Tag Archives: underrated

Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should #9 – The Business of Strangers (2001, dir. Patrick Stettner)

My heart always sinks slightly when I realise a film has been made by a debut writer-director. In most cases these hyphenates are very capable at punching out the words and are no slouch behind the camera, but combining the two disciplines for the first time usually leads to a worrying lack of distance from their material, and an inability to know what works well and what doesn’t. This usually becomes most apparent in the last 20 minutes of the film when the viewer’s buttock muscles determine that a more objective eye would have pruned away some of the stuff that the cutting-room floor was crying out for.

Patrick Stettner proves a very welcome exception to the rule. The Business of Strangers is an assured and compelling piece of work that weighs in at a nicely lean 84 minutes. Despite being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and winning Stockard Channing the London Critics’ Circle award for Best Actress, it made little impact at the box-office and failed to lead on to greater things for Stettner, whose only subsequent bash at direction was the distinctly underwhelming The Night Listener. But let’s not hold that against him. The Business of Strangers is just as perceptive as Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men (another writer/director’s debut that explored power games in the workplace with a sexual twist) but without the characteristically bitter aftertaste of the LaBute recipe.

As brilliant as she is, Stockard Channing’s award (and nominations from other bodies) feels acutely unjust with respect to this film. It is the sparky interaction with the equally brilliant Julia Stiles that lingers long after the copyright information has disappeared off the top of the screen. Elsewhere on this blog, I have written about the ‘first female buddy movie’ in which the two actresses flounder in underwritten and over-directed material. The chief pleasure with The Business of Strangers is in watching two actresses at the top of their game, letting rip in roles that are perfectly in sync with their talents.

The opening scenes act like a dry run for Up in the Air. Stockard Channing plays Julie, a high-ranking, high maintenance businesswoman, inhabiting the same platinum air miles, executive hotel suite, hand-baggage-only milieu as George Clooney in the later film. She power-strides from airport to boardroom to hotel-room, wheeling her perfectly packed existence behind her, mobile phone clamped to her ear, the omnipresent muzak reverberating in her wake. Julie is a woman who has sacrificed much for her success: fearing for her job when one of her superiors calls an unexpected meeting, it is her therapist whom she phones for support. Learning instead that she is to be made CEO, her secretary is the only one she cares to share the good news with.

"Channing and Stiles are both superb, exuding intelligence and shouldering the film effortlessly between them"

Julia Stiles is Paula, a subordinate of Julie, but only in terms of job description. Her first encounter with Julie is brief: she is 45 minutes late for a meeting and, without being able to offer an explanation, summarily fired. Later, quietly basking in the glow of her promotion, Julie hears Paula yell a typically uncompromising “Fuck off!” at a man in her hotel bar. The dynamic of this second meeting is fascinating as the women jockey for the upper hand. When Julie attempts to apologise for the earlier firing without actually saying sorry and by offering a drink, Paula picks the most expensive cognac on the menu – ‘A double’ – shooting her superior the cockiest look in her repertoire. The woman she refers to as ‘überfrau’ is not to be allowed to diminish her again.

As the alcohol lubricates the friction between them, Paula admits that her real love is non-fiction writing: “The whole fiction thing is too neat – I like the sloppiness of real life.” Which is pretty much the feel of the evening that these two women spend together. Their relationship shifts constantly, with Paula an unpredictable catalyst. Sporting a spider tattoo in the nape of her neck, she gives the impression of spinning her own web, veering from arrogant to vulnerable via reckless and flirtatious. “You know a number of pornos are directed by women? They’re very similar but there’s less sex and more foreplay…”, challenging Julie with another of those meaningful looks. There is a palpable sexual undercurrent as they scandalise the occupants of a lift by joking about strap-ons and fool around in the hotel pool, but how seriously are we to take either of their intentions?

