Jawbreaker (1999)

I’m genuinely shocked by how few times I’ve seen the 1999 high school murder comedy Jawbreaker compared to other films in its same wheelhouse. This is far from the pinnacle of the post-Heathers teen girl cruelty satire, but I’m still close enough to dead center in its target demographic that it should have been a teen-years favorite for me. Was it merely the happenstance that Drop Dead Gorgeous was the murderous-teen-girls high school comedy that found its way onto Blockbuster’s used VHS liquidation tables at the right moment that made that one a go-to standard for me instead? Both films are deeply flawed for sure, but I could never tell exactly why one was a beloved favorite that I looped into dust while the other was a film that I occasionally ran across here or there. In retrospect, I think it’s mostly because the appeal of Drop Dead Gorgeous is instantly recognizable; the low-key absurdism of its femmed-up Christopher Guest mockumentary schtick strikes a somewhat familiar tone, no matter how ill-behaved its amorality can be from gag to gag. The specificity of Jawbreaker’s appeal was a little more obscured & difficult to pin down for me, but it finally clicked on my most recent rewatch (only my second or third experience with the film, somehow): it’s Gay.

More specifically, Jawbreaker is perversely funny for having teenage high school girls deliver dialogue obviously written by adult gay men. Judging by writer-director Darren Stein’s work on explicitly gay projects like the queer screwball high school comedy G.B.F. (Gay Best Friend) and the drag queen horror comedy All About Evil, he knew exactly what he was doing here. The dissonance of Jawbreaker is that the Teen Girl actors tasked to deliver his Gay Man dialogue don’t know what they’re communicating at all; it’s as if they’re phonetically speaking a foreign language for the very first time. The result is a bizarre comedy that is paradoxically both over-written and under-performed, which makes it exceedingly difficult to connect with if you aren’t aware of the reason for that disconnect. Once you realize the film is basically the preemptive drag parody of itself, however, everything clicks into place. It becomes clear why all the girls are breathlessly horny for each other, why they use the word “kink” every other sentence, why they emphasize the pet names “Honey” and “Bitch” with such withering sass, and why the film’s only genuine sex scene revolves around a jock hunk fellating a popsicle. It’s Gay™.

One thing both Jawbreaker and Drop Dead Gorgeous get exactly right about the post-Heathers mean-girl high school comedy template is the callous cruelty, something not all its descendants have the stomach to commit to. In this case, Stein specifically zeroed in on the Corn Nuts gag from the iconic Daniel Waters screenplay, a sequence in which a beloved prom queen chokes to death in a prank gone horribly wrong. In Jawbreaker, the most popular girl in school is “kidnapped” by her friends as a prank for her 17th birthday, gagged with the titular candy to muffle her screams of protest. When she chokes to death on the giant ball of sugar in the trunk of their car, they decide to restage her death as a rape & murder case at the hands of a stranger, and their lies eventually overwhelm them in a haphazard cover-up. This mostly manifests in them bribing the school’s most reclusive werido nerd (played by Judy Greer, somewhere under a pile of oversized wigs & sweaters) with a hot-girl makeover. They help her navigate being on top of the clique culture food chain that once buried her (pointing out such adorable social distinctions as The Karen Carpenter Table in the cafeteria) while also coaching her in how to lie to the homicide detective who investigates their friend’s death (Pam Grier, forever a badass). Unbeknownst to anyone involved, they also teach her the ways of Adult Gay Man sass & slang in exchanges like “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” “No, honey, you’re the bitch.” Did I mention that this film is Gay?

Besides its post-Heathers cruelty and its preemptive drag parody humor, Jawbreaker is most enjoyable for its bubblegum pop art aesthetic. It’s a film that’s firmly rooted in a 90s high school comedy patina (after all, it’s one of two 1999 films in which The Donnas play the climactic prom), but its candy-coated surface also has a distinctive retro appeal to it. In that way, I’d almost more readily recommend it to fans of the Sexy Archie update Riverdale than to anyone looking for more of a Drop Dead Gorgeous sensibility. If nothing else, Rose McGowan exudes some real Cheryl Blossom energy in her role as the school’s queen bee, and the cheekily named Reagan High setting shares an R letterman patch with the classic Riverdale uniform. Sometimes this heightened rot-your-teeth pop aesthetic shines beautifully, like in several surreal sequences where the titular jawbreaker makes its way through a giallo-lit candy factory or rotates in the air like a planetary orb. Sometimes it falls embarrassingly flat, as in the obnoxious screen-wipes that frequently interrupt the dialogue or the visible boom mic that dips into the cafeteria tour. Either way, the film shares the clueless-teens-delivering-Adult-Gay-Man-dialogue dissonance that also makes Riverdale weirdly enjoyable, which manifests here in strange touches like the casting of legends like P.J. Soles & Carol Kane or in throwaway references to Barbara Streisand’s “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” for no reason in particular. It’s disorienting, but it helps distinguish Jawbreaker as having a distinct flavor within the post-Heathers teen cruelty pantheon. I still don’t love it as much as Drop Dead Gorgeous, but I at least now clearly recognize its appeal as The Gay One in its genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Office Killer (1997)

