Film #69: Mary and Max (2009)

film 69 mary and max

Rating: 5/5

“When I was young, I invented an invisible friend called Mr Ravioli. My psychiatrist says I don’t need him anymore, so he just sits in the corner and reads.”

I remember Mary and Max showing at Edinburgh International Film Festival a few years ago, where it received very positive reviews. Unfortunately, trying to market a stop motion, mostly narrated film about two pen-pals is not necessarily the easiest thing to do, yet despite its limited cinematic release it’s still managed to enter into IMDB’s top 250 films – quite an achievement, all things considered, and a testament to writer-director Adam Elliot, who has created a movie that is both heart-warming and utterly devastating, desperately sad yet very funny.

Mary and Max is almost entirely narrated by Barry Humphries, whose matter-of-fact, warm tone is perfect to tell the two characters’ stories. He tells the tale much as one would read a children’s book, but the contents are far darker and more adult than any kid’s story; the bleak upbringing that Mary endures and the isolation surrounding Max are somewhat tempered by the calm, straight-forward language and Humphries’ voice. The two lonely souls meet by chance, when eight year old Mary, living in the Melbourne suburbs with a rarely-seen father and an alcoholic mother, picks a name out of an American phone book at random so she can write and ask where American babies come from (her mother has told her that Australian babies are found in the bottom of pints of beer). The name she selects turns out to be that of Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a morbidly obese, awkward man living in New York. The two bond through their correspondence – two kindred spirits, living on opposite sides of the world.

Central to the film is the ways in which Mary and Max help each other – she views the world as a child does, and he responds to that in much the same way. While Max’s awkwardness is obvious from the outset, the extent of his problems are far more subtly introduced. It’s not until perhaps half way through the movie that mental illness is specifically mentioned, and his eventual diagnosis will come as no surprise. Yet it’s beautifully handled; the filmmakers’ never ask their viewers to take pity on the characters and, instead, it’s the friendship, and the ways in which that friendship both helps and challenges each character, that is most important.

Visually, Mary and Max is a treat – a wonderfully realised stop motion world with oddly maudlin-looking people. Mary’s world, the Australian suburbs, comprises of various warm brown tones; Max, living in an old tenement flat in New York, is surrounded by a monochrome city – the only splashes of colour in the film, and in their lives, are sporadic dots of red (the flirtatious lips of a woman at Max’s “over-eaters anonymous” group; a pompom Mary sends Max). The colour scheme perfectly reflects the tone of the film and the emotions of its central characters, who are further complemented by the beautiful animation, which is easily as distinctive and polished as Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s stop-motion, and as humorous as Aardman’s (Selick’s Coraline, a nightmarish, wonderful film released in the same year as this, garnered an Oscar nomination; despite Elliot’s previous Academy success for short film Harvie Krumpet in 2003, Mary and Max enjoyed no such recognition).

While it is Humphries’ voice that carries us through the years, as Mary grows older and Max grows wider, both Toni Collette (as the older Mary) and Hoffman should be commended – Hoffman in particular brings Max to life. The voice-over narration, initially disconcerting, adds to the lyrical, story-book style of the film, carefully commenting on the visuals at times, bringing a certain degree of tongue-in-cheek irony to the story. It is, by the way, inspired by Elliot’s own pen-pal correspondence; he has invented Mary (who shares more than a little with the title character in Muriel’s Wedding, also starring Toni Collette) but the friendship at the centre of the film is genuine. Like Mary, Elliot has yet to meet his pen-pal. It is perhaps this real-life inspiration that has ensured such humanity and warmth to the film, despite its rather bleak subject matter. Elliot’s script, with its moments of black humour and its often childlike response to events and situations, delicately ensures that the depressing elements of the story are lightened by some much needed comedy that never threatens to compromise the overall tone of the film. I laughed and giggled, then spent a substantial amount of time crying. Yet although it’s heartbreaking, Mary and Max is, in the end, full of hope – it’s a cliché to say “life-affirming,” but despite my tears, I found my faith in humanity restored.

