Back to School #46: Heathers (dir by Michael Lehman)


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Well, it had to happen.  We have finally reached the end of the 80s with this Back to School series of reviews.  The 80s are often considered to be the “Golden Age of Teen Films,” largely due to the efforts of director-writer-producer John Hughes.  In films like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Hughes skillfully mixed teen comedy with teen drama and the end results were some of the best-remembered and most influential films ever made.  At the same time, it’s also can’t be denied that, even as he was dealing with real issues of class differences and sexuality, Hughes also tended to idealize his teenage protagonists.  They were often cast as noble savages, struggling to survive in a world that was exclusively run by cynical and judgmental adults.  In The Breakfast Club, Ally Sheedy says that when you grow up, your heart dies.  That, more than anything, defines the way that most of the great teen films of the 80s tended to view the world.

By the end of the 80s, John Hughes had stopped making films about high school and teenagers and so, it is perhaps appropriate that the final Back to School review of the 80s should be for a 1989 film that often time seems to be taking place on a totally different plant from the films of John Hughes.  If Hughes told us that your heart dies when you grow up, Heathers would seem to suggest that most people’s hearts were never alive to begin with.

Heathers takes place at Westerburg High, a school full of student so rich that their mascot is a Rottweiler.  Westerburg is run by a clique of three mean girls, all of whom are named Heather.  Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) is their leader.  Cheerleader Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) is weak-willed and insecure.  And finally, Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) is the smartest of the Heathers.  She’s also bulimic.  Now, there is a fourth member of the ruling clique but she’s a bit of an anomaly because she’s neither mean nor named Heather.  Instead, her name is Veronica (Winona Ryder) and she is valued for her ability to forge signatures.

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Since joining the Heathers, Veronica has drifted away from old friends like Betty Finn (Renee Estevez).  And though Veronica quickly realizes that she doesn’t really belong with the Heathers, she doesn’t know how she can break free without also destroying her reputation of Westerburg.  Then, she meets J.D. (Christian Slater), a prototypical rebel with a cause.  J.D. is not only an outsider at Westerburg but he’s proud of it.  Soon, he and Veronica are a couple and J.D. is pulling Veronica into his plans to destroy the social hierarchy of Westerburg High.

When a practical joke arranged by J.D. and Veronica leads to the accidental death of Heather Chandler, J.D. convinces Veronica to forge a suicide note.  As a result, Heather Chandler is canonized by the same students that she previously terrorized.  However, J.D. is not done killing.  With each new death (and with each forged suicide note), a new social hierarchy starts to form at Westerburg until, eventually, J.D. comes up with a plan that owes a bit to the end of Massacre at Central High

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Heathers is a darker than dark comedy and one that I imagine probably could not be made today.  (To be honest, I’m a little bit surprised that it could be made in 1989.)  Seriously, a comedy where one of the main plot points is that students become more popular after everyone has been fooled into thinking they committed suicide?  (Not to mention a scene where a grieving father shouts, “I love my dead gay son!”)  People would get so offended if this film was made today but you know what?  They would be totally missing the point.  The film isn’t making fun of suicide as much as it’s exposing the hypocrisy of a society that only seems to care about people after they die. To me, the most important scenes aren’t the ones where people react to the fake suicides.  Instead, the heart of Heathers‘s dark vision is to be found in the scene where a true outcast like Martha Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn) fails in her attempt to commit suicide and is ridiculed by the same students and teachers who were previously patting themselves on the back at Heather Chandler’s funeral.

Heathers is dark but it’s also a genuinely funny film, filled with great lines and performances.  (“Fuck me gently with a chainsaw,” is my personal favorite.)  It’s a film that still carries quite a satiric bite and a perfect film with which to end the 80s.

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George Romero Picks Up Where He Left Off With “Empire Of The Dead : Act Two” #1 — But What About Everyone Else?


