Film #116: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

film 116 the nightmare before christmas
Rating: 5/5

“Yet year after year,
It’s the same routine
And I grow so weary
Of the sound of screams
And I Jack, the pumpkin king,
Have grown so tired of the same old thing.”

Although it’s probably been about ten years since I last watched this, as soon as the opening credits began, I was immediately transported back, and everything felt so completely familiar. Watching the film on a surprisingly undamaged VHS (quite possibly the tape I’ve had longest in my collection – this is one of the few films I’ve owned since my childhood), I couldn’t help but be impressed at just how good The Nightmare Before Christmas is. I liked it as a kid, but as an adult I really appreciate the nuance of it, notice the little details that fill every scene (this time around, I noticed that the Christmas Land folk have pet penguins).

Of course, this is the most quintessentially Tim Burton picture around. His name is synonymous with the film, and its glorious gothic expressionism and unconventional protagonists are so completely and utterly Burtonesque that it seems to exemplify the contemporary auteur’s style even more than Edward Scissorhands. Yet, of course, this is not a Tim Burton picture – not really. In fact, he didn’t even write the screenplay, though the story and characters are based on his concepts. Yes, this is Henry Selick’s picture, and the director has created a vast, rich world, one that he came very close to matching in Coraline some fifteen years later. Tim Burton finally created his own feature-length stop-motion world in 2005 with one of his many collaborations with Johnny Depp, Corpse Bride, and ironically that film never comes close to reaching the same levels of immersive gothic fantasy that Selick’s creations inspire.

The story is probably well known to most people. Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king, has led the inhabitants of Halloween Town in another successful, scare-filled holiday, but is having a mid-life crisis. Knowing that he’s great at his job, nevertheless he craves something new, and finds inspiration when he accidentally stumbles into Christmas Land. Overwhelmed by the concept of laughter, joy, and happiness, he returns to his home and announces his plans to do Christmas this year. Yet despite their enthusiasm, the townspeople are incapable of looking beyond their own nature, and their attempts to recreate Christmas with the inevitable Halloween influence are wonderfully misguided, transforming the happiest time of the year into something horribly disturbing. People expect to be scared on Halloween, but no one expects their holiday wreath to kill their granny. (On a side note, they should be praised for managing to organise any kind of Yuletide celebrations in such a short time frame – they start after Halloween, and most shops now begin in September at the latest.)

Jack is understandably the most iconic character in the film, and props to Selick and his animators for bringing such a warmth and emotion to what is essentially a skeleton. When he first lands in Christmas Land – the warm colours, cosy homes and twinkling lights in stark contrast to the grey, almost-monochrome world of Halloween Town – his amazement and sense of wonder is instantly conveyed. With only the slightest change in eye-socket-size, Jack Skellington is vulnerable, terrifying, childishly enthusiastic, and world-weary. The rest of the characters are afforded just as much care and attention. Halloween Town is filled with all the creatures and grotesquerie that your nightmares can conceive – all the Universal monsters are present in some guise, and there’s a wonderful array of new characters too. Among my favourites, it’s hard not to love the Mayor, with his alternating faces, and Oogie Boogie, the only real villain in the film, and one of my favourite villains in general. His jazz-inspired number, gambling with the captured Santa Claus’s life, is wonderfully catchy, and genuinely intimidating.

This brings me onto the final point – the music in The Nightmare Before Christmas. While there has(understandably, I would say) been a critical backlash towards Tim Burton in recent years, and also with his continuing collaborations with people who once seemed inspired and now appear unoriginal and lazy, composer Danny Elfman is a perfect match for the unconventional filmmaker. A household name – a rarity for screen composers – Elfman’s soundtrack is perfect here, bringing real emotion to the little stop motion characters on screen. And it’s perhaps surprising to realise just how much of a musical this is – in fact, almost the entire story is relayed in song, and Elfman’s score permeates every scene regardless, bringing life and atmosphere to both Christmas Land and Halloween Town alike.

Although today The Nightmare Before Christmas has become slightly tainted by the over-saturation of film-related products – it’s become one of the ultimate “alternative” films for angsty youngsters, and for a while it seemed like every emo or goth came complete with a Jack Skellington backpack – ignoring all the merchandising and paraphernalia, the film itself remains a triumph. It’s a small world, filled with big characters with even bigger plans, yet at its core, it’s a tender romance, and a film about accepting who you are, about learning to embrace your own natural weirdness. As morals go, it’s a pretty good one.

