Clueless (1996)

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★★★★

If you were a teenager in the ’90s, there’s a pretty big possibility you still use lines from Clueless in your everyday life. Between “As if!” and “You’re a virgin who can’t drive”, the trend-setting 1995 teen flick was like the best earworm ever, wriggling its way into the lives and minds of young adults everywhere. Better yet, with its timely exploration of a new breed of cosmopolitan teen, it guaranteed that even non-American viewers felt like they’d lived through (or at the very least survived) US high school.

That was 20 years ago. It’s almost impossible to believe that two decades have passed since Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) catwalked onto our screens, dolled up to the nines and blissfully unaware of just how ridiculous she seemed. Despite her surface-level absurdity (she uses a computer to select her outfits and frets about her designer frock when held at gunpoint), she quickly became the Hollywood prototype for attractive young women with hidden depths – see also 2001’s even perkier bombshell, Elle Woods, in Legally Blonde.

Off screen, Silverstone became the go-to girl whenever a ’90s director was looking to cast the role of a smart-mouthed, self-aware youngster in their movie. Described by her Clueless director, Amy Heckerling, as having “that Marilyn Monroe thing”, Silverstone blitzed the 1996 MTV Movie Awards and, aged just 19, she signed an $8-10m multiple movie deal with Columbia TriStar. Meanwhile, her production company, First Kiss Productions, was given a first-look option on the studio’s projects. The decade was hers for the taking.

Perhaps more impressively, Clueless represents a huge leap in the evolution of the teen flick. Seizing on the yuppie dramas of the 1980s (headlined by stars like Tom Cruise and Michael J. Fox), it dared to do something different to the films of John Hughes, the Brat Pack and their imitators. Though a dash of Hughes’ kids v adults formula is evident in Cher’s battle through teendom (not least in her somewhat misguided attempt to help her lawyer father), director-writer Amy Heckerling’s priorities lay elsewhere.

Heckerling made a significant contribution to the ’80s teen flick scene with the gritty Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), proving she had an impressive grasp on how youngsters think and – vitally – what they think is cool. Though Clueless is a very different film to Ridgemont, it retains that self-awareness. Inspired by Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, it transfers the plight of its unlucky-in-love protagonist (renamed Cher) to present day Beverly Hills. As Cher and her friends navigate high school, love and the challenges of transforming a “tragically unhip” girl (Brittany Murphy) into the next hot thing, they drop quotable one-liners like nobody’s business.

With its zeitgeisty soundtrack, OTT fashion and knowing sense of humour, Clueless became the sleeper hit of 1995, transforming its modest $12m budget into a US box office haul of $56m. It was a critical darling, too, and rightfully so. Heckerling’s zingers-packed script packs satire in by the closet-load, but there’s heart, too – Cher’s matchmaking marks her out as surprisingly selfless, while her burgeoning romance with step-brother Josh (Paul Rudd) is just the right side of sweet. And Heckerling never idolises her affluent young protagonists, instead portraying them as borderline alien, revelling in passed-on wealth and possessing bubblegum priorities. If the ’80s belonged to the yuppies, the ’90s belonged to their kids. Times, they were a-changing, and Clueless effortlessly tapped into that evolution.

It helped that the early ’90s were a wasteland for movie teenagers, with only Boyz N The Hood (1991), Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Death (1991) and Dazed & Confused (1993) offering movie-going teens something to spend their money on. We have Clueless to thank for the youth boom that followed. There was 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), which took the Clueless route by reinterpreting The Taming Of The Shrew, while Cruel Intentions (1999) went edgy, adapting Dangerous Liaisons for teens. The steamy result saw Sarah Michelle Gellar shattering her good-girl Buffy image (purring: “You can put it anywhere”) and Ryan Phillippe establishing himself as hunk du jour. We can probably even thank Clueless for The Craft (1996), with its far darker visions of American teendom, and the ensuing slasher movie revival.

Clueless became a phenomenon unto itself, but it became a blessing and a curse for everybody involved. Silverstone made a few disastrous movie choices (erotic thriller The Babysitter, crime caper Excess Baggage), and donning the cape as Batgirl in 1997’s Batman & Robin single-handedly derailed her burgeoning career. In must have been a bit of a sore that, by that point, many of her Clueless co-stars were enjoying moderate success on the Clueless TV series, which she turned down to focus on her movie career.

Unlike, say, Jennifer Lawrence, whose smart movie choices have helped her avoid pigeon-holing, Silverstone has become forever synonymous with Clueless – so much so that her most successful endeavour post-1995 was short-lived 2003 series Miss Match, in which her divorce attorney was basically Cher grown up. Co-star Brittany Murphy enjoyed success in a series of romcoms before her tragic death in 2009, but perhaps the biggest star to emerge from Clueless was actually Paul Rudd. He bumbled around a couple of romcoms in the mid-to-late ’90s before finding a home as a lovable man-child in Judd Apatow’s comedy barn. And, of course, he’s shaken his image up once more by joining Marvel, transforming into scarily credible hero Ant-Man, replete with six pack and designer stubble.