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I’ll admit that it brands as being in a tiny minority, but George A. Romero’s Empire Of The Dead  is my favorite ongoing zombie story right now. I’ve long since given up hope for The Walking Dead as both a TV series — blasphemy to some around these parts, I know — and a monthly comic,  with Kirkman and his cohorts long having since lost the plot, in my view, in both of that franchise’s iterations, but good ol’ George, after stumbling out of the gate a bit in Act One of this, his latest (and first printed-page) undead epic, really seems to be in the midst of getting a damn solid little tale going here, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Well, actually, I suppose I could 

For one thing, the second five-issue arc of what’s slated to be a 25-parter (bearing the official copyright title this time of George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead Act Two #1) starts off with some notable changes on the creative front. Gone is artist extraordinaire Alex Maleev, who towards the end of the first series was blowing some deadlines (not that his art wasn’t worth the wait, it most certainly was), and in is Dalibor Talajic, fresh from drawing two rather unremarkable Dexter min-series for Marvel (not that it was his fault — his illustrations were fine, but Jeff Lindsay really mailed it in on the script front, particularly in the atrocious second series,  Dexter Down Under, which is a bit of a shock given that he, ya know, created the character and everything), and who, like his predecessor, is tackling both the penciling and inking duties on the book. Talajic’s art is fine as far as these things go — and his style seems to have taken a healthy leap forward from that aforementioned Dexter work — but the change is still a jarring one, and overall the look of the series has changed from grim and gritty “naturalistic” horror to more standard-issue Marvel Comics “house style” renderings, so that’s kind of a drag. I knew the switch was coming, and it’s a little less violent than I’d feared, but — I dunno. No offense to Talajic, but I think that if bringing on a new artist was inevitable, a guy like Declan Shalvey, for instance, would have been a better fit.

Maleev’s off the cover assignment, too, but if the work of new cover artist Alexander Lozano is any indication, we’re in good hands on that front. Yeah, admittedly, the scene depicted on the cover shown above doesn’t actually happen in the book, but so what? It’s still got a classic “old-school horror comic” vibe to it and wouldn’t feel at all out of place adorning the front of an old Warren mag like Creepy  or Eerie. I liked it a lot, and I think most other readers will, as well.

There’s also been a change of artists for the variant covers, but again, this is no problem in my estimation. Yes, Arthur Suydam’s “NYC” cover series was a blast, but when you’ve got Francesco Francavilla stepping up to the plate in his absence, well — who’s complaining? This guy has been one of my favorite cover artists for years now (have you seen the incredible work he’s been doing on Dynamite’s new Twilight Zone comic?), and my only gripe about his alternate cover for this issue (as shown below) is that my LCS didn’t get a single copy of it, otherwise you can bet that I would’ve snapped it up pronto.

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On the story front, I’m pleased to report that Romero is continuing the steady roll he’s been on since the fourth issue of Act One which is when, for my money, things really started kicking into another gear. As with most first issues (although whether or not this can actually be considered a “first” issue is debatable, I suppose), we’re in “pure set-up” mode here, but the payoffs to the various storylines that are running look like they’re going to be big, provided the father of the entire modern zombie revival doesn’t drop the ball. Semi-intelligent “walker” (whoops, wrong comic) Xavier seems to be making a quantum leap forward in becoming “civilized” under the tutelage of Dr. Penny Jones, and has formed a real emotional bond with her wayward young friend (whose name, in case you’d forgotten — as I admit I had — is Jo), and shares a secret with her that most likely will shake the entire series to its core. Dr. Jones, for her part, seems to be torn between responding to the romantic advances of the vampiric Mayor Chandrake and his head “zombie wrangler,” Paul Barnum, but rest assured there’s more to that situation than meets the eye — Barnum hints that he’s keeping a pretty big secret himself, and the Mayor, while not one to lose any sort of contest (and he drops some ominous threats to that very effect), may be forced to devote more of his attentions elsewhere, as the campaign to unseat him currently being waged by his nephew, Billy, seems to be gaining some traction. But is Billy really driving this train — or is he being set up for a spectacular “crash and burn” come-uppance?

