Darkest Hour

(USA / UK 2017)

I’m coming clean on a few things. First, I had little to no interest in Darkest Hour; had it not been nominated for Best Picture, I wouldn’t be writing about it. Second, Dunkirk (https://moviebloke.com/2017/07/20/dunkirk/) already satisfied the WWII epic category earlier this year. Third, if I hear one more accolade for Gary Oldman transforming himself for this role, I’m going to pull out five or six DVDs of his earlier films and literally throw them at the person who says that. Like Meryl Streep, he’s made a career out of transforming himself. It’s what he does.

Okay, that’s off my chest.

Darkest Hour is a textbook historical war drama, this one about Winston Churchill (Oldman) and the obstacles he encountered early in his term as Prime Minister. His biggest though certainly not his only problem was mounting pressure from Conservatives and Parliament to negotiate a peace deal with Adolph Hitler as Europe fell to the Nazis in 1940. Churchill flatly refused because he didn’t trust Hitler. The predicament of British soldiers trapped at Dunkirk and Calais didn’t help his cause, at least not in the eyes of his peers.

Joe Wright’s directing and Anthony McCarten’s screenplay are both highly competent, buoyed nicely by Bruno Delbonnel’s luscious cinematography. I like that no bones are made about Franklin Roosevelt’s (David Strathairn) initial refusal to get involved. A later scene on the London Underground is amusing. The acting is exactly what you’d expect in a big budget historical drama like Darkest Hour, right down to the rousing eleventh hour do-or-die speech. Oldham is great, but frankly I’ve seen him do better, or at least more interesting roles.

I don’t mean to rip into this film. The finished product is fine for what it is. Darkest Hour just didn’t wow me. It’s conventional and predictable, working from the same template as other films of its ilk. The subject is overdone. I counted at least three recent movies made about events referenced here — the aforementioned Dunkirk, The King’s Speech, and W.E. Enough said. Speaking of Dunkirk, it moved me more than this did.

With Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West, David Schofield, Richard Lumsden, Malcolm Storry, Hilton McRae, Benjamin Whitrow, Joe Armstrong, Adrian Rawlins, David Bamber, Paul Leonard, Eric MacLennan, Philip Martin Brown, Demetri Goritsas, Jordan Waller, Alex Clatworthy, Mary Antony, Bethany Muir, Anna Burnett, Jeremy Child, Hannah Steele, Nia Gwynne, Ade Haastrup, James Eeles, Flora Nicholson, Imogen King

Production: Perfect World Pictures, Working Title Films

Distribution: Focus Features

125 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Landmark Century) C+

http://focusfeatures.com/darkesthour

The Post

(USA 2017)

Even with the healthy skepticism I have for all things Steven Spielberg, I was looking forward to The Post, His Schmaltziness’s latest historical drama. The subject and the impressive cast built expectations (for me, anyway) along the lines of All the President’s Men (https://moviebloke.com/2015/11/29/all-the-presidents-men/). Turns out that’s not quite what The Post is.

Set in 1971, The Post is a dramatization of newspaper heiress Katharine Graham’s (Meryl Streep) agonizing decision to publish excerpts of the classified Pentagon Papers in The Washington Post — on the eve of the paper’s public stock offering. It was a now-or-never moment with big consequences for her, the paper, and the nation. Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is determined to publish the rest of the story, president and shareholders be damned.

Recall that the Pentagon Papers detailed the shady origins and the federal government’s ongoing misleading of the American public about the efficacy of the Vietnam War. The New York Times broke the story using the same source, former government contractor Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), but was slapped with an injunction that halted its coverage.

The Post is a decent historical thriller, I’ll give it that. Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay is accurate, at least as far as the events here. The narrative is timely, loaded with dramatic tension and suspence even if the ending is rushed. In typical fashion, though, Spielberg is heavyhanded and overly sentimental. That long shot of Graham walking through a crowd of women of all ages as she leaves the courthouse of the U.S. Supreme Court and her monologue to her daughter are fine examples of what I’m talking about. Gag.

As far as Streep’s performance, I didn’t consider this a standout for her. She’s always good, but I’m probably not going to remember her for this one.