Its outrageous fashion and outmoded tech should date Clueless horrendously, but there’s charm in its pre-internet naivety. If Clueless were made today, you can bet Cher would have a Twitter following in the millions and her own reality TV crew dutifully following her every move. In retrospect, there’s something almost twee about her mid-’90s one-woman crusades. In 2012, Heckerling and Silverstone reunited for horror comedy Vamps, about a couple of socialite vampires (un)living in New York City, but they failed to re-capture the same lightning in the bottle that made Clueless such a huge hit, which is perhaps sign enough that it’s something special.

This review originally ran at Frame Rated.

Beach Rats (2017)

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★★★★

“I don’t know what I like,” admits Frankie (Harris Dickinson) towards the start of this dark and dreamy drama. A Brooklyn teenager spending a summer avoiding his father’s sickbed, Frankie escapes his depressing home life by smoking spliffs with his buddies and hitting the boardwalk to raise hell.

He’s also on a brooding journey of self-discovery. What /does/ Frankie like and why is it so hard for him to accept? It’s a rare film that addresses such vast questions in so uncompromising a way, but director Eliza Hittman accomplishes exactly that with Beach Rats.

We quickly learn that Frankie’s real passions lie with members of the same sex. He surfs gay webcam sites at night before agreeing to meet up with an older man. After a passionate woodsy encounter, he goes back to hanging with his surfer bros and even acquires a girlfriend in shop-worker Simone (Madeline Weinstein).

But it’s clear Frankie’s just treading water, uncertain how to process these new desires. “Two girls can make out and it’s hot,” says Simone. “Two guys make out and it’s gay.”

Though shrewd, exchanges like these are infrequent. With the bare minimum in dialogue, Hittman instead focusses on every part of Frankie’s body in a study that’s refreshingly, even brutally honest.

Brit up-and-comer Dickinson is magnetic as the young tearaway, his sea-blue eyes both curious and troubled, and the role’s exposing in every way possible, from a glimpse of a flaccid cock when Frankie fools around with Simone, to a final confrontation that fizzes with fusillade emotion. This isn’t necessarily a coming-out drama destined for a happy ending, but it’s captivating nonetheless.

This review originally appeared in Crack magazine.

God’s Own Country (2017)

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★★★★

You’d be forgiven for thinking that windswept Yorkshire planes aren’t the most obvious setting for a steamy love story, but there’s nothing obvious about God’s Own Country.

A remarkably restrained debut from director Francis Lee, it centres on young farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor), who toils alone on the family farm under the watch of his sickly father (Ian Hart) and stern grandmother (Gemma Jones). At night, he has meat, potatoes and a tinny for dinner, then drinks himself unconscious. There’s a shot of a caged magpie.

Within minutes, it’s clear this is a man suffocated by duty and desolation, and newcomer O’Connor etches an extraordinary portrait of an individual in emotional arrest. Seven minutes in, he’s rutting another guy in the back of a trailer. He doesn’t smile for nearly an hour, brooding and antagonising and pushing every button he can find.

“We?” he grunts when his rutting partner suggests a date. “No.” Recalling the novels of Harper Fox, particularly Scrap Metal, Lee’s film excels at exposing the cracks in life at this remote farmstead.

Even before the arrival of Alec Secareanu’s chiselled farm hand, Gheorghe – a quiet Romanian who strikes up a clumsy romance with Johnny – God’s Own Country rivets as a study of human frailty and family tension.

In a landmark year for LGBTQ+ rights, God’s Own Country shuns ‘gay movie’ cliches – there’s no ‘coming out’ melodrama here – as, in the harsh wilds of Yorkshire, Lee uncovers affecting tenderness in the unspoken and the understated.

This review originally appeared in Crack magazine.

IT (2017)

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★★★★

Welcome to Derry. There’s loads to do here. Like go to the pictures. Or marinade in the small-town Americana. Or chill with a clown who wants to tear your soul apart. Yeah, Derry looks nice in the brochures, but people die at six times the national average here – and that’s just the adults. The kids have it way worse, as anybody who’s read Stephen King’s 1986 novel will know.

In Derry, a malevolent, shapeshifting presence feeds on young adults every 27 years and, in Andy Muschietti’s solid adaptation of King’s story, ‘It’ has resurfaced to target a fresh set of tweens.