Films #67 & 68: Marnie (1964) & Masters of the Universe (1987)

film 67 68 masters of the universe

Ratings: Marnie, n/a; Masters of the Universe, 2/5

“Stay where you are, He-Man! One more move and your friends will not live to see another day! I give you a choice. Return with me to Eternia as my slave and save their miserable lives, or perish with them on this primitive and tasteless planet. Surrender your sword!”

This may seem like rather a strange double bill, and indeed it would have been, were it not for the fact that, as it turned out, the video case for Marnie was empty. So, for the first (and hopefully last) time, a film has been retired from Movie Lottery, on the basis that it has disappeared. It’s a shame, really, because Marnie, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is a nasty, though very interesting film; the same can not be said for Masters of the Universe, a camp, ridiculous, 80s kids film that I watched last night for the first time, with little to no knowledge of He-Man. Perhaps the film would mean something more had I the benefit of childhood nostalgia, though I must admit to have rather enjoyed it regardless.

I missed the first few minutes, due to being filled in on some of the history behind these ludicrous characters, but the general gist of the film is this: He-Man is good, and likes wearing nothing but a harness and pants. Skeletor is bad, and you can tell because he wants to control the universe, wears a lot of black, spouts a lot of rhetoric, and has a skull for a face. There’s a device called a Cosmic Key, built by an irritating goblin-dwarf creature, and even though he already has one of his own, Skeletor wants it. Unfortunately for him, his minions (who look exactly like Darth Vader) are pretty useless, and He-Man, two of his friends, and Gwildor (the goblin) escape with the Cosmic Key and land rather unceremoniously on Earth, where they join up with two teenagers and try to stop a galactic war from breaking out. Or something.

Although it seems like Masters of the Universe is a sequel – it throws you into the action immediately, and Skeletor has already taken over Castle Greyskull on the planet Eternia – but in fact it is the first and only film of what was most likely intended to become a franchise. Released in 1987, just following the peak of the toys’ and cartoon’s popularity, it was a flop on release, not even recouping its $22 million budget in the US. This is no real surprise – there are few (if any?) films inspired by toys that have been truly successful (yes, I realise Transformers has done rather well commercially, but critically? Well, I’m sure you know yourselves). Masters of the Universe is particularly shoddy; as a badfilm fan I appreciated its stupidity, but I wonder would even a child have been convinced by any of it?

The story itself is completely generic, and is marginally better once He-Man and his cohorts arrive on Earth, where they are disgusted by people’s meat-eating habits, quickly upgrade a car’s engine (because they care about the environment, obviously), and do not once consider wearing “human” clothes so they blend in a bit more. Luckily they arrive in America, and the native language on Eternia is English, so that’s one problem they don’t have to worry about. Even more fortunately, they meet orphan Julie (Courtney Cox) and her boyfriend Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill), who very quickly accept all the unbelievable stuff going on around them. Having mistaken the Cosmic Key for a newfangled synthesiser from Japan, Kevin and Julie become instrumental (ha!) in helping good defeat evil.

The fairly big core cast is necessary, because He-Man himself is quite possibly the dullest hero ever conceived. Even his name is dull: He-Man. Man-Man? That’s almost as bad as the literal translation of Manos: The Hands of Fate, or Ro-Man from Planet Ro-Man! Unlike Ro-Man, however, He-Man has absolutely no personality whatsoever – although, I should say, Dolph Lundgren does look exactly like an action figure. It’s truly uncanny. Luckily, there are plenty of other people (and creatures) to distract from our hero’s inanity. Frank Langella should particularly be commended for his role as Skeletor – despite being entirely covered by a cloak and mask, he chews the scenery in every scene, overemphasising everything and making the most evil of villains both pompously theatrical and, at times, even genuinely sinister (albeit in a camp kind of way.)

