Bad Cinema: Heartbeeps (Dir: Allan Arkush, 1981)

“If only God can make a tree, God is very efficient.”
“Correct. God makes the trees and then humans make from them a variety of paper products, ranging from wrapping paper for gala events to interoffice memos!”

I have never understood why Bernadette Peters – one of the greats of the theatre – didn’t have an equally illustrious Hollywood career. Other giants of the stage like Judi Dench, Laurence Olivier, and Ian McKellan had made the crossover. And just look at Bernadette’s early film work with Mel Brooks and Steve Martin. She was perfectly cast as the throwback babe, paying homage to bygone eras while never feeling dated. Her glorious performance in Pennies From Heaven where she played the virginal schoolmarm turned worldly hooker is clearly a glowing example of the Academy’s amnesia. Obviously, the choice to not be the next Carole Lombard was her own. And after a dud like Heartbeeps, I would probably flee back to New York too.

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Heartbeeps is the story of two robots who fall in love. While waiting for some routine maintenance, Val (Andy Kaufman) – a lumber expert (apparently, a very important niche knowledge) – and Aqua (Bernadette Peters) – programmed to engage in cocktail chatter at parties (I guess the future is void of real women who will laugh at bad jokes from ugly men) – decide to broaden their “content functions” and go see the trees on the horizon first hand. So they and their wisecracking pal, Catskill (yes, because he is designed to tell Borscht belt jokes) steal a truck and venture out into the unknown. Along the way, they learn about such human phenomenons as parenting, friendship, and tenderness.

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But of course, robots cann’t just wander off unnoticed. A CrimeBuster (a ridiculous Dirty Harry type tool tank that actually goes around quoting lines from Cool Hand Luke) rolls through the hills shooting at rabbits and destroying house parties in its singular pursuit. His handlers (Randy Quaid and Kenneth McMillan) also must hit the road to protect their jobs. It’s a race against time before their batteries run out and they are lost in the woods forever!

I wish I were making this premise up. Whoever got stoned and concocted this malarky needs to share where they were buying their stuff. The dialogue is understandably rigid and clunky with Peters and Kaufman committing to their ridiculous charge like the professionals they are (although we get a sense that Kaufman is judging his own performance, realizing the quality of the film he is in…). Their physicality is wonderfully specific, yet this necessitates the entire tempo of the film to match their slow and methodical speech, made even more lethargic by John Williams’ attempted whimsy.

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The reviews for this film range from disappointment (Ebert called it “a cold potato pancake” to vitriol (one reviewer claimed, “I would rather shove knitting needles in my eyes rather than sit through five minutes of this again”). While it is by no means the worst film I have sat through in life or for this column (that would easily go to Battleship or Catwoman), Heartbeeps is painfully awful, particularly given the illustrious talent attached (Stan Winston, famed make-up and special effects artist, also hitched his horse to this run down stable). At 79 minutes, it is about 75 minutes too long.

If you really want to watch it, you can rent it on Amazon for 2.99. But for that price, you’d be better off getting a Big Mac and fries. Either way, you’ll have indigestion. Might as well start off enjoyable.

Or, Hell. Skip it all. And just watch this:

Bad Cinema: The Happening (Dir: M. Night Shyamalan, 2008)

I never thought I would be saying this, but M. Night Shyamalan is actually NOT a talentless hack.

The problem with his films is not that they are ill made. On the contrary. Shyamalan is wonderful at mood. His cinematography is dare I say, Hitchcockian, and his films don’t leave you ambivalent. The problem with his films is that they are overblown and pretentious.

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Since his enormous hit The Sixth Sense went on to net Oscar nominations (including one for its director), become a neo-classic, and was even included in the American Film Institute’s list of The 100 Greatest American Films Ever Made, Shyamalan understandably has started to believe his own hype. This leaves him reaching for Art, convinced he has something to say and maybe he does. Having a message is laudable. Many “artists” go through their careers churning out blockbusters and laughing all the way to the bank. Unfortunately, he is not a very talented writer so his messages are didactic and sloppy and his dialogue is embarrassingly pedantic. Yet he trods on, seemingly unfazed. Which you have to admire. Many “artists” also spend their careers skirting the familiar and relying on their past laurels. Shyamalan, while using his trusted “twists,” plays with genre and creates unique worlds. People can say what they want about him – and I have said plenty; just ask my husband – but the man goes for broke every time, unfortunately JUST missing the mark (or, in the case of Lady in the Water, he was so far out to sea that he had no idea he was drowning…). His films seem to be lacking one key component. And ironically, that component is tied to the very thing at which he excels: the resolution of his suspense.

