The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2004)

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2004) movie poster

director Asia Argento
viewed: 01/28/2018

Maybe they should have read the title more literally.

“The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” comes from the Biblical book of Jeremiah. Deceit, indeed.

When Asia Argento adapted J.T. LeRoy’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, she really believed it to be the more or less true life tale of a young, troubled boy who went on to literary fame and stardom. She also probably knew by then that the person who would appear as J.T. LeRoy was actually a young woman, not a young man. One way or another, she went into this thing in earnest.

As earnest as her intentions, I wonder how intentionally camp this whole thing was. Because camp it is. Campity-camp-camp-camp.

Argento stars as the mother of the author, speaking with an Italian accent-inflected version of West Virginia trailer park. She is not alone. The cast includes Jeremy Renner, Peter Fonda, Michael Pitt, Lydia Lunch, Winona Ryder, and Marilyn Manson.

It’s a tale of abuse, outsized abuse, to a young boy (played very well by Jimmy Bennett as the youngest, and twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse, a little older).  Were it all true, it would be lurid enough. Would it be quite as camp?

This movie is like a super-loaded drunk who just doesn’t know when to quit.

And strangely, somehow, even though it’s like nine parts hilarious and ridiculous, it also manages to have a soul.

Argento, of all the famous folks, is the person who was the most outrageously deceived and exploited by the J.T. LeRoy cavalcade. She had an intimate relationship with LeRoy’s avatar Savannah Knoop, and she produced this manic wonder of a film, only to find out before its release that she and the world had been duped.

I file this under another unique spot in my film-watching archives: Movies I’d like to watch with John Waters. It’s a cult film waiting to be embraced.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016)

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016) movie poster

director Jeff Feuerzeig
viewed: 01/28/2018

I can’t recall now how aware I was if J.T. LeRoy before his unmasking in 2005. I might have missed out on the whole thing we’re it not a local story and so highly emblazoned in San Francisco media. As the story played out, I didn’t really get it, figuring the literary hoax just some flash in a pan nearby.

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but when so complexly interwoven, it gets stranger still.

Author: The J.T. LeRoy Story seeks to set the matter straight,…from the perspective of Laura Albert, the 40-something year old woman who was writing as a gender-fluid teen from the meanest of streets. Turns out that Albert, a victim of abuse herself, developed LeRoy as a character she used in therapy over the phone, calling in an at risk youth hotline. Her therapist turned LeRoy onto writing, then helped them get published. Albert approached writers like Denis Cooper and others as LeRoy (always by phone) and developed significant relationships with them, those suspecting they were helping a troubled, talented youth who had AIDS and was doing what he had to in order to survive.

Literary success and celebrity recognition transformed something arguably therapeutic into something much more of a fraud. Albert employed her 19 year old sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to dress in a wig and sunglasses and to “be” LeRoy in real life.

It was a gateway to fame and celebrity that sucked them all in and makes for one of the strangest scenarios you can imagine.

This version is Albert’s and portrays a damaged artist who sort of accidentally got caught up in a fraud, pulling in her family and duping the literary world, the film world, and the music world in Warholian scheme.

While it’s easy to see Albert’s side of things here, one of the most bizarre aspects of Author is the amazing amount of recorded dialogues that supplement and depict this story, spanning over a decade. Apparently Albert recorded virtually every conversation she ever had and most of the people had no idea they were being recorded. This sure adds to the movie but it’s so insanely dubious, further underscoring how much everyone who touched LeRoy’s world was being manipulated and used. And why most of them felt such acrimony for them afterwards.

I’ve fallen into a real rabbit hole here, and rabbit hole it is. An alternate documentary The Cult of J.T. LeRoy is apparently more incisive. Knoop went on and wrote a memoir of her experiences which is now being turned into a movie with Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern. Everyone at the heart of the thing is getting their own versioning of the story.

It just goes on.

Heathers (1988)

Heathers (1989) movie poster

director  Michael Lehmann
viewed: 01/27/2018

This viewing of Heathers was for my teenage daughter. This was to give some context of Winona Ryder for my little millennial, who was primarily familiar with her from Netflix’s Stranger Things. We’d watched Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorshands, but that was some time back. It seemed that watching Heathers would explain a lot more about Winona Ryder than anything I could come up with.

Of course, my daughter told me that though she had never “seen” Heathers, that she was very familiar with it. After watching the 1988 movie, I was treated to  a variety of Heathers the Musical animatic YouTube videos.

Apparently the levels of meta-Heathers at which we’ve arrived is a little mind-boggling to those of us who didn’t come of age in this current century. There is a re-boot coming. There is also apparently a TV show coming?