Despite the film being a fairly long (for a kid’s movie) 100 minutes, there’s non stop action to keep sugar-filled children entertained. Most, but not all, of this takes place in Julie’s hometown, where apparently every single other inhabitant goes to bed at 8pm and therefore remains happily oblivious to the aliens, portals, giant hovercrafts, and full-scale war going on in the streets. It doesn’t make any sense, of course, and the action is frequently poorly choreographed, overly dependent on psychedelic, epilepsy-inducing light shows, or pathetically harmless (the bad guys are particularly poor shots), but somehow Masters of the Universe is actually quite entertaining to watch. It races along, and when viewed today is on a par with Flash Gordon for dodgy effects and silly, overwrought concepts – but would I watch it again? Well… possibly.

Film #66: Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)

film 66 zombie flesh eaters
Rating: 3/5

“What’s this about the dead coming back to life again, and having to be killed a second time?”

From a family friendly Oscar winner to one of the most infamous video nasties – such is the joy of Movie Lottery. With its great, lurid title, Zombie Flesh Eaters (originally called Zombi) is, like so many of the video nasties, rather tame when viewed today – the caked on prosthetics are obvious and dated but, budget restrictions aside, it’s a fairly entertaining, if clichéd romp; not bad enough to be a bad movie, but definitely trashy.

I remember Zombie Flesh Eaters for precisely two reasons: one, it has an epic fight between a zombie and a shark; two, one of the women dies a rather horrible death involving a large shard of wood through the eye. The film itself is quite slow – there’s not much to the plot and little character development, so Fulci takes his time, offering little nuggets of zombie-gore rather than saturating the whole film with it – but when the blood, guts, and rotting flesh feature, it’s generally pretty effective. These two scenes are the highlight, and both come fairly early; the film’s final showdown, the hoards of zombies taking over the beautiful tropical island of Matul, is quite generic, but these scenes more than make up for any other lapses in originality.

Having seen this movie before, I remember the zombie-shark fight scene as being very impressive – violent, aggressive, shocking. Turns out my brain has somewhat exaggerated events; this is less a fight scene than a zombie holding onto a suspiciously toothless shark. Yet it is rather masterfully shot – shark trainer Ramon Bravo (the zombie) looks and acts the part (and appears to be able to hold his breath for an inhumanly long time), and manages to make what is clearly a docile, harmless shark look at least a little bit dangerous. For good measure there’s also an almost entirely naked woman scuba-diving (a g-string protects her modesty, but only barely) – what more could you ask for in a scene?!

The plot itself is fairly straight-forward: Anne (Tisa Farrow, Mia Farrow’s sister, substituting blank stares for acting) and newspaper reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) head off to the island of Matul in the Antilles to search for her missing father, after his boat was found floating in New York harbour. Organising a lift with two strangers, Brian and Susan (the aforementioned mostly naked woman), they are forced to stop in Matul after the shark attack damaged their boat, and there they discover Dr Menard (Richard Johnson) who is desperately trying to find a cure for the strange disease plaguing the islanders (currently, it appears only a bullet to the brain does the trick). While the locals believe voodoo is the cause for the affliction, Menard, a man of science, is convinced there is a rational, medical explanation – the outcome is largely ambiguous, but I’d suggest that the rising of the Conquistadores towards the end of the film points more towards the supernatural.

Like many Italian films of the decade, half the cast didn’t speak English, so parts are (badly) dubbed. The men act better than the women, though they are given better roles – as soon as poor Susan strips off, it’s obvious her days are numbered. Menard’s wife, first introduced drunk and hysterical, is similarly doomed; it’s her that ends up optically impaled and subsequently devoured. The other women, Anne and Menard’s assistant, last longer because they’re less willing to show their nipples, but they’re both utterly hopeless and helpless; the men are apparently the only ones capable of any action whatsoever. So the poor women generally stand, like rabbits in the headlights, and wait for the zombies (the classic slow kind of undead) to shuffle over and bite them, unless a man can gallantly save the day. Yet it should be pointed out that there are few survivors, and really it’s quite fun to see which stereotype will be the next to meet their grisly end.

