Embracing the Melodrama #47: Cruel Intentions (dir by Roger Kumble)


For the past 10 days, I’ve been reviewing some of the most and least memorable melodramas ever filmed.  Starting with 1916’s Where Are My Children?, we’ve been moving chronologically through film history.  We’re now coming to the end of the 90s and what better way to end that decade than by taking a look at 1999’s Cruel Intentions?

Cruel Intentions takes place in the upscale world of a New York private school.  Rich and popular Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is also a manipulative hypocrite who destroys reputations on a whim and carries cocaine in her ever-present cross necklace.  Kathryn is upset because her boyfriend has recently dumped her and is now dating the sweet and innocent Cecile (Selma Blair).  Kathryn asks her decadent cousin Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) to seduce Cecile.  However, Sebastian refuses, saying that the challenge would be too easy.  Instead, he plans to seduce Annette Hargrove (Reese Whitherspoon), who has recently written an acclaimed essay about the importance of chastity and who also happens to be the daughter of the school’s headmaster.  Kathryn is intrigued by Sebastian’s plan and makes a bet with him.  If Sebastian manages to take Annette’s virginity than Kathryn will have sex with him…

Now, if you’ve already read my previous review of Dangerous Liaisons, the plot of Cruel Intentions probably sounds a bit familiar.  That’s because both of these films are based on the same source material —  Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.  The main difference between the two films — beyond the fact that Dangerous Liaisons is set in pre-Revolutionary France and Cruel Intentions is set in 1990s New York — is that Dangerous Liaisons uses the material to comment on the excesses of the rich while Cruel Intentions is all about style.

And, to be honest, while Dangerous Liaisons is undoubtedly the better film, Cruel Intentions is a lot more fun.  I first saw Cruel Intentions shortly before I started my sophomore year of high school and I excitedly thought to myself, “So this is what high school is going to be like!”  Well, unfortunately, it turned out that I was wrong but oh well!  (Though, in all fairness to the film, I went to a public high school in the suburbs of Dallas as opposed to a rich private school in New York.)  The movie still a lot of fun, even if it didn’t quite match up with reality.  Everything from the costumes (I absolutely LOVED every single outfit that Sarah Michelle Gellar wore and, even before it was revealed to be full of cocaine, that cross necklace was to die for) to the ornate sets to the wonderfully melodramatic and self-aware performances — it all works towards creating a vivid and engrossing alternative universe.

So no, don’t take Cruel Intentions seriously.

Just enjoy the dance while it lasts.

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Tomorrow, embracing the melodrama enters the 21st Century!

Embracing the Melodrama #46: Wild Things (dir by John McNaughton)


The 1998 film Wild Things starts out like a standard B-movie.  It take place in Florida so, of course, we get a lot of shots of the sun setting on the bayous and crocodiles staring at the camera as if to ask, “What are you looking for?”  Boats skim the water.  High school guidance counselor Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) walks across campus while all of the toned and tanned students stop to admire him.  Local rich girl Kelly Von Ryan (Denise Richards) smirks and says something snarky.  Detective Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) shows up in the background and stares at the world from behind dark glasses and a serious expression.  Meanwhile, local poor girl Suzie (Neve Campbell) goes back to her home, which happens to be located right behind an alligator farm.

Judging from the first few minutes, Wild Things could just as easily be an episode of CSI Miami.

But then Bill Murray shows up as Kenneth Bowden, a hilariously sleazy attorney who spends most of the movie wearing a neck brace, just in case the insurance company is watching him.

And then Theresa Russell shows up Kelly’s mother, standing on a balcony in a gold bikini and hitting on every passing man like the world’s most hyperactive cougar.

And then Carrie Snodgress shows up as Suzie’s mother, complete with an over-the-top white trash accent.

By the time that Robert Wagner shows up and literally growls at Matt Dillon: “You’re finished, Lombardo!  Finished!,” you realize that Wild Things is probably the most self-aware B-movie ever made and it’s all the better for it.