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Film #115: But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)

film 115 but i'm a cheerleader

Rating: 3.5/5

“Oh my god… they were right. I’m a homo. Oh, my god!”

With its lurid colours and Stepford-style 50’s inspired kitsch, But I’m a Cheerleader revels in its campness. Although slightly quaint today – gay rights have come along in leaps and bounds in the last fifteen years – it tackles a serious topic in a overtly tongue-in-cheek manner, revealing the absurdity and hypocrisy of the entirely real schools and camps that promise to rid people of their undesirable homosexual tendencies. In doing so, the film takes a light-hearted satirical dig at the often Christian-based groups who believe that being gay is a lifestyle choice, with heterosexual living being the only desirable, “normal” way of living, while simultaneously downplaying the religious aspect of such camps. Although Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is openly Christian, and the facility her straight-laced parents send her is clearly inspired by the Christian “conversion camps”, once the girl’s lodged at True Directions, there is no real mention of religion in the rest of the film. While this seems slightly like a missed opportunity, it safeguards against possible backlash – despite the controversial subject matter, the film is inoffensive and entertaining, with the blossoming romance at its core often surprisingly tender.

Megan is first introduced living her normal life – she has a boyfriend, although she doesn’t appear to like kissing him much, says grace before dinner, is polite and well spoken, and is a cheerleader. Arriving home one day, she finds herself confronted with her well-meaning friends and family, who proceed to inform her of her latent homosexuality. She has to be a lesbian, because she’s a vegetarian. She has pictures of women in her locker, and posters of gay icons on her bedroom walls. Despite her insistence that she’s not gay, she’s packed off to True Directions, a Barbie-esque residential facility in the middle of nowhere, where she has to complete five steps before she graduates, a happy and well adjusted heterosexual. At the camp, she meets a small but varied group of other teens – an androgynous girl with a shaved head, a flamboyant boy, a Jew (further distancing the film from its overtly Christian inspirations), a goth, a varsity quarterback, and a girl called Graham (Clea DuVall), who seems certain to be ejected from the course due to her insolence and disdain for the whole project.

There are plenty of funny moments – the group’s admissions regarding what “made them gay” are particularly absurd, ranging from “my mother got married in pants” to “I was born in France.” Curiously, however, despite the film taking great pains to show that being gay doesn’t mean necessarily conforming to the expected stereotype, these are almost validated by Megan’s realisation that she is a lesbian – despite their “evidence” being entirely circumstantial, her family and friends are ultimately proved right. In contrast, True Direction’s methodology conforms entirely to heterosexual gender stereotypes. The girls all wear frilly pink dresses and practise childcare and cleaning, the boys dress in blue and learn mechanics and sports. All the tasks are, however, saturated in homoeroticism, which is particularly obvious with the boys’ classes – “accidental” pelvic thrusting during a car maintenance class, for example. It’s not exactly subtle, but it’s effective, bringing a surreal camp twist to everyday activities – in the end, the film seems to be saying, there’s queerness in everyone.

At its core, of course, is Megan’s relationship with Graham, and it’s a slowly developing romance that delicately reveals the intricacies of flirtation. Ironically, of course, if her parents hadn’t made her confront her unrealised gayness, Megan would quite possibly have lived out her days in precisely the kind of denial True Directions aims to teach, shacked up with her jock boyfriend in a sexless marriage. Instead, her incarceration at the facility enables her to finally stop living a lie – admitting her homosexuality is the first step, and a gay relationship is the inevitable conclusion. It’s in the conclusion that the film really falters – there are no surprises (except the discovery that Megan’s cheerleading abilities are thoroughly underwhelming), and it ends abruptly. Megan and Graham are the only characters who really find any kind of resolution, and it’s a shame that the fates of the majority of the True Directions camp remain unknown. Do the camp’s male mentor Mike (played by uber famous drag queen RuPaul) and the owner’s obviously gay son finally acknowledge their attraction for each other? Is the conversion really a success when only a tiny fraction of students end up graduating? Do the graduates accept their gayness, or do they live in denial? Is there a happy ending for anyone, really? Who knows. Yet despite the weak ending, the film itself is entertaining, revelling in campness and knowingly addressing the nuances of gender and sexuality in particularly unsubtle ways. Fun, light-hearted, flamboyant yet touching, But I’m a Cheerleader starts to wear thin in the end, and its satire might not be as biting as people might like, but it’s a welcome alternative to the traditional teen/ high school movies so prevalent in the late 90s.

