After a two-year hiatus, John Waters returned to the big screen withCry-Baby (1990), a nostalgic follow-up to Hairspray(1988). Although commercially a flop, Cry-Baby was mostly a critical success and did better overseas. Eventually, like Hairspray, Cry-Baby spawned a Broadway musical. Its mix of camp, sweet-toothed cynicism, and 50s nostalgia are ripe for choreographic treatment, and “Cry-Baby, The Musical” has seen two revivals. It seems inevitable that a big screen adaptation is not far off.
1994’s Serial Mom was a 13-million dollar budgeted cousin to 1974’s $25,000 Female Trouble(probably Waters’ best film). Like Cry-Baby, and every post-Hairspray Waters’ film, Serial Mom lost money, barely making back half of its cost. Like David Lynch, Waters hones in on the white picket fence, not-so-discreet charm of the American bourgeoisie. His recipe calls for equal parts exploitation, celebrity crime spree, and satire on the hypocrisy of American etiquette, all on a Martha Stewart endcap display, dripping with battery acid.
In Serial Mom, Waters shifts the focus of horror away from doublewide trailers and into suburbia. Naturally, that change of palette has been criticized for taking away Waters’ edge, but this is hardly the case. Waters presents Serial Mom in a visually acceptable package, but even mainstream audiences knew it to be a facade, which is why it lost money. It is easy for middle class WASPS to jeer at and mantle an attitude of superiority towards low income Baltimore Catholic trailer trash. Hell, that approach was the appeal that filled aisle seats in all those midnight showings and made Waters a cult icon. However, nothing is more unnerving than a mirror, which Waters brandishes to his audience, and nothing is resisted like the reflection of hypocrisy.
Star Kathleen Turner is a virtuoso as Betty in this quintessential parody of suburban family values. She should have received an Oscar for her performance as a matriarchal Norman Bates (could Norman have slaughtered Philistines so creatively with a leg of lamb, to the song ‘Tomorrow’? ) Alas, she was not even nominated in a year of woefully lame Academy choices. This ranks as one of her best performances, and the best acting in any Waters film. A toe-licking dog (choregraphed to a VHS scene from Annie), a son masturbating to Chesty Morgan, a noisy infant doused in snot, some swooning to Barry Continue reading A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART THREE→
PLOT: When Billy Brown looses a $10,000 bet he can’t pay for the Buffalo Bills to win the Superbowl, he’s forced to do prison time for a crime he didn’t commit; when he’s released from jail, he kidnaps a random girl to pretend to be his wife in order to pull the wool over the eyes of his unwitting parents, who think he’s working for the government.
WHY IT SHOULDN’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s not a scrap of strange and fantastic here, and sometimes the stark realism is agonizing and tedious. Vincent Gallo portrays Buffalo, New York as a soulless town with a cast of idiots. Buffalo ’66 plays like a Daniel Clowes comic but without the eccentricity: dazed and dissociated people wander through a wasteland of football, TV, chain diners, and strip joints. Unlike in Clowes, the protagonist comes out of it a changed man.
COMMENTS: Vincent Gallo plays Billy Brown, a guy who really needs to pee. He spends nearly the first twenty minutes of the movie looking for a place to go and, in the process, reveals that he’s an incorrigible jerk by beating up a stranger in a bathroom he deems a “faggot” and kidnapping a girl to pass off as his wife. Perpetually peeved, Billy even bothers to complain about how filthy the windshield is during the kidnapping in which he also fusses about how he can’t drive her “shifter car.” Finally, once in a residential neighborhood, Billy gets out of the car and pees, releasing his anger and annoyance in urine. But where does it all stem from? Why is this guy such a jerk? Via overlapping flashbacks displayed while Billy lies on a park bench in a monochrome landscape of grey, we watch his monotonous jail time: glimpses of water fountains and chess games. He goes from grey to grey, from the prison to Buffalo, New York, in winter. It’s a place where, in a football-centric household, his parents stare vacantly into space and shove food in his direction. His dad is a retired lounge singer totally uninterested in his son, but he takes a sexual interest in Billy’s fake wife, Layla. Billy’s sugar n’ sunshine mother, dolled up in her Buffalo Bills merchandise, can’t even remember her son’s severe allergy to chocolate. During an uncomfortable bedroom scene in which Layla forces Billy’s dad to sing some show tunes from days gone by, Billy tears up at the sight of a photograph of him as a boy. Underneath his unremitting jerk exterior, he’s a pathetic figure living in the shadow of what could have been, if the Bills had won the Superbowl. As bitter and miserable as he behaves, there’s a child living in him who’s never truly had a chance to grow up.