As for the plot — well, let’s see if I can keep track.  Suzie and Kelly both accuse Sam of rape.  Sam claims to be innocent but nobody in town believes him.  Sam is forced to hire the disreputable Kenneth Bowden to defend him.  During the trial, Kenneth is able to prove that Kelly blamed Sam for the suicide of her father while Suzie is angry that Sam once refused to bail her out of jail on a drug charge.  To get revenge, Kelly and Suzie decided to frame Sam.  Sam is acquitted and, again with Bowden’s help, is able to negotiate an 8 million dollar settlement for defamation.  True, Sam does lose his job but at least he’s a rich man now…

But wait a minute.

The movie still has a little over an hour to go.

Could it be that there’s more to this story?

Well, of course, there is.  It turns out that Sam, Kelly, and Suzie have been working together all the time.  The accusations, the trial, the defamation suit — it was all a part of a grand scheme to get the money.  Sam, Kelly, and Suzie celebrate their success with champagne and a threesome.

While everyone else in town seems to be ready to move on from the entire scandal, Detective Ray Duquette is telling anyone who will listen that he thinks that Sam, Kelly, and Suzie were all in on it together.  Even when Ray is ordered by his superiors to back off, Ray continues to investigate the case.

And why?

Because Ray Duquette is a cop who gets results!

Well, maybe.

Actually, it doesn’t take long to realize that there’s something off about Ray.  For one thing, his obsession with Sam really does seem to be a personal thing.  On top of that, Ray has a past connection with Suzie…

Wild Things has everything that you could hope for from a good exploitation film: a script that is full of double and triple crosses, unapologetically pulpy dialogue, over-the-top performances, and lots of sex.  Yesterday, I reviewed Normal Life and praised John McNaughton’s decision to play up the banality of the film’s characters and locations.  With Wild Things, McNaughton takes the exact opposite approach, playing up every sordid and tawdry detail to such an extent that the film itself eventually transcends such mundane concepts as good and bad.

Wild Things is a lot of fun and it’s also one of the best films of the 1990s.

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‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (dir. Matt Reeves)


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(Poster by Matt Ferguson)

When ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ came out, I wasn’t excited; I didn’t even see it in theaters. I am a fan of the original franchise (one and three mainly), and still had the bad taste of the terrible Burton remake in my mouth. So the idea of a prequel/reboot was one of the last things I wanted at the time. Still, I gave it a chance when it was released on home video, and it blew me away. I, like so many, was surprised by just how good it was. So good in fact, that I desperately wanted a sequel. Luckily the film was a success (both financially and critically) and that inevitable, albeit desired, sequel was made. Having now just seen it, the question now becomes whether it lives up to both that first film and the enormous expectations I had built up between films (especially more recently with the “prequel” shorts). The answer, thank god, is a resounding “Hell yes!”

It was so good in fact that I’d go so far as to say that this franchise has become my favorite since Nolan’s ‘Batman’ films. This is why the easiest way for me to describe how this compares to the first film is to say that ‘Dawn’ is to ‘Rise’ as ‘The Dark Knight’ was to ‘Batman Begins’. ‘Rise’, like ‘Begins’, was an exceptional origins tale; but it was a story that felt rushed or overshadowed in place for the development and establishment of  only the central character. ‘Rise’ still had an emotional resonance, and the final twenty minutes are incredibly thrilling, but it ultimately felt incomplete.  With ‘Dawn’, like with ‘The Dark Knight’, the film makers were free to use what was already established with their new hero to tell a much more complete, more complex and emotional story on a much grander scale.

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‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ takes place ten years after the events of the first film. The world has been devastated by the Simian Flu. Humans have spent the last decade fighting the virus and themselves. They live in a post-apocalyptic world, struggling to survive, but are making progress. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his troop on the other hand have built themselves a community, a tranquil home in the Muir Woods that is thriving according to their needs.  That peace is interrupted when a group of humans enter their territory. They are led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who is trying to find and fix a hydroelectric plant that could help bring power back to San Francisco. The actions of one in that group lead Caesar and his family to have little trust in their intentions, but allows them to proceed because they are clearly desperate. Caesar is one of the few apes that has seen the good in human’s and also knows cooperation could keep the peace.

