never even heard of it.  However, I watched it late last night and I realized immediately that I had to include it in this series.

High Stakes is one of those odd, older films that occasionally pops up as filler on Encore, playing in between showings of movies that people have actually heard of.  When I first came across this film listed in the guide, it was mentioned that High Stakes was Sarah Michelle Gellar’s film debut.  However, before all of my fellow Buffy fans get all excited, they should be aware that Sarah was only 12 years old when she appeared in High Stakes and she spends most of her screen time going, “Mommy!”  If not for her name in the credits, you would never suspect that the little girl playing Sally Kirkland’s daughter would later grow up to play one of the most iconic characters in film history.

Sarah plays the daughter of Bambi (Sally Kirkland), an aging New York-based prostitute and stripper who works for the demonic pimp Slim (Richard Lynch).  Bambi hates her life but she does what she has to do to support her daughter.  One night, Bambi finds a man passed out in the garbage across the street from her apartment.  That man is John Stratton (Richard LuPone), a crooked stock broker who has recently grown disillusioned with his greed-fueled life.  John is laying in the garbage because he’s just been mugged.  Despite her natural instincts, Bambi takes sympathy on John and allows him to come up to her apartment.  John and Bambi start to talk about their respective lives, just to have the conversation interrupted by one of Slim’s henchmen showing up at the apartment and demanding money.  John and the henchmen get into a physical altercation and soon, he and Bambi find themselves on the run with $4,000 of Slim’s money.

As directed by Amos Kollek, High Stakes is essentially two different stories.  One of which is rather conventional thriller, in which John and Bambi have to escape from Slim.  The thriller elements are rather predictable, distinguished only by Richard Lynch’s notably unhinged performance.  The other part of the film is the opposites-attract love story between John and Bambi and these scenes work a lot better.  LuPone and Kirkland have a lot of a chemistry and some of the best moments in the film are the ones where the characters simply talk about their different lives.  Kirkland, in particular, does a good job and she manages to bring some unexpected shadings to a stock role.  She’s especially good in her scenes with Sarah Michelle Gellar, radiating a very natural maternal instinct.  By the end of the film, you truly like Bambi and root for her.  Despite all of my natural expectations, High Stakes turned out to be a rather sweet and touching film.

High Stakes may be an obscure film but it’s definitely one to keep an eye out for the next time it shows up on Encore.

Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sally Kirkland in High Stakes

Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sally Kirkland in High Stakes

That concludes the 80s.  Tomorrow, we’ll start in on the 90s.

Embracing the Melodrama #37: Dangerous Liaisons (dir by Stephen Frears)


When watching a film like the 1988 best picture nominee Dangerous Liaisons, it helps to know something about history.  The film takes place in 18th century France and, even though it’s never specifically stated in the film, I watched it very much aware that the story was taking place just a few years before the French Revolution.  Even the aristocratic libertines who survive until the end of the film are probably destined to end up losing their lives at the guillotine.  Even though you don’t see anyone losing their head during Dangerous Liaisons (nor do you hear anyone say, “Let them eat cake.”), the film offers up such an atmosphere of decadence and manipulation that it leaves the viewer with little doubt as to why the people occasionally feel the need to rise up and destroy their social betters.

Dangerous Liaisons tells the story of the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) and the Marquise de Mertuil (Glenn Close), two amoral members of the aristocracy who deal with their boredom by playing games with the emotions of others.  Valmont is a notorious womanizer while Mertuil is obsessed with “dominating” the male sex and “avenging my own.”  At the start of the film, Mertuil has discovered that a former lover is planning on marrying the innocent Cecile (18 year-old Uma Thurman, stealing every scene that she appears in), who has basically spent her entire life in a convent.  Mertuil asks Valmont to seduce and take Cecile’s virginity before the wedding.  At first, Valmont says that Cecile is to easy of a challenge and declines.  Instead, Valmont has decided that he wants to seduce Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Phieffer), a married woman who is renowned for both her strong religious feelings and her virtuous character.  Mertuil agrees that she will sleep with Valmont if he can provide her with written proof that he’s managed to seduce Tourvel.

Tourvel is staying with Valmont’s aunt (Mildred Natwick), which gives Valmont — with the help of his servant, Azolan (Peter Capaldi) — several chances to try to trick Tourvel into believing that he’s a better man than everyone assumes him to be.  (With Azolan’s help, Valmont finds a poor family and donates money to them.  Of course, he makes sure that word of this gets back to Tourvel.)  However, Valmont then discovers that Cecile’s mother (Swoosie Kurtz) has been writing letters to Tourvel, warning her about Valmont’s lack of character.  To get revenge, Valmont agrees to seduce Cecile.

Dangerous Liaisons, which is based on a play that was based on a novel, is sumptuous costume drama.  If you’re like me and you love seeing how the rich and famous lived in past centuries, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Dangerous Liaisons.  With the elaborate costumes and the ornate sets, the film is a real visual feast.