The film begins with a freeze frame of Billy as a boy, underscored with Gallo’s own song with the lyrics “all my life I’ve been this lonely boy.” When huddling alone in a bathtub in a sleazy motel, Layla remarks that Billy looks “like a little boy” We see Billy teetering under the weight of the tough guy role he feels he has to play through a confused lament in a Denny’s restroom. He’s convinced himself he’ll go into a strip joint and kill the placekicker whose missed field goal has ruined his life, and then kill himself; but then, as if Clarence has come down from heaven to make him appreciate being alive, Billy, the over-grown child and tough guy jerk becomes kind and comfortable in his own skin. In drastic contrast to the painful realism of a film characterized with its grotesque personages, Billy undergoes a quick change in personality: from cantankerous to joyful. This transformation of an inveterately unlovable character changes this film from sour to saccharine, with an artificial sentimentality that couldn’t even warm Frank Capra’s heart.
While Billy may be the main focal point of the film, Chrisina Ricci’s character is infinitely more interesting. Wearing searing blue eyeshadow and a promiscuous blouse to a tap dance lesson, Layla is sex-starved and ready for adventure, so when a scruffy stranger kidnaps her, she resists only a little, putting the bulk of her energy into crafting a romantic history for Billy’s parents. She is the sweet and sincere to oppose Billy’s sour phoniness. His stridency hardly bothers Layla because he’s the only boy who’s ever shown her any attention, so she pays back his nonstop cruelty with love. While Billy’s theme song may be “Lonely Boy,” Layla’s is King Crimson’s “Moonchild,” played during her awkward tap dance number in a bowling alley. This scene portrays her as a beautiful but naïve creature, in violent contrast to Billy’s hackneyed disenchantment.
Although bearing complex and distinct characters, Buffalo ’66‘s artificial resolution rings hollow enough to undermine the power of the miserably real plight of Billy Brown, the embittered protagonist who bet more than he had on a football team his mother taught him to believe in.
PLOT: A funeral director must convince an accident victim that she is really dead.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I took a look at After.Life to determine its weird potential, but aside from the macabre story, I found it be a fairly conventionally psychological thriller.
COMMENTS: Despite the pretentious dot in the middle of the title, After.Life turns out to be a well-made, offbeat picture. Christina Ricci, while no Ingrid Bergman, delivers a credible performance even though she is slashed with cherry red lipstick and alternately nude or scantily draped in a clingy, scarlet satin slip for most of the movie.
After a violent car crash, Anna Taylor (Ricci) wakes up on a slab in a mortuary (where else?) Eliot Deacon, a psychic undertaker (Neeson) must talk her into cooperating with the embalming process and mentally preparing herself for the afterlife.
Blessed/cursed with the gift of second sight which allows him to see the spirits of the deceased, Deacon is exasperated that he must argue and wrestle with every one of his dead clients, none of whom are at first willing accept the reality of their deaths. Conversing with Deacon, Anna, like her predecessors, refuses to believe she’s dead despite his assurance that she’s in transition to the spirit realm, and that he’s the only one who can help her make the leap into the uncertain beyond
While sill on the steel gurney in the embalming room, Anna has several sinister forays into the ethereal plain to which she is about to permanently transcend. Frightened, uncertain, and unwilling to depart this dimension to venture into the next, she requires a good bit of coaxing from Deacon. Anna is a hard case and she makes quite a fuss. Deacon has his hands full dealing with her and she proves to be his most uncooperative stiff to date.
Matters are complicated when Anna’s mooky boyfriend (Long) shows up demanding to view her body for closure. Deacon manages to run him off, but the pesky beau just can’t seem to stay away. He becomes a fly in the pickling balm when he insists upon clinging to the Continue reading CAPSULE: AFTER.LIFE (2009)→
Celebrating the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!