★ / ★★★★
On October 21, 1994, Harlan Diehl (Luke Bonczyk) massacred his entire family with a motive so absent, it shook the entire community. Eighteen years later, Julian (Johnny Pacar) chooses to make a reenactment of the Harlan Diehl murders for a high school video project. With the help of his fun-loving friends (Ambyr Childers, Jennifer Missoni, Jonathan Keltz, Alessandra Torresani), he makes good progress in completing the assignment.
But Julian comes to the conclusion that simply recreating what happened in the farmhouse will not be enough. His gut tells him he needs to do more research so he asks Quinn (Toby Hemingway), a friend who works at the local TV station, to obtain the actual video of the crime.
“Playback,” written and directed by Michael A. Nickles, has the potential to be creepy if it had chosen to tell a straightforward story about a dark history in a small town. Instead, the picture is plagued with distractingly flowery camerawork, from split-screens and manic cuts to shaking of the camera until our heads spin.
It tested my patience so intensely that I began to notice things silly things like the age of the cast. They are supposed to be playing high school students but they look and act like they are in their mid-twenties. It does not help that not one of them has an acne breakout or is moody enough to convince us that their hormones are running amok. While the guys can pass as catalogue models, the girls are actually quite stunning. Julian’s girlfriend might be able to book work as a high fashion model given the right make-up and attire in front of the camera.
Speaking of make-up, it is utilized so laughably, it takes away whatever tension—a very small amount in the first place—that the film manages to capture. You see, Quinn is eventually possessed by a psychic energy from the raw footage of the Harlan Diehl murders. The evil force controls him and as the picture goes on, his desperation and level of evil are marked by the thickness of the make-up on the actor’s face. At some point, I just started laughing to myself because it looked like Quinn’s face is dunked in powdered white chalk. I was at such a loss on how or why the filmmakers convinced themselves that it would be a good idea to make the villain, a supposedly scary figure, look absolutely ridiculous.
And then there is the casting of Christian Slater as Frank Lyons, a cop who gets off sexually on watching high school girls through the secret cameras he hires Quinn to install in their bedrooms and locker rooms. Slater is not given anything to do. His character could have been played by anybody and it would not have made a difference.
The unfocused and slothful writing mixed with incomprehensible direction sink a project that could have been morbid, fun, or both. I did like one scene, however, in which Julian asks one of his friends to review the reenacted footage he has so far. Nate claims that the shakiness of the camera is headache-inducing while Julian argues that it is supposed to give the material a certain level of energy. I found its self-awareness amusing, but it is unfortunate that the filmmakers do not take advantage of its potentially smart set-up.
I had no problem buying into the material’s supernatural elements–even if they look so unbelievable. But since the realism is not available as a cushion when or if the audience decide to take that leap of faith, then it is most understandable to feel like we have wasted our time.
Pump Up the Volume (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mark Hunter (Christian Slater) moved to Arizona from the East Coast and started his own radio broadcast–under the pseudonym Hard Harry–because he didn’t fit in at his new school. The topics he talked about while on the air ranged from silly (sexual jokes) to serious (fellow classmates expressing they wanted to end their lives). Students from all social strata found a connection with Hard Harry even though they didn’t know his face; they all shared the unhappiness of being a teenager. As the students began to express their thoughts and feelings, school officials, led by the tyrannical principal (Annie Ross), expelled students who chose not to abide by the rules and those who did not maintain an excellent academic record. This film might have been an instant favorite if I had seen it back in high school. I had my “moody rebel” phase and I thought it managed to capture teenage angst perfectly. While it successfully balanced humor and real issues, I admired that it always respected its characters. The screenplay did not result to template clichés common to John Hughes’ movies. The majority of the picture was dedicated to Hard Harry ranting to his listeners how the system essentially limited the potential of young minds and the hypocrisy of the rules imposed on students. Such scenes became all the more magnetic because the camera would cut to different teenagers who felt like they had no voice. Via participation in the ritual of listening to the nightly 10 o’clock broadcast, they felt like they had a voice, like they belonged. Like the many colorful listeners, I did not always agree with the opinion being broadcasted but the voice had enough insight to challenge our own beliefs. Moreover, there were some truly moving scenes like the student who wanted to kill himself and the bullied homosexual who was comfortable with who he was but just needed someone to talk to. Unfortunately, the second half of the film spun out of control. The romance between Mark and Nora (Samantha Mathis) felt a bit forced–which resembled her bad poetry–and the silliness of students acting like wild monkeys at school did not feel at all believable. In some ways, the scenes that depicted too much rebellion took away some of the power from the real message Mark wanted to share with his fellow students. “Pump Up the Volume,” written and directed by Allan Moyle, is an inspiring film especially for the disaffected youth and those who feel alone. Specific scenes designed to inspire someone to live one’s life will most likely remind viewers of the current surge of tragic pre-teen and teen suicides. Perhaps they, too, felt like they didn’t have a voice.