Zombie Flesh Eaters is wonderfully retro – Giannetto De Rossi’s prosthetics are obvious but effectively gruesome, while the film’s style (including frequent zooming from long shot to extreme close-ups) is distinctively 70s. There are no sudden shocks or jolts, no sudden cutaways or jumps. Fulci reveals all the gore slowly, and that’s where the horror originates. The music works well to signpost the key scenes and, while the film is slow, it’s peppered with just enough death and destruction (and a good, though not unexpected, conclusion) to remain interesting. Yet it is rather flat – there’s little tension, and at times the protracted scenes (particularly those involving the inert females) end up being more funny than horrific. I suppose when it was released in 1979 it was a shocking, gruesome film; today it manages to achieve a level of kitsch appeal. It should, however, be commended – not only for returning to the original zombie origins (voodoo), but for the moments of innovation, creation, and pure ridiculousness that have, surprisingly, never been repeated. Yes, I’m talking about the zombie-shark showdown again. Sure, in actuality it’s underwhelming, but it’s stupid and original enough to leave a lasting impression.

Film #65: The Artist (2011)

film 65 the artist

Rating: 5/5

“………”

There’s so much to love about The Artist. It had so much working against it – not only is it black and white and French, but it’s silent – yet this little movie charmed everyone that saw it, and went on to win five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. Watching it at home is, admittedly, not the same as seeing it at the cinema – to get the best out of this movie, you really need to allow yourself to become completely immersed in it, without any distractions, yet it is still a delight from start to finish.

What is perhaps most impressive about writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’s film is how clever it really is. It opens with a deception; the image of a man screaming, with no voice heard. Yet it soon transpires that this is not “real life”, but is in fact a silent movie within a silent movie. It’s only when we don’t hear the audience’s reaction, but instead see the faces of the stars, hidden behind the cinema screen, as they hear the riotous applause from the auditorium, that The Artist‘s lack of sound really becomes evident. And it’s clever from start to finish – this is a silent film all about sound – but it never threatens to become overwhelmed by subtext or showing off. Hazanavicius has created something that feels natural, utterly believable, and entirely engaging – not because of its intelligence, but because of the beauty of the story, and the characters within it.

Knowing something about the history of cinema helps when watching The Artist, though it’s not a requirement. Set during arguably the most turbulent time in film history, the late 1920s, it follows silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and rising starlet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, who I first saw getting massacred by wild boar in French horror movie Prey), whose careers are both affected by each other, and by the introduction of sound. Whereas Peppy embraces sound, George refuses to accept it – his thoughts echo many who believed sound compromised the purity of cinema – and his inability to move with the times is to be his downfall (although, as is revealed in the film’s final moments, there is a reason no one wants to hear George speak). So as Peppy triumphs as the new face of the studio’s talkie pictures, George becomes a dinosaur, no longer relevant and no longer wanted.

While the film is clearly a love letter to cinema, the performances are central to its success. Dujardin, who deservedly won an Oscar for his role, is perfect – I can’t imagine anyone else playing George so beautifully. He looks the part completely, with his Errol Flynn good looks and delightfully expressive face; the star quality is instantly evident. He oozes charisma (it’s no wonder all the females are so impressed with him) and even in his more arrogant moments, he’s always endearing. He reveals a darkness as the film progresses, and it’s devastating to watch this handsome, charming man so tormented by how his life has turned out.

This effortless charm is not necessarily mirrored by Bejo’s Peppy, whose name suits the character; she’s at times a bit flippant, sometimes slightly overly-emphatic – of all the performances, hers is the only one that seems to be occasionally overcompensating for the lack of sound. Still, this is a minor quibble, and it is perhaps more to do with the strength of Dujardin’s performance, than the weakness of Bejo’s. They share the screen with a wonderful assortment of cameos by mostly American actors with great faces: John Goodman, Joel Murray (God Bless America), James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell. Of course, the other star of the film – perhaps the biggest star of them all – is George’s dog. In a true story of rags to riches, Uggie went from being a rescue dog to an award-winning acting dog – he won the coveted Palme Dog for his role, and regularly steals the show.

