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No. 26: “Heavenly Creatures” (1994)

“We have decided how sad it is for others that they cannot appreciate our genius.”
~~Pauline Parker

The story of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, two New Zealand teens who killed Pauline’s mother with half a brick jammed in a stocking, is too strange not to be true. In “Heavenly Creatures,” Peter Jackson makes it stranger. He brings Borovnia, the elaborate fantasy realm created by unstable friends Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet), to alarming life with castles and expressionless, life-size claymation-like creatures. That these two worlds will smash into each other is inevitable; what’s surprising is the way “Heavenly Creatures” makes the collision feel just as shocking as the day it happened.

Jackson’s first few shots are designed to provide a portrait of hyperconservative 1950s Christchurch, then thrust us into the worst of the Parker-Hulme murder. “Heavenly Creatures” opens with idyllic scenes of Christchurch: wildflower-covered hills, whitewashed fences, quaint steeple-topped churches. This is a place where supper’s waiting on the table at 5, where words like “murder” are unthinkable. Abruptly the camera cuts to Pauline and Juliet, their faces covered with blood, screaming. With no context for their distress, Jackson sets a tone of profound unease. As “Heavenly Creatures” continues, the unease gives way to sheer horror as Pauline and Juliet’s obsession with each other grows. The two meet at school: Juliet, bright, pretty and self-confident enough to correct her French teacher’s grammar, is a new student. Pauline, played with spooky glowering intensity by Lysnkey, couldn’t be more different from her classmate. Shy and self-conscious about the scar on her leg caused by bone disease, Pauline exists in her own make-believe world. That makes her immensely attractive to Juliet, who wishes life could be a romance novel. “All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It’s all frightfully romantic,” she insists. Listen carefully to how Winslet pitches her voice on this line; she sounds bubbly, but that cheer is tinged with mania, just enough to clue us in this friendship won’t be a beautiful one.

At first, Pauline and Juliet seem like a harmless enough pair, two dreamy teen girls swooning over tenor Mario Lanza and prattling on about Orson Welles. Then they are separated when Juliet has an attack of tuberculosis, and the friendship turns to what looks like romantic obsession. Soon they are so tangled up in each other’s lives that Juliet’s parents (Diana Kent, Simon O’Connor) and Pauline’s mother Honora (Sarah Pierse) start to wonder if … if what? In 1954 Christchurch, the word “lesbian” has no meaning except to Pauline’s doctor, who views homosexuality as a disease to be cured. Everyone agrees separating Pauline and Juliet is best; Pauline blames her mother alone and sketches a plan for her murder. No one, it seems, can or wants to understand how combustible the girls’ bond has become. But one line in Pauline’s diary says it all: “The next time I write in this diary, Mother will be dead. How odd … yet how pleasing.” This frenzy has reached a point of no return.

How could two normal girls commit such a crime? There’s no answer, and Jackson and co-writer Fran Walsh don’t invent one. (It’s intriguing that Parker and Hulme, after serving five years in prison, went on to lead uneventful lives: Hulme found success writing crime novels under the name Anne Perry, and Parker changed her name and converted to Roman Catholicism.) His focus, Jackson has said, was to provide a humane look at what happened, and he does not demonize the killers; instead, he recreates their friendship and turns the fantasy world in Pauline’s journals into a mythical place using digital effects and actors in green latex suits. The result is striking (this is Peter Jackson) and menacing as the bottomless black eyes of the Borovnian creatures.

The visuals, however, are but part of the reason “Heavenly Creatures” gets under our skin. Lynskey and Winslet, both new to film acting in 1994, are astonishing finds. Winslet heaps on sunny smiles, but they are twitchy and preternaturally wide, like she’s one step away from completely losing control. With her eyes alone Lynskey projects menace beyond her 16 years. When she remarks “it’s a three-act story with a tragic ending,” there’s gravity in those words like you can’t imagine.

Clooney, Reitman hit new heights in “Up in the Air”

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) discovers life's better with company (Farmiga) in "Up in the Air."

Sit next to the sharply dressed Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) on a plane and he’d gladly unpack his carry-on of inspirational messages. You look like you need to talk, he’d say, and he’d be right because what traveler wouldn’t welcome a pleasant distraction from the crying babies, that pinging “fasten seatbelt” sign? Ryan Bingham is nothing if not an expert at diverting attention.

