Movie Review: Heaven Help Us (1985) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Heaven Help Us
Release Date: February 8, 1985
Director: Michael Dinner
Production Company: HBO Pictures | Silver Screen Partners
Synopsis:

After the death of his parents, teenager Michael Dunn (Andrew McCarthy) is sent to live with his grandparents in Brooklyn.  He’s enrolled at an all-boys Catholic high school, St. Basil’s, run by an order of monks (his grandmother hopes he will go into the priesthood).  He falls into a crowd of oddballs including Caesar (Malcolm Danare), a nerd who is dismissive of everyone else’s lower intelligence, and Ed Rooney (Kevin Dillon), a bully who is repeating the year at school. Michael is shocked by the severe strictness of the school, especially Brother Constance (Jay Patterson), a teacher who routinely uses corporal punishment and humiliation on the students.

Michael also meets Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson), a girl who has dropped out of public school to run her father’s soda shop across the street from St. Basil’s.  It’s revealed over the course of the movie that her father is suffering from severe mental health issues and unable to run it himself.  Michael and Danni start off awkwardly but begin to date in one of the sweetest teen romances ever depicted on screen.

Over the course of a few months of the school year, Michael, Caesar, Rooney and others (including the weird kid who can’t stop masturbating) play pranks, go to confession, see Pope Paul VI’s procession in Manhattan, have a dance with students from the girls’ school (after a lecture on lust by a priest played by Wallace Shawn in a hilarious bit part), and they repeatedly get in trouble.  Things come to a head in a violent confrontation with Brother Constance and a surprise twist at the finale.

Three characters I haven’t mentioned in this synopsis add flavor to the story.  First is Michael’s little sister Boo (Jennifer Dundas) who is obsessed with death and burial.  She seems quirky at first but in a really touching scene with Michael she expresses her fear of losing him the way they lost their parents. It’s a small but beautiful scene that shows how children internalize trauma.  The next is Brother Timothy (John Heard), a new teacher who joins the staff at the same time Michael arrives and is a “cool” young monk, who smokes and trades baseball cards with the kids, and acts as an adviser to Michael.  He’s kind of the personification of Vatican II reforms in the movie.  Finally, there’s Donald Sutherland in a terrific performance as Brother Thadeus, the strict but ultimately fair headmaster of St. Basil’s

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I watched this movie when it was shown on cable tv in the mid-1980s. Growing up Catholic in a New York City suburb with parents who were teenagers in New York at the time this movie is set it was a no-brainer that I would watch and enjoy this movie.  It was fun to get a look back at the “bad old days” of the Catholic church with Latin masses and corporal punishment.

In retrospect, the 20 years between the time the movie is set and the time it was released doesn’t seem all that long.  In fact, the first English mass was held in the United States in late 1964, so this movie isn’t even set during the Latin mass period.  Still, both New York City and the Catholic church seemed to change quite a bit in those 20 short years.

What Did I Remember?:

I hadn’t watched this movie since the 1980s but it was surprisingly fresh in my mind.

What Did I Forget?:

I didn’t forget things so much as see them in a different light from an adult perspective.  For example, that kid who masturbates is a funny gag when you’re a kid, but as an adult it seems like a serious problem that should be addressed before he commits a sex offense on someone.  Similarly, Brother Constance was always a mean teacher, but now I see him as a total monster who’s comeuppance should’ve had more severe legal repercussions.  The movie also takes on a different feel in the aftermath of clergy sex abuse revelations that were allowed to persist due to many of the same factors of a corrupt system of power that we see in the film.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

If you break it down to its essence, Heaven Help Us is a series of vignettes soaked in Baby Boomer nostalgia.  But it is so much better than that. I think the strong cast of actors really makes all these characters feel real rather than archetypes.  A lot of the younger actors would go on to longer careers so you’re really seeing them come into their own here.  Also, as I noted above with the scene of Michael and Boo, there are a number of great, well-directed and well-written scenes that economically capture moments of great humanity.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Rooney is a bully and sexually aggressive with women and initially an antagonist to Michael, but eventually they become friends.  I think Dillon does a good job of giving Rooney some depth, but overall I think the movie wants to think of his behavior as funny and overlook how harmful it is.

Also, at the end of the movie, there’s an American Graffiti style epilogue where Rooney narrates what happened to all the characters.  It feels out of tune with the rest of the movie and ultimately unnecessary.

Is It a Classic?:

Objectively this movie falls short of being a movie classic, but subjectively it will always be one of my favorites.

