Tag Archives: John Waters

Hairspray (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Integrate the dance show.

Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) and her best friend Penny Pingleton (Leslie Ann Powers) audition for ‘The Corny Collins Show’ a local teen dance contest. Penny isn’t able to make the cut, but Tracy is much to the infuriation of the snotty Amber (Colleen Fitzpatrick) who was the show’s reigning dance queen. The rivalry between the two heats up even more when Tracy tries to integrate the show with black performers which incites Amber’s racist parents (Sonny Bono, Debbie Harry) to resort to desperate and violent means in order to keep the show segregated.

This was the movie where John Waters became a legitimate filmmaker who could use his craft to create a story instead of making a movie that was simply a foray into crude humor. When he first broke into the underground scene his films such as Mondo Trasho, Pink Flamingoes, and Female Trouble where refreshingly trashy and daring to show things other movies wouldn’t. The stark frankness and complete disregard of who it offended were both hilarious and groundbreaking, but by the time it got to 1981’s Polyester the formula had gotten stale and hearing campy characters shout incessantly at each other was becoming derivative while also exposing Waters as possibly being just a one-dimensional talent who was sadly losing his edge.

This film though was a complete change-of-pace with each shot and scene a loving tribute to his days growing up in Baltimore during the 50’s and early 60’s. The film has a lot of dance numbers that normally could bog the pace down, but here I got into the energy of it and it helped me to feel even more like I had been transported into a different time period. The musical soundtrack is filled with a lot of lesser known songs which most viewers will have never heard of and thus helping the film’s soundtrack avoid sounding like just another generic playlist from an oldies radio station.

Divine’s presence is much less crucial to the story’s plotline than in Waters’ past films. Sadly by this time his/her appearance was looking even more like just some fat guy wearing wig and no longer coming off in any way as being an overweight woman even though in the past films it was at times hard to tell. His physique looked so out of shape here that it should be no surprise that he died of a sudden heart attack just three weeks after the film’s release. In fact as the mother he really isn’t funny or engaging at all and only in a brief few scenes where he plays the station’s cantankerous owner Arvin Hodgepile does he show actual energy and gets a few laughs.

The original idea was to have Divine play both the roles of the mother and daughter, but fortunately that got nixed and Ricki Lake was brought in. She has a genuine, honest presence about her that creates instant empathy and it’s nice having a film showing an overweight person where her body type did not impede her from achieving her goals nor work as a detriment at keeping her down.

The supporting cast is eclectic, but unfortunately most are wasted particularly Jerry Stiller and Sonny Bono as the two fathers. Debbie Harry is great with her increasingly outrageous beehive hairdos, which become the most memorable and imaginative thing about the film. Lesser known actress Joanne Havrilla is quite funny as Penny’s racist mother especially the scene where she panics when trapped in a black neighborhood. John Waters himself gets some good comic bits playing Penny’s quack psychiatrist and Pia Zadora is engaging as a pot smoking beatnik.

The film is full of comical highlights that playfully runs the gamut between subtle, over-the-top and crude that somehow works to form a cohesive whole culminating in a very funny ‘race riot’ at the end. If the film has any fault it is in the fact that it treats racism in a little too much of a trivial way like it is just some silly thing that can be easily fixed instead of the serious and deep-rooted issue that it really is.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: February 16, 1988

Runtime: 1Hour 32Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Waters

Studio: New Line Cinema

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Polyester (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Suburban housewife has problems.

Francine Fishpaw’s (Divine) world is crumbling. Not only must she endure constant protests in front of her suburban Baltimore home dealing with people upset with her husband (David Samson) running an adult theater, but she must also deal with his affair with his sexy secretary (Mink Stole) as well. Her teenage son (Ken King) is terrorizing the city by intentionally stomping on the feet of every woman he sees and her daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) wants an abortion. She then meets the dashing Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter) and the two immediately fall-in-love only to find that he too has a dark-side.

This was John Waters’ first studio backed film and the first to garner an R-rating while the others had been X. While the budget is an improvement and its technicallys more polished the edginess is lost. The humor and satirical potshots don’t have the same zing and are lacking in originality and outrageousness. The gimmick of passing out a scratch-and-sniff cards where audiences could sniff the scents being smelled by the film’s main character seems excessively juvenile and the film begins with a campy scientist (Rick Breitenfeld) talking about it, which sets the tone too much on a silly/cartoonish level.

Divine’s presence helps, but she isn’t as made-up or as flashy as she was in her past films and looking much more like just some fat guy wearing a lady’s wig. I liked that her character was consistently normal for the most part as in the other films she behaved more erratically although what she goes through here is so unrelentingly traumatic that it borders on being almost cruel to laugh at. It’s also not completely easy to sympathize with her quandary as her kid’s behavior is so outrageous you have to question her parenting skills and whether she’s partially to blame for the bad things that they do.