Film #111: She’s All That (1999)

film 111 shes all that

Rating: 3.5/5

“I feel just like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. You know, except for the whole hooker thing.”

If any film could hope to challenge Clueless as the ultimate high school movie, surely it’s She’s All That. So filled with clichés that in some ways it’s difficult to figure out whether it was the first of its kind or just another lame copy, it’s stupid but likeable, with an impressive cast including Freddie Prinze Jr, Rachael Leigh Cook, the late Paul Walker (I always forget he’s in it), Anna Paquin, Clea Duvall, Kieran Culkin – even Usher pops up, proving the movie’s pop-culture credentials, and so does Sarah Michelle Gellar, for a split second, in homage to the fact that this was shot in the same school as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

To be honest, it’s quite difficult to review She’s All That without being constantly reminded of Not Another Teen Movie, which quite perfectly parodied the more ridiculous moments – and, the fact that it’s this film that forms the basis of the spoof’s plot indicates how popular and influential it was. Cook is Laney Boggs, an anti-social poor girl filled with inner darkness, as evidenced by her moody abstract art. She’s beautiful, of course, but has the misfortune of wearing glasses, never plucking her eyebrows, and wearing paint-covered dungarees (see, I’m already slipping into Not Another Teen Movie…) Nevertheless, she’s the one popular-but-recently-dumped jock-hunk Zac (Prinze Jr) is tasked with transforming into the prom queen – the result of a bet between him and his jock buddy Dean (Walker). To be fair, she is not considered a challenge because of her looks, really, but because of her personality – but, naturally, a makeover is imminent, thanks to Zac’s sister Mackenzie (Paquin), and it seems to be mostly a result of her newfound contact lenses that, overnight, inexplicably, she becomes the most popular girl in school.

There are actually quite a few interesting possibilities borne out of this new popularity, but the film mostly ignores them. Honestly, if you scratch the surface of this movie, there’s mostly just more surface, and attempting any in depth analysis is a fairly pointless exercise. Laney’s nomination for prom queen doesn’t make her become a brat (a la Cady in Mean Girls, for example) but it does appear to bring all the nerds out of the woodwork – whereas the school initially seemed to be entirely populated by beautiful twenty-somethings (Walker was twenty-six; the only person even close to being actual high school age was Paquin, and she looks like a child in comparison; on a side note, realising this made me feel particularly old), following her nomination the student-extras more fully represent the less fortunate too. Yet this isn’t a “nerd-uprising” sort of film, and the likes of the Hygiene Club remain firmly in the background. There’s never even the slightest pause to consider how Laney actually feels about her makeover – she stops wearing her glasses but continues with her (more figure-hugging) paint-covered clothes, for example. What matters is not the exterior changes, but the internal ones – having avoided her classmates for years, she finally begins to realise that they’re not all as bad as she might have thought. Of course, some of them are precisely as bad as she thought: Dean has ulterior motives, while Zac’s ex Taylor will let nothing stop her from becoming prom queen. While Taylor is the pre-Mean Girls mean girl, her new flame, reality “star” Brock Hudson (Matthew Lilliard) is great fun – egotistical, self-obsessed and utterly deluded, his overly energetic moronics brighten up the film and provide arguably the best dance scene of the piece (sorry Usher, the prom dance is unexpected, but Brock’s fist-pumping worm takes the biscuit).

Seeped in pop-culture of the 90s, perhaps I’m again showing my age when I say that in many ways the film hasn’t dated as badly as it might have. Yes, there are several references to Hanson and yes, kids today might not know what The Real World is, but it’s by no means inaccessible today. Its biggest problem (if you can call it that) is the fact that, like I said earlier, everything seems so clichéd – and even that’s not really its own fault, but that of Not Another Teen Movie. Everything in this film reminds me of that one: the token black guy who features solely to react in exaggerated ways to the white kids; Laney contemplating her latest expression of artistic pain, which is really not particularly good, but we’re supposed to think it is; her father’s strange terms of endearment (“pumpkin nose”?!); Zac’s misunderstood rich-boy problems; Laney refusing to let anyone see her cry at the party… Every moment has been lampooned, highlighting the inanity of it all, and it’s really difficult for me to separate the two movies now. Yet I’ll happily watch She’s All That any time – its lead actors have a nice chemistry, its got a happy ending and, while I remember Clueless with great fondness from my childhood, it’s this film that captures the essence of my teen years. Besides, any film with a Buffy cameo gets my vote.

