Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Heavenly Creatures (Jackson.1994)

"We have decided how sad it is for other people that they cannot appreciate our genius."

Pauline Rieper and Juliet Hulme became overnight celebrities in their homeland of New Zealand in the Summer of 1954 after the brutal murder of Honorah Rieper (Pauline's mother). The two teenage girls, 16 and 15 years old respectively, were in the midst of a passionate and obsessive friendship that involved an elaborate fantasy world, mutually romanticized illnesses, and a lot of prancing and giggling. Their parent's were worried that their relationship might have evolved into lesbianism (which was considered a severe mental illness at the time), so they decided that the girls must be separated. Juliet's health was in decline, and her parent's decided to use this as a guise to send their daughter to South Africa "for the benefit of her health". Pauline wanted to go with her best friend. Mom, obviously, said no. The terror in the thought of being separated caused the girls to get themselves a brick that they shoved into a sock. The rest is bloody history. 

This real life crime, and the events leading up to the murder, is the basis of 1994's Heavenly Creatures.  The film is directed by Academy Award Winning director Peter Jackson long before we knew him as the King of Middle Earth. Jackson's greatest achievement in this film was his casting. Heavenly Creatures was the introductory film for two actresses that we have come to know throughout the years. Pauline is played by Melanie Lynskey and Juliet by one of acting's greatest treasures, Kate Winslett.

Lynskey portrays Pauline as troubled and completely malevolent toward her own family. She utilizes a signature look of absolutely convincing, churning disgust in every scene between herself and her mother. She writes in her journal daily about how she wishes she could escape the mundane word in which she lives. 

When she meets Winslett's Juliet for the fist time during French class, a certain immediate attraction between the two is felt by the audience. It is not a sexual attraction, but a strong one nonetheless. Juliet is sophisticated, but lonely. She unwillingly spent 5 years in the Bahamas away from her parents as a child due to her contracting tuberculosis. Juliet undoubtedly sees life as fleeting, and is constantly desperate for human interaction. Where Pauline's aura is more of a scary sort, Juliet seems to be that specific type of teenage female who knows that she is in over her head, but relishes in every moment of her own mental chaos. 

The two girls bond instantly. They believe that their friendship has opened a "Fourth World" that only they can see. The film features several scenes where the girls do nothing other than hold hands, run, and giggle as they navigate this world. They worship movie stars and opera singers, or "Saints" as they call them in their self-made religion. Adults and peers are out of the loop. Juliet and Pauline certainly want it that way. Jackson builds this fantasy world with special effects that allow the audience to experience each inhabitant and landscape as vividly as the young girl's who are making it up as they go along.  The girls have found their happiness. As intense as it may seem to the outside observer - it is their happiness. 

Once the parents in Heavenly Creatures become more involved, they realize there may be something unnatural about their daughters' friendship. They believe their daughters may be practicing lesbianism, and formulate a plan to keep them separated. Were the girls lesbians? I don't think so. But Jackson did include a giddy montage of the two girls kissing, bathing together, and expressing deep resentment toward anything that may threaten the security of their relationship. Jackson leaves this aspect of the film to interpretation. Lesbianism was not very well understood by anyone in 1954 New Zealand - which is hinted at greatly in the film. 

All of this fierce character development feels like that butterfly-inducing part of any roller coaster where you slowly, tic by tic, climb your way to the edge of a steep drop. The third act of Heavenly Creatures is definitely that drop. The mental state of Pauline dramatically erodes when the plan to send Juliet to South Africa is introduced. She writes the plans for the murder in her journal (which is ultimately what got them both caught in real life), going as far as referring to the murder in her journal as "the happy event". Juliet is not just a spectator, but also an accomplice. 

Juliet and Pauline are extremely flawed as characters. The two of them succumb to a gang-of-two mentality that takes them over the edge of madness. While the final scene plays out, the wait for one of the girls to realize the atrociousness of what they are doing is overwhelming. This is Jackson's most perfectly crafted cinematic moment - simultaneously more real and imaginary than anything in Middle Earth. As the credits begin to roll, we see that the two were tried and sent to prison for the murder. Too young for the death penalty, they were sentenced at "Her Majesty's request", and both released 5 years later under the condition that they never meet again.