I found The Post overrated. It plays to something obvious. I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t impressed, either. Bridge of Spies (https://moviebloke.com/2016/02/25/bridge-of-spies/), which I didn’t love, was more interesting.

With Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts. Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods, Pat Healy, John Rue, Rick Holmes, Philip Casnoff, Jessie Mueller, Stark Sands, Michael Cyril Creighton, Will Denton, Deirdre Lovejoy, Michael Devine, Kelly Miller, Jennifer Dundas, Austyn Johnson, Brent Langdon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Deborah Green, Gary Wilmes, Christopher Innvar, Luke Slattery, Justin Swain, Robert McKay, Sasha Spielberg

Production: DreamWorks Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Amblin Entertainment, Participant Media, Pascal Pictures, Star Thrower Entertainment, River Road Entertainment

Distribution: 20th Century Fox (USA / Canada), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (International), United International Pictures (UIP) (International), Entertainment One Benelux (Netherlands), Forum Film Slovakia (Slovakia), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), Vertical Entertainment (Czech Republic), eOne Films Spain (Spain), Odeon (Greece), Columbia Pictures (Philippines), Toho-Towa (Japan)

116 minutes
Rated PG-13

(AMC River East) C+

https://www.foxmovies.com/movies/the-post

My Friend Dahmer

(USA 2017)

“You don’t have to suffer to be a poet,” said writer John Ciardi. “Adolescence is enough suffering for anyone.” Even the most notorious evildoer was once just a kid, and infamous cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is no exception. My Friend Dahmer portrays him as a gawky teenage reject struggling to find a place where he fits.

Bath, Ohio, in the mid-1970s: young Jeff (Ross Lynch) is a high school freshman who lives with his parents, chemist Lionel (Dallas Roberts) and Joyce (Anne Heche), and his little brother, Dave (Liam Koeth). It’s a normal middle class nuclear existence, except for his mother’s mental illness, his parents’ bickering, and his odd pastime of collecting roadkill and dissolving the carcasses in a vat of acid his father gave him. There’s also his obsession with a rather bearish jogger (Vincent Kartheiser) Jeff frequently sees running past his house.

Jeff’s not making it at school, where his classmates look past him, probably because he’s so fucking weird. Out of apparent fearful concern for his loner son, Lionel demands that Jeff make some friends after he discovers a collection of bones stashed away in Jeff’s hideout in the woods.

Jeff fakes an epileptic seizure in the cafeteria at school and attracts the attention of Derf Backderf (Alex Wolff) and his friends, Neil (Tommy Nelson) and Mike (Harrison Holzer), who get a kick out of him and his antics. They start hanging out with Jeff and form “The Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club,” a front for pulling pranks because they can get Jeff to do anything — even finagling a meeting with Vice President Walter Mondale (Tom Luce) on a class trip to Washington, D.C.

Jeff seems to be connecting to others for the first time, but his disintegrating home life throws off his progress.

Adapted from Cleveland artist Derf Backderf’s graphic novel, screenwriter and director Marc Meyers eschews gore and focuses on psychology, examining what may have happened to send Dahmer where he ended up. His approach is surprisingly empathetic and understanding without making excuses. Backderf offers unique insight that Meyers uses wisely. The acting, particularly that of Lynch and Wolff, lends a sensitivity that initially might seem unwarranted if not unworthy of the subject. The story here is sad, really: no gore, no murders, just a weird kid whose home life is falling apart.

My Friend Dahmer is a mix of teen comedy and tragedy that ends immediately before his first murder. It’s much better than I anticipated.

With Adam Kroloff, Brady M.K. Dunn, Michael Ryan Boehm, Cameron McKendry, Jake Ingrassia, Ben Zgorecki, Kris Smith, Jack DeVillers, Gabriela Novogratz, Miles Robbins, Joey Vee, Susan Bennett, Maryanne Nagel, Andrew Gorell, Katie Stottlemire, Carmen Gangale, Sydney Jane Meyer, Dave Sorboro, Denny Sanders

Production: Ibid Filmworks, Aperture Entertainment, Attic Light Films

Distribution: FilmRise, Altitude Film Entertainment

107 minutes
Rated R

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

http://www.myfrienddahmerthemovie.com/#1

Tom of Finland

(Finland / Sweden / Denmark / Germany / USA 2017)

Touko Valio Laaksonen, a.k.a. Tom of Finland, was extraordinary and unconventional. Dome Karukoski’s rather vanilla biopic Tom of Finland is neither.