Film #103: Flesh Gordon 2 (1990)

film 103 flesh gordon 2

Rating: 1.5/5

“You thought you’d killed me Gordon, but my drive for lust and power is relentless! Your penis – and MY brain – will be a marriage, made in Hell!”

This is definitely one of the stranger charity shop purchases – bought for about 20p on old VHS years ago, Flesh Gordon 2 (also known by the much niftier title, Flesh Gordon Meets the Cosmic Cheerleaders) is, as you might have guessed, a sex comedy rip-off of Flash Gordon. It’s also my first and only experience of either Flesh or Flash, and perhaps seeing the first one – this was made a whopping sixteen years after the first instalment – would have been useful. That being said, plot is generally irrelevant here, but I got the distinct feeling that the final reveal of the true identity of the Evil Presence would have made more sense had I some knowledge of the previous film’s characters.

The film opens with a strangely meta film-within-a-film – Flesh (Vince Murdocco) is travelling in his penis-shaped stop-motion spaceship (yes, it’s a subtle movie, this) with some thong-clad hotties, shooting re-enactments of his (s)exploits for his devoted Earth following. Soon, however, it goes horribly wrong, and poor Flesh is kidnapped by some other thong-clad alien hotties, the cosmic cheerleaders of the title, who intend to copulate with him because an impotence ray has rendered all the boys on their planet (particularly the Cod-Ball team – think a cross between basketball and baseball, but dirty) useless. Naturally, it’s up to Flesh’s Earthling girlfriend Dale (Robyn Kelly) and sex-scientist Dr Flexi Jerkoff (Tony Travis) to save Flesh and, by default, help restore erections to whatever planet the cheerleaders come from.

If the premise and the characters names haven’t already made it obvious, Flesh Gordon 2‘s humour is particularly juvenile, despite the 18-rating. I have no idea who its intended audience is – fourteen year old boys, perhaps? It’s crude and stupid – but largely inoffensive. It’s so tacky that it’s difficult to be insulted by the chicken-sex jokes, for instance. Were it not for the blatant sex themes (in an effort to hide from a gruesomely rampant penis-with-a-face, Flesh and Jerkoff hide in a “cave”, enter the womb and find the whole Cod-Ball team dressed as adult-babies) this would appeal to no one over the age of ten. Oddly, the sex-gags are interspersed with literal toilet humour – following the pair’s journey to the centre of the womb, they end up accidentally saving two trapped turds. The female turd has breasts. That being said, although it’s crude and insidiously stupid, it’s quite entertaining (I say this as a bad movie fan, it should be said) – it plays out like an X-rated Masters of the Universe, complete with doofus leading man.

Flesh himself, rather like He-Man, is utterly bland – reasonably good looking, in a 90s kind of way, he appears to have no personality whatsoever. Despite his name, he seems to be quite prudish (in his defence, he only had sex with that chicken to get the spaceship moving again). Like He-Man, he has about five lines of dialogue and none of them are particularly memorable, but the role is hardly a taxing one. (On a sidenote, since this glittering debut, Murdocco has gone on to become a reasonably successful stuntman, appearing in a number of Marvel films).The rest of the acting is equally nondescript, with the exception of Bruce Scott as the Evil Presence’s mad scientist Master Bator (Scott is also responsible for the film’s soundtrack) – wide-eyed and manic, he’s like a low-rent Christopher Lloyd on Viagra.

In a way, the film’s message is actually quite encouraging – as well as stealing everyone’s mojo, the Evil Presence is evil because he wants to dominate women (he’s just interested in his own pleasure) and, in the… climactic… final fight between him and Flesh, our hero chastises him for this mentality. Yet the progressive message is somewhat lost in the mass of thongs (not just on the females, it should be said – this is an equal-opportunities buttock-flashing movie) and the fact that the good guys routinely grope whatever female is nearby. There’s also something uncomfortable about the fact that the cosmic cheerleaders appear to be schoolkids – they go to classes, have lockers lined along the corridors, and generally act like teenagers, not adults. While this mirrors the general tone of the film, the constant vulgarities and fetish jokes seem more than a little out of place in this context. At the risk of sounding flippant, however, this seems like the wrong kind of film to be reading sex- or gender- politics through – it’s obviously not meant to be taken seriously. The acting is wooden, the sets are reminiscent of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 or Red Dwarf – deliberately tacky, but also just plain shoddy, and the story is merely a guise to allow the characters to move from one juvenile sex joke to the next. This is not the movie for anyone who gets easily offended, or, to be honest, anyone old enough to actually watch it. Put it this way: if your first instinct when confronted with a calculator is to write 8008 and then giggle, you’ll probably enjoy this movie. (Heh heh, boob.)