It is worth pointing out that the real Juliet Hulme moved to the United Kingdom after her release, changed her name to Anne Perry, and became a best-selling author. When asked about her relationship with Pauline - she admitted that the friendship was intense, but they were not lesbians. She also claims to have only taken part in the murder because she believed it would keep Pauline from killing herself. 

Pauline is also still alive (now known as Hilary Nathan) and is believed to be living in the UK village of Hoo in Kent. Her whereabouts have been disputed since her last known sighting. 

Heavenly Creatures: A- 


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Daisies/Sedmikrásky (Chytilová. 1966)

"Nobody understands us...."

The hardest part of writing about this Czechoslovakian New Wave masterpiece is deciding where on Earth to start. Daises is a comedy-drama, surrealist, feminist, and ultimately absurd 74 minute experience unlike anything else in the Czech New Wave genre. This could be because it was directed by one of the rare female voices in the movement, Vera Chytilová. 

Born in Czechoslovakia in 1929, Chytilová was raised in a strict Catholic household. Her tightly structured early life has been credited as the reason behind her propensity to ask tough questions regarding touchy subjects such as religion, establishment, sexuality, and politics. All of these subjects are at least mocked in Daises - along with many others. Released in 1966, it was ultimately banned in Chytilová's home nation because the film "supported the wanton". In reality it held a mirror to the absurdity of war (something very apparent in Eastern Europe during the time period) and hedonism, featured strong female leads acting in unbecoming ways, and subtly critiqued communism. 

The overall plot seems surreal due to how radically it changed the perception of women in Czech filmmaking. Two teen ladies, both named Marie, decide that if the rest of the world can be spoiled, they should be afforded the same right. From there they decide that they want to be "bad". This includes dating "sugar daddies", ignoring social standards, and copious amounts of eating. This unladylike behavior made Czech viewers uneasy (which kept Chytilová from working in her native land until 1975), though the overall meaning of the film easily differs from person to person. 

There is something interesting and brave about Chytilová's willingness to make a film about badly behaved women. The opening scene sets the tone as both Marie's sit, bikini-clad, only able to muster up necessary, robotic movements. There was no role for women in Eastern Europe at that time; Marie 1 and Marie 2 are interchangeable, they do not have their own identities and as soon as things escalate to madness their distinction becomes even more difficult. Their spree of destructive pranks culminates as they devour an entire feast meant for Communist Party leaders - which does not end well for them. A humorous tragedy ends the story as soon as both Marie's decide to return to their robotic lives.  

Daisies intentions as a film have seemingly evolved with the world. Upon release it was considered a sharp, witty, yet subtle satire of a woman's role in communist society - a female perspective of oppressive Stalinism. But today it is known less for the political subject matter and more as a fierce feminist romp. From a technical standpoint it is credited for its frantic, 1960s European editing style. This is a film that challenges conventional norms for women and government in a time where women were not accepted into conversations about the government. Daises was considered controversial, irreverent, yet also important upon initial release. This reputation remains in tact almost 50 years later. 

Sedmikrásk: A- 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Election (Payne. 1999)

"Dear Lord Jesus, I do not often speak with you and ask for things, but now I really must insist that you help me win the election tomorrow because I deserve it and Paul Metzler doesn't, as you well know...Amen..."

Alexander Payne’s Oscar nominated Election is without contest one of the greatest high school films ever made. Hyperbole aside, the film is an unconventional mix of satirical, goofball, and sophisticated comedy that hits sharply in almost every single moment. Payne does not play favorites in the film, and nobody is presented in a light that would make them the audience’s chosen hero. The whole thing successfully twists the narrative of a conventional movie about high school by showing the action through the eyes of a teacher rather than the students.