It would be unfair to reveal much more about plot, but suffice to say the dynamic changes markedly when a slick headhunting colleague of Julie’s oils his way into their company. There is a marvellous moment of transition when the women enter an area of the hotel under construction and are illuminated by a plane taking off from the nearby airport. Stettner uses slow motion and an ominous music cue to indicate that the larky power games are about to be played for higher stakes. And as scotches are downed, pills are popped and inhibitions are dulled, the boundaries that divide the poor girl made good and the slumming rich girl become increasingly indistinct.

Channing and Stiles are both superb, exuding intelligence and shouldering the film effortlessly between them. Hollywood should be ashamed that their talents have been so neglected. To watch Julia Stiles slump from her purple patch a decade ago to playing a barely-there character in the Bourne films and the lead in (shudder) The Omen remake is bitter proof that talent alone is not enough. And although I am aware that Stockard Channing has done something called The West Wing and won an award or two for it, what we really want to see is Rizzo clutching her Oscar, clad in Pink Lady jacket, cigarette dangling from lip – right?

Contributor Fintan McDonagh can be followed on Twitter @Fintalloneword.

Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should #7: Massacre at Central High (1976, dir. Rene Daalder)

We are told on director Rene Daalder’s website that Massacre at Central High, a forgotten 1976 horror-thriller, “predicted punk and Columbine”. It’s a bold claim, but one not hard to substantiate once you take into account its subject matter: teenagers that kill people. It’s a rough, tough, divey little film that presents a portrait of humanity at its bleakest. Education, in the film’s eyes, is nothing but a horrorshow parade of grotesques, with its denizens either suppressed by their fascist overlords or clamouring for power themselves. It doesn’t care if you like it, but it demands your attention anyway.

Not that you’d know it to look at. Compositionally, it’s a total mess. Corridors that are populated one second are empty the next. Characters’ eye lines barely match up. There’s leaden acting to put cinema’s current Queen of Lethargy, January Jones, to shame. All the characters, apparently high-schoolers, look double their ostensible ages. The more laudatory quotes about the film being a socio-political allegory in the vein of Animal Farm (Daalder’s own website collates the best ones) tend to overlook the fact that any connoisseur of low-rent 1970s pornography would likely feel at home with its intermittent bouts of softcore canoodling on beaches by firelight. This skin-flick titillation is even deployed, most shockingly, to enliven a scene of attempted rape. When the body count begins to mount up, the period 1976 dialogue tends to undercut the dramatic tension. “It’s time you all dug it! We’re talking heavy changes.” spouts one of the teens after a number of students have met with unfortunate ‘accidents’.

What Massacre at Central High has going for it, though, is a brutal originality. Already lionised by Danny Peary in his second volume of Cult Movies, its exploitation title may conjure associations with the telekinetic horror of Carrie, the demented array of killings in Happy Birthday to Me, Stockard Channing’s plastic-surgery vengeance in The Girl Most Likely To and the dull carnage of forgotten shocker Slaughter High. But its protracted ‘massacre’ remains mostly bloodless; its indiscriminate killings more disturbing by their lack of accompanying real-world context. If the film does have a cinematic cousin, it’d probably be Larry Clark’s Bully which, like most of Clark’s work, writhes around looking for exploitation credentials with a look-at-me desperate audacity to compensate for a lack of profundity. Massacre at Central High, though is less concerned with such histrionics, even if its killings, which include a dolt skydiving into some power lines after his equipment is sabotaged, are in the end more eccentric than shocking.

The film opens with a tonally ambiguous display of ‘social protest’ – a hippie scrawling a swastika on a locker door to stick it to “the little league Gestapo” terrorising the school – and ends with a thwarted attempt to blow up the entire school. That last narrative trick is, by now, old hat. Buffy Summers managed to do it in the late 1990s, though in that case she was keeping the evil contained inside the building (a demonic Mayor and petulant Principal) from getting out, rather than incinerating everyone inside with the blank, violent and unexplained nihilism of Massacre at Central High’s David (Derrel Maury) whose psycho-pathology is chalked up to a case of him merely being a self-declared “madman”.

