Nov 4, 2017

Why Haven't You Seen...? Nice Girls Don't Explode [1987]

What's it all about? 
April (Michelle Meyrink) is 18 and she wants to start dating, like a normal girl. Unfortunately she's not a normal girl; when she gets excited, especially around boys, fires break out around her. This becomes a serious issue when her childhood sweetheart Andy (William O'Leary) comes back into the picture and begins to suspect that April's condition may have more to do with her mother (Barbara Harris) than any actual problem.

Why haven't you seen it? 
You could spend years trying to see as many 80s teen movies as possible (trust me, I have) and still only scratch the surface. This seems to have attracted only minimal notice at the time, and it's just fallen through the cracks rather than building a cult following in the years since it was released.

Why should you see it? 
Let's start with that title, shall we? I love titles, a good one can get me into a cinema all by itself, a bad one can put me off a film just as easily. When I first saw this title I immediately went searching for the film. With a title as offbeat and original as Nice Girls Don't Explode, how could it fail to be at least interesting?

Nice Girls Don't Explode isn't a great film, but it's an intriguing oddity in the 80's teen movie cycle. The presence of Barbara Harris, best known to modern audiences as the mother in the 1976 version of Freaky Friday, is interesting given the way the film mixes tones. At heart it seems like a live action Disney movie. The jokes are silly, even when they get a little raunchier and the premise of the fire girl is so ludicrous as to be out of a fairy tale. On the other hand, once it is revealed, early on, that Andy is right, April is in fact not a fire girl and that her mother is setting and triggering the fires to keep her daughter from dating, the film becomes something altogether stranger; imagine the Disney Channel remake of Firestarter. It's a weird mix, because Harris' character is, by almost any definition, a psychopath; she manipulates her daughter, causes untold damage to property and psychological damage to April, but the film plays it for laughs and largely walks that tightrope well.

The gags are silly and clearly pitched to a young audience, but that's not to say they don't hit. My first big laugh came before we know that April is being manipulated. She's off on her first date in ages and her mother asks if she's packed protection, at which point April picks up a mini fire extinguisher. It's that joke and other little non-sequiters like it that are often the film's best moments. Another especially funny little moment comes when, after a date with Andy, April is dropped off at her house by a fire engine, as if they are well aware where she lives.

The tone is odd, but in the leads Barbara Harris and Michelle Meyrink find the right balance. Harris is clearly having a ball playing on the idea of a sociopathic sitcom mom. One wonderful scene has her making plastic explosives in much the way you would usually see a character like this baking cookies (which she also does frequently). The contrast between her very proper exterior and what she's doing to her daughter is often very funny. Michelle Meyrink only made a handful of films, stepping away from acting in 1989 when she became interested in Zen Buddhism. That's a pity, because she was an engagingly offbeat presence in 80s teen movies like Revenge of the Nerds, Real Genius and this film. It would be easy just to make April silly and quirky, but what Meyrink captures that is deeper is the degree to which April's thinking has been affected by her mother, even late in the film, as the justifications get more and more ludicrous and Andy ever more incredulous, we can still see April being taken in by what her mother says. It's funny, but Meyrink doesn't forget that it's also sad and disturbing just under the surface.

There are things that don't work here. Chuck Martinez' direction is pedestrian at best and Wallace Shawn grates in a supporting role as an arsonist who falls for April. The big problem though is William O'Leary as Andy. O'Leary, in his first role, hasn't developed a natural comic rhythm. He goes a bit hard for the cartoony elements of the script and the chemistry isn't really there with Meyrink. 

Still, Nice Girls Don't Explode is well worth 78 minutes of your time. It will almost certainly make you laugh, and I promise you, you've never seen anything quite like it. How many films can you say that about?

How can you see it? 
UK and US DVDs are available. I hope the US copy is better, as the UK release has one of the worst transfers I've seen; it may as well be a straight rip from VHS. The 4:3 picture doesn't even appear to have been panned and scanned, instead it seems that the sides have simply been chopped off to fit the frame, the occasional missing joke be damned.