In truth, Ryan’s actually a professional distractor, though his business card proclaims his job title to be “termination consultant” or something similar in corporate speak. And in Jason Reitman’s witty, subtle and deeply felt “Up in the Air,” that’s just what Ryan does: fly around the country and distract people from reality — he’s firing them from their jobs because their bosses lack the guts — with chatter about new opportunities. The way he sees it, firings and layoffs translate into something valuable: the promise of motion. In fact, Ryan adopts “moving is living” as his credo of sorts. And Reitman structures “Up in the Air,” his witty, remarkably accomplished third film, around this mantra, not because he swallows it as gospel truth but because he understands how people can use — and abuse — the idea.

Ryan, played with maturity and grace by Clooney, deserves lifetime membership in the second group. The only time he sits still is on a plane. He lives out of compact suitcase, spending precious little time in his blank Omaha, Neb., apartment, and finds comfort in the sterility of rental cars and hotel suites. He believes he’s happy flitting from city to city, pushing toward a certifiably insane goal of 1 million frequent flyer miles, until two things happen to change his mind. Or, rather, two people happen. The first is Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga, divine as always), a bold and sexy corporate traveler who informs Ryan: “Think of me as you with a vagina.” She seems a saucy match for Ryan, and he enjoys her company so much he begins to question his in-flight lifestyle.

Second comes Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a cutthroat Cornell grad with big ideas about streamlining (i.e., taking it online) the process Ryan’s perfected. He’s horrified by her suggestion his methods are obsolete and takes her on the road, where she sees, really sees, that the printed names on a list belong to people. That’s hardly a novel concept, but pay close attention to Kendrick’s expression as she sits in on firing after firing. There are so many emotions — indifference, surprise, horror — at play on her face that Kendrick turns these moving scenes into an epiphany. Though the experience affects her profoundly, she’s too stubborn to admit it. But Ryan observes the change in her eyes, and what he sees makes him own up to a distasteful truth: he long ago stopped buying the platitudes he’s selling. Maybe he never did.

Gently observant films like this require strong writing and performances captivating enough to make us want to investigate, to unearth the subtleties.  In this regard, “Up in the Air” plays like Ensemble Acting 101; put simply, the acting is superb. Every actor, from those onscreen 10 minutes — Danny McBride injects humor as Ryan’s jittery future brother-in-law, while Melanie Lynskey, as Ryan’s estranged sister, radiates hope for reconciliation — to Clooney and Farmiga, rise to the challenge. Farmiga proves, as she did in “Down to the Bone” and “The Departed,” that she is an actress of exceptional warmth, and her chemistry with Clooney is palpable. Kendrick is a find, an actress possessed of the kind of talent that belies her 24 years; she makes us feel the sharp distress of her growing pains.

Turns as strong as these might lose steam without an achoring performance, and Clooney provides a measured but impressive one. He’s one of the rare actors who has allowed age to improve his talent. Clooney knows there’s more to Ryan than gimmicky speeches, and he hints at those depths with his changing eyes, his face, his body language. There were no shortcuts; he had to do some living to be ready for this performance. He did, he is and he finds good company in Reitman, who, with “Up in the Air,” has created the magnum opus of his young career and a snapshot of recession-era America. 

Grade: A

Top 10 actors/actresses of 2009

How many blog comments, I wonder, have inspired whole posts?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but the ever-astute Encore Entertainment posed a difficult but interesting question: Who gave the best performances, the ones that would top my list of favorites for the year?

Now that’s a thinker … but one that only lasted about six minutes. Then in marched the answers, and I present them to you thusly:

The ladies

Mo'Nique's blistering turn in "Precious" deserves to be called the best of the year.

  1. Mo’Nique, “Precious”
  2. Abbie Cornish, “Bright Star”
  3. Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious”
  4. Melanie Laurent, “Inglourious Basterds” 
  5. Vera Farmiga, “Up in the Air”
  6. Melanie Lynskey, “The Informant!” 
  7. Isabella Rossellini, “Two Lovers”
  8. Vinessa Shaw, “Two Lovers”
  9. Charlyne Yi, “Paper Heart”
  10. Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”

The fellows

Christoph Waltz creates the perfect villain in "Inglourious Basterds."