Crucial, also, to The Artist‘s success, is the score that accompanies it. The original score by Ludovic Bource perfectly captures the emotion and tone of the film; the upbeat, jaunty tunes in the opening moments gradually giving way to more sombre orchestral scores. The decision to use a section of Bernard Herrmann’s score from Vertigo in a later scene, while met with disgust by that film’s star Kim Novak, was a brilliant one – it’s poignant, heartbreaking, and is so well integrated that it could have been written specifically for this film. Why Novak was so emphatically upset about the inclusion is a mystery – for a film all about cinema, it’s hardly an insult to pay homage to the film recently voted the best ever made.

There are so many wonderful moments in The Artist that it would be easy to gush. It looks beautiful, shot in crisp monochrome – a romantic snapshot of 1920s Hollywood. The story is simple, but wonderfully told. By combining the classical style with very modern editing techniques, it never seems to drag, and I think this is really the key to its mainstream appeal. Yet what most impresses me is how easy it is to accept its format – and its success indicates that this was felt not only by critics, but by regular cinemagoers. In fact, it’s such a quickly acceptable style that when a “real” sound is heard (in a brilliantly executed nightmare sequence) it’s horribly unsettling. And here is the true beauty of The Artist; you don’t have to be a cinephile or a film buff to appreciate it. It’s a joyous experience, funny, heartfelt, nostalgic… I challenge anyone to watch it and not have a huge, slightly teary, smile on their face at the end.

Film #64: Jawbreaker (1999)

film 64 jawbreaker

Rating: 3/5

“Ok, reality check, Liz is in the trunk of this car. And she is dead. That is a sad, fucked up thing, but you are going to walk into that school and strut your shit down the hallway like everything is peachy fucking keen.”

Written and directed by Darren Stein, Jawbreaker is the film Mean Girls would be if it were truly mean. It’s a sharp, biting movie, a fast-paced black comedy with a delightfully 90’s female-centric grunge-punk soundtrack. Frequently compared to Heathers, it is perhaps too caustic to have ever enjoyed a wide audience – it barely recouped its money on release – but, as a fan of high school movies, I remembered it reasonably fondly from my youth and wasn’t disappointed on second viewing.

Rose McGowan stars as Courtney who, along with her friends Julie (Rebecca Gayheart), Marcie (Julie Benz), and Liz (Charlotte Ayanna), rules the school. Everything begins to crumble when Liz, the one who “ruled with kindness”, accidentally meets her demise following a birthday prank gone wrong. Desperate to avoid trouble, the remaining three queen bees, with Courtney at the helm, plan to cover up the death. A twisted, seedy tale of perversion and deviancy is devised to explain the cause of death – a giant jawbreaker sweet lodged in the throat of the lovely Liz. Enter gawky, geeky nobody Fern Mayo (Judy Greer) to spoil the plans; Fern’s adoration for Liz – who once helped her pick up some dropped books – veers significantly into girl-crush territory, but her silence is quickly bought with promises of popularity and a makeover.

Yes, Jawbreaker is that kind of movie – the kind with almost no mention of parents, where the prettiest girls not only rule the corridors but are completely capable of inventing a new classmate. Fern becomes Violette, a creation of Courtney’s (as Courtney likes to remind her) who instantly grabs the attention of everyone in school. Apparently either no one has noticed, or cares, about Fern’s sudden disappearance. Of course, realism is not particularly relevant in Stein’s film; the girls take centre stage. It’s not, however, without its surprises – it may appear that hapless Fern, whose voice-over introduces the movie, will nonetheless retain our sympathy, but her sudden fame creates a monster, and the “good” girl is someone else altogether.