Film #87: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)

film 87 power rangers the movie

Rating: 2/5

“You egg-sucking purple pinhead! The Rangers are going after the Great Power! I thought you said this guy was the master of disaster. He’s nothing but a slime-infested jelly donut!”

It’s nostalgia time! Much like Masters of the Universe, Power Rangers: The Movie holds little appeal for anyone who didn’t make the mighty morphin’ teenagers a part of their youth. Watching this on old, secondhand (or thirdhand, or fourthhand) VHS, with the sound fading in and out on a regular basis, I was transported back to the mid-90s, when everyone wore colour-coordinated crop tops (including the guys), roller-blading was the coolest thing ever, and all dialogue had to be heavily punctuated by emphatic ninja-esque hand gestures. Yes, the Power Rangers were camp and daft, but they were hugely successful – over the years there have been many new incarnations (with the show still airing on television), but the movie charts the latest exploits of the original, and best, bunch.

Power Rangers: The Movie has the standard, generic plot of most childhood movies: our heroes’ lives are suddenly thrown into turmoil with the reawakening of Ivan Ooze (Paul Freeman), a fiendish villain who had been trapped in a giant buried egg full of gunk for the last six thousand years. Finally freed, he quickly traps the television show’s resident baddies Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd, trashes the Rangers’ command center and leaves their leader, Zordon, for dead. Summoning the last bit of power available, loyal C-3P0 rip-off robot Alpha 5 pauses in her constant flapping to beam the Rangers off to a remote planet in search for the Great Power, which may restore Zordon and stop the nefarious Ooze from taking over the world.

While most of the staple characters and locations from the television show are acknowledged, this makes pains to distinguish itself as something new (and bigger), and it doesn’t always work. Angel Grove’s resident bullies Bulk and Skull get a few cursory scenes, which seem particularly out of place if you’re not familiar with the tv series. Although it appears that none of the Rangers have parents, the adult population of the fictional town are given some more screentime, becoming oozified zombies thanks to Ooze’s ooze (yes, really) – luckily he still cares about health and safety and gives them all matching outfits and hardhats while they dig up the giant Ectomorphicon Titans (the film’s full of this kind of pseudo-scientific dialogue) that will help him conquer Earth. The titans, when they are finally unveiled, turn out to be giant, shiny, metallic, and supremely dodgy early CGI creations.

The CGI doesn’t stop there, and nor do the alterations. Most disappointingly, the Power Rangers, stripped of their powers early on in the film, never get a chance to fight with their established Zords (the big robots they call from afar to help them fight their battles). In the series, each Ranger would call its Zord, which were cool creatures like Sabretooth tigers, Tyrannosaurus Rexes, and Mastodons, at which point the stock footage from another Japanese show would kick in. Here, on the distant planet Phaedos, the kids are given new animal guides, and the film’s final set piece back on Earth sees them fighting with these new Zords – Crane, Ape, Bear, Falcon, Wolf and… Frog. Even the most ferocious of these is no match for the much cooler prehistoric Zords they’d started of with, and the lack of familiarity is disappointing. The CGI doesn’t help – the fight scenes are a jumble of shoddy effects and rushed imagery, revealing the film’s age more than even the naffest of 90s tropes.

And what of the Rangers themselves? Like He-Man in Masters of the Universe they are the blandest bunch of teens imaginable and, despite being the film’s protagonists, have a mere handful of lines and no character development whatsoever. Tommy, the former brainwashed Green Ranger-turned White Ranger and leader of the gang, and Kimberly (the hot Pink Ranger) at least seem to be vaguely human; the rest interchangeable, distinguished (and characterised) solely by the colour of their outfits, and are only relevant when fighting the latest group of bad guy minions. While the film takes great pains to show the reactions of each individual Ranger at all times, as a group they are utterly devoid of personality. As usual, it’s their evil nemesis who brings some theatricality to the story; Ooze is flamboyant and wicked, generic but a perfectly acceptable (and expected) kind of villain for a family-friendly kids movie of this kind. It’s just a shame that Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd are so quickly consigned to miniature form and sidelined – each individually easily matches Ooze’s camp personality.