David enters the film supposedly as our moral guide. He’s a transfer student who’s following in the footsteps of his jockish buddy Mark (a young Andrew Stevens, later to crop up in The Fury). Stumbling through a corridor looking for the student lounge (we’re later told it’s like “the fucking country club”), he hits on the school hottie Theresa (Kimberly Beck). David, at the behest of Mark, is invited to join the influential power clique of four boys that run the school: Bruce, Paul, Craig and – somewhat reluctantly – Mark himself. David goes along and witnesses the gang’s several acts of bullying. The four hi-jack and trash an idiot’s car with glee. They bully “lardass” Oscar for not being able to jump rope very well and then kick him about in the locker room. They harass a nasal student librarian, Arthur, about an overdue book loan and then wreck the place. Unimpressed, David shuns the group.

The boys think David’s spoiling for a fight but Mark insists “He’s just aloof, that’s his nature” and that he doesn’t “understand how things work around here”. But after the boys drop a car on David’s leg for his insolence, he goes on a calculated killing rampage to enact revenge after being made a “cripple” by the accident. In actuality David’s physical disability amounts little more than to a slight limp but – no matter! – he uses this as a pretext to engineer the deaths of the bullies. When he runs out of these antagonists, he fixes his gaze upon their former victims, who now are looking to muscle in on the action. He kills them as well. Finally, when killing everyone else in the school proves untenable, he kills himself, either in a confused act of martyrdom or by accident.

Many are keen to point out the similarities between Massacre’s central nutcase David and the psychopath at the heart of Michael Lehmann’s Heathers, Jason ‘J.D’ Dean. Sometimes these exercises can be useful. Most people recognise Black Christmas as a forerunner to Halloween and When a Stranger Calls. Everyone accepts Reservoir Dogs owes a heavy debt to City on Fire. Forcing a lineage between an influential film (like Thelma & Louise, say) and a cult flick that came before it with tangentially similar subject matter (like Assault of the Killer Bimbos, say) is more problematic. It’s true that what’s explicit in Heathers – J.D wants to create a warped “Woodstock for the 80s” where people will observe “there’s a school that self-destructed not because society didn’t care, but because that school was society” – is subtextual, or at least unspoken, in Massacre at Central High, which tends to solve its problems by having its characters violently explode when they’ve outlived their narrative usefulness. But, thematically speaking, the two are poles apart.

A useful comparison is between the uses of music in both films. Heathers is shot through with snippets of a fictional song penned by Big Fun, ‘Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)’, which is an indication of the wicked-black, fickle satire at the heart of Daniel Waters’ screenplay. Massacre, by contrast, opens with a drippy love ballad that opens with the line “You’re at the crossroads of your life/A runner chasing dreams that could come true…” which seems thoroughly unironic in its sincerity. What separates the two out from each other is the Massacre’s moral void. It’s hard to tell if its scenes of macabre death – such as a luckless swimmer headplanting into an empty swimming pool in the dark – are intended to elicit cackles or genuine chills without the ballast of Winona Ryder’s reluctant killer Veronica Sawyer at heart of it all. Similarly the film’s understanding of power structures (any position of authority corrupts absolutely) is too simplistic to be read as anything other academic posturing.

With all its self-evident low-budget foibles, it’d be shame for the film to pass into further obscurity, given that the words ‘high school’ and ‘horror’ are now more commonly associated with the self-aware irony of Scream, The Faculty, and Cherry Falls. What was given shonky sub-Mel Brooks treatment in Student Bodies is now either recognised as standardised horror fare to be recycled (Tamara, Jennifer’s Body) or rendered the stuff of stony-faced ‘social commentary’ (Elephant). But the dark heart that beats at the core of Daalder’s film is one that teen cinema has never bothered to reclaim. In its unremitting impurity it’s a film with no parent, and few children. Something to bear in mind when you next happen across an episode of Glee.