With Aleksi Bardy’s screenplay, Karukoski lays out a good historical background of the life of the artist, whom Pekka Strang plays convincingly enough, at least until Tom’s later years. The story takes us through WWII, where Tom serves as a closeted solder in the Finnish army and catches the eye of his sargeant (Taisto Oksanen), into his postwar life in conservative Helsinki, where he works as an advertising illustrator, cruises public parks at night (and evades arrest), and sketches “dirty” homoerotic fetish doodles in his spare time. He shares an apartment with his homophobic sister (Jessica Grabowsky), which provides much of the dramatic tension in this story, especially when a cute boarder, dancer Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), moves in. Ultimately, the story leads to 1980s Los Angeles.

For a subject who really pushed the envelope — okay, he rammed it somewhere else altogether — and left his mark, Tom of Finland is a disappointingly conventional, even sappy biopic. The focus is on Tom’s personal struggle to live his life ‘out,’ which is a fine angle. Aside from a scene involving a Russian paratrooper (Siim Maaten) that apparently had a profund effect on Tom, however, Karukoski doesn’t delve deep enough to offer much insight; he seems to want to give an intimate picture but somehow stays at arm’s length from his subject. Too bad. His references are good but his approach is more documentarian or downright clinical. He skips huge chunks of time, which makes for awkward transitions in the film’s latter half. More frustratingly, he starts to raise some interesting points about art, conformity, AIDS, community, and longevity, but opts not to go there. Tom of Finland could have been a much more interesting film.

With Martin Bahne, Þorsteinn Bachmann, Werner Daehn, Jan Böhme, Seumas F. Sargent, Jakob Oftebro, Meri Nenonen, Haymon Maria Buttinger, Martin Bergmann, Niklas Hogner

Production: Helsinki-filmi, Anagram Väst, Fridthjof Film, Neutrinos Pictures, Film Väst, Fresco Film Services

Distribution: Finnkino (Finland), Protagonist Pictures, Cinemien (Netherlands), Kino MFA+ Filmdistribution (Germany), Lorber (USA), Palace Films (Australia), Peccadillo Pictures (UK), Rézo Films (2017) (France) (theatrical)

115 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C+

http://www.tof.fi

http://www.protagonistpictures.com/films/tom-of-finland#.Wl0isyOZPgE

I, Tonya

(USA 2017)

As crazy at it was, the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s knee just before the 1994 Winter Olympic Games and the resulting shit show that plagued her teammate Tonya Harding never occurred to me again after the media frenzy over it died down — like, by spring. Then one day this past autumn, I caught the trailer for I, Tonya. Oh, Lord!

I must confess, Craig Gillespie’s biopic ended the year on a high note — much higher than my expectations. Framed as a documentary with interviews interspersed throughout the story, I misjudged I, Tonya as mere fluff. It’s not. For all its lurid, sensationalist absurdity, it packs some jarring moments that hit…well, like a club.

While not a vital undertaking, I, Tonya is a very well done film. The screenplay by Steven Rogers is sharp, while Gillespie’s pace — cuts and jumps and all — moves nicely. What makes the whole thing fly, though, is the cast. Sebastian Stan as Harding’s sadistic twerp of a husband Jeff Gillooly and Allison Janney as her caustic mother LaVona Golden give performances worthy of gold medals. But the real showstopper is Margot Robbie, who makes Harding something she never was in real life: sympathetic. It’s no small feat.

I’ve heard some grumble that I, Tonya is a mean-spirited film that condescends to its subjects and gets laughs by making them look like fools. I don’t see it that way. Without absolving her, the film presents nasty circumstances that no doubt fueled Harding’s desire to win. The story and characters are culled from actual sources. Harding’s ultimate punishment was harsh. You can’t help but understand and feel for her, just a teeny tiny bit.

With Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic, Caitlin Carver, Maizie Smith, Mckenna Grace, Jason Davis, Mea Allen, Cory Chapman, Amy Fox, Cara Mantella, Lynne Ashe, Steve Wedan, Brandon O’Dell, Davin Allen Grindstaff, Daniel Thomas May, Anthony Reynolds, Ricky Russert, Miles Mussenden, Jan Harrelson, Luray Cooper, Dan Triandiflou, Kelly O’Neal, Alphie Hyorth

Production: Clubhouse Pictures, LuckyChap Entertainment

Distribution: 30West (USA), Neon (USA), VVS Films (Canada), Cinemex Films S.A. de C.V. (Mexico), California Filmes (Latin America), Mars Distribution (France), Lucky Red (Italy), DCM Film Distribution (Germany), Ascot Elite Entertainment Group (Switzerland), Nos Lusomundo Audiovisuais (Portugal), The Searchers (Belgium / Netherlands), Seven Films (Greece), Myndform (Iceland), Vertigo Média Kft. (Hungary), Fabula Films (Turkey), Gakhal Entertainment (India), Lots Home Entertainment (Taiwan), M Pictures (Thailand), Noori Pictures (South Korea), Shaw Organisation (Singapore), Showgate (Japan), Solar Pictures (Philippines), UA films (Hong Kong), Roadshow Films (Australia / New Zealand), Ster-Kinekor Pictures (South Africa)

120 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) B

https://www.itonyamovie.com

Madonna: Innocence Lost

(USA / Canada 1994)

“I take what I need and I move on. And if people can’t move with me, well then I’m sorry.”

— Madonna

Wow, I completely forgot about this tawdry exposé made for TV — American TV, which is even worse — chronicling Madonna’s early years in New York City. It aired on Fox in the mid-nineties, and it’s actually amazing only for how awful it is. All the stops are pulled out, and it’s a trainwreck: the overriding theme is that Madonna is an ambitious whore. OK, National Enquirer.

Based on Christopher Andersen’s 1991 biography — totally unauthorized, I add — Michael J. Murray’s script is just plain sad. Some of it is remarkably accurate, but some of it…not so much. I recognize every single interview where he culled material to tell the Material Girl’s story — in Time, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Interview, and a few other magazines. He doesn’t just lift background, he lifts dialogue. Verbatim. That opening monologue is straight from a letter to Stephen Jon Lewicki in which she begs to appear in his softcore film A Certain Sacrifice. The characters are all real people even if their names are changed: her donut shop manager (Kenner Ames), Dan Gilroy (Jeff Yagher), Camille Barbone (Wendie Malick), Mark Kamins (Mitch Roth), Seymour Stein (Don Francks), frequent collaborator Steve Bray (Ephraim Hylton), and last but not least her father, Silvio Ciccone (Dean Stockwell).

I’m mildly impressed that her mother (Jenny Parsons), shown entirely in black and white flashbacks, even comes up. And the many guys she slept with, some of them with a purpose. And that gumcracking? Brilliant!

Terumi Matthews plays a young Madonna, and to her credit she nails the megastar’s ideosynchrocies perfectly! I’ll give her that. However, the vignettes and Catholic imagery stolen straight from the video for “Oh Father” are so lame that I feel like I should say a rosary after seeing this. So should you. Don’t even get me started on where this story starts — the first MTV Video Music Awards? Really? She was already on her second album by then.

Anyway…Madonna: Innocence Lost is not flattering, but it’s still a hoot. It plays on Madonna’s bad side, like “Blond Ambition” is a bad thing. The problem is, this approach fails when you’re dealing with someone who used that very name for one of her biggest tours. Shocking? Fuck no.

With Diana Leblanc, Nigel Bennett, Dominique Briand, Tom Melissis , Christian Vidosa, Dino Bellisario, Kelly Fiddick, Gil Filar, Maia Filar, Diego Fuentes, Matthew Godfrey, Evon Murphy, Stephane Scalia, Chandra West

Production: Fox Television Studios, Jaffe/Braunstein Films

Distribution: Fox Network, RTL Entertainment (Netherlands), True Entertainment (UK)

90 minutes
Rated TV-14

(YouTube) D+

Whitney: Can I Be Me?

