Mermaids (1990)

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Weird things happen. It’s 1963. Fifteen-year-old Charlotte Flax (Winona Ryder) is tired of her wacky mom (Cher) moving their family any time she feels it is necessary. When they move to a small Massachusetts town Mrs. Flax begins dating kindly shopkeeper Lou (Bob Hoskins) whose wife has run away. Charlotte and her 9-year-old swimming enthusiast sister, Kate (Christina Ricci), hope that they can finally settle down. But when Charlotte’s attraction to an older man Joe (Michael Schoeffling) the convent’s caretaker gets in the way, the family must learn to accept each other for who they truly are just as the President is assassinated and the nation mourns…  June Roberts’ adaptation of Patty Dann’s book is adept and appropriate, giving Winona Ryder one of her best roles and she plays it beautifully. Funny, warm and engaging, this works on so many levels but it doesn’t dodge the effect of maternal neglect – which is also a case of overpowering personality:  Charlotte’s fantasy fugue to New Haven is a sharp reminder that mother-daughter relationships are a minefield and when the daughter starts imitating the mother’s promiscuous behaviour (in between attempts to live like a Catholic saint) Mom doesn’t like it and there’s collateral damage. The girls are not products of marriages – just a teen romance and a one-night stand with an Olympic athlete (maybe) and when things get tough, Mom always gets going.  It’s Charlotte who wants to settle down. There’s a wonderful running joke about Mom’s inability to prepare any food other than hors d’oeuvres or sandwiches served with star-shaped cookie cutters. With great dialogue, lovely scene-setting and on the button performances (Cher giving one of her best), there’s nothing in this well-judged comedy drama you can’t like even though it unexpectedly swerves directions, more than once.  The characters are still sympathetic despite being curiously narcissistic:  that’s good writing. Cher tops it off with The Shoop Shoop Song! Directed by Richard Benjamin.

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Night Tide (1961)

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An offbeat curio from underground filmmaker Curtis Harrington, usually and incorrectly filed under  Horror, albeit the director was committed to the genre (and got Universal to find a print of ‘lost’ film The Old Dark House.) Harrington’s early filmmaking career was in the Los Angeles underground scene where he made short films and worked with Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren. Novice sailor Dennis Hopper is on shore leave at Venice Beach and falls for the mermaid attraction at the carnival. Linda Lawson is a dark-haired beauty who’s been brought Stateside  from a Greek island by an old sailor called Murdock and seems to be under the mysterious influence of a sinister older woman played by artist Marjorie Cameron, whose work was the subject of Harrington’s The Wormwood Star. More successful in its silent sequences, where the director’s influences (particularly Deren) are more clearly detected, than in the dialogue. However he does have the good taste to credit Poe here (Annabel Lee). Harrington worked on studio pictures with producer Jerry Wald and this was his own feature debut although it was held up for a couple of years.The music is by the estimable David (Laura) Raksin and there is a good supporting performance by Luana Anders, one of the very few of the Corman/Nicholson era not to have made the big time.  The script was originally sold to Corman in 1956 as The Girl From Beneath the Sea. AIP were one of the distributors.When Jack Nicholson got his AFI lifetime award he cried during his speech, recalling the unfortunate actress Anders, who had died recently. Harrington rounded out his long career in horror/comedy by directing episodes of Dynasty and The Colbys. How bizarre.