I’ve been singing the praises of the directorial debut of art world “it girl” Tara Subkoff, #horror, for at least a year now, but the film seems to have, um, limited appeal. A tongue-in-cheek art horror with a cartoonish hook in its premise (social media is killing our children!), #horror premiered at MoMA in NYC before being quietly dumped onto VOD platforms (including Netflix, eventually) to a tepid-at-best critical response. This is not the first time the directorial debut of an art world darling has been treated this way. In the mid 90s, visual artist Cindy Sherman joined in the then-blossoming indie film industry with her own cartoonish art horror. Like with Subkoff’s debut, Sherman’s Office Killer was trashed by critics, tanked financially, and was eyerolled quietly into home video oblivion. Sherman made a fun, visually gorgeous, sardonically humorous genre film that should have launched a whole new phase of her career, but instead was shrugged off & swept away.

One of the more infamous Cindy Sherman photography series (in my mind, anyway) was her early 80s collection of “fashion” photographs, which depicted women (often herself) wearing clothing that supposedly made them powerful, looking miserable, squirming under the microscope of the camera lens. The picture numbered #122 in this series finds Sherman disheveled, wearing one of those monstrous shoulder pad power suits, and grimacing under the harsh florescent light of what appears to be an office. This one image almost seems to be the roadmap for where her film Office Killer would go over a decade later. The harsh lighting, the visible discomfort, and the disruption of disorder eeking out from within the rigid business world containment of the clothing feel like the stirrings of what Office Killer would eventually come to be. The only pronounced difference is that Sherman would bring in a sense of absurdist humor from her other works into the project.

Although Office Killer has Cindy Sherman’s eye crawling over every inch of the film, the real highlight is Carol Kane’s lead performance. Starting off as the exact uncomfortable-in-her-designated-role archetype depicted in the above referenced Sherman series, Kane’s titular killer is a mousy homebody who cannot suffer the intense scrutiny of being a young woman in the modern workplace. Her murder spree begins by accident, but then develops into a conscious, cold-blooded effort to make herself comfortable in a more domestic work environment. Carol Kane is usually relegated​ to minor supporting roles in her career, like her violent fairy in Scrooged or her crazed landlord in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but in Office Killer she’s allowed to command the screen whole-heartedly. What’s even better is that she’s given a chance to do so in a quietly campy, increasingly violent lead role that recalls Kathleen Turner’s performance in the John Waters classic Serial Mom, a comparison I evoke only as the highest of compliments.

Serving as a lowly, nobody office girl at a magazine publication, Kane’s anti-hero protagonist is an awkward ball of nervous energy. With a uniform of tightly-bunned hair, ratty sweaters, wire-framed glasses, and drawn-on eyebrows, she’s a sore thumb in the workplace, where more traditional Modern Women (including Molly Ringwald) poke fun at her discomfort & reclusiveness. The pressure of caring for her invalid mother (Alice Drummond of Ghostbusters fame) at home and fighting off the unwanted sexual advances of men at work tear her mind in half and she snaps. After accidentally killing a coworker after-hours, she takes the body home to her basement and finds them much easier to deal with that now that they’re lifelessly compliant with being manipulated and she’s in command. That’s when the killings become an intense obsession. She converts her basement into a “home office,” forgiving errands from her not at all alive victims to stave off search parties (in the same very early in the game Internet Age paranoia) and setting them up like mannequins at computers & typewriters. This is all in service of directly evoking a long simmering punchline about how she’s now able to “work from home.” It’s a deranged premise, but it’s all in good fun.