(UK / USA 2017)

Whitney Houston certainly needs no introduction, and I don’t need to remind anyone about her drug-fueled decline or her sad death five years ago. I saw her perform once when she toured for her first album, but I was never a fan. Still, I observed her career from the sidelines and know all her hits (and misses). To borrow from one of her songs, she almost had it all. Almost.

Co-director Nick Broomfield said that with Whitney: Can I Be Me?, he wanted to show another side of the story: “There was very little attempt to really understand where this was coming from or what it was about. I would like a lot of people to feel that there was a whole other way of looking at this.” (http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/whitney-houston-documentary-director-speaks-out-she-was-so-judged-w497676 ). It’s a good idea: fair and balanced, OK.

For better or for worse, Broomfield, who shares a directing credit with Rudi Dolezal for his footage from Houston’s 1999 My Love Is Your Love World Tour, takes a decidedly conventional and low key approach here. He eschews TMZ-like sensationalism, which is refreshing, even admirable. However, the finished product rings incomplete.

Broomfield shows Houston’s dirty laundry. We learn that she used drugs from adolescence. She wasn’t particularly polished. Her mother pushed her, hard. Her label, Arista, had a grand plan for her, and it specifically excluded drawing a black audience. Her BFF Robyn Crawford, who stayed involved with Houston’s career until the aforementioned 1999 tour, was (and still is) a lesbian, which led to rumors. Houston and Bobby Brown were in love, but it didn’t stop him from cheating on her — apparently, he preyed on Houston’s entourage. Crawford and Brown didn’t get along, which created tension. There was also that thing with Houston’s father that happened at the end of his life.

We gets hints and glimpses of what led to Houston’s downfall, but in the end the whole thing is shallow. Like her image throughout her career, Whitney: Can I Be Me? presents a sanitized or at least downplayed picture. Broomfield could’ve dug deeper. He was getting there with Houston’s former bodyguard, David Roberts, who claims that he was repeatedly ignored when he warned everyone around her that Houston was on a fatal trajectory. This documentary falls short; it’s flat and has nothing, shall we say, so emotional. It doesn’t reveal all that much. As a result, it isn’t all that moving.

Another biographical documentary about Houston is in the works (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/apr/28/kevin-macdonald-official-whitney-houston-documentary ) ( http://www.whitneyhouston.com/news/director-kevin-macdonald-whitney-houston-documentary/ ). So, there’s more to come. Let’s hope Kevin MacDonald’s version is more compelling.

With David Roberts, Cissy Houston, John Russell Houston Jr., Bobbi Kristina Brown, Bobby Brown, Robyn Crawford

Production: Lafayette Films, Passion Pictures, Showtime Networks

Distribution: Showtime (USA), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (UK), Arsenal Filmverleih (Germany), Eagle Pictures (Italy), Periscoop Film (Netherlands)

105 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C

http://www.sho.com/titles/3433528/whitney-can-i-be-me

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

(USA 2017)

Marsha, Marsha, MARSHA! I’ll say this: David France’s new documentary has a lot going on in it. The center of the film, obviously, is legendary Greenwich Village “street queen” Marsha P. Johnson, a trans LGBT activist who hit the streets and stood at the front line when the fight was just about the “gay rights” movement. In the ’60s. Marsha, a figure at the Stonewall riots, founded Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries, or S.T.A.R., with Sylvia Rivera in the early ’70s — 1970 to be exact. Her fight continued onto AIDS and transgender issues. She clearly was ahead of her time.

Sadly, Marsha ended up in the Hudson River in 1992, an apparent murder victim. It was almost 25 years to the date that I saw this film. The New York City Police Department called it a “suicide” — then called it a day. It remains an unsolved case.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson wants to honor Marsha, and it kind of does. At the very least, it sings her praises and puts her in a positive light. Ultimately, though, it fails. Told through the eyes of friend and surrogate Victoria Cruz, it unfortunately lets other things — mainly other people’s egos — get in the way. Part history and part true crime, Marsha’s story is watered down because French crams in more than what’s necessary to tell it, and he loses her in the process.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson succeeds in showing Marsha’s determination and influence. Perhaps unintentionally, it also shows a wonderfully colorful version of New York City in its cultural — or countercultural — prime, a place that simply doesn’t exist anymore. The hardest part of watching this film, though, is the attitude against trans people — even from gay men. It’s something you might not expect, but there it is.

