Death Be Not Prude

Two teen flicks strain to make dying young seem cool

After a blessedly long respite, Hollywood returns to Minnesota with Here on Earth, an interminable teen Love Story in which love means never having to say "cut." Albeit not as hateful toward its core audience of adolescent females as the Minnesota-made Ice Castles ("Do it yourself and you'll go blind!" was the message of that 1979 down-with-girls weepie), Here on Earth similarly afflicts a sporting young heroine (Leelee Sobieski) from the wrong side of the tracks--that is, Welch, Minnesota. Or perhaps I should say "Puttnam, Massachusetts," since, while the film takes a cheap lease on the class-conflict themes of most Minnesota movies (something about the close proximity of wheat fields to skyscrapers?), it also aspires, with utterly unconvincing results, to turn Welch, Faribault, and Red Wing into "the Berkshires." Evidently, Minnesota is fine as a cheap place to render what the movie's rich-kid suitor (Chris Klein) calls "run-of-the-mill-poor," but it's simply not believable as a state where said rich kid might choose to attend college.

Thus "Puttnam" appears the apotheosis of cute, sleepy burgs, a small town where, for fun, the kids carve their names into the wood paneling of the local diner when they aren't whistling with blades of grass. Into this quaint idyll comes Klein's cocksure Kelley Morse, who, accompanied one fateful night by his collegiate jock buddies, stumbles into the diner, eyes Sobieski's statuesque waitress, and asks, "So, what's good here--besides the help?" (Not the dialogue, that's for sure.) Soon, the preppy Kelley is challenged to a road-race duel by the Sobieski character's grease-monkey beau (South High grad Josh Hartnett), who slams into a fuel pump and burns the diner to a crisp. (Message: Muscle cars are no match for a properly tuned Beamer.) Then a judge summarily orders the two boys to spend the summer rebuilding the restaurant. Then, like a good waitress, Sobieski's Samantha brings a homemade ham sandwich to the slumming prepster and their PG-13 tryst is off and running. Then, perhaps not knowing how to resolve its lovers' sublimated tensions, this terminally boring movie contrives to ease poor Sam into the sweet hereafter.

Without seeming aware of it, director Mark Piznarski (The '60s) uses death to complete his moronically Calvinistic vision of class. The rich kid's overburdened mom naturally had the privilege of taking her own life, whereas Samantha...well, at least she got to sample "real love," as she puts it, before taking orders at that big diner in the sky. Not counting Sobieski's oddly choked method of speech, which effectively takes any remaining hints of Minne-so-ta out of the equation, her cloying performance seems predicated on proving that she can light up like a Christmas tree whenever one of the boys leans in for a smooch. As for the beefy Klein, he looks swell with his shirt off, but Hartnett is the stronger actor by a country mile--a fact that hardly reflects well on Sobieski's character, who threatens to come off as a gold digger. (Now that could have been interesting.) Creating a film almost entirely out of Hollywood clichés, Piznarski steals even from Armageddon, with Klein recapitulating Ben Affleck's classic scene of geographically mapping his costar's mountainous peaks and valleys. "Massachusetts welcomes you," Sobieski purrs at the climax of this ode to heavy petting. "Minnesota" just wouldn't have had the same ring to it.

 

Death is likewise an awesome force in Final Destination, a grisly yet playful teen shocker that makes shrewd horror of the adolescent axiom that fate is out to get you. "We're all just a mouse that a cat has by the tail," says a suavely creepy undertaker (Tony Todd) to our terrorized young heroes, later likening the grim reaper to a "mack daddy." In this unabashedly ridiculous slasher flick, Death himself is the psycho, picking off one by one the members of a representative high school clique (jock, babe, smart-ass, etc.) that had unwittingly "dissed the design" of mortality by narrowly escaping death in a plane crash.

The movie's raison d'être is a slew of grotesquely inventive kill scenes à la The Omen: In one sequence, an overrunning toilet causes the smart-ass to slip on the bathroom tile and, er, hang himself, whereas a teacher gets hers through an elaborate combination of spilled vodka, sparks from a computer, and a wayward knife rack. (Final Destination may be an equal-opportunity gore-fest, but it stands to reason that the teacher's body should be the most mutilated of all.)

Naturally, most of the "suspense" involves waiting to discover how kids innocently boiling water or checking the mirror for pimples will meet their maker. Still, first-time director James Wong does modulate the formula a bit by including a few out-of-nowhere shocks, including an outrageously sudden death to rival Sam Jackson's digitized adieu in Deep Blue Sea. Wong served in an L.A. comedy troupe before making this big-screen debut, and it shows, what with bad omens that include a John Denver tune and a foreboding scrap of Penthouse, or the Grand Guignol decapitation scene that allows the victim's headless body to take a bow. Still, Final Destination's most desperate joke might be its Web site, www.deathiscoming.com, which schemes to put bodies in the seats by requesting the surfer's zip code. These days, movie salesmanship is murder.

 

Here on Earth starts Friday at area theaters;Final Destination is now playing at area theaters.

 
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