Monday, September 25, 2006

50s Flashback

I found myself sucked into a nostalgic vortex this afternoon when Turner Classic Movies showed The Tender Trap. Not, as you might assume, a 1950s nostalgia trip, but a 1980s one. I was transported back to one summer, round about 1982 I think, when my family relocated to northern Virginia and my step-dad’s company put us up in one of those apartment hotels until we found a house.

The place had a pool and a soda machine down the hall, but what it mostly had was cable. Up til then my childhood had been mostly cable deprived. I had not one but two sets of parents who were all about strict rationing of TV time. Summers were not about sitting inside all afternoon watching the boob tube. We generally found ourselves kicked out of the house around 9 and encouraged to not come home until dinner or dark or someone invited us over to spend the night.

It was the South. 98 degrees in the shade, full of mosquitoes and ticks; cricks full of frogs, minnows and the eternal threat of water moccasins; banks of poison ivy and oak. However in my parents view, none of those things were even remotely as dangerous as the threat of vegging out in front of the television.

That summer was different though. My mom & step-dad were busy working new jobs and trying to find a house. The hotel was located at a busy intersection surrounded by office towers. Even if they shooed us outside, there was no place for us to go.

So I got to watch cable. Lots and lots of cable. Two movies were in heavy rotation on HBO that summer: Bachelor Party and The Tender Trap. I conservatively estimate that I saw each one at least 36 times that summer. My only other really dramatic moment I remember from that summer was attempting my first bikini wax. I learned the hard way why one should apply those wax strips one at a time. The excruciating pain I experienced after ripping off the first one was only magnified by the knowledge that I then had to rip off the other. I’ve never waxed since.

The Tender Trap stars Frank Sinatra as a swinging bachelor with an endless train of beautiful women courting him, feeding him, cleaning up after him and lighting his cigarettes. Enter stage left Debbie Reynolds as the young ingénue who is on a strict schedule to find herself a husband so that she can retire (at the age of 22) to Scarsdale to raise the three children also on her schedule.

Providing able backup are David Wayne as Frankie’s happily married best pal visiting from Indiana and Celeste Holm as Frank’s long suffering number one girlfriend who, after indulging his Casanova ways, now finds herself staring down the 1950s version of middle aged (she’s 33). You might remember David Wayne as the nebbish-y accountant who wins Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire. Celeste Holm you should remember from everywhere. Any time there’s a sassy spunky gal pal in a 1950s movie destined not to get the guy, you will find Celeste.

I loved The Tender Trap when I was 13. It was the first time I actually got what the fuss over that Frank Sinatra dude was. I admit I was enchanted by the story of the wily skirt hound won over by the serious good girl who lays down the law. I loved the clothes, and the vision of single adulthood as being one evening of dinner, drinks and dancing after another. Heavy sigh.

I confess, the movie looks a little different from the other side of 30. I’m now older than Celeste Holm’s character who, despite being impeccably beautiful, is clearly being sold as past her expiration date. Debbie Reynolds’s character quickly wears thin with her Bataan death march to the alter. I've taken that whole "let's reform a bad boy" trip for real now with less entertaining results. Somewhere along the way I grew up into Celeste instead of Debbie and am grateful for it. But still, there are the clothes, and the style, and the dinner, drinks and dancing, all of which make me feel like I was born too late.

And, of course, there’s Frank. Those laughing eyes…I’m sighing sighs…then snap.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Why wait for the movie...

I went to two films this weekend, both dramas, which meant that I got to see the first wave of “For Your Consideration” Oscar contending previews. They look like an ominous bunch this year, nary a lighthearted one to be seen, although plenty of gripping ones.

In the way of Hollywood, we have some odd zeitgeist happening, or zeitgeists as the case may be, with several films mirroring each other in their peculiar topics. We have multiple entries in 50s Noir, African Turmoil, and Turn of the Century Magicians. We also have Good Cop/Bad Cop and Future and Historic Dystopian Societies.

Watch them all carefully, though. It’s easy money that these will be the films on Oscar’s list next winter.

First up, with rumbling soundtrack, is The Last King of Scotland. We see a fresh-faced young man spinning a globe and saying, “Wherever my finger lands, that’s where I’ll go.” A finger lands on Uganda and there was a palpable sinking feeling in the audience.

A man behind me made a noise like he’d been gut punched and the young person (not a child, but 20’s maybe) said “What?”

The man said, “Idi Amin.”

His neighbor asked, “Who?”

“Don’t you remember Idi Amin?”


The man just exhaled again.

“Watch,” he said.

The story is about the young man, a Scot, who cheerfully went off to Uganda to practice medicine, and was taken under Amin’s wing. The young man’s face looks familiar, but you probably won’t remember the last time you saw him. He was walking on his hind hooves as one Mr. Tumnus in the Narnia movie. His name is James McAvoy.

The preview gives us the gist of a naïve Westerner who is charged up, like the rest of Uganda in early days, at Amin’s verve, promises, and willingness to flip the metaphorical bird to the West.

Forest Whitaker, a criminally underrated actor, is totally riveting as Amin. He clearly understands that the way men become great tyrants usually begins with an overwhelming amount of charm. The death squads come later.

It was hard to watch, honestly. I was a child, born in ’69, when it all went down and yet there is a feeling of embarrassment and rage watching it. You realize all of this took place before CNN and 24 hour insta-news. Maybe it was easier to hide 300,000 dead people back then. We live in CNN land now and it did not help the Rwandans or the citizens of Darfur. The preview, really, is challenging us to witness the start of something we still have not finished.

The other Africa-themed preview is for Catch a Fire, set in South Africa in the 80s. The trailer actually makes a feint to the cheery early on. We see the fresh face of Derek Luke, teaching children to play soccer with the happy licks of Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Love” wafting in the air. I confess, shamefully, I thought we were in for some underdog Olympic soccer team type action until the nuclear power plant in the background blew up.

The mere presence of the nuclear power plant should have been the tip off. How many happy stories begin with a nuclear power plant on the horizon? In fact, I will now throw down the gauntlet and dare the filmmakers out there to give us a comedy with a nuclear power plant on the horizon. Step back, Matt Groening. Homer Simpson doesn’t count. If I have missed this comedy already in existence, please let me know.

The film is about terrorism in 80’s apartheid South Africa and the trailer tag line is: “In a country ruled by fear, all it takes is one spark for an innocent man to catch fire.” This sums up the gripping preview, which also gives us Tim Robbins as an evil suit. I love it when Tim Robbins plays bad. It’s like being mugged by a priest. You look at that sweet face and can’t believe he could do this, except that he is, apparently with glee.

Catch a Fire is directed by Phillip Noyce, who has given us some action potboilers like Clear and Present Danger, but also some pretty compelling social/political thrillers, like Rabbit Proof Fence and The Quiet American.

The last time we saw Clive Owen on a commuter train, he was checking out Jennifer Aniston’s gams. This time, in the trailer for Children of Men, we get to see him on a subway checking out the decline and fall of civilization.

The film is based on a book by P.D. James, who I confess is not my favorite British author. Usually James writes about depressed Brits killing each other, but in this story she gives us a depressed society killing itself. In the not so very distant future, women have stopped being able to have children.

It’s actually my favorite P.D. James book. I liked it, maybe because its premise promised an end to the possibility of future P.D. James books. (No depressed Brits. No depressed Brits killing each other. Work with me here.)

Clive Owen