As far as set-ups go, they don’t get much more elegantly unsettling, and Muschietti (Mama) knows it. Slipping into the director’s chair after Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) departed, his is a loyal translation that administers minor tweaks to maximise King’s lethal scares.

Aside from stripping out the book’s adult Losers Club segments (which will play out in the already-greenlit Chapter 2), the real masterstroke is relocating the action from the ’50s to the ’80s, which gives Muschietti the opportunity to update the monsters. Where King’s book resurrected many of the now oh-so-dated Universal monsters, Muschietti plums for smart psychological terrors that are gloriously unpredictable.

Yes, but is it scary? Well, Bill Skarsgård is certainly unnerving as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, ‘It’s favourite manifestation, and a segment in a flooded basement (sadly spoiled in the trailers) is nothing short of bone-chilling.

But IT isn’t really a horror movie. It’s an Amblin-riffing adventure in which its young heroes – all of them outstanding, particularly Sophia Lillis and Jack Dylan Grazer – tackle growing pains that happen to manifest in scary ways. It’s a film that owes a huge debt to Stranger Things (a show, of course, that owes a huge debt to King), playing more like a horror version of Stand By Me than the original ’90s mini-series starring Tim Curry.

So, yes, a trip to Derry is worth your while. Come for Pennywise but stay for the kids; they ensure that this is the most heartwarming horror movie you’ll see all year.

This review originally appeared in Crack magazine.

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

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★★★★★

“If only you knew how little I knew about the things that matter,” drawls Elio (Timothée Chalamet) halfway through Call Me By Your Name. Seventeen, quietly creative, loudly bored, he’s talking to the handsome grad student who’s spending the summer of ’83 at his parents’ Italy home. It’s the culmination of weeks of furtive flirtation. “What things?” asks the object of his affection. “You know what things,” murmurs Elio. Indeed, we do.

In a film that floats between coming-of-age ennui and heart-stopping moments of beauty, this is the first time Elio talks openly about his feelings. Up until this point, Luca Guadagnino’s alluring adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel luxuriates in ambiguity. Between bright cups of apricot juice and tins of Illy coffee, the story unspools of Elio’s crush on 24-year-old grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer), an all-American jock in tiny shorts whose breezy geniality aggravates as much as it allures.

As the duo embark on winding country bike rides and circle each other in sun-dappled courtyards, Chalamet and Hammer cast a beguiling spell. In a giant step up from playing Matthew McConaughey’s son in Interstellar, Chalamet is remarkable, etching an unshowy portrait of a boy on the cusp of adulthood; constantly pretending, seemingly unsure how to behave. Chalamet speaks fluent English, Italian and French, plays the piano and, in the film’s boldest holdover from Aciman’s novel, fearlessly enacts an unforgettable moment with a peach.

Hammer, meanwhile, is a revelation. Departing each scene with a maddening “later”, he’s a million miles from big-budget blow-outs such as The Lone Ranger and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Pivotally, he’s unafraid of allowing Oliver to be unlikeable, lending this luminously optimistic film an edge that kills sentimentality in its tracks.

Guadagnino is a master of the slow build but, unlike the mounting hysteria of I Am Love and the shock rug-pulls of A Bigger Splash, this feels more urgently personal, capturing the pleasures and pains of youth with bracing sensitivity. When Elio talks of “things that matter” it’s relatable no matter your gender or orientation. CMBYN finds a neat balance between heart and art (something Guadagnino has struggled with), whether it’s referencing Heraclitus or playing on Hellenic male relationships.

Of course, there are also Ray-Bans and ‘Love My Way’ by The Psychedelic Furs; the magic of Guadagnino’s film is in its deceptively freewheeling style. In its final moments, CMBYN offers a powerfully emotional full stop; those things that matter have rarely been more arrestingly captured.

Verdict: Peachy keen. A luminous, sun-kissed Italian love story brimming with warmth, passion and feeling. This is utterly unmissable.

This review was originally published in Total Film magazine.

Ginger & Rosa (2012)

Ginger & RosaEvery teenager has felt like the world’s going to end at some point. The trick in Ginger & Rosa is that the end of the world is a very real possibility – it’s 1962, and as the Cold War clamps its icy grip around the world, a nuclear holocaust seems to be edging over the horizon.

Scared and confused, teens Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) attend anti-bomb rallies; which is nothing compared to the bomb that’s dropped when Rosa reveals she’s started sleeping with Ginger’s dad (Alessandro Nivola).

Metaphors run rampant in Ginger & Rosa, threatening to tip the film into all-out absurdity on numerous occasions. An intriguing, hit-and-miss, coming-of-age period drama, director Sally Potter’s film isn’t big on subtlety where the script’s concerned.