And speaking of being set up — what of southern rebel-rouser Dixie Peach and her newly militarized entourage? A major development occurs in this issue that may end up marking her as  expendable to her own cause. I admit that the timelines attached to some of these various plot-threads do seem a bit garbled, and probably could’ve benefited from an eidotr who was paying somewhat closer attention ( the Xavier subplot seems to have advanced by several days, if not weeks, as has the mayoral race, while the subplot involving Dixie Peach and her no-longer-quite-allies seems to be picking up more or less right where it was left hanging in Act One), but if that all sounds intriguing to you — and trust me when I say it is — then put your reservations about the change behind this book’s drawing board aside, and queue up for the rest of Act Two, because it appears it could be quite a memorable ride.

 

Back to School #45: Say Anything… (dir by Cameron Crowe)


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For the past two and a half weeks, we’ve been taking a chronological look at some of the best, worst, most memorable, and most forgettable teens films ever made.  We started with two films from 1946 and now, 43 films later, we’ve reached the end of the 80s.  And what better way to close out the decade that is often considered to be the golden age of teen films than by taking a look at two films from 1989 that both paid homage to the films that came before them and also served to influence the many films that would come after.

When people talk about Say Anything…, they usually seem to talk about the fact that it was the directorial debut of Cameron Crowe (who, it must be said, launched the golden age of teen films by writing Fast Time At Ridgemont High) and that it features what may be John Cusack’s best performance.  Famously, Cusack apparently felt that — after performances in Class, Sixteen Candles, and Better Off Dead — he was through playing teenagers.  But then he read Crowe’s script and was so impressed by it that he agreed he would play a student one last time.

It may, however, have helped that the character Cusack plays, a likable and easy-going kickboxing enthusiast named Lloyd Dobler — is only briefly seen as a student.  He graduates from high school early on in the movie.  That majority of Say Anything… deals with the summer right after high school.*  Lloyd has an unlikely but heartbreakingly real romance with Diane Court (Ione Skye), the valedictorian.

Cusack is so charming as Lloyd (and, needless to say, he gets all of the best lines) that I think people tend to overlook the fact that Ione Skye is equally as good.  Diane is actually a far more challenging role than Lloyd.  Whereas Lloyd is distinguished by his confidence and his friendly manner, Diane is neurotic, shy, and unsure of herself.  She’s won a scholarship to study in England and is scheduled to leave at the end of the summer but she’s scared of flying.  Even worse, her father, Jim Court (John Mahoney), is being investigated by the IRS.  As the summer progresses, Diane is forced to deal with the fact that not only has her seemingly perfect father broken the law but, when he’s confronted with his crimes, he uses his daughter as his excuse.  Yes, Jim seems to be saying, I stole money but I only did it to give you the best life possible.

Everyone seems to remember Say Anything… as the film that has that scene where Lloyd serenades Diane by holding that radio over his head.  And yes, that’s a wonderfully romantic scene, even if it’s been parodied so many times that it’s probably no longer as effective as it was when the film was first released.  But for me, Say Anything… is truly about Diane growing up and realizing that her father is not the saint that she thought he was.  (Making this realization especially upsetting is the fact that, initially, Mahoney is so likable in the role.)  You’re happy that Lloyd is there for her and you truly do come to love him because he is the perfect boyfriend, but ultimately, Say Anything… is Diane’s story.

(That said, though, I have to admit that some of my favorite scenes are just Lloyd talking to his friends.  Lili Taylor gives a great performance and how can you not laugh at Jeremy Piven hanging out at the convenience store?)

Ultimately, of course, the film works because both Lloyd and Diane come across as real human beings.  They’re not just boyfriend and girlfriend.  Instead, they’re two very likable characters who have been lucky enough to find each other.  In the end, you love Lloyd not because he’s funny or quirky but because he loves Diane for who she is.

Of course, it also helps that Say Anything has the perfect ending.

Ding!

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* On a personal note, the summer after I graduated high school was the best summer of my life because I spent most of it in Italy!  Viva Iatalia!