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The Happening is a polemic about environmental awareness told like a ’50s B movie. Without warning, people in Central Park start jabbering nonsensical conversations. Then they stop moving. And then they kill themselves. People assume it is a terrorist attack, some strange biochemical warfare, messing with our minds. And they would be half right.

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Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg in his worst performance until The Lovely Bones) is a good natured Biology teacher in Philadelphia, struggling to connect with his wife, Alma (a flaccid Zooey Deschanel, bug eyed and clueless as to what movie she is in). Their relationship is strained because unbeknownst to him, she had dinner with a male co-worker and is wracked with guilt; even though never for a minute do we believe that the two of them have ever loved each other. We never see them kiss or show any kind of outward affection. Even when they think the world is ending. It’s as if they got together because they were the two prettiest people in town, and what the hell, we’ll at least have some pretty babies.

So they are distant and awkward and Elliot’s best friend Julian (John Leguizamo at his frumpiest) tries to push them back together. But there is no time to worry about love because whatever is “happening” (a word uttered no less than six times in the film) has left New York and come to Philly! People are killing themselves left and right and Wahlberg and Friends have got to get the hell out of Dodge before it’s too late. But Julian has lost contact with his wife in New Jersey so while he goes to figure out if she’s still alive, he dumps his daughter on Elliot and Alma. We know he will never see her again.

Elliot puts his biology skills to the test and figures out that what is “happening” is chemical warfare alright but not from al qaeda. It is chemical warfare from….all the plants on Earth. Yes, all the plants on Earth have started talking to each other (we are told that they can do this) and decided to fight back after years of destruction and pollution and global warming. It hits big cities first – anywhere that large groups of people gather together – and then trickles down to Small Town, USA, in a battle for self-preservation.

This is where Shyamalan really succeeds (and fails) as an homage to ’50s sci-fi. The premise of killer plants fits right in with the endless line of killer bees, ants, robots, and creatures from black lagoons that dominated the decade. And Wahlberg definitely has some Gina Gershon moments, but the problem is that Shyamalan, hellbent on mixing genres and playing with our expectations, doesn’t go far enough. The acting for the most part is too subdued to fit the ridiculous plot and the dialogue, while awful, never embraces full on camp, leaving it sounding amateurish instead of just a throwback to a specific style.

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After everyone in their party – and presumably the town – has died, Elliot, Alma, and their ward hole up in a house in the woods, waiting to die. Elliot and Alma “reconnect,” professing their so-called love, and miraculously, the plants stop their killing spree and spare them. Which would be moving if we gave a shit about them. Or knew that they held some kind of power, or there was a reason that they were chosen to be spared; to rebuild, to teach. But no. The whole happening seems to have…happened…so Elliot and Alma could get back to being in love. Even though we never believed they were in love in the first place. Shyamalan rests the denouement on the shoulders of his character’s reconciliation, which is disappointing at best and ambivalent at worst.

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The sad thing is that this didn’t have to suck. Shyamalan’s visual prowess is on full display (the best example of his “pure cinema” comes in the form of a heavily choreographed death scene with a revolver) and the premise – while out there – was not doomed from the start. But one of the ways Shyamalan differs from Hitch or even De Palma is that in their films, there is always something in addition to the suspense and technical skill. Even when Hitch is dragging you through a MacGuffin, his films endure – among many reasons – and don’t feel like a let down because he gives you three dimensional, intriguing people to root for, to hate. Shyamalan, inept at character and their development, relies on his suspense tactics to keep you engaged. And when the resolution is lackluster AND you have flat characters played by actors who need a lot of coaching that they are clearly not receiving, you get something like The Happening (or The Village, for that matter…). Please M. Night. Collaborate with a writer. It won’t make you less of an auteur.

