Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Cherry Falls & Gossip

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

CHERRY FALLS

6/10

US 2000
dir. Geoffrey Wright
scr. Ken Seldon
stars Brittany Murphy, Michael Biehn, Jay Mohr
92-100 minutes, depending on print

GOSSIP

4/10

US 2000
dir. Davis Guggenheim
scr. Gregory Poirier & Theresa Rebeck (story by Poirier)
cin. Andrjez Bartowiak
stars Lena Headey, James Marsden, Norman Reedus
91 minutes

I caught these two on a single afternoon, during the second week of their release. In their first seven days in the UK they took roughly similar totals but Cherry Falls was only shown in around half the screens nabbed by Gossip, and its per-screen average was a grand or so higher than the weeks big, much-hyped new release, Shanghai Noon. Gossip has already flopped badly in the US, but Cherry Falls hasnt even been shown at all, partly due to editing problems. Hopefully the studio heads will take note of its strong UK showing, and give it a shot – Cherry might not be any kind of masterpiece, but its a much more interesting piece of work than the slick but empty Gossip.

The only areas where Guggenheims picture comprehensively aces Wrights are cinematography and production design. Gossip must be one of the best-looking movies of this or any other year, Andrzej Bartowiak giving virtually every shot a million-dollar sheen. His camera shows some of most stunning-looking young actors around, wearing cutting-edge fashions in apartments that are so breathtakingly opulent you have to keep reminding yourself this is a story about college students. But all the surface glitter can’t hide the unfortunate fact that Gossip is a very fatuous picture, guaranteed to enrage as many people as it will entertain. Were in a fantasy version of university, populated by a bitchy squad of beautiful trust-fund yuppies acting out a dopey melodrama tarted up as sociological analysis. As a kind of class project, Headey, Marsden (an eyecatching mixture of 80% Pitt, 20% Cruise) and Reedus spread a story about spoilt rich girl Kate Hudson, hinting she may or may not have been date-raped (while drunk) by her boorish boyfriend Joshua Jackson. Events spiral out of control, growing more complicated at each turn until the final reel of twists and revelations.

Its just about worth sticking with Gossip for the shock denouement, even though its basically a rip-off of Best Laid Plans. But there are other plus points although Reedus gets little opportunity to show his talents, at least his presence on set (hes an artist in real life as well) seems to have ensured that his characters concept art is vaguely believable. The film also provides a good showcase for both Hudson, who makes the most out of her limited screen time, and star-in-embryo Headey (see also Aberdeen). The Yorkshire actress pulls off an impressive American accent, her boyishly brittle persistence energises a movie which might otherwise have sunk under the weight of its pretensions and affectations.

Whatever faults Cherry Falls has, pretension and affectation aren’t among them. It aims at a younger demographic than Gossip were in high school rather than university and it does so with considerably greater success, not least because it doesn’t take itself at all seriously. This is a rough-and-ready, deadpan satire in the vein of The Faculty while in Robert Rodriguezs film the kids had to take drugs to prove their humanity, here they must engage in underage in order to avoid the attentions of a slasher. In a neat inversion of the classic horror movie principle of sex=death, the crazed psycho of Cherry kills only virgins the film is a striking subversion of Americas current Britney Spears-style True Love Waits chastity movement.

The killers unusual motivation allows scriptwriter Selden to include a startling full-blown orgy sequence that was reportedly much more explicit in the directors original cut, but is, even in this reduced state, not what mainstream US films usually serve up but entirely in keeping with Cherrys anti-authoritarian stance. At the same time Wright builds up a network of nudge-nudge detailing that extends from the name of the movie and the town, to its state (Virginia) and its high school (cherry-tree attacker George Washington). These various strands are handled with more subtlety than youd expect – attentive viewers may also pick up echoes of David Lynch, specifically Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet (the heroine, Murphy, is the daughter of the towns cop, Biehn).

The mechanics of the slasher plot are strictly nuts-and-bolts, and they’ll offer no surprises to anybody who’s seen Scream 3 but the films delights lie in its freshness of attitude. Theres a mini-classic scene in which the bereaved students are encouraged to share their grief, only to descend into entirely believable, and very funny, boorishness. Cherry isnt afraid to present the kids in an accurately unflattering light even the resident campus stud comes across as little more than a catatonic dwarf and its nice to see Candy Clark back on screen as one of the concerned parents. Director Wright (he did Romper Stomper, this is his US debut) nimbly treads a dangerous line between intelligent satire and jokey parody with a very Aussie no-nonsense attitude, keeping keeps things cracking along at a fine clip throughout. And how many films get laughs from their editing? Keep an eye out for a priceless scene in science lab involving a cord, a scalpel, and a large fibreglass shark.

Wright juggles the various elements with such skill its all the more surprising and disappointing when he makes his one, climactic error of judgement: this comes right at the end, when the killer has been impaled on a broken stair-rail. Cut to clouds passing the face of the moon, an exact echo of the movies opening shot: what a terrific, crisp ending. But Wright or maybe meddling studio heads -adds another, entirely redundant sequence then wraps things up with hamfisted FX shots of the towns waterfalls turning red with blood. Some people just don’t know when its the right time to quit.

by Neil Young