Quick Reviews: Side by Side and Heathers

heathers movie review

Up Today: Side by Side (2012) and Heathers (1989)

Quick Take: Side by Side may not appeal to those who don’t have a more-than-casual interest in film, but it’s an informative and relatively engaging documentary that manages to cover quite a lot of (sometimes fascinating) material in short amount of time. Meanwhile, Heathers is an inspired and delightfully cynical high school drama that manages to turn a genre on its head and is mostly entertaining along the way. Also, even if Heathers isn’t one of my favorite films, my generation might not have Mean Girls without it. 

Side by Side (2012)
Directed by Christopher Kenneally

After months of seeing the poster for Side by Side turn up in my various Netflix searches, I finally decided to give it a look. Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t stop thinking about a professor I had in college who went on a tirade against DVDs, digital filmmaking, and way that young people don’t mind watching movies on their laptops. While I can’t imagine that Side by Side (or anything else) would ever convince him to embrace digital filmmaking with open arms, it might just help him calm down a little.

Christopher Kenneally’s documentary on the digital revolution in film (and, to a lesser extent, on the history of film more generally) is an informative and mostly engaging work that is sure to appeal those with a genuine interest in film. Narrated by Keanu Reeves (who really doesn’t have the voice for the job), the film features a wide variety of directors, editors, cinematographers, and actors; authoritative figures in the film include the likes of Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, David Lynch, Danny Boyle, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, The Wachowskis, Robert Rodriguez, Anthony Dod Mantle, and many more. Regardless of the how successfully the film does or doesn’t manage to present the debates for and against allowing digital to all but replace film, being able to spend 99 minutes listening to so many respected filmmakers discuss their craft and the state of the industry certainly makes the documentary worth watching.

That said, Side by Side does do a pretty good job of presenting the various sides to the digital vs. film issue. Champions of digital (like Fincher and Lucas) have plenty to say, and the film is more or less optimistic about the digital future of film, but their voices are balanced by those (like Nolan) who staunchly believe that digital is and always will be inferior to film.

In addition to its somewhat limited appeal, Side by Side also suffers from a certain lack of organization. It meanders a little and is too haphazard at times; given just how many aspects of its central issues that it seeks to cover, the film certainly could have benefited from a little more signposting. Additionally, while Kenneally’s documentary is impressively broad in its presentation of its subject matter, I suspect that a number of viewers (myself included) wish it had a little more depth. As fascinating as much of Side by Side is, it left me wanting.

Another small problem with the film is a certain disconnect between the interviews with various filmmakers (which are usually quite interesting and full of life) and the moments (narrated by Reeves) that are devoted to film history or to providing background information on various film technologies; while there is quality information in these segments, some of them do come across as a little perfunctory.

The film also refuses to give any definitive answers (this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is sure to frustrate some); instead, Side by Side presents viewers with a fantastic conversation starter, and it may even encourage some to do further research. Though it is a little shallow in spots, the documentary is also engaging and easy to understand, which is probably exactly what Kenneally wanted.

Heathers (1989)
Directed by Michael Lehmann
Watched on May 14

Before I dive into my thoughts on Heathers, allow me to say that I feel a tad out of my depth writing about this film. Though it’s unassuming enough on its surface, there’s quite a bit going on in this Winona Ryder and Christian Slater led work. The film breaks generic molds and seems to be in direct conversation more traditional high school films (which I am not terribly family with). The film was also released and is set in the late 1980s—a decade that’s just about as foreign to me as any.

To my mind at least, Heathers is a strange little film, but I mean that as a compliment. The film took a little longer than I would like to get going (the opening sequence is a bit of a narrative mess if you ask me), but once it did, I was perfectly content to go along for the ride.

The film has the sort of informed, dark, and irreverent sense of humor that I respond well to. Though not every joke in the film lands as well as it could, Heathers provides more than a few good laughs while reminding viewers that they are just as capable of finding delight in the horrifying as they are in the comedic. Though it is not necessarily its primary goal, Heathers isn’t afraid to shock its viewers. It explores the dark underside of high school politics in a clever and surprisingly intelligent manner. Though there are scattered moments when it’s hard to tell Heathers apart from a more innocuous film in the same genre, it is a markedly subversive work.

The stylized way in which the Heathers is shot makes for a few truly memorable images. At the same time, the film’s light and brightly colored visuals create a clear point of contrast with its dark and often unsettling subject matter. While I’m not convinced that this interaction between the visual and the conceptual is always used to its full advantage in the film, it does help keep things interesting while underscoring its more satirical nature.

There are no particularly noteworthy performances in this film, but Winona Ryder (as the Veronica among the Heathers) makes for a beautiful lead. Even when the script isn’t at its best, Ryder’s presence is strong enough to keep viewers glued to the screen. 

Perhaps my main problem with Heathers (besides the fact that I just don’t find its interests that interesting) is a certain inconsistency in its script and tone. It’s not hard to understand how Lehmann’s film became the cult classic that it is. That said, certain moments are clearly better than others. At times, there is almost something Shakespearean about the narrative structure of the film; at others, things are a little too loose or too muddled to be engaging or revelatory. A tighter, more tonally consistent story could have helped Heathers quite a bit. While it’s pretty amusing throughout, the story is not particularly compelling, and the film’s desire to occupy a middle-ground between the darkly irreverent and the sweetly banal sometimes leaves it nowhere of interest at all. 

Until Next Time
Thanks for reading. If you have anything to add to this or any of my posts, just shoot me a comment or hit me up on twitter. I know it’s been a while since I’ve written any sort of extended analysis (as opposed to a review with tiny bits of analysis thrown in), but that doesn’t mean I won’t get back to that sort of writing eventually (just give me a little while to get caught up with work, take the GRE, research grad programs, and get my life figured out).

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