***Rip van Winkle***

*Featuring Betty Buckley in an Oscar worthy performance as a crazy townie…

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Good Cinema: Adventures in Babysitting (Dir: Chris Columbus, 1987)

Trevor had been begging me for months, years.

“Gurl when are we gonna watch Adventures in Babysitting? It is werking so hard!” 

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It had gotten to the point where I almost didn’t ever want to see it. It had gotten to the point that I could only be disappointed, sold on the promise of greatness. But tonight, after jamming to the new Mariah Carey (which has some fabulous moments btw…), after a false start watching La Vie en Rose (which looked like a HOT snooze…), I decided, what the hell. Let’s do this. I texted Trevor. He was ecstatic. I was cynical.

And I am here to say….it is glorious.

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OK. So Elisabeth Shue, rocking her best 80s hair, dances around her room to The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me,” whp for a Golden Globe nod. The power of love overtakes her body. It’s her anniversary and she is getting gussied up for her man. But wouldn’t you know it. Her boyfriend’s sister is sick. And he needs to take care of her. Well, we can see from a mile away that his sister isn’t sick. He’s stepping out with another girl! But Elisabeth i.e. Chris is none the wiser, despite the warnings from her anxious friend, Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller). With no pressing plans, when she gets a call to babysit the Andersons, she heads out for a night of easy money and boredom. Or so she thinks!

That worrisome Brenda has run away from home and begs Chris to come get her from the bus stop before the homeless man who lives in the phone booth attacks her. Well, Chris, being the dependable friend – the virginal paradigm set forth by Laurie Strode – dashes from the suburbs into the scary streets of New York City to rescue her friend, kids in tow. There’s 10 year old Sara (Maia Brewton) who thinks she is Thor, 15 year old Brad (Keith Coogan) who is sporting a serious crush for Chris, and his 15 year old friend Daryl (Rent‘s Anthony Rapp) who blackmails them into a night of adventure. And adventures are aplenty!

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It starts with a flat tire. Simple enough. Annoying, but not devastating. Unless you don’t have a flat. And the pick up truck driver is kind of creepy with his hook hand and instead of taking you directly to the mechanic’s, goes to try and kill his wife’s lover. And then to avoid getting shot, you duck into an open car. That just so happens to be in the process of being stolen. So there you are, taken to a hot garage, surrounded by gangsters, locked in their office, escaping through the skylight by straddling the beams in the ceiling like a damn circus performer with the stolen Playboy in your bag; the one that has all that secret information across the centerfold, the centerfold who looks like Chris. So you escape only to be chased by these gangsters, trapped on stage where you have to sing the blues to escape and you tear down the house (Shue is really werking this scene…) and the next thing you know you are stealing a thug’s knife saying classic lines like, “Don’t FUCK with the babysitter” before dangling from windows and finding out your boyfriend with the sick sister actually IS running game on you and your 15 year old crush calls him out for being a douche. Then you’ll get your car from Vincent D’Onofrio, race home, narrowly beating the kids’ parents, and bonding with your ward over the best night of your life…so far.

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Adventures in Babysitting feels like John Hughes Light, filled with charm, but missing the gravitas and hopeful cynicism. The soundtrack is filled with grooves and the cast is really excellent and sells the over the top plot. The tone of the film is not obvious satire like Heathers, yet it is not meant to be taking seriously; you never believe that the kids or Chris are in any real danger, which leaves Shue’s performance feeling somewhere in between great and just missing the mark. She underplays where she could camp it up and downplays her stunning beauty when she could use it to their advantage. Perhaps it is a sign of the times. If made today, Chris would need to be more sassy, more guarded, more kick ass. Think Ellen Page or LiLo. But there is an innocent maturity to Shue’s interpretation. After all the too-smart-for-their-own-good teens committed to celluloid in the ’80s, Shue’s Chris is kind of refreshing as an average girl without the life skills asked of her.

Adventures in Babysitting is a great time. Stop putting it off and watch the thing today! Thank you, Trevor!

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*Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

**I would watch this as a double feature with Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, also starring Keith Coogan, and an inevitable Good Cinema selection…