Rating: ****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with H:

  1. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
  2. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)
  3. High Fidelity (2000)
  4. Hoop Dreams (1994)
  5. Hope and Glory (1987)

What is your favorite movie starting with H? What do you guess will be my movie for I? (Hint: it has characters named Bert and Ernie).  Let me know in the comments!

Classic Movie Review: American Graffiti (1973)


Title: American Graffiti
Release Date: August 11, 1973
Director: George Lucas
Production Company: Lucasfilm | American Zoetrope | The Coppola Company
Summary/Review:

George Lucas’ directorial debut THX 1138 bombed at the box office and he was charged with making a more commercially appealing film for his production company American Zoetrope. (The same fiscal crisis contributed to Lucas’ partner Francis Ford Coppola to agree to direct an adaptation of a sleazy gangster novel). Lucas decided to make a tribute to his youth in Modesto, California where teens cruised the main street in hot cars while listening to rock & roll.

The movie focuses on one night in late summer in 1962 and the exploits of four teenagers:

  • Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) who is due to leave for college the next morning but is uncertain about going. He keeps seeing a mysterious blonde woman in a passing T-Bird (Suzanne Somers) and spends part of the night hanging out with a street gang.
  • Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), who is also leaving for college, and is arrogant and obnoxious.  Early on, he tells his long-time steady girlfriend Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams) that he wants to have an open relationship leading to a tense night for the couple.
  • John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the city’s best hot rod drag racer. A car full of girls pranks him by sending over a 12 year old little sister, Carol Morrison (Mackenzie Phillips), to ride with him. The initial awkwardness turns into the sweetest part of the movie as John and Carol form a sibling-like relationship.  Much like Meet Me in St. Louis, one of the best scenes in this movie involves John & Carol bonding through vandalism. John also has to face down a challenge from another drag racer, Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford).
  • Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith), a younger teen who inherits Steve’s Chevrolet Impala. He picks up a Marilyn Monroe-esque woman Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark) who proves to be an adventurous oddball with kind of a Luna Lovegood quality.

The movie is linked together by Wolfman Jack’s DJ patter over rock and roll hit.  He also appears in a cameo as himself where he gives advice to Curt.  Wolfman Jack was a celebrity DJ in New York when I was a kid.  I never realized that early in his career he broadcast from a high-powered radio station in Mexico and was a mysterious figure to the kids who listened to him at the time.

I ended up liking this movie a lot more than I expected.  But probably the biggest thing about this movie is its legacy. The soundtrack is wall-to-wall hit songs of the early rock & roll era. It’s one of the first movies to be scored entirely with previously-released popular tunes.  These songs are the familiar tunes of the 1950s and early 60s and makes me wonder how much the American Graffiti influenced what songs would be played on Oldies stations forevermore.

The first song heard in the movie is “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & The Comets (which later becomes the opening theme of Happy Days) and one of the last tunes heard in the film is “Goodnight, Well it’s Time to Go” by The Spaniels (which became the farewell song on Sha Na Na).  Which leads to the next legacy, the 50s nostalgia boom of the 1970s. It manifest itself in the tv sitcoms Happy Days (which also starred Ron Howard) and Laverne & Shirley (which also starred Cindy Williams), the comedy variety show Sha Na Na, the Broadway and Hollywood musical Grease, and the revival of musical careers of early rock & roll stars like Chuck Berry and Frankie Valli.

Perhaps the biggest legacy is the career of George Lucas, who went on to make movies that are nothing like American Graffiti.  I never realized that Lucas only directed six films in his entire career (and half of them are the Star Wars prequels!).  I don’t plan to watch THX 1138 anytime soon, but I’m going to assume that American Graffiti is Lucas’ best work of directing actors, as opposed to his true genius at creating story ideas and producing them.

Rating: ***

Music Discoveries: The Beatles Go Solo, Finale


I managed to listen to every album that George Harrison, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and Paul McCartney released between 1968 and 1980 as documented in part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.  But my review of ex-Beatles’ musical output was missing something, including some of the best songs they recorded during this period, and that is the non-album singles.  So, to complete this music discovery, I listened to the following songs:

1969 – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – “Give Peace a Chance”

One of John’s political anthems that is more fun than preachy.  It still resonates today even if I can’t understand the

1969 – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – “Cold Turkey”

I’m surprised I’ve never heard this one before.  It has a rockin’ riff, but otherwise is dull.

1970 – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – “Instant Karma!”

An all-time classic, and one with a great backstory of how it was created in (nearly) one day.

1971 – Paul McCartney – “Another Day”/”Oh Woman, Oh Why”

“Another Day” is a perfectly fine McCartney ballad, but feels a bit watered down compared to his best love songs. The b-side is just blah.