Before you roll your eyes too hard at this inescapable modernity crisis, keep in mind that we all still have Heathers, the original and Winona Ryder, too. And that was always a wonderful thing in the first place, here 30 years out.

I also noted to my daughter that I once attended a lecture by Timothy Leary, who was Winona’s godfather, with half the goal to see if I could get her phone number.

I was also friends with the band The Wynona Riders. I wish I still had that t-shirt.

My daughter liked the movie a lot. Still really digs the animatic videos too.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) movie poster

director Francis Ford Coppola
viewed: 09/25/2014

The monthly Netflix streaming purge, the movies suddenly short-lived on my queue.

I had been curious to revisit Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula for a while.  I’d seen it in the theater in its day, 1992, and had thought it both overdone and underdone in parts.  I think I was with many critics of the casting of Keanu Reeves with an “English?” accent and thought it was stretching Winona Ryder out in ways that didn’t seem right.  And the aesthetics, while quite well-done in ways, also seemed a little too-too for me.

But you know, I think I disagree with my younger self on this.  Okay, Keanu’s “accent” if it can be called that can be singled out as pretty silly.  But the film itself is actually quite good in many ways.

First and foremost are the set designs, costuming, make-up, and visual aesthetics and effects. Though made at the coming of the CGI revolution, the film’s effects are designed and executed through more traditional means and not only are many of them stunning but they are unique, surprising, and almost iconic.  The Simpsons did a very amusing parody in an early “Treehouse of Horror” which is some ways is as much homage as parody.  It’s funny to me how much I like it all now compared to how cynical and unappreciative I was of the film in its day.

Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins are both very good in the film.  Oldman is saddled with a very strange Romanian accent but manages to craft a Dracula of extremes of oddness and great sympathy.  Hopkins on the other hand seems to lustily enjoy his coarse, cruel Van Helsing, making for a most humorous role.

More than anything, Coppola’s approach is fun, neither overly serious nor overly camp, enjoying the indulgent visual gags, like Dracula’s ever-busy shadow, but adhering to the melodrama as well.

I wouldn’t call it a masterwork of any kind, not one of the “great” films of the world, but a really good, interesting, well-crafted work.  This is a film for which I have new-found appreciation.

Heathers (1988)

Heathers (1989) movie poster

director Michael Lehmann
viewed: 08/13/2014

Heather, Oh, Heathers.

I don’t know if I was the target audience for Heathers but at 19, I had just hugely fallen for Winona Ryder after seeing her in Beetlejuice (1987) and this, the sharpest and darkest of teen comedies of its day, the anti-John Hughes film, was made to order.

So much so, I think I was always a little suspect of it.  I mean, was it really good or did I just really like it more than I should?

It had been a long, long time since I’d seen the film.  But back in the day, I probably watched it as much as I watched any movie.  This was doubtlessly the apex or so of my Winona fixation.  And this may well be her best film.

You know, the film really does hold up.  It’s funny, it’s campy, it’s loaded with bizarre over-the-top teenage dialog that you probably never heard anyone ever utter outside of this movie but catches a certain je ne sais quoi and is pretty freaking hilarious.  It’s packed with snarky cynicism that so aptly captured the zeitgeist of this Reagan-Bush era late 1980’s malaise.  Everyone is creepy, crappy, and shallow.

Christian Slater used to grate on my more back in the day, channeling his Jack Nicholson intensely.  Maybe I could chalk it more up to pure jealousy or envy.  He’s quite good.

It is what it is, a real artifact of its time.  I was struck by the scene in which J.D. (Slater) pulls a gun and shoots blanks at the two bullies in the lunchroom.  You’d have to file that and the level of punishment doled out as an exemplar of pre-Columbine high school culture.

The film is ripe for interpretation, probably from a number of angles, most likely of course that being the teen or high school film.  And from my viewing, I actually want to give it the credit that I was always a bit more dubious about back in the day.  It is funny.  It is sharp.  It’s clever and timely and still plays very well.

I honestly thought at the time that Michael Lehmann would go on to great things (proof that even early on I ascribed to an auteurist perspective of some sort.)  He didn’t, of course.

And Winona.  I hold a soft spot for her that is entirely hers alone.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Edward Scissorhands (1990) movie poster

director Tim Burton
viewed: 11/08/2013

It’s kind of funny but I think I hit the nail rather squarely on the head in my last writing about Edward Scissorhands.  The only thing I would add really on this viewing, which was with the kids, is that it’s a bit more disappointing on further review.  The kids weren’t terribly excited about it either.

Striving for movie magic, the ice-sculpting scene is highly contrived and non-magical.  And thus, the ending, playing up this snow in Suburbia eternal fairy tale also is flat.