Contributor Sam Price runs the film blog A Tremendous Amount of Wheat. You can follow him on Twitter @_wheat.

Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should #6 – Helen (2008, dirs. Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor)

A sunny local park. A girl in a bright yellow jacket walks across the grass with some friends. We watch in slow motion, to the sound of glacial, discordant music, as she stops to kiss them goodbye. She walks on, passing a boy with a clarinet, some kids with a ball, a girl with a skipping rope. The title screen appears: Helen. We see her closer, directly from behind. Then the music stops, and we cut to another park scene with figures in black uniforms, looking downwards, walking slowly across a pathway as if part of some sombre line-dance. We immediately know: the girl is missing. These were her last known steps.

Released in 2008, Helen is the feature debut by directing partnership Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, whose other work consists of a series of shorts called ‘Civic Life’. Like those films, the style here never really changes: long shots, slow camera movements, drawn-out music. Unprofessional actors recite stilted dialogue. Sound unpromising? Somehow, from this concoction, a genuine resonance is created – and if you’re anything like me, before you know it the credits will be rolling and you’ll realise you’ve just spent 75 minutes utterly transfixed.

From a directing partnership whose interest clearly lies in style and mood over conventional narrative, you wouldn’t necessarily be expecting wonders from the plot. But this film’s central premise is a brilliant one: to help search for Joy, the girl we see in the opening scene, the police call upon Helen, her schoolmate, to play her part in a filmed reconstruction. It turns out Helen is an orphan from a local care home, and so a pair of voids is set up – her parentlessness, and Joy’s parents’ childlessness – which cannot help but come together in strange and unsettling ways.

The girl in the yellow kagoule

There’s a satisfying dovetailing of working method and output here in that ‘reconstruction’ is so close to what Molloy and Lawlor are doing as filmmakers themselves. Entering a location, they will find members of the local community to participate in a given project as actors and ask for their thoughts on such matters as what the film should be about, what they would like to say, or even where the camera should be placed. The results are openly fictional and highly stylised but nevertheless firmly based in the reality of their subjects’ lives.

Moments in this film demonstrate that ethic clearly: at one point, we see a teenager playing guitar in a dance studio – then someone comes in, says something, and the boy unplugs and vacates the room. In file some schoolchildren followed by a police-officer, and a scene proceeds which does indeed have relevance to Helen’s narrative. But what of the guitarist? We never see him again, but he seems to be there to tell us: rooms aren’t just film sets, where one (prioritised) single story takes place; they’re real locations, housing multiple individual experiences day-to-day. ‘Civic Life’ indeed. And Molloy and Lawlor’s habit of pointing their camera where others wouldn’t pays off as the scene progresses: we are shown not the policewoman speaker but the children listening, and are left to search their faces for meaning and reaction. Is that blank look boredom or fear? Did one of them just smirk?

The acting is limited but it’s almost as if it brings out an extra dimension in the script by its very lack of bombast. When Helen first meets Joy’s parents there’s something unnerving about how quickly they settle into asking about homework. Then, when she visits their house for dinner – a wonderful Haneke-esque scene where middle-class niceties struggle to contain the horrors beneath – you feel as if an intruiging puzzle has been set by the fact that the father breaks down on the phrase “unknown constant” (referring, ostensibly, to maths). Later, it’s possible to detect just how fully this process is taking over Helen’s life: showing an old photo to Joy’s ex-boyfriend (she’s really getting her feet under the table at this point) she says, in true police-procedural style: “Can I ask you to describe what you see in this picture?”

By writing this piece, in fact, I’m quickly discovering that this is one of those films which gets richer and richer the more you think about it – always a good sign. Alas, I have a word limit, but I think you get the gist. This is bold, thoughtful and distinctive filmmaking – the type we should be celebrating – and, if you haven’t seen it already, I urge you to give it a try.

Contributor Jamie Ruszczynski runs the film blog Shot Through A Window.