1971 – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – “Power to the People”

More anthemic but less resonant that “Give Peace a Chance.”

1971 – George Harrison – “Bangla Desh”/”Deep Blue”

The charity single is born, and like “We Are the World” later on, it has good intentions with cheezy lyrics.  Harrison should be remembered for his dedication to the cause though, that likely had greater real world effect than Lennon’s sloganeering.  “Deep Blue” is a folksy-blues tune about Harrison grieving his mother that ties in personal tragedy with the global catastrophe of the A-side.

1971 – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”

The reuse of the tune for “Stewball” and its frequent repetition every December since its release makes this song feel an oddity.  But the Harlem Community Choir is genuinely charming and it works as both a Christmas pop song and an anti-war anthem.

1972 – Paul McCartney & Wings – “Give Ireland Back to the Irish”

I find it interesting that Lennon & McCartney both recorded political songs about the Irish Troubles at this time.  The Irish issue didn’t seem to be much of interest to either of them at any other point in their life.  McCartney is not known for political anthems and it humors me that Great Britain actually banned the song despite its milquetoast lyrics.

1972 – Paul McCartney & Wings – “Mary Had a Little Lamb”/”Little Woman Love”

Holy crap, an ex-Beatle totally recorded “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and released it as a single!  The B-side is a fun rockabilly number, but nothing special.

1972 – Paul McCartney & Wings – “Hi, Hi, Hi”/”C Moon”

More mediocrity.

1972 – Paul McCartney & Wings – “Live and Let Die”

McCartney at his most bombastic perfectly suits the UK’s bombastic James Bond film series.  I like this one despite myself.

1974 – Paul McCartney & Wings -“Junior’s Farm”/”Sally G”

McCartney tries on 70s arena rock and it’s not too shabby. The b-side is a nice bit of twangy country.  This is McCartney at his competent, okay-ness.

1974 – Paul McCartney & The Country Hams – “Walking in the Park with Eloise”

An instrumental ragtime tune with country twang.  Not bad, but sometimes I wonder if McCartney ever wanted to be a rock star.

1977 – Paul McCartney & Wings – “Mull of Kintyre”

Another song that I never heard until recently despite that fact that it was one of the biggest singles in UK history. I’ve heard better pop songs with bagpipes.

1978 – Paul McCartney & Wings – “Goodnight Tonight”/”Daytime Nighttime Suffering”

Wings does disco, fulfilling an ancient prophecy.

1979 – Paul McCartney – “Wonderful Christmastime”/”Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reggae”

I’ve actually successfully made it through this holiday season without ONCE hearing “Wonderful Christmastime” for the first time in decades, so I’m certainly not going to listen to the Worst. Christmas. Song. Ever. on purpose.  I listened to the B-side so you wouldn’t have to. It’s an instrumental reggae version of “Rudolph” played on violin.  For realz!


Ex-Beatle Superlatives

George Harrison:

Best AlbumAll Things Must Pass
Runner Up – Wonderwall Music
Worst Album – Extra Texture (Read All About It)
Best Song – “What is Life?”

John Lennon:

Best Album – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band
Runner Up – Imagine
Worst AlbumMind Games
Best Song – “Instant Karma”

Ringo Starr:

Best AlbumRingo
Runner Up – Goodnight, Vienna
Worst Album – Ringo the 4th
Best Song – “Photograph”

Paul McCartney:

Best Album – Back to the Egg
Runner Up – Venus and Mars
Worst AlbumLondon Town
Best Song – “Maybe I’m Amazed”


The Ex-Beatles Greatest Hits

To finish off, here are the 22 best songs by former Beatles up to 1980:

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band :: Give Peace a Chance

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band :: Instant Karma!

Paul McCartney :: Maybe I’m Amazed

George Harrison :: What is Life?

John Lennon :: Working Class Hero

John Lennon :: Imagine

John Lennon :: New York City

George Harrison :: Living in the Material World

Ringo Starr :: Photograph

Ringo Starr :: You’re Sixteen

Paul McCartney & Wings :: Live and Let Die

Paul McCartney & Wings ::Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five

John Lennon :: #9 Dream

Ringo Starr :: No No Song

Paul McCartney & Wings :: Silly Love Songs

George Harrison :: Not Guilty

Paul McCartney & Wings :: Getting Closer

Paul McCartney :: Coming Up

John Lennon & Yoko Ono :: (Just Like) Starting Over

John Lennon & Yoko Ono :: Watching the Wheels

John Lennon & Yoko Ono :: Woman

 

 