The biggest problems are that the social critique is both so harsh and so shallow that it doesn’t really impact one the way that it’s intended.  As cartoonish as the suburbanites are in their pastel painted homes, cars, and clothes, their fascination with the strange and unusual that quickly turns to disdain and hatred is all as hollow as it is trite.

Diane Wiest and Alan Arkin add some bland humanity and charm, but I see the film as almost as misguided as the idea of putting a blond wig on Winona Ryder.

It would have been interesting to have toned the story a la the television show Freaks and Geeks, with more retro sentimentality than modern fairy tale.  Oh well.

The Iceman (2012)

The Iceman (2012) movie poster

director Ariel Vromen
viewed: 09/15/2013

The Iceman was not a nice man. Richard Leonard “The Iceman” Kuklinski was a mob hitman who claimed to have killed between 100 and 250 people in his lifetime and career.  Really, he’s kind of like a serial killer who got hired to do what he did.  His work was largely efficient and yet highly varied in methodology.  He was eventually caught and tried and wound up dying in jail in 2006.

The film The Iceman is a biographical tale of the man and his life.  The majorly bizarre twist of his life was that he was also a happily married New Jersey suburbanite with wife and children who were totally oblivious to his brutal career.  To them and those that knew him, he was a business man of obscure generality.  And his devotion to his family suggested another side to the killer of so many.

Michael Shannon is cast as the cold, deeply disturbed man whose facade was largely one of calm and imperturbability.  Shannon specializes in crazed types who also bear a gentler, more normal self inside, something empathetic in their world of crazy.  Winona Ryder is his lovely wife, a role with some depth and range, though not a supremely complex one.  Ryder is beautiful in the film, looking a bit young to have teenage girls as daughters.  She’s pretty good in the film.  She was maybe the tipping point that got this into my queue.

Director Ariel Vromen gets a lot of reasonably big names in smaller roles in the film, sort of surprising turns by the likes of David Schwimmer and Chris Evans.  Vromen takes a pretty middle of the road approach to the narrative, going for a naturalism steeped in period clothing and dramatics of a traditional nature.

I kind of felt that there was something squandered here.  The likes of David Lynch, Paul Schraeder, Ted Demme or Andrew Dominik might have found something more profound, humorous, ironic, or bizarre in the duplicity of Kuklinski’s life.  It could have been turned to a more broader perspective on American life, like Demme’s Blow (2001) or Dominik’s Killing Them Softly (2012), viewed through the prism of crime and criminal culture. The material and ideas are there.

Vromen’s film is a solid drama though not utterly notable.  It’s nice to see Winona in a bigger role, though.

Alien Resurrection (1997)

Alien Resurrection (1997) movie poster

director Jean-Pierre Jeunet
viewed: 04/24/2013

To complete the Alien cycle, sort of, I pulled up the 1997 film, Alien Resurrection, which I hadn’t seen since its initial release.  When it first came out, I was kind of excited about it.   Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, fresh off the amazing The City of Lost Children (1995) and featuring the ever-waifish Winona Ryder, this strange mix of elements seemed to bode of something unusual and potentially cool.  On paper, at least.

The screenplay was written by Joss Whedon, though at the time that wouldn’t have meant a lot to me.  Whedon’s contributions were not enough to rescue the film, either.

Set 200 years after Alien 3 (1992), the never say dead Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is “resurrected” via DNA with an alien queen inside her.  All hell, of course, breaks loose.

Ron Perlman and Dominique Pinon, also fresh off  The City of Lost Children show up, as do the tropes and ideas that comprise an “Alien” movie.  Sort of like a jazz take on material, flashing familiar elements of a song whilst reinventing and playing with the elements.  Though in this case it would be a rather poor rendition.

Winona does indeed also appear.  As the resident android, though apparently one with emotions.  She’s not bad here. Those big brown eyes are as luminous as ever.

Sadly, Alien Resurrection is probably the worst of the original four films.  It’s not unfun.  It’s kind of entertaining. If a sloppy mess of a movie.

The Alien series Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992), and Alien Resurrection (1997) doesn’t end here.  It moves into Alien vs. Predator (2004) and then Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007).  And then does it not become re-resurrected in Prometheus (2012)?  And beyond?

As I started my venture into the “quadrilogy,” I actually also became intrigued by its knock-offs.  I haven’t watched any of them yet, though I’ve queued some.  Maybe more to come.  Maybe.

Frankenweenie (2012)

Frankenweenie (2012) movie poster

director Tim Burton
viewed: 11/03/2012 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

Frankenweenie (2012) is Tim Burton’s black-and-white stop-motion animation re-make of his own live-action short film, Frankenweenie (1984).  It’s the first animated feature that Burton has directed since Corpse Bride (2005).