McGowan is an excellent choice to play Courtney – there is never any doubt as to the monstrous bitch within, and Courtney is grade-A sociopath. She’s a truly nasty piece of work; as Fern/Violette remarks, “She’s so evil, and she’s still in high school!” There are no limits to what Courtney will do to stay out of jail and never really shows any sign of remorse for her actions; there is no redemption here. Her actions, however, do enable one of the most entertainingly sleazy cameos – shock rocker Marilyn Manson (McGowan’s squeeze at the time) pops up as her chosen patsy, complete with receding hairline and 70s porno moustache.

Jawbreaker races along, somewhat fetishising its four stars: there are several obligatory slow-motion shots of the girls striding down their school corridors in their high heels and provocative outfits; their morning makeup ritual is shown in extreme close-up. The male cast members feature largely for eye candy – they are dominated (quite literally in some cases) by females, from McGowan with her cult appeal right down to the mostly pointless inclusion of Pam Grier (Jackie Brown) as hardened Detective Vera Cruz – I kept expecting some lesbian action, but it never came. Throughout the film, however, there message is always blindingly obvious: these females rule the roost.

Although the plot is wafer thin, and the concluding prom showdown inevitable, Jawbreaker panders to the high school clichés with a knowing respect, playing with the conventions with gleeful, spiteful abandon at times but never forgetting them. Thanks to some snappy editing it rushes along, not allowing much time to contemplate on the stupidity of the whole thing; it’s alternately over acted and flat at times (any scenes that require McGowan to play anything other than predatory or passive-aggressive reveal the limitations of her performance), but it’s not trying to be an Oscar winner. Glorifying bitchiness, revelling in camp, caustic comedy, Jawbreaker is no work of art, but it’s an entertaining departure from the 12A-rated meanness of most high school movies.

Film #63: Zontar: The Thing From Venus (1966)

film 63 zontar the thing from venus

Rating: 2/5

“Although his name is untranslatable to any Earth language, it would sound something like Zontar.”

An often word-for-word remake of Roger Corman’s low-budget classic It Conquered the World, Zontar is the result of some particularly restrictive budget constraints. At a cost of approximately $22 000, Larry Buchanan was charged with remaking Corman’s film in colour, and this is the result. Buchanan’s known as one of the worst directors of all time; Zontar, however, isn’t a complete disaster. The film definitely benefits from being a remake – the plot remains interesting and engaging, although it undoubtedly lost some of its cultural relevance in the years that passed between the two versions. Whereas It Conquered the World is a classic 1950s narrative, capitalising on the fears of communism, Zontar lacks a similar association. There is, however, an unexpected cynicism that emerges in Buchanan’s movie; his direction seems quite detached thanks to some particularly terrible acting and a frequently perfunctory editing style.

Anthony Houston replaces Lee Van Cleef as Keith, Zontar’s associate on Earth, while regular Buchanan collaborator John Agar takes on the protagonist’s role, Curt. Agar, who was once married to Shirley Temple, is the closest the film has to a “star” – he had made a name for himself in minor roles in mainstream Hollywood films, appearing alongside John Wayne several times. He is, however, better known for his cult movies, notably Revenge of the Creature and those by Buchanan, and he’s generally decried as one of a number of particularly wooden performers – the Medved’s nominated him for the Lifetime Achievement Award of Worst Actor of All Time in their Golden Turkey Awards; he eventually lost to Richard Burton. Yet while the Medveds claim Agar’s style is that “he refuses to act,” in Zontar he is required to do very little more than play the straight man. As such he is perfectly adequate, and far better than some of the other cast members – Houston is dislikeable in a slimy kind of way, while Pat Delaney is truly dreadful as Keith’s wife Martha. Poor Martha, who is strong and fearless in Corman’s version, is whiny, neurotic, and supremely irritating here – everything she says is actually true, but Delaney’s combination of wooden and overwrought results in her appearing to simply be a nag. Quite frankly, it’s difficult to not sympathise with Keith when he’s subjected to yet another impassioned speech of hers, and it’s a relief when Zontar finally takes her out.