The teacher (who also serves as the sponsor for student government) is named Jim McAllister. Played by Matthew Broderick, Mr. McAllister shines the light on one of the biggest myths of teaching. The student archetype that is most likely to drive a teacher batty has never been the troublemaker, but rather the serial overachiever. I believe we all had at least one kid who would raise his/her hand for every question no matter how many times they were passed over in favor of a lesser heard from (and often times less prepared) classmate. If you immediately remembered a name from the past that fits this mold – then you know Tracy Flick – the bane of Mr. McAllister’s existence.

Tracy, played to near perfection by Reese Witherspoon, is a neatly groomed and impossibly cheerful high school girl who sees the impending student government election as a forgone conclusion. She will be elected president because she is the only one with presidential aspirations. In one of the early scenes, she walks up to Mr. McAllister informing him that she is looking forward to the two of them having a “harmonious” working relationship once she wins the aforementioned election. Seems normal – if not cordial, right? 

It would be normal if this very same student had not seduced a teacher just one year prior – getting him fired in the process. Mr. McAllister is well aware that Tracy is a dangerous overachiever and will walk on the back of anyone who gets in her way. In an attempt to keep Tracy from becoming president (or perhaps to distract himself from his own lustful urges towards her) Mr. McAllister enlists a friendly, but simple jock named Paul (Chris Klein) to run against Tracy.
Aside from truly great performances, Election is on a different level than other high school films due to Payne’s ability to adapt the source material in a way that comes off as much unbiased. Mr. McAllister is a likeable narrator, but his hyper-anxiety combined with his inappropriate feelings for/against Tracy (going as far as having a vision of his student during hate-sex) makes him something far from a hero. Tracy knows that she is cut from a superior clothe and will do whatever it takes to make it to the top. This includes bringing the people around her down – which she does at times with a girlish merriment. The only character with decent intentions is Paul the jock – which is a bit ironic considering he was dragged into this by less than decent outside forces. 

All of this craziness plays out in a sardonic game of “who wants it more” between Tracy and her scornful teacher. By this time the audience has decided who they are rooting for, and in many cases it is not a unanimous choice. I believe that Alexander Payne wanted the film’s characters to be this polarizing. What better way to satirize the election process than by forcing the audience to choose between the lesser of two evils?

At the conclusion of the film we see that everyone has survived and moved on from their volatile election experience. Some good and bad things have happened to these exclusively bad people. Isn’t that life? Sometimes you have to do bad things to make good things happen. Just remember when you are voting in whatever the next election may be – that at least one of those names on the ballot is Tracy Flick.

Election: A

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bête) (Cocteau. 1946)

"Belle, you mustn't look into my eyes. You needn't fear..."

Sometimes movies can be so magical that they stand the test of time no matter how "unwatchable" they may seem to current audiences. Here we have a black-and-white, French film from the 1940s. But nothing about the poet Jean Cocteau's cinematic masterwork is dated. Noting about Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bête) is cheesy. In fact, it is more like a dream. It inhabits a part of your mind that never evaporates with age. It could be the first film chronologically after Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon to truly capture all the things that make film an exciting medium. Many people have many opinions on what film should be, but I say the best films are the ones that can get you to escape to another place. Cocteau takes us to places unseen before in Beauty and the Beast. The magic of movie-making is nakedly on display with every camera angle, line of dialogue, and special effect. 

This film has an interesting ability to make me feel like an excited little kid. Watching it is just a really satisfying experience. I recently had the pleasure of watching the film for just the second time in my life - and nothing about my reactions had changed since the first viewing many years earlier. Cocteau must have known that his adaption of the traditional fairy tale of the same name, written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, would have this impact on full grown adults, as he actually broke the fourth wall at the very start of the adventure. After the opening credits, the audience is warned about what they are about to see:

"Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things.

I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood's "Open Sesame": Once upon a time..."

Belle's father is caught picking a simple red rose from a garden. That garden is on the land inhabited by the Beast. This is where we see the Beast for the very first time. The costume itself is a treasure in film history.  After catching the father with rose in hand, the Beast demands that the father either die for his crime, or send one of his daughters to the castle where she will live forever. Belle, having asked her father to bring her a red rose, feels that this is all her fault, and decides on her own to leave home and move into the Beast's castle.