It took me a little while to get on the same wavelength as Office Killer. It’s the kind of film that improves exponentially each scene until it concludes at its most ridiculous point, so it makes sense to me that a contemporary audience in the 90s would turn on it early and never be able to land back on the same page as the film. Sherman has explained in interviews that the initial plan was for the film’s kills to be much bloodier & more gore-focused, but she scaled the violence back to focus on how Kane’s protagonist disposed (or doesn’t dispose) of the bodies instead of the actual acts of violence. I think this was ultimately the right decision, since it allows the film’s campy, Serial Mom vibe to play out much more brightly. The initial kills, which include electrocution, strangulations, and deaths by asthma inhaler, may not be bloody, but the softness of their initial impact makes way for a much more shocking, grotesque reveal once you get to see the full, gory scope of the killer’s self-made “home office” (which recalls John Landis’s “Family” episode of Masters of Horror). The dead bodies held together by scotch tape & Windex, including children, gives Office Killer the violent edge horror audiences may have been looking for throughout its runtime. Sherman chooses to save that mayhem for a morbid punchline that allows Carol Kane to shine in full Norman Bates glory before it hits. It may have been a decision that turned off audiences at the time, but plays in retrospect like an act of genius.

Cindy Sherman delivers exactly what I want from my genre films here, the exact formula that won me over in Tara Subkoff’s #horror. She mixes lowbrow camp with highbrow art production in an earnest, gleeful work that values both ends of that divide. As faintly silly as Carol Kane’s performance can be as a deranged killer, Sherman colors her background with a genuinely horrific history of sexual assault, where she constantly has to hear praise for her abuser in a work environment. She employs infamous provocateur Todd Haynes to provide “additional dialogue” to make sure that discomfort seeps in. The sickly, flickering florescent lights of her film’s office setting afford it a horror aesthetic long before the kills begin, especially when she focuses on the harsh, moving light of a copier running in the dark. Even the opening credits, which glides as projections across still, office environment objects, have an artfulness to them missing from a lot of tongue-in-cheek horror. Maybe some audiences don’t know what to do with that tonal clash and assumed Sherman similarly didn’t know what she was doing when she created it. Maybe it’s that exact attitude that also sank #horror before it really had a chance. All I can say for sure is that Office Killer deserved a much better response than the one it got and it’s criminal that Sherman hasn’t had a chance to make a follow-up to her near-perfect debut.

-Brandon Ledet

A Christmas Carol Five Ways

EPSON MFP image

For this holiday, I decided to watch five different versions of A Christmas Carol. Despite the anti-semitic subtext (the main character is a stingy money lender with a big nose, and the name Ebenezer, who finds the meaning of Christmas), it’s a story that 173 years later still feels relevant: a ruthless, old rich man who hates Christmas being scared into human decency.

I’m going to give an overview here in chronological order along with my choice for favorite ghost.

Scrooge (1951)

This is the version considered to be the best classic. It’s easy to write it off as just a straightforward telling of the book, but there’s a lot of stylistic fun. The ghosts have some cool fadings in and out, the lighting and atmosphere are spooky, and this film seems to have set the rules for how A Christmas Carol movies should look and feel. Not to mention the iconic way they present Tiny Tim’s famous line.

Alastair Sim is a really great Scrooge. He plays both sides of the character’s nature well: the detestable penny pincher and the pitiful old man. Not to mention that he makes a bunch of fantastic faces. His ending transformation is absolutely manic and almost more terrifying than how he starts out.

Favorite Ghost: I think the Ghost of Christmas Past here is actually really cool. In a lot of ways, I think this is the hardest ghost to get right, which is a shame because it’s the one that usually gets the most screen time.  I like this guy’s Greek robes. He’s soft spoken yet authoritative, which I guess makes sense, since the past speaks for itself.

Scrooge (1970)

I was really surprised with how much I really enjoyed this one. It might be my second favorite and I’m considering adding it to the household tradition watch list. It’s very solidly British, with very solidly British humor. It’s a musical, and one of the first songs you hear is “I Hate People.” If you’re not sold after that number, I don’t know what to tell you. But if you make it through enjoying nothing else, it gets really ’70s weird near the end, with a trippy scene where Scrooge actually goes to Hell.

Albert Finney is by far the grubbiest Scrooge. There’s a few close-ups of his very grimy hands with dirt under the finger nails. Scrooge’s house reflects that and  is the most convincing Scrooge house. It’s this elaborate mansion, but Scrooge is so stingy that he only uses a small, filthy section of it. The rest is cobwebs and decay.

