Heavenly Creatures

When I went to rent Heavenly Creatures from my retro video rental store, as you do, the same employee who had abstained from mansplaining Blade Runner to me was delighted with my choice. It was real good, he assured me, but DARK. “Who would have thought that guy would go on to direct Lord of the Rings?” he chuckled, in wonder. “Oh I like that though!” I told him. “I followed up Mad Max with Babe.” His delight amplified.

You do get these funny filmographies sometimes, where a director seems to make more genre jumps than their peers. And I really do like that, a lot, because setting Mad Max and Babe next to each other, movies that at first glance seem pretty far apart, ends up telling you so much more about who George Miller is as a storyteller than simply watching the Mad Max series and nothing else.

But we’re not talking about my dear Australian grandfather today, we’re talking about the works of my oddball New Zealander uncle, Peter Jackson. It turns out that things about the Lord of the Rings trilogy that I would have thought unique to his Middle Earth are hallmarks of his whole approach. It actually starts in the approach, how here too he and Fran Walsh spent so much time with the source material, learning it inside out and wholeheartedly, so that the screenplay they crafted came from a place of rather remarkable sensitivity. Just like how they dug into Tolkien’s dense world and pulled up these incredible relationships between characters, they dug into a sensational 1950s murder trial and pulled up the twisted yet deeply profound connection between the two girls at the center of it. And then they shot both with the same DP, Alun Bollinger, bringing what I now see are his trademark shots — looming close just below someone’s nose as the ceiling stretches around them, flying wide from a helicopter over a figure running across the hilltops of New Zealand, and all the others you know and love from LOTR.

The girls though, the girls still are the center of it all. Headstrong, manic Juliet, who adores fanciful stories and tenor Mario Lanza as much as she loathes Christianity and Orson Welles: passionately. And loving, brooding Pauline, the anti-hero with a thousand names: Yvonne at home, Paul at school, and in Borovnia, the vivid, violent fantasy kingdom she and Juliet build, she’s Gina, her sister, or Charles, her lover. Juliet though is only ever Debora, always Debora. Always the two of them, always running running running, flashing like a pair of laughing Furies. Morbid, hedonistic young witches, prophetesses of a glowing dream realm of art and madness — the Fourth World, where “compared with these two, every man is a fool.” And so they go, falling into each other’s arms and a bloody folie à deux.

Lightly spoilery note: Once again I find myself writing about a story featuring Gay Villains, but once again I feel like the movie has made an effort not to damn them for this specifically. It is clear that we are to judge the girls for their true crime, murder, and not for how they love each other. The glorified psychiatrist who pronounces Pauline’s proclivities a sickness is depicted as misguided and gross, and when Juliet’s father will not stop obsessively prying and fretting over his daughter’s relationship, her mother tiredly admonishes him: “Just leave them alone, Henry.” Yes, Henrys of the world, just leave the queer girls alone. It does not concern you, by definition.

The Road to El Dorado & The Prince of Egypt

Otherwise known as: DreamWorks Animated Features On Netflix That I’d Missed As A Kid

As it turns out, The Road To El Dorado is hilarious. I don’t know if I’d just set a low bar for wit, being a kids movie, or if it was the Campari granita I was crunching on, but I had a super great time. That the horse stuck around as character! That the music was by Elton John and Tim Rice feat. Hans Zimmer! Stage darlings Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline as these adorable optimist/pessimist partners conning their way out of & into adventures and each other’s hearts! A gift, this movie.

Also, a surprisingly sophisticated attitude toward religion? The gods are real, but also they’re fake, but also people already know that, but also there is magic, but also the most powerful sort is rooted within the community itself and the love they show each other — this is pretty impressive stuff for PG! It’s contradictory and so human, and that’s the sort of truth I know.

A more straightforward approach with the spiritual, The Prince of Egypt has a sacred text sincerity note before we even hit the title card. I’m going to trust them that it reflects the story of Moses as told in several religions, and gosh, it’s certainly beautiful enough to feel like a special sort of art. Wonderful songs and absolutely gorgeous animation, painting-like frames that you nearly want to pause and gaze at for a moment to soak in all the richness.

And once again, a fully ridiculous cast: Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin, Martin Short. “What on earth!” – me looking at the IMDb page after I couldn’t shake the feeling that The Queen was voicing The Queen. But if we’re going to give out an award for Most Distinctive in this line-up, it’s going to Jeff Goldblum, who either imbues animated characters with his physical presence just with his voice, or the animation happened after the fact and the artists just couldn’t resist.

TV Guide – Stranger Things

Stranger Things is really wonderful. The chatter is all about how charmingly nostalgic it is, but I’m actually going to tell you not to pay any heed to that. The word “nostalgia” is only headlining due to the coincidence of timing and population that means the people who still dominate American cultural criticism right now (mostly guys, mid- to late-30s), are the exact group who grew up loving the ’80s movies that were the first of Stranger Thing’s kind — gently scary suburbia sci-fi, where kids on bikes tangle with aliens and shady officials among the trees and cul-de-sacs. But I think for this subset of viewers, memories of their own childhoods have swamped a very cool fact: this 2016 TV show has lifted a whole genre out of the confines of a past decade. And unlike nostalgia, genres are for everybody.

Or to put it another way: I wanted to hug this show to my heart for 100% of the runtime, and my heart had no pre-existing rooms built for any of the things Stranger Things is so affectionately referencing. E.T. spooked me the heck out as a little kid — I remember bits and pieces of the one time I saw it, but my strongest memory is of noping on out of there. I have never seen Stand By Me. I have only seen about half of The Goonies, and that wasn’t until I was in college. I haven’t even seen that other recent retro Spielberg, Super 8. But it’s fine, it’s so fine. Because Stranger Things is a member of a film family, not an advanced course with pre-reqs. If the series were making a commentary on those older entries, subverting that framework or those themes in some way, that would be a different situation, but it’s not doing that at all. It just purely is this. Stranger Things can be the first of its type you see, and it would be so happy to be that for you.

A couple inspirations for this show that I have seen though, and which I suspect Stranger Things owes as much to as any, are The X-Files and Twin Peaks. The X-Files for the creepy conspiracies, obviously, and Twin Peaks for the good investigator. Good as in good at figuring things out, but also good as in good-hearted, good as in good gut-instincts. Because for all that Chief Hopper first shambles onscreen like Orange Is the New Black’s Luschek run through a Bitter Cop filter, we soon find out that he’s built from the same character DNA that gave us the Bookhouse Boys. Hopper may not share much of Agent Cooper’s bright-eyed joy or Sheriff Truman’s dyed-in-the-wool moral fiber, but what he has in spades is that same openness to weird possibilities, and an urge not just to protect, but to believe.

That’s actually something of a trend in Stranger Things — characters who seem like a certain archetype when you first meet them, but reveal themselves to be someone more interesting. The children are their goofy, brave selves right off the bat, and they work beautifully in tandem, because watching the older characters individualize over the season feels sort of like growing up, and beginning to understand that adults were curious kids once, too. The best of the character arcs almost function like their own gentle plot twists, and it’s a delight. This whole show is a delight. There are so many fun and well-crafted details about it that I could talk about, but I’ll resist, because I want everyone to experience them in their full glow, lighting up along the series with the sure, impossible magic of Joyce’s colored lights.