This Frankenweenie takes place in a town of New Holland, a quintessential Tim Burton world, a suburbia right out of Edward Scissorshands (1990) (albeit in black-and-white), a version of a 1950’s Southern California as Anytown, USA.  But this town is populated with oddballs galore, kids all odder and creepier than our hero, Victor Frankenstein, a boy excited by science who resurrects his pet pooch when it gets hit by a car.

The characters are classic Burton, with their wide eyes, ghostly pallor, skinny legs and arch quirkiness.   I’ve liked Burton’s aesthetics since I first knew who he was after seeing Beetlejuice (1988).  I remember seeing his illustration designs for that film and thinking how cool it all was.

But in 2012, Burton has become less and less interesting and the world only more and more proliferated with quirky Goth cartoon imagery.  Frankenweenie opened a week after ParaNorman (2012) from Laika Studios in Portland, OR.  They were also the creative team behind Henry Selick’s wonderful Coraline (2009).  The world of ParaNorman, also obsessed with zombies, B-movie horror, and oddball protagonists isn’t all that different in many ways to the stop-motion character designs of Burton’s.  And while neither film was great, ParaNorman is superior to Frankenweenie.

It’s caused me much pause to think what motivates Burton these days.  His original ideas have been few and far between and his re-boot philosophy of moviemaking has come to not just reanimate any number of “classic” film, television, or other concepts, but now to even cannibalize his own original creation.

None of that would matter if the films were good.  Frankenweenie is cute, certainly has some lovely animation, designs, some funny moments.  But it’s also just oddly a bit more inanimate and uninspired.  And Felix and Clara felt similarly, preferring ParaNorman and Wreck-It Ralph (2012) of our more recent outings to the cinema.

Beetlejuice

Beetlejuice (1988) movie poster

(1988) director Tim Burton
viewed: 02/18/11

Going back to the late 1980’s, Beetlejuice was a favorite film of mine.  It turned me on to both Tim Burton and Winona Ryder.  I watched it numerous times back then, reveling in the lively comedy, cool designs, and the lovely pale-skinned, dark-eyed teen beauty.  Its mixture of black comedy and strange fantasy was revelatory and I really enjoyed Burton’s designs and cartoons from which the characters, the dead ones, evolved.

In my varying range of films to watch with the kids, I was looking for a change-up, and like a flash, it struck me that this film might be quite good for them.  And besides, it had been years since I had last seen it.

Coming on the heels of Burton’s first feature film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice was an original story concept, with some very inventive characters (Beetlejuice, Michael Keaton, the liveliest of all), it showed a kind of promise that belied the direction of Burton’s career.

The characters are terrific, deftly sketched, quite often pitch perfect, beyond Keaton and Ryder, Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara are hysterical as Lydia’s (Ryder) parents, the nebbish and high-strung dad and the delusional, shallow step-mother and great.  O’Hara may never have been better.  Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin are very charming as the small-town couple whose happy home is invaded by the tactless, tasteless Deetzes.  And Glenn Shadix as Otho, Silvia Sidney as their caseworker Juno, and Dick Cavett and Robert Goulet as pompous New York snobs, the whole group is pretty terrific.  It was one of Ryder’s most effective roles; she was in her element as a teenager.

The story of how Baldwin and Davis wind up dead, returned as ghosts to their small town home, which is invaded by the Deetzes and their dealings with the afterlife is all strange, tweaky funny stuff.   Apparently, the film started as something much darker and creepier, but it plays well as a family-friendly romp.  When Baldwin and Davis discover the “bio-exorcist” Beetlejuice, the most crass, offensive, madcap “ghost with the most”, all heck breaks loose.

This time around, I found much of the dialog to be surprisingly snappy, sharp and very funny, tuning in to the characters and performances with far more panache that Burton is known for usually.  The kids really enjoyed it.  Clara said she wanted to watch it again, right after it was over.

Burton has been an interesting yet frustrating director for me, perhaps because of his early promise and his failure to grow and blossom.  He’s still a big name in Hollywood, bigger perhaps than he would have imagined back in 1988.  But really, outside of Ed Wood (1994), Beetlejuice may be his best film.  That said, the kids have virtually no memory of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and when considering re-queueing it, thoughts of Mars Attacks! (1996) or either of his Batman films has suddenly seemed like another trope that the kids might enjoy.

Keaton’s performance is so manic, so bizarre and hilarious, I find myself still humming his Beetlejuice jingle:

“I’ll eat anything you want me to eat,
I’ll swaller anything you want me to swaller,
Give me a call,
I’ll chew on a dog!”

Pretty damn good.