True Romance (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott, “True Romance” opened with Clarence (Christian Slater) talking about a hypothetical situation in which if he were to make love with another man, it would be with his idol Elvis Presley. From the first scene, we learned that Clarence was a modern guy who was a romantic at heart and in constant search of the one he could fall deeply in love with. When he met Alabama (Patricia Arquette) in a movie theater and the two discussed the picture they just saw in a diner, the two forged a strong connection which eventually led to Clarence killing Alabama’s pimp (Gary Oldman) and accidentally stealing drugs from the mob. Like most movies written by Tarantino, I loved how this film was character-driven and dialogue-heavy but it still kept a forward momentum. Each scene in which two characters were placed in a room and talked about the most seemingly random topics were most revealing, most amusing and most engaging. We were given the chance to understand their motivations, histories, limitations and how they saw their lives compared to how they hoped to live their lives. Despite the characters acting tough on the outside, each of them had a fascinating story to tell. Aside from the opening scene, some higlights include Christopher Walken’s, as a mob boss, interrogration of Dennis Hopper, as Clarence’s ex-cop father with whom he had not seen for years; Arquette and James Gandolfini’s brutal battle to the death in a motel room; and when Arquette reluctantly admitted to Slater that she was a call girl. While the picture had its share of violence, I admired that it did not glorify it. The focus was consistently on the story, how the couple tried to get away from the police and the mob despite the fact that they probably knew that there would not be a way out of their increasingly desperate situation. Nevertheless, since the two really believed in their love for one another, they decided to move forward and there was certain lyricism and poetry even though chaos was happening all around them. “True Romance” wore its love for the movies on its sleeve by excelling at its genre while at the same time breaking from it. Even small roles had a big contribution to the big picture such as Val Kilmer as the ghost of Elvis and Brad Pitt as a stoner. Watching “True Rlomance” was pure joy because I experienced a spectrum of emotion and it made me want to have a dangerous (but chic) adventure of my own.
Interview with the Vampire (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★
After being caught up with the “True Blood” craze, I decided to visit some of my favorite vampire movies. “Interview with the Vampire,” directed by Neil Jordan, was one of those movies I saw in early high school that I loved but forgot the details as years went on. I’m surprised this one strongly held up against other horror pictures, especially vampire movies. It’s something I didn’t quite expect because the movies I used to think were scary when I was younger turned out to be silly and vapid in storytelling. Tom Cruise stars as Lestat, a vampire who was as equally hungry for blood as he was with power. He one day decided to make Louis (Brad Pitt) into a vampire because, at least according to him, he wanted to give Louis a choice to relieve his pain of losing his wife and child. Despite turning into the undead, Louis still managed to hang onto his humanity by refusing to feed on humans. This bothered Lestat and thought that Louis’ loneliness would be eliminated by giving Louis a companion–in a form of a vampire child played by Kirsten Dunst. But this all happened in the past as the details which covered centuries were revealed by Louis to an enthusiastic reporter (Christian Slater). Although I did read the novels by Anne Rice, I only could remember three things: Louis, Lestat and the passion (both good and bad) between the two. What made me really engaged about this film was not because it was scary in content. I was actually more into Louis’ humanity, his efforts to abstain from human blood, and his eventual search for those who were like him. That romanticism was reflected into the elegant designs of each room in the 18th century to the dark corners of the catacombs. Another thing that was interesting was Kirsten Dunst. As an adult actress, she bores me to death because every emotion she wants to portray on screen feels the same. But in this film, she had range: she was quite magical, menacing, fascinating all rolled into one. For me, “Interview with the Vampire” is a great vampire film because it makes the argument that vampires have the capacity to choose to be good instead of just being one-dimensional fiends who crave blood and live for centuries. Although necessary to paint the nature of vampire, the gore, the violence, and the evil were secondary. It was consistent, thrilling, and very interesting.