The film is also a feast for those of us who enjoy good acting as well.  With the exception of a very young Keanu Reeves (who is oddly miscast as the poor music teacher who falls in love with Cecile), the entire film is perfectly cast, right down to the most minor of characters.  (I particularly enjoyed listening to Peter Capaldi, even if his Scottish accent occasionally did seem rather out-of-place in a film about the pre-Revolution France.)  For me, the biggest shock was John Malkovich.  Don’t get me wrong — I’ve always felt that Malkovich was a good character actor but he’s never been someone that I would think of as being sexy.  However, he gives close to a perfect performance as Valmont and, oddly enough, the fact that he’s not really conventionally handsome only serves to make Valmont all the more seductive.  Purring out his cynical dialogue and openly leering at every single woman in Paris, Malkovich turns Valmont into a familiar but all too appealing devil.

Dangerous Liaisons was later remade as Cruel Intentions, which is a film that I’ll be taking a look at very soon.

liaisons

Embracing the Melodrama #36: Fatal Attraction (dir by Adrian Lyne)


fatal-attraction

(This review has spoilers because I felt like it and I’ll do whatever the Hell I want.)

Today, we continue embracing the melodrama by taking a look at the 1987 best picture nominee, Fatal Attraction.

Fatal Attraction opens on a scene of domestic bliss, with lawyer Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) and his wife Beth (Anne Archer) in their luxurious Manhattan apartment, getting ready to go out for the night and waiting for the babysitter to arrive.  Dan would appear to have it all: a successful career, a fat best friend, and a beautiful wife.  However, when Beth and their daughter go out of town for the weekend, Dan ends up having an affair with Alex (Glenn Close).  Dan assumes that it was just a weekend thing but Alex is soon stalking Dan.  Trying to escape her, Dan moves his family out to the suburbs but Alex follows them.  Soon, pet rabbits are being killed, Alex is breaking into the house with a knife, and it’s up to Beth to step up and reclaim her man.

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about Fatal Attraction.  On the one hand, it’s an undeniably well-made film.  It’s well-acted and director Adrian Lyne pushes all of the right emotional buttons and keeps the action moving quickly.  That the film is predictable doesn’t make it any the less effective.  As a lover of horror movies, I appreciated the skill with which Lyne crafted the film’s scare scenes.  Watching the movie, it was easy to see why Fatal Attraction was a huge box office success and why it continues to influence our culture to this very day.

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And yet, at the same time, Fatal Attraction really annoys me.

The film is so well-made and so manipulative that it’s easy to miss the fact that Dan Gallagher is not only never punished for betraying his wife but he’s actually not held responsible for his actions in any way.  Instead, the only person who is truly punished for their transgression is Alex.  The film, after all, makes clear that Alex is the one pursuing Dan.  In fact, it could be argued that when it comes to Dan and Alex, the traditional gender roles have been reversed.  Alex (who, as opposed to the idealized Beth, has a name that is both masculine and feminine) is the aggressive one while Dan is the passive one who gives into temptation and, afterwards, feels guilty.  After admitting his transgression, Dan is allowed to reclaim his manhood and continue on with his perfect life.  However, Alex has no place in conventional society and therefore, she must be destroyed.

And so much the better if she’s destroyed by Beth, a woman who has no problem with accepting a traditionally domestic role.

Far too often, in the past, I know that my girl friends and I always assumed that men were simply incapable of resisting temptation.  Therefore, if your boyfriend cheated on you, it really was not his fault.  He was just being a guy.  Instead, it was the other woman’s fault because she was the one who tempted him.  (And, though we acknowledged this a lot less, it was also his girlfriend’s fault for allowing him to get into a position where he could be tempted in the first place.)  But it was never truly guy’s fault and, as long as you made him suffer for a bit, it was always expected that you would forgive him and take him back.

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That’s the same mentality that runs through Fatal Attraction (not to mention countless daytime talk shows where girlfriends and wives always beat up mistresses while their boyfriend or husband stands over to the side and watches, untouched).  Yes, Dan did cheat on his perfect wife and yes, he feels terrible about it.  But the real threat comes from the woman who pursued him despite knowing that he was married and then, afterwards, had the nerve to demand not to be ignored.  (If anything, the film seems to be suggesting that everything would have been okay if Dan had just fucked someone who works in his office, as opposed to someone who he can’t control through money or the threat of societal shaming.)  When, at the end of the film, Beth shoots Alex, it’s a crowd-pleasing moment but it’s also Beth’s way of reclaiming her man.  Since Dan — being male — can’t be expected to exercise any sort of self-control, it’s the responsibility of Beth to step up and destroy the temptation.

For not respecting the vows of marriage, Alex is a monster who must be destroyed.  Dan, on the other hand, is merely inconvenienced and ultimately, he ends up with a far stronger marriage as a result of having strayed.

In Fatal Attraction, the only thing more dangerous than sex with Alex is examining subtext.

Fatal Attraction-22

Gone Girl – The 2nd Trailer


The 2nd trailer for Gone Girl was released recently. David Fincher’s and Gillian Flynn’s film adaptation of Flynn’s popular novel focuses on a writer dealing with the disappearance of his wife. While the trailer expands things a bit compared to the teaser (as any trailer would), there’s the strangest set of casting choices for this film. What I’m most excited about is Flynn handling her own screenplay. Movies are always different from books, but I’m hoping it works out. One fills in the blanks as they go through the story, and I read this before finding out anything concrete about the film. Additionally, I’m also curious about what Trent Reznor  and Atticus Ross are doing for the soundtrack, which also comes out around the same time.

Gone Girl premieres in cinemas on October 3rd.