Anybody familiar with the 1991 Disney adaption should be at least somewhat familiar with the plot of the this film. Though the overall feel will remain unfamiliar to any viewer expecting to see singing teapots or dancing napkins. Instead, the audience is transported into a world of fantasy and horror. The Beast's castle hallways are lined with human arms serving as light fixtures, and the statues in the castle have eyes that follow the happenings of the inhabitants. Even the doors are able to open and close on their own. The castle is, for lack of a better word, alive in this film. It reminds me of an extreme cross between Eraserhead and Salvador Dali. 

Something understated, but definitely present, is the sexual tension between Belle (Josette Day) and the Beast (Jean Marais). As soon as Belle enters her new home for the first time - she can be seen gliding through the hallways like a ghost. Magical forces may be at play, but it seems as though she is drawn to her captor in more ways than one. There is an early dinner scene where Belle is toying with a knife, but not in the way a young woman would normally toy with a knife. Even when the Beast is freed from his curse, Belle is not immediately thrilled with her prince charming. She misses the Beast. So does the audience. Their chemistry is every bit as magical as the rest of the film. Like with many of these writings, I am intentionally being brief with the points of the plot. I do not want to spoil any of the elements that differentiates this surreal classic from Disney. 

Cocteau made several films in his life, but was never considered to be a filmmaker. He was an artist, a poet, who made poetic and artistic films. Images, sounds, and facial expressions tell more of this story than any spoken word. We feel what the characters feel because we understand the concepts of want, desire, and self-consciousness. Interestingly enough, the filming of Beauty and the Beast was made hellish for Cocteau due to a near crippling skin disease that required a dose of penicillin every three hours. The fact that the artist prevailed through pain and made one of the most magically childlike films in history is absolutely astounding. The movie is perfect. That's right. Beauty and the Beast is a perfect movie. 

La belle et la bête: A+ 

Jake's 10 Perfect Movies

1. Pulp Fiction
2. No Country for Old Men
3. Suspiria
4. WR: Mysteries of the Organism
5. La belle et la bête

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Equinox (Woods. Muren. 1970)

"You will not escape! In one year and one day, you will be DEAD!"

A lot of films claim to be cult classics. It has gotten to the point where pretty much any movie that is not successful upon initial release can gain new life years later by claiming to be loved by small audiences nationwide. The idea of the "cult classic" has been watered down for many years. That is how you know you have found a real gem when you find a film described as "a minor cult classic". Those are the words used by the Criterion Collection to describe the longstanding impact of a film that has stayed below nearly every radar. Equinox (originally known as Equinox...A Journey into the Supernatural) is not a very good movie, but I have not enjoyed a viewing experience more than this one in a long time.

The film was originally a concept from the mind of special effects guru Dennis Muren. The future 9 time Academy Award winner was studying at Pasadena City College in the late 1960s when he and a group of amateur filmmakers (both of whom went on to have impressive careers in stop-motion animation) were able to muster up a measly $6,500 to make a fun-filled homage to the creature features that they grew up watching at drive-ins throughout their childhood. The result was a short science fiction film that was liked enough by Tonylyn Productions that they were willing to distribute the film after making some changes. They hired Jack Woods to direct and shoot new material that altered Equinox just enough to make it a feature length film. Though the story, special effects, and most scenes were crafted by Muren, the studio only credited him as the producer rather than co-director. 

The completed version of the film follows four friends who travel to the woods of California for a picnic and to visit one of their professors. They come across an eerie book, written in a variety of languages, that seems to contain details of a supernatural "other-world" that exists alongside our reality. The story is told in flashbacks from the woods by the sole survivor of the ordeal. He has been admitted to a mental institution, and it does not take long for the audience to see that these events happened exactly one year prior to his telling of the story. 

During their trip, the teens are antagonized by a park ranger and attacked by a variety of cleverly created claymation monsters. The stop-motion animation may not be what we are used to in this day and age, but the effects in Equinox still hold up with many of today's low-budget affairs. There is a certain "throwback" energy to these monsters, and the fight/chase scenes are by far the most interesting parts of the film. In a day and age like today where we rehash old ideas constantly - it is refreshing to watch something so organic. George Lucas was said to be a fan of the film effects - which is one of the reasons that Muren was selected to be a part of the Star Wars special effects team later in the same decade. 