There’s very little here that surpasses Corman’s film. The colour is a pleasant, if garish and obviously low-budget addition, although it makes the “night” scenes rather unrealistic. The comic relief included in Corman’s movie is brought over to Buchanan’s as well – the two dunderhead soldiers may have a familiar quaintness to them in It Conquered the World, but here they’re just dreadfully, embarrassingly unfunny. Everything here is tinged with cheapness and ineptitude – exposition is related via static, long takes in which one person listens to another deliver a lengthy speech, and there is little to engage the viewer. The acting definitely doesn’t, and the sets are basic and uninteresting, while the camera moves only when it really needs to. The result is a poorly paced, frequently dull movie; a testament to Buchanan’s lack of talent. He has, however, added a few extra scenes, predominantly those at the government installation that had previously lost control of the satellite that allowed Zontar to travel to Earth. Apart from that, it is a generally faithful remake, with two notable differences.

The first is Zontar itself. While Beluah the space carrot was never named in It Conquered the World, here, we find out its name. The final reveal, in the Venus-esque caves as before, shows Zontar to look nothing like a space carrot whatsoever, and more’s the pity. Beluah was naff, cheap and not even his permanently grumpy expression could make him appear scary, but it was at least memorable – Beluah is what distinguishes Corman’s movie as a cult classic rather than a standard addition to the world of 1950s sci-fi. In contrast, Zontar is a slimy, indistinct creature – we never properly get a moment to look at it, but it is evidently a person in a suit, and it has wings and a rather plaintive expression. In a way, it’s far more believable that Buchanan’s vision birthed the “insectapods” that attacked the important members of the town – Beluah had little in common with its own pod creatures – but it’s a weak substitute for the delightful kitsch appeal of Beluah and, although I’ve seen Zontar before, I couldn’t remember for one second what it looked like.

The second difference is Agar’s final voice-over, a long speech heard over a montage of dead bodies – the scientists, the wives, the policeman, the General (who doubly died, having been both shot and electrocuted). In fact, the death rate is far higher here – or at least, more explicit, and it would appear there is little hope despite Zontar being defeated. Offering the audience a slight glimmer of hope at the end of what has been a particularly bleak (if reasonably entertaining) film, Curt becomes uncharacteristically philosophical – this being the man who calmly shot his own wife earlier – and tells us that “Man is the greatest creature in the universe.” Wait, what? Yes, it turns out all this destruction and death has made him realise that us humans are totally awesome. Except, of course, there is a price. Poor Keith, he says, “learned that a measure of perfection can only be slowly attained, from within ourselves. He sought a different path, and found death… fire… disillusionment… loss. War, misery and strife have always been with us, and we shall always strive to overcome them. But the answer is to be found from within, not from without. It must come from learning; it must come from the very heart…” It’s a strange final message; bleak and hopeful; arrogant and humble; profound and inane at the same time – like the film itself, a bit of a garbled, confused mess, but perhaps there’s a nugget of truth in there somewhere. You’ve probably got Roger Corman to thank for that though.

Film #62: Jennifer’s Body (2009)

06_jennifers_body_blu-ray

Rating: 3/5

“Hell is a teenage girl.”

Really, that about sums up the movie. Riding high on her surprise Oscar win, this is Diablo Cody’s second screenwriting gig, following indie hit Juno (2007), and it’s a far more cynical, scathing piece of work, sitting uncomfortably somewhere between horror and teen comedy. Despite featuring the then-smoking hot commodity of Megan Fox, who had become so predominantly because of Michael Bay’s completely gratuitous bum-shot in 2007’s Transformers, Jennifer’s Body never quite manages to be either scary or hilarious. It’s a bit too knowing, a bit too self-aware, a bit too smug. Yet perhaps had it not received the mainstream attention it would have found its own audience, one who appreciate this kind of genre-bending, achingly hip story. Perhaps then it might have developed a little cult following.