This piece was first published at FilmLand Empire.

Nov 1, 2017

Why Haven't You Seen...? Jess + Moss [2011]

This piece was originally written for FilmLand Empire.

What's it all about?
Over the course of one summer, 18 year old Jess (Sarah Hagan) and 12 year old Moss (Austin Vickers) spend their time in an abandoned, derelict house. They hang out, play, talk, argue and grow up.

Why haven't you seen it? 
I may have missed this film on the festival circuit, but the first I even heard of it was when I stumbled on the DVD while looking through a sale on titles from the label it was released on in the UK. It's a fair bet that this just flew under your radar.

Why should you see it?
Mainstream coming of age cinema has been pretty uninteresting of late, dominated by YA adaptations, but in the background, in the indie scene, there has been a quiet renaissance going on in the genre. Jess + Moss ought to be seen at the very centre of that renaissance.

Clay Jeter's first, and so far only, feature as director plays out as less a standard narrative, more a mosaic of memory. Scenes are generally brief, often out of chronological order and frequently voiced over with sound taken from audio tapes made by Jess which, while contextualising the visuals, doesn't belong immediately to them. Many of these moments are also revisited, fully revealing the moment and giving it new and often very different context (Jess' line “I know the difference between right and wrong”, for instance). The quality of the visuals is very different, as is the continual emphasis on character, but in many ways Jeter looks to Terrence Malick for inspiration here and is well worthy of the comparison.

Visually, thanks to shooting on old, sometimes expired, Super 16, the film is often hazy and grainy. In the context of the story and its nostalgic feel, this often gives the images themselves a sense of someone straining to remember a moment. This seems especially vivid in a late shot of Sarah Hagan standing in the woods with leaves in her hair. The shot goes in and out of focus, captured perfectly for only a moment; a fleeting memory of something beautiful. The idea of memory bleeds into the story too. Moss spends much of his time listening to mega-memory training tapes, perhaps the film is his success.

That the film's minimalism works is thanks to two outstanding central performances from Sarah Hagan and Austin Vickers. Hagan is still probably best known for Freaks and Geeks and a brief stint on Buffy. Her beautifully subtle performance here should have put her at the top of everyone's casting lists. Without ever verbalising it, she gives us a rounded picture of a young woman perhaps struggling, perhaps just not wanting, to take that final step away from childhood. The conflicting feelings she has about that are clear as she sometimes plays the adult with Moss but at other times (including one uncomfortable scene in a truck) tries to be more like a peer and in still other moments she's a playmate, seeming younger than Moss. The subtle shifts in the way Jess relates to Moss and the undertones in how she feels about herself and her absent mother, whose voice she obsessively listens to on tape, add up to a totally real, 3 dimensional performance.

Austin Vickers is also excellent. Moss is never one of those supernaturally precocious movie kids (think Chloe Moretz in (500) Days of Summer). He's a real kid, dealing with real issues of growing up. He's young enough to want to spend much of the summer simply playing, old enough to have some deeper questions, but young enough to want Jess to answer them in the form of a repeated bedtime story. There's nothing forced or false in either of the performances, nor in the chemistry between Hagan and Vickers.

The film is romanticised and idealised to a certain degree, but that too is memory for you. Even at only 78 minutes it feels expansive, using all its little moments to add up to the sense of one of those summers off school that seemed to stretch on forever. Those little moments – Jess and Moss riding their bikes along country lanes, watching the 4th of July fireworks or just lying out in the grass and talking – will feel familiar to any viewer. I found this film extremely moving. It threw me back to moments in my childhood, and I imagine it will for you too. It's a beautiful, elegiac piece of filmmaking.

How can you see it? 
The UK DVD is not currently listed on Amazon, and so may be deleted, but if you're a Prime member it is currently free to stream. US and Australian DVDs are also available, hopefully they are better than the UK disc, my copy of which has some bad digital artifacts at one point in the film. 