Despite the various problems and, it must be said, disappointments that come along with the film, Power Rangers: The Movie races along – there’s plenty of action to make up for the lack of personality, and the soundtrack in particular really works to convince the viewer that what they’re watching is impressive and important. The pacing is brisk and the various set pieces offer some new (generally mediocre) spectacle to distract from the fact that the story is ridiculous, the acting is sub-par, and the effects are fairly terrible. Admittedly, it’s not actually as camp and fun (in a badfilm sense) as Masters of the Universe, but the nostalgia value was high (this was the very first movie I saw at the cinema without my parents – probably because they’d have done anything to avoid having to sit through it) and, for that reason at least, I left my cynicism (and criticism) at the door and enjoyed the stupidity.

Film #83: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)

film 83 hearts of darkness
Rating: 4/5

“There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane.”

Film buffs will probably at least be aware of how troubled the shooting of Apocalypse Now was. Filmed in the Philippines (like so many exploitation films around the same time), it was initially intended to be a six week shoot; principal photography eventually ended after sixteen months. Plagued with difficult actors, hurricanes, and political unrest that regularly forced Coppola to stop filming so that the government could use the helicopters that they had provided, not to mention copious amounts of drugs and the general day to day challenges of living in the jungle, what was meant to be a fairly quick, though ambitious, adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, became a monster that threatened to not only make everyone involved insane, but even almost killed its lead actor.

Today, Apocalypse Now is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, capturing the horrors of the Vietnam War, still fresh in people’s minds when it was released in 1979. I’ve not seen it, and my knowledge of it is limited to general trivia and quotes (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”), and the references to it in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode (Restless). It didn’t really appeal to me, but Hearts of Darkness, which documents the problematic shoot and presents a fascinating insight into the heart and mind of a filmmaker determined to see his masterpiece come to life, instantly caught my attention, and did not disappoint. It’s a gripping documentary, with great on-set footage (shot by Coppola’s wife Eleanor) and secretly recorded conversations between the director and his wife. Early in the film, we hear Coppola plaintively stating: “My greatest fear is to make a really shitty, embarrassing, pompous film on an important subject, and I am doing it. And I confront it. I acknowledge, I will tell you right straight from… the most sincere depths of my heart, the film will not be good.” Yet despite the countless problems and issues, he refused to give up, and the results speak for themselves.

It’s hard not to be impressed, particularly today, at just how determined Coppola was. The money and time that was spent making his vision come to life, not to mention the amount of sheer man power (and explosives) is truly incredible – while a similar shoot today would no doubt substitute jungle life for green screens and napalm for CGI post-production effects, the 1970s were a notably different time for filmmaking, with the likes of Coppola, Scorcese, Kubrick, Lucas and Peckinpah paving the way as the creators of “New Hollywood.” Hearts of Darkness demonstrates how determined these new filmmakers were – no longer content with studio work, the 1970s saw a new kind of filmmaking, one that prided itself in realism and politics. It’s fascinating hearing Coppola talking about Apocalypse Now, and equally fascinating to hear his wife discuss her life as a result – the director dragged his whole family over to live in this troubled region. He is revealed to be dogged, obsessed even, and willing to do anything and everything to see his film completed. After Martin Sheen suffers a heart attack during shooting, Coppola responds by saying “If Marty dies, I wanna hear that everything’s okay, until I say, “Marty is dead,” perfectly capturing the dogmatic, ruthless supremacy of The Director.

This behind-the-scenes glimpse into Apocalypse Now, and the filmmaker(s) determined to bring a vision to life, is wonderfully honest, and filled with instantly recognisable faces – Marlon Brando, paid vast sums of money to appear in a small, though crucial role only to turn up on set tremendously overweight and sufficiently embarrassed about his physical condition that he refused to be portrayed as what he was; Dennis Hopper, clearly high as a kite during the shoot; George Lucas ruminating on Coppola’s vision and choosing to steer clear; a young Sofia Coppola suddenly relocated to the jungles while her father goes, as he himself admitted, insane. The stories told are evidence of the insanity, as the cast and crew remain isolated from the “civilised” world of Hollywood and the comforts of American living, as the money fritters away and the critics become more and more doubtful as to whether the film will ever see the light of day. It’s a true testament to Coppola’s determination that Apocalypse Now was finished – although one gets the feeling that, even had half his cast keeled over, if a hurricane had wiped out the country, if he had been declared bankrupt, he would have carried on, and even if it had killed him, his last breath would have been used to shoot that final image to see his movie completed.

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.