Since Juno, the anti-Cody faction has risen up, proclaiming the former stripper to be not only a poor writer but a blight on the world of screenwriting in general. Whether this vitriol it deserved or not is left to personal taste – I must admit that a recent viewing of Young Adult left little more than a rather bitter taste in my mouth, and I’m a fan of black humour. The comedy in Jennifer’s Body emerges more as the film progresses; that kind of wry irony exposing the utter superficiality and ridiculousness of teenage girldom. Initially, the set up is straightforward and, like her or loathe her, Cody clearly understands the pubescent teenage mentality. The friendship between Jennifer (Fox) and nerdy Needy (Amanda Seyfried) is one that most post-teen females will be familiar with: Jennifer is the popular, beautiful, sexually active cheerleader who, for some apparently inexplicable reason has retained her childhood best friend, the gawky, awkward, unpopular dweeb Needy. A case of charity, perhaps? Or a sign that true friendship transcends the enforced hierarchy of the school corridor? Well, no. Jennifer is one of those friends that we’ve all had at some point – one we’re desperate to keep a hold of despite having little in common, one who makes us feel terrible about ourselves through passive aggressive bitching, one who we know is toxic, but we can’t bear the thought of no longer being in the inner circle. I wonder which friend Cody was in her youth – it may be unjustified, but my guess is she was the bad friend, now trying to pretend she was the good one.

But I digress. Jennifer and Needy head off to a dive bar, where some unknown indie band, Low Shoulder, are playing. Jennifer’s got her eyes on the lead singer (Adam Brody), the suave city boy with a heart full of angst and torment. Or something. Soon the bar is burning to a cinder, with flaming bodies flailing around, and Jennifer’s in the back of the band’s van before Needy can bat an eyelash behind her stereotypically geeky glasses. Later on, Jennifer reappears in Needy’s house, where she eats chicken like a caveman and spews out oily black goo. With the town in mourning, the (male) bodies that pile up add to the town’s celebrity status until no one even cares that much any more. Needy conceals the fact that her BFF is eating all the boys, and gradually the humour seeps in to this teen horrror pic, most notably thanks to Low Shoulder, the grating hipster band who kickstarted the whole tragic affair.

It’s easy to see why the backlash started against Cody after this film came out. Subtle it certainly ain’t. The subtext may as well just be plain text – as though the demonic possession is not obviously metaphorical enough, there are frequent references to PMS and puberty. And, of course, there’s that aforementioned quote. Yes, hell truly is a teenage girl – with or without the demon. It’s the body that causes all the problems, and this is a hormone-ridden, blood-soaked nightmare, where sexuality is rampant, bitching is a way of life, and tits rule supreme. Really, the boys don’t stand a chance. Yet the girls are equally doomed, really; they are slaves to their bodies. Jennifer is the victim, though it’s often hard to remember because she’s so two-dimensional as a character – scratch the surface here, and there’s more surface.

I cannot help but be reminded of Ginger Snaps, a lesser known cult series that shares much with Cody’s story. There, lycanthropy serves as the metaphor for the changing pubescent body and, while it too lacks subtlety, it works. Here, it all feels a touch desperate – the barely concealed message, the annoyingly drippy Needy, the high school clichés, the lesbian romp. The infuriatingly hip language that was so endearing in Juno is plain grating here, partly because of its crudeness, but mostly because it’s far too obvious. So words like “lesbigay”, “salty” and “fucktarded” swim around your brain and refuse to leave, though you can never actually use them because, quite simply, it would be too cloyingly cool.

It’s a shame, actually, because it’s not really a terrible film. As a fan of high school flicks, this didn’t irritate too much – sure, I shook my head exasperatedly at times, and cringed at others, but I can’t help but enjoy the inevitability of a nice Emo guy going to an abandoned house for his date with the possessed, hungry cheerleader. I appreciated the irony of the band’s reasons for sacrifice (like the rest of the film, it’s hardly unexpected, but it does feel rather satisfying in its self-obsessed inanity) and was even surprised to feel a slight pang of sympathy for Jennifer in the end. Perhaps less tampon references would have made me like it more, but as it stands it is far from the disaster that the masses enjoyed proclaiming when it first was released.