Oct 16, 2017

24FPS @ LFF 2017: Family Films

The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales
Dir: Patrick Imbert, Benjamin Renner
This delightful French animated film is set up as three short plays, put on by the animals in a farmyard. In Baby Delivery, Pig and his dimwitted friends, Rabbit and Duck, must fill in for an injured Stork. The Big Bad Fox sees Fox accidentally become mother to three chicks he steals for himself and Wolf to eat. In Saving Christmas, Duck believes he has killed Father Christmas and he, Rabbit and Pig must fill in for him, as they did for the Stork.

The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales is this year’s Family Gala screening at the London Film Festival, this is the strand that contains the films pitched at children, but this is a true family film. It will delight children (I’d suggest it for ages six and over) but, without aiming jokes over children’s heads, it should also work for adults. The animation style is very different; a little sketchy, but beautifully simple and full of character rather than crude, but the tone of the film has much in common with classic animated shorts. The slapstick gags come thick and fast, with the timing and execution of classic era Tom and Jerry, while the way these moments combine with the verbal humour recalls Looney Tunes strongly (especially in the relationship between Pig, Rabbit and Duck).

There are some wonderfully absurd touches and running gags to be enjoyed; the chickens forming a self-defence group because the guard dog is lazy, the calamities that happen to Pig’s house and Little Michel, who pops up in the last two stories to endearing and hilarious effect.

Any further review of this film would amount to my repeating my favourite jokes, which would rather spoil what is a wonderfully enjoyable film. I will say to stay in your seats during the credits as during them there are some lovely jokes, a recipe and a closing moment that seems to be a nod to Michigan J. Frog and sent me out of the cinema with a mile wide smile on my face. This may be pitched as a kids film, but it’s for anyone with a functional funnybone.

The Day My Father Became A Bush
Dir: Nicole Van Kilsdonk
Toda (Celeste Holsheimer) is ten years old and lives with her pastry chef father (Teun Kuilboer) in an unnamed country. When war breaks out between ‘The Ones’ and ‘The Others’ Toda’s grandmother comes to stay, while her father is called to fight. Eventually it becomes too dangerous at home and Toda is sent abroad to join the mother (Noortje Herlaar) she doesn't know. Along the way she gets separated from the people taking her and must make her way on her own.

I am a great believer that children’s cinema can and should be much more than mindless entertainment (not that a bit of mindless entertainment is a bad thing, whether you’re six or thirty six). The Day My Father Became A Bush tackles some big issues: war and its futility, displacement and the dislocating reality of suddenly becoming a refugee, but does it from a child’s eye view, making those issues comprehensible for its target audience. A big part of this success is in the way it addresses war. Nicole Van Kilsdonk never explores what the fighting is about or whether we should see ‘The Ones’ or ‘The Others’ as the good guys in the conflict. This isn't what’s important to Toda, what matters to her is that her father is away and that his camouflage be good enough to make sure he comes home (in one of the film’s most quietly touching scenes she puts branches on his helmet so ‘even birds will think you’re a tree’). 

Ultimately, the film says, which side we’re on doesn't matter much. Her father wears a blue badge but at one point Toda finds herself sharing a shack with a man wearing a blue badge, soon she’s sharing food with him and, sweetly, helping him learn to give orders (he has deserted because he found he wasn't assertive enough for his command role. This scene is a fine example of the way the film leavens its messages with humour and heart.

Toda is a great character for young girls to see and identify with. She’s inquisitive and intelligent, brave in the face of scary situations and compassionate with a slightly younger boy who attaches himself to her, whom she nicknames Stickie (Matsen Montsma). She’s also just a typical ten year old, who calls herself a daddy’s girl. As Toda, Celeste Holsheimer gives a performance free of anything actorly or precocious. She hits the funny moments nicely, but is particularly adept in the dramatic scenes, especially towards the end of the film when, having lost her mother’s address, Toda finds herself a refugee.

The Day My Father Became A Bush asks kids to engage with some big themes, but it takes them gently through those ideas, leavening them with humour and, even in the film’s toughest moments, the optimistic outlook that Toda radiates. It’s an entertaining and intelligent film and an ideal opportunity to discuss some challenging subjects with your kids.