Luckily, it’s evident in spades in G&R’s spectacular collection of performances, with Fanning and Mad Men star Christina Hendricks (as her mother) delivering commendably tremulous turns. Both are American, but both wrap their tongues around a decent middle-English accent, and it’s through their wrought mother-daughter relationship that G&R really lives and breathes.

The same can’t be said of the teenage angst that G&R frequently falls back on. It’s been done better a hundred times over in other films, and it’s only Fanning’s formidable talent that keeps her character interesting despite the recurrent strop-throwing and fall-outs.

Sporting an eye-catching crop of red hair, Fanning’s the main reason you should seek out what is essentially a flimsy teen drama lifted by a fantastic cast. See it for Fanning, marvel at what a fantastic young actress she’s turning into, then hope she finds better material in the future. 3/5

Top 10 Scando Movie Exports

1. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
It’s a testament to director Ingmar Bergman’s command as a filmmaker that, despite numerous loving pastiches (see Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey), The Seventh Seal remains an imposing, arresting drama flush with startling imagery. Bengt Ekerot as Death is truly something to behold.

2. Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
In a cinematic environment rotten with rubbish vampire flicks, LTROI damn near revolutionised the genre. It may be bloody and savage (and at times downright weird), but it ebbs with an affecting melancholy that lingers long after that watery final scene has delivered its one-two pow-wow.

Read the full article at Grolsch Film Works

Worst To Best: Bruce Willis

Die Hard (1988)

The Film: The action movie to end all action movies – and one of the coolest Christmas films ever made. Officer John McClane (Willis) attempts to free his wife’s high-rise workplace from evil terrorists, who are headed up by the eeevil (cos he’s British) Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).

Willis Genius: We’d never had an action hero like this before. A wise guy. A tough nut. A one-liner machine. Willis goes through a gruellingly physical performance, coins ever-quotable lines and looks super-cool doing it – and he makes it look EFFORTLESS. This is why he’s a ledge.

The Artist (2011)

There’s a certain poetry in the fact that a black and white silent film – which features nary a full sentence of audible dialogue – has been eliciting hollers and hooplas of delight the world over. Because that’s exactly what The Artist, a rare and exquisite production, has been receiving. Not because it pushes boundaries or breaks any rules, but because it’s an opportune reminder of just what filmmaking is all about.

Yes, The Artist is a silent movie. And yes, it’s in black and white. But in this era of overblown CGI and audience-baiting 3D, it is the perfect antidote to the technology-gone-wild filmmaking that has taken modern cinema hostage. With his sweet, even-tempered ode to classic picture crafting, director Michel Hazanavicius has proven that while James Cameron and ilk are championing in-yer-face 3D thrills, there’s nothing better than a simple story told well.

And boy does The Artist tell it well. Dipping into timeless themes that extend beyond its 1920s setting, The Artist stars Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a silent movie actor who finds that the advent of ‘talkies’ means he’ll either have to change with the times or get swallowed up by the onset of flash new technology. Meanwhile, bright young thing Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) is just breaking into the biz, and finds herself swept into the movie industry as its breakout pin-up – not least thanks to a fateful encounter with Valentin.

It’s not hard to sympathise with George. In The Artist’s opening moments, a panic not dissimilar to George’s mistrust of ‘talkies’ sets in. “What’s this?” an inner voice whimpers. “An entire film with barely a single line of dialogue, nor a solitary explosion of diagetic sound?” Such fears are quickly quelled, though, in the presence of director Hazanavicius’s confident moviemaking. Brisk, flirty and hilarious, The Artist is a breath of fresh air in an arena increasingly crowded out by big budget brutes.

Why the denial of a sound five stars? Well, while The Artist garners giggles and well-earned affection in its opening two acts, its third suffers through unmistakable slumps. Early scenes are playful and buoyant, but as the comedy dissolves into noirish drama, The Artist stretches itself a fraction too thinly. Meanwhile, a final scene development works thematically (just watch those changes roll in), but fails to achieve the undying classic status it’s clearly reaching for.

In this era of technology gone mad, though, The Artist is a joyful, rousing reminder that not everything on the big screen need have cost the same as Madonna’s latest 50 acre pad. Exhilarating and super-smart, The Artist is quite possibly the film of the year. And that’s really saying something. 4/5

20 Coolest Movie Documentaries

Crumb (1994)

The Documentary: Following underground comic artist Robert Crumb and his family.

The Cool: Let’s take a look at the credentials: Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World, Bad Santa) directs, while David Lynch (yes, the David Lynch) produces. Crumb is also intrinsically cool thanks to Crumb himself, who proves to be a compelling subject.

Strange But True: Zwigoff spent nine years making this film, living on an income of $200 a month and suffering terrible back pain that almost drove him to suicide.