As the bond between human and ape grows there is still one among Caesar’s troop that does not believe that peace is possible. That ape is Koba (Toby Kebbell), who was beaten, tortured and used for medical testing his entire life. Koba’s distrust only grows when he learns that the humans, led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), have access to military stock piles and are willing to take control of the area surrounding the dam by force if it were to become necessary. Thinking Caesar is weak and too loyal to humans, Koba decides to take it upon himself to protect the apes, and his actions set off a chain of events that could only lead to only one thing…war.

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When the film ended and I walked out of the theater I felt completely satisfied with what I had just seen. My expectations for the film were already incredibly high, but I would be lying if I said this didn’t actually exceed them. What makes the film such a resounding success for me is the way in which the story puts everyone on equal grounds. There are no true villains here, and even those that assume that role do so for reasons that were easy for me to empathize with. Dreyfus may want to kill the apes, but he does so because he is a man who has lost everyone he ever loved and will do anything to protect the remaining humans that have put their trust in him. Koba, as selfish as some of his actions may be, is someone who was physically and mentally abused his entire life. His revenge might seem cruel, but one could hardly blame him for wanting it. Everyone is fighting for the survival of those that they love and the homes they established. I couldn’t help but want everyone to succeed. Unfortunately, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the pain and damage under the surface of both man and ape make the idea of peace between the two impossible. Some differences are irreparable. There is definitely an allegory here of war that reflects current and past conflicts.

Luckily those themes of warfare, family and survival are all expressed effortlessly through the actions of its characters. It manages to be intelligent and complex without being thematically overbearing, while maintaing an intanacy. That is mainly because the film is handled with exceptional craftsmanship by Matt Reeves. The direction and cinematography, especially within Caesar’s settlement, is wonderful. It is never flashy, and is often much darker and moodier than one might expect. The editing and pacing is near perfect, which is rarely the case with these sorts of films. It only ever slows when it needs to, but the story is always moving forward. Every scene matters, even the quieter moments, for which there are many; again, something one might not expect, especially given the action heavy trailers. The score is perhaps the best Michael Giacchino has done since ‘Up’, adding to the moody atmosphere, and I LOVED his little nob to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ in the opening sequence. Everything here is done with purpose and execution of it all is nearly flawless.

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Lastly, I would be remiss to end this review without mentioning the performances, which were the soul of the film. Even with the way everything else was handled, I am not sure ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ would have worked without these specific performances. The human cast of Clarke, Oldman and Russell were all fantastic. The film’s only real flaw was that there actually wasn’t enough focus on them. I understand that the heart of the story is Caesar and his apes, but the human characters could easily have been developed more. Still, what development and emotional connection we did get was due mainly because of the actors portraying them. They make us care for these people, making the inevitable conflict even harder to bear as the film approached its climax.

The motion capture for the apes was mind blowing. Andy Serkis is in a class of his own. The visuals and animation here are some of the best I think I have seen; but it is the emotion and talent of the actors behind all that CGI that makes those ape characters feel so real. Serkis plays Caesar as someone filled with grief and the weight of the responsibility of caring for his troop bleeds through. Toby Kebbell plays Koba with a ferociousness that is equally terrifying and mesmerizing; and I also really loved Nick Thurston, who played Caesar’s eldest son Blue Eyes, and how he managed to expressed so much in just his gaze. I mentioned early in this review how this film compares on some level to ‘The Dark Knight’ for me. That film was speculated to be in the run for an Oscar nomination for Best Picture but it never happened. The backlash was so strong that some think it was the reason the Academy increased the number of films that could be nominated. I truly hope that Serkis will receive some form of recognition for his work here; and if not, I hope all of us praising him so greatly now will be vocal enough when the time come that maybe the Academy will make another change to who and what it nominates.

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I am not sure where I would place this film among others I have seen in 2014 but I know I’d put it somewhere near the top. This isn’t just another intelligent summer blockbuster; it is really an exceptionally crafted epic, a thrilling action-drama with an emotional and thematic resonance that future films should make a note of. And, as I felt when I first watched ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’, I eagerly await the next installment – which will thankfully be directed again by Matt Reeves.