A group of friends travel to the canyons of California in order to enjoy a nice picnic. They stumble upon a strange book that reveals details of a monster world that exists alongside the human world. After reading from the book, the friends accidentally unleash a slew of monsters. Sound like something you have maybe seen before? Special Effects and Makeup Artist from the Evil Dead movies, Tom Sullivan, talked about the comparisons and similarities between the two films in an Equinox Criterion insert. He says:

"I had seen Equinox at least twice in drive-ins before making Evil Dead. I don't recall having discussed it with [director] Sam Raimi, but the similarities are remarkable. I think they come from the low-budget nature of both films. That is, a few characters, an isolated, inexpensive location, and ambitious special effects. All in all, Equinox did inspire me to continue my goal of making movies. 'If they can do it...'"

Equinox was released thirteen years before Sam Rami's Evil Dead franchise, and though the plots are very similar, the campiness in Dennis Muren's independent directorial debut cannot be matched. If you are in the mood for something life changing, this is not your movie. If you're looking for a fun, impressive, and simple way to spend an hour and twenty minutes, it may be hard for you to find a better option. The story greatly lacks depth, but the effects continue to inspire artists in the world of science fiction.

Plus, look at this guy!! Spooky stuff! 

Equinox: C

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Carnival of Souls (Harvey. 1962)

"In the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand. But in the daylight everything falls back into place again..."

Herk Harvey only directed one feature film in his entire career, and it was not well received when it was first released as a B-movie in the 1960s. In fact, it took artists like David Lynch and George Romero siting Carnival of Souls as a major influence before the film started to be taken seriously by cult audiences. I am pretty lame when it comes to B-movies. I mean, I like comedies to a degree - and I can get into campy fun, but most B-movies are actually just....well....bad movies. This one is different. Here we have an example of a film that achieves its goal without needing (or being able) to resort to tropes or effects. The film now garners a variety of praise from new audiences for its ability to use suspense rather than action to strike fear into the viewer. Personally, I am pretty stoked about the opportunity to show this movie at pretty much every Halloween party that I throw from this point forward.

I mentioned that Herk Harvey only directed one feature film during his career. Though this is true, it did not make him an inexperienced director by the time he made his $33,000 magnum opus. After working with Centron Films making a variety of short industrial, educational, documentary, and government films for about ten years, Harvey started to notice that his colleagues were making extra money directing low-budget "B-movies" that were meant to be piggy-backed with a more major release and shown in theatres as a double feature. After having an epiphany while driving through Utah en route to his native Kansas, Harvey brainstormed and wrote Carnival of Souls.

The film follows a young woman named Mary (played by the Lee Starsberg-trained Candace Hilligoss) who somehow survives a drag racing accident. Mary has very little memory of the accident, but seems to be unharmed. She starts a job as an organist at a church in Salt Lake City, Utah where she also takes up a strange interest in an abandon amusement park near town, and is continuously haunted by macabre spirits. These ghouls do not talk, but their arrival introduces many questions into the action. This all leads to a climax that would be considered predictable by today's standards, but the sleek direction (meant to emulate the look of Bergman) and foreboding feel anchor Carnival of Souls and cement the film as something surprisingly fresh.  

For me, this is an almost perfectly crafted horror film. It has some campy moments, it was shot on a very low budget, and it has the feel of a classic episode of The Twilight Zone. The story simply follows a young lady who somehow survived a horrible accident. Sometimes simplicity is the scariest factor of them all. She is alone, and that feeling is not only palpable, but understandable. Intrigue and empathy are as effective as screenplay and directorial style when it comes to helping this film graduate from cult movie to horror masterpiece. Carnival of Souls could possibly be the most underrated B-movie film ever made. Not bad for a guy who only made one movie. 

Carnival of Souls: A

*NOTE* - For a reason not known to me, Carnival of Souls is a rare example of a film where the "Director's Cut" (84mins) is actually shorter than the original release (91mins). The version that I am writing about is the 78min Criterion release.