Favorite Ghost: Jacob Marley is my favorite ghost in this one. He’s played by Alec Guinness (hey, he plays a ghost at least twice in his career), who pantomimes ghostly floating by bobbing up and down. Second place to the Ghost of Christmas Past for having a really great hat!

Scrooged (1988)

This take on A Christmas Carol is very different. If you’re not already familiar with it, it’s about Bill Murray who is a television executive. He’s ruthless and bizarre. As he’s producing a live TV version of A Christmas Carol, he gets visited by the three ghosts (I guess four if you count Marley) who are just as updated and bizarre. It’s the very cynical Network-esque take on the story.

Bill Murray is great as a rich asshole. He’s exactly the kind of rich asshole a modern audience knows about. The boss who will fire someone for bringing up reasonable concerns and will ignore when a single mom needs to take her child to the doctor.  As a Scrooge type character he’s half as old but twice as mean, and despite the surreal world that surrounds him, he’s quite believable, which in a lot of ways makes him seem like he’s past redemption. Luckily the ghosts are ruthless and sadistic.

Favorite Ghost: It’s really hard to say no to Carol Kane as bubbly fairy punching Bill Murray in the face, but I actually really like the take on Christmas Yet to Come here. Its entrance, just appearing, looming on the television monitors, is just so creepy and amazing.

A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

This version is my personal favorite and has been since childhood, and despite the presence of The Muppets, it’s actually really close to the book. There are many, many lines lifted straight from the page. I’m kind of a big Jim Henson/muppets fan in general (which you may remember from my article about The Dark Crystal), but I think what really gets me about this movie are those Paul Williams melodies. I don’t really think it’s Christmas without them (especially since my other favorite Christmas movies is Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, another Henson production with more of Williams’s music). This movie came out after Jim Henson died and was directed by his son, but all the other muppet players are there: Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, and Steve Whitmire (who now voices Kermit after Henson’s death).

Gonzo is Charles Dickens here and narrates the whole thing with the help of Rizzo the Rat. Following that pair’s misadventures through the story keeps the muppet whimsicality throughout the whole movie. Not to mention the appearances by other notable muppet characters like the Swedish Chef or Sam the Eagle. Michael Caine as Scrooge delivers the “they better do it and decrease the surplus population” line with so much darkness and grit, but at the same time has such good chemistry with his furry castmates. As I’ve said already that this is my favorite version of the story, he’s also who I think of as Scrooge.   Also at the end, he busts out some of the most awkward moves I think I’ve seen a grown man do, and in his night gown to boot!

Favorite Ghost: I’m going to have to go with Marley here. Except in this version they created a second Marley, Robert Marley. These two Marleys are played by Statler and Waldorf, who are known for being the hecklers. They get a pretty good musical number complete with singing money chests.

Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009)

Out of all the versions I watched, this was the most mediocre and also the most frightening. It’s a Robert Zemeckis animated feature done in a very similar style to Polar Express, which means uncanny semi-realistic people, but beautiful backgrounds. There are so many adaptations of this work, though, that I don’t think I really understand why this one was even necessary, since it’s very close to the book and other than some impressive animation it’s pretty unremarkable. Nor do I understand why a family movie has a couple unnecessary jump scares. Despite the jump scares and creepy animated people, it just seems to drag on.  There’s so many scenes of Scrooge getting dragged along and knocked about all of them screaming, “We released this in 3D!”. It gets so old so quickly. There’s also some really bizarre and troubling imagery worked throughout. Jacob Marley’s jaw gets detached. The Ghost of Christmas Past goes through a freaky face morphing thing. A woman gets snatched away by a straight jacket. It’s just very dark. I wasn’t especially impressed with Jim Carrey as Scrooge, either. Albeit, this was animated, so I’m going off the voice acting for the most part, despite the film using motion capture heavily in it’s animation.

Favorite Ghost: I didn’t think they were interesting at all, but I guess I’ll go with Marley again, but only because he’s a grotesque, decaying corpse.

Interestingly, 3 of the 5 titles are some variation on Scrooge. All of them are agreed on what the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come looks like, 4 out of 5 have similar ideas of the Ghost of Christmas Present, but none of them can agree on what the Ghost of Christmas Past looks like.

-Alli Hobbs