Music Discoveries: The Beatles Go Solo, part 1


I’ve been a Beatles fan for as long as I remember, but I’ve never spent much time with the individual works outside of their Beatles contribution. Sure, I’ve enjoyed songs by John Lennon, George Harrison, and even Ringo Starr – and been disappointed by Paul McCartney’s solo mediocrity – but there’s a lot out there I’ve never listened to. So I’m going to spend the next month listening to all the albums John, Paul, George, & Ringo produced – on their own and with new collaborators – from the first solo release in 1968 to 1980. I chose that cutoff, because Lennon’s December 8, 1980 death meant that there would be no new releases from all of the Beatles after that date. Also, that way I don’t have to listen to any of McCartney’s truly awful music from the 1980s.

So let’s hop back in the time machine to 1968, when the Beatles were squabbling, nearing divorce, and decided to some experimentation on their own.

Artist: George Harrison
Album: Wonderwall Music
Released: 1 November 1968
Favorite Tracks: Drilling a Home, Party Seacombe, and Glass Box
Thoughts:

The first Beatle to venture into solo territory is not surprisingly George Harrison, whose musical interests began to diverge early on and was never able to make a dent in the Lennon/McCartney songwriting powerhouse.  Wonderwall Music is considered curiosity for being the first solo Beatle album and the inspiration for the title of an Oasis hit.  I hadn’t realized that it was the soundtrack to a psychedelic move called Wonderwall, or that Harrison worked with a number of classical Indian musicians to record it.  More surprising, I came to like it.  The mix of Indian tracks with rock, country, and ragtime was interesting and may have made a bigger impression in, say, the 1980s, when Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon were making hit records with this type of world music fusion. Harrison was ahead of his time


Artist: John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Album: Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins
Released: 29 November 1968
Thoughts:

With Wonderwall Music, the “White Album,” and this, the Beatles managed to release 4 LPs worth of music in the month of November 1968. Of course, Lennon and Ono didn’t likely spend a ton of time working on this one. The collection of tape loops, piano, and vocal eccentricities is a boutique recording documenting the couple’s intense attraction more than anything else.


Artist: John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Album: Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions
Released: 9 May 1969
Thoughts:

Kind of and odd duck of a collection. Like there’s a serious attempt to express the anguish of losing a baby to miscarriage but there’s also switching around of radio stations for a long time. Still basically the audio journal of John & Yoko, rather than an album.


Artist: George Harrison
Album: Electronic Sound
Released: 9 May 1969
Thoughts:

Harrison trades in Indian instruments for a Moog synthesizer and creates two extended pieces of instrumental electronic music.  I have a soft spot for atmospheric music like this, although I don’t have the critical skills to evaluate if Harrison was a good Moog-er for his time.  Still, a worthy experiment.


Artist: John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Album: Wedding Album
Released: 7 November 1969
Thoughts:

This might be the most pretentious John & Yoko album yet if they a) didn’t have reporters constantly asking them about themselves and b) expected anyone would want to buy this album.


Artist: Ringo Starr
Album: Sentimental Journey
Favorite Tracks: I’m a Fool to Care, Dream
Released: 27 March 1970
Thoughts:

God bless Ringo Starr! While George and John & Yoko are being all experimental and avant-garde, Ringo records an album of standards his mother loved. This is why Ringo was the heart of The Beatles.


Artist: Paul McCartney
Album: McCartney
Favorite Tracks: That Would Be Something, Every Night, Maybe I’m Amazed
Released: 17 April 1970
Thoughts:

McCartney finally joins the soloist club, working in secret at a home studio to create his first album largely on his own. The songs have either a stripped-down quality or McCartney rushed to release unfinished demos, depending on one’s perspective. Pairing the release with the announcement of the Beatles breaking up probably made this album more harshly reviewed than the other Beatles side projects, but there are some good songs amid the dithering about. “Maybe I’m Amazed” is my favorite McCartney song and that makes me wonder if it’s all downhill from here.


And the Beatles are officially broken up. Next week, a virtual deluge of new music from four individuals with their own distinct visions as well as some wives and other collaborators, and some continued infighting.

Podcast of the Week: “Music of the Civil Rights Movement” by Sound Opinions


Show 534 of WBEZ Chicago’s music show Sound Opinions combines some of my favorite things: music, history, and social justice!  Hosts Jim and Greg discuss the importance of music to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s and play uninterrupted tracks of brilliant songs such as “Mississippi Goddamn” and “A Change is Gonna Come.”

This is a brilliant episode of a consistently good radio program.

Listen here: http://www.soundopinions.org/show/534