From a historical or social standpoint, this is a winner. As far as Marsha is concerned, it could have been better. Still, it’s worth the time it takes to see it.

With Michael Baden, Frances Baugh, Pat Bumgardner, Jimmy Camicia, Eddie DeGrand, Matt Foreman, Jacques Garon, Chelsea Goodwin, Xena Grandichelli, Jennifer Louise Lopez, Agosto Machado, Marcus Maier, Ted Mcguire, Jean Michaels, Robert Michaels, Rusty Mae Moore, Candida Scott Piel, Coco Rodriguez, Kitty Rotolo, Vito Russo, Mark Segal, Beverly Tillery, Randy Wicker, Brian R. Wills, Sue Yacka

Production: Public Square Films, Faliro House Productions, Ninety Thousand Words, Race Point Films, Terasem Media & Films

Distribution: The Film Collaborative, Netflix

Screening introduced by David France and followed by a live Q and A with France, Mark Blane, and someone whose name I didn’t catch moderated by Alonso Duralde

105 minutes
Not rated

(Directors Guild of America) B-

Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival

https://www.netflix.com/title/80189623

Marie Antoinette

(USA/France 2006)

“This, Madame, is Versailles.”

—Comtesse de Noailles

If her take on Marie Antoinette is any clue, Sofia Coppola loves postpunk ’80s British bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, New Order, and New Romantic frontrunners Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow. So do I. This in all likelihood is what drew me to Marie Antoinette: with three Bow Wow Wow songs (two remixed by My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields), big hair, and a real MTV sensibility, its appeal to me is, well, a piece of cake.

All that is only part of the story. What really makes me love Marie Antionette is the sympathetic angle Coppola takes with this infamous character. Based on Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey, the first half of the movie is about the difficulties Marie (Kirsten Dunst) faces adapting to her new French surroundings and getting her new husband, Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman, Coppola’s cousin), to consummate their marriage. She fails, and of course everyone blames her—even her mother (Marianne Faithfull). When she’s had enough, she says “fuck it” and becomes a full on rock star. This is where things get interesting.

Colorful and elaborate, Marie Antionette is not profound. So what? Lance Acord’s music video cinematography is perfect for what Coppola is going for; bordering on sensory overload, this film is busy, clever, and fun to watch. I know better than to take it as a history lesson.

With Judy Davis, Rip Torn, Rose Byrne, Asia Argento, Molly Shannon, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Mary Nighy, Jamie Dornan, Steve Coogan, Tom Hardy

Production: Pricel, Tohokushinsha Film Corporation (TFC), American Zoetrope, Pathé, Commission du Film France, Commission du Film Île-de-France

Distribution: Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures

123 minutes
Rated PG-13

(iTunes rental) B-

http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/marieantoinette2006feature/

Heavenly Creatures

(New Zealand 1994)

“All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It’s all frightfully romantic!”

—Juliet Hulme

Forget Lord of the RingsHeavenly Creatures is Peter Jackson’s coolest film. Before big budget Hollywood blockbuster fantasy franchises, the New Zealand filmmaker wrote, produced, and directed offbeat small-scale gore and porn comedies like Bad Taste (1987), Meet the Feebles (1989), and Dead Alive (1993). I’d already seen that last one by the time Heavenly Creatures came out for a limited run (in the States, anyway) in the fall of 1994. I assumed it would be another messy splatterfest—described to me as a “lesbian murder flick,” what would you think? Turns out, that’s not quite what it is.

Far more than a “lesbian murder flick” or even a brilliant stepping stone to bigger and better things, Heavenly Creatures represents a turning point in Jackson’s career. It’s a rare example of flawless execution across the board. He brings together every element—narrative, character development, casting, visuals, special effects, dialogue, period costumes and sets—to create a real humdinger.