  1. Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”
  2. Adam Sandler, “Funny People”
  3. George Clooney, “Up in the Air”
  4. Matt Damon, “The Informant!”
  5. Tobey Maguire, “Brothers”
  6. Joaquin Phoenix, “Two Lovers”
  7. Paul Schneider, “Bright Star”
  8. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “(500) Days of Summer”
  9. Mark Ruffalo, “The Brothers Bloom”
  10. Zachary Quinto, “Star Trek”

Readers, which actors and actresses delivered the year’s best performances? Let’s hear your picks.

Damon grounds Soderbergh’s gnarly, screwball “The Informant!”

Agent 007, listen up: You got nothin' on Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), who blows the whistle on corporate price fixing in "The Informant!"

Agent 007, listen up: You got nothin' on Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), who blows the whistle on corporate price fixing in "The Informant!"

Matt Damon, it would seem, is on a mission to make Trey Parker and Matt Stone chow down on some crow — big, heapin’ pie shells full of it. Since 2004, when “Team America” gave us the Matt Damon puppet, the Oscar winner has headlined two more “Ocean’s” movies, another Bourne thriller and mind-benders like “The Departed” and “Syriana.” And now he’s gone and tackled Mark Whitacre, that squirrelly fellow who blew the lid off a huge price-fixing scheme perpetrated by lysine development conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), in the mid-1990s.

How does Damon fare, you wonder? Let’s just say Trey and Matt might need to rifle their utensil drawers for some big ole’ wooden spoons. Damon is flat-out fantastic in Soderbergh’s twisty, witty corporate thriller, finding comedy in Whitacre’s delusions — he’s 0014, he insists, because he’s “twice as smart as 007” — but also the boredom and unhappiness that puddle at the roots. This is a whopper of a performance, sad and humorous and disturbing, but so subtle that it probably won’t earn Damon any nominations. But acting this good is a triumph in itself.

Soderbergh, who seems to have some innate softness for whistle-blowers (“Erin Brockovich,” “The Insider”), lets Damon stand at the center of Scott Burns’ adapted screenplay. That’s a wise decision, considering it gives “The Informant!” a dose of humanity to offset the air of whimsy, the pretzel-like script and the dementedly chirpy score (direct all praise to composer Marvin Hamlisch). Whitacre’s an ambitious man looking to ascend the ranks at ADM, so he’s none too happy when his wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) forces him to detail ADM’s global price-fixing plot to FBI Special Agent Brian Shepherd (Scott Bakula, playing the bemused straight man). The feds get involved — including Special Agent Bob Herndon (Joel McHale, who’s sold out and probably can’t keep at it with that “Talk Soup” gig much longer) — and Whitacre ends up sporting wires, orchestrating clandestine meetings and, eventually, narcing on pretty much everyone who signs his sizable paychecks. And yet there’s so much more to the story, including a complex subplot involving a $9 million embezzlement scheme so mind-boggling in its flagrant stupidity that the feds don’t think to look for it.

Certainly there’s enough mayhem in Burns’ screenplay — adapted from Kurt Eichenwald’s book — to keep viewers occupied for days. How could ADM keep a scam this big going so long? How many people were really involved, and how many had dirt on their hands? And the biggest question: Why would a man netting well over $300,000 a year even think of making a peep? The beauty of “The Informant!” is that we get few answers, and we get no answer at all to the last question. It’s all buildup and almost no release, no spoon-fed conclusion or resolution to settle that slightly sick feeling in our stomachs. While it’s plain fact that ADM faced stiff fines — to the tune of $100 million — and a few top execs did light jail time, Whitacre spent more than eight years in federal prison on those embezzlement charges. He did a public service, sure, but he paid handsomely for it. We’re left wondering uneasily: Did the real crooks get away because the informant had a few stacks of cash in his closet?

The way Damon plays him, no one can tell. He gives away nothing about Whitacre’s motivations (think Chris Cooper in “Breach”), providing us only with a surprisingly nuanced portrait of a man living so far inside his own head it’s a wonder he could hear people when they spoke to him. He spins wild yarns while acting cooperative, then retreats into his inner stream-of-consciousness monologue. Damon reveals more humanity in these moments than we expect — just watch the scene where his wife (Lynskey’s marvelous here) and Shepherd (Bakula has depth too) catch him in his last lie. The emotions — exhaustion and fear and resignation — that play on Damon’s face will twist your heart painfully. That’s what sticks with us when the music fades and the jokes dry up. Somehow the words “Matt Damon” don’t ring quite so funny. 

Grade: B+