Edith Massey is funny as a poor woman who wins the lottery and now acts a bit nouveau riche about it. It’s also fun seeing the two teens go through a Jekyll and Hyde transformation, but Tab’s appearance adds little although he does sing a decent opening title tune.

The broad humor for the most part is dumb, but I still found myself laughing-out-loud at some of it, which I suppose is a part of Waters’ ‘charm’ at getting you to laugh at things you otherwise wouldn’t. Some of the moments that had me chuckling were: a ‘nice’ picnic that gets ruined by ants and a skunk. Pregnant young women forced to go on a ‘happy hayride’ in the cold rain by two fascist nuns and the pet dog who commits suicide by hanging himself along with leaving a note saying ‘Goodbye cruel world’.  The part where overweight Jean Hill hijacks a bus and chases down a group of teens who assaulted her on the street and then bites into their car tires to disable their vehicle is pretty wacked-out too.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: May 29, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 26 Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Waters

Studio: New Line Cinema

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Cry-Baby (1990)

cry baby 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: The Greasers are cool.

Director John Waters films, which are sometimes referred to as ‘an exercise in bad taste’, are indeed an acquired taste.  Some label his films from the late 60’s and early 70’s like; Mondo-Trasho, Pink Flamingoes, and Female Trouble to be tasteless, exploitative, and trashy. Yet those films also have a very fervent following. I for one found them to be perversely brilliant.  However, when Waters decided to ‘sell-out’ and go more mainstream Hollywood, his stuff became too toned-down. The humor lost all of its edge. The original Hairspray that came out in 1988 was a particular disappointment. It seemed like nothing more than a stretched out sitcom with musical numbers.  This film, which came out two years later, does only slightly better.

The setting is a 1950’s Baltimore High School that has an intense rivalry between the leather jacket wearing, motorcycle riding ‘greasers’ and the more refined All-American clique. The lightweight story  follows a young, clean-cut girl (Amy Locane) who secretly longs to go out with the head of the greasers (played by Johnny Depp), but can’t due to her social standing.

If the film does anything right it is the fact that, in typical John Waters style, everything gets played up to the extreme.  The ‘model’ students are really snobby and annoying and the animosity between the cliques is strong. However, I couldn’t help but feel that there was a certain grain of truth to all this especially in that era where ones ‘reputation’, whether it be good or bad, was taken more seriously than it may be today. I thought the casting of Locane in the lead was perfect.  She has an appealing, girl-next-door face and her hidden feelings of wanting to venture out of her repressive social role are certainly relatable.  I also loved Depp in the male lead role. He is a gifted actor, but sometimes he seems to take himself too seriously, so it was fun seeing him ham it up. Female viewers may also like the fact that there is an extended scene where he is shown wearing nothing but his underwear.

The casting of the supporting actors is equally inspired if not incredibly quirky.  Polly Bergen gets what might by her finest role in her long, but modest career. Here she plays Locane’s very rigid, upstanding Mother that ends up loosening up a bit in amusing fashion.  Joe Dallesandro and Joey Hetherton are a hoot as an extremist religious couple.  David Nelson and Patty Hearst (yes, the same one that was kidnaped in the 70’s) are equally funny as the surbanites.  Waters veteran Mink Stole has a bit playing the most entertaining iron lung victim since Jose Ferrer played one in The Big Bus.  Kudos must also go out to Kim Holden who sports one of the most hilariously ugly faces since Cloris Leachman’s Nurse Diesel character from High Anxiety. The only mistake here is that they didn’t make the Holden character a villain, which they should’ve in order to really play it up.

Some of the comedy does have its moments.  I liked the part where parents go to an adoption agency and ‘shop’ for children who are set up like mannequins in a display window. The climactic car chase sequence in which the rival gang leaders play the infamous game of ‘chicken’ while riding on the roofs of their cars only to end up crashing into an actual chicken coop, is good. The rest of the film though is too silly and cartoonish without the outrageousness of Water’s earlier films.

The story is also too pedestrian without offering any new insight or perspective.  The characterizations are over-the-top broad and the whole thing ends up being vapid and forgettable despite a few chuckles here and there.  There are also some musical numbers in this, but the songs all sound alike.  The dance routines are dull and unimaginative, looking like they were done without a choreographer present.

Waters earlier work is still far better as it was independent film-making at its purest. Those films also starred Divine who is sorely missed here (she died a few years before). Of course any film that has Susan Tyrrell in it, arguably the most eccentric actress to ever grace the screen, gets a few more points, but not enough to save it.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: April 6, 1990

Runtime: 1Hour 25Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: John Waters

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video