Christchurch, New Zealand, 1952: 14-year-old Yvonne Reiper (Melanie Lynskey), who goes by “Pauline,” is a messy-haired, brooding loner at an all-girl high school. In her first scene, she’s wearing a big scowl on her face at an assembly, not singing along with the rest of her classmates—not until the school’s headmaster (Darien Takle) catches her gaze and snaps her into line with a widening of her eyes. Pauline’s father (Simon O’Connor) manages a grocery market and her mother (Sarah Pierse) runs a room and board for college students out of their home.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

A new student is introduced during French class: Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), the privileged daughter of a reknown college professor (Clive Merrison) and a psychologist (Diana Kent). Juliet, who proclaims she’s “actually from England” and chooses the French name “Antoinette,” captures Pauline’s attention when she insults the teacher, Miss Waller (Elizabeth Moody), unleashing a hilarious hissy fit. The scene is, in a word, awesome to watch play out. Right after that, their art teacher, Mrs. Collins (Liz Mullane), pairs the girls for an assignment that Julia disregards; instead, she draws dragon-slaying St. George, depicting him in the likeness of Mario Lanza, “the world’s greatest tenor!” She doesn’t get around to drawing Pauline, her model. Mrs. Collins isn’t impressed, but Pauline is.

Thus begins the girls’ friendship. They bond over their similar pasts involving childhood disease and extended hospital stays, a penchant for drama, and a mutual distaste for their peers (and perhaps social issues that leave a void). Juliet is mischievous and romantic, which softens Pauline and gets her to open up. Sitting out gym, they giggle over sexy WWII pulp novels. They bike through the woods and strip to their underwear, dancing and singing. They hug a bum (played by Jackson himself) on the street. They hold weird rituals for celebrities they like. They make Plasticine models, write stories, and devise an elaborate royal family tree, building around themselves a fantasy medievalesque kingdom called Borovnia where all its inhabitants worship them. Their imaginary world blurs the bounds of reality as their friendship intensifies.

A string of troubles arises that threatens to separate Pauline and Juliet: tuberculosis, an extramarital affair, a divorce, South Africa, and a medical diagnosis of incurable homosexuality. The girls decide to run away to America, but they can’t secure a passport for Pauline. They devise another scheme to stay together, but it’s a risky one: kill Pauline’s mother.

Heavenly Creatures starts out sweet—it’s something of a typical teen movie at first—but it does a complete turnaround. Based on actual events, Jackson wrote the screenplay with Frances Walsh; the real story is sad but compelling, and the script is tight. The casting—married couple John and Ros Hubbard and the aforementioned Mullane—is genius: every single actor is terrific in his or her part, even the minor ones, and it makes Heavenly Creatures all the richer. Many of them turn up in Jackson’s later projects.

Lynskey and Winslet own their characters; I can’t imagine anyone else in their roles. They’re charming, silly, histrionic, desperate, deranged, and ultimately “stark raving mad”—and they portray all of it exceptionally well. They manage to keep the homosexual subtext from getting out of hand. You can tell from Winslet’s first scene—she walks in with that crazy look on her face—that she’s destined for more. She became a star after Heavenly Creatures in a way that Lynskey didn’t, but both are mesmerizing.

The scenes in Borovnia and the Fourth World are nothing short of spectacular. Actually, many of the visuals here are burned into my memory. Alun Bollinger’s camerawork and bleached palette lends a lovely dreamlike quality. Once things start to unravel for these “nice” girls, the whole thing shifts to a darker, more sinister tone. It’s an emotional downward spiral to the end—those splatter films serve Jackson well.

Heavenly Creatures hasn’t lost its luster after nearly 25 years. I lost track of how many times I’ve seen it, yet it continues to suck me in every single time. It’s one of my favorites.

With Gilbert Goldie, Jed Brophy, Peter Elliott, Kirsti Ferry, Ben Skjellerup, Jean Guérin, Stephen Reilly, Jessica Bradley, Alex Shirtcliffe-Scott

Production: WingNut Films, New Zealand Film Commission

Distribution: Miramax Films (USA)

109 minutes (director’s cut)
Rated R

(iTunes purchase) A

https://www.miramax.com/movie/heavenly-creatures/

https://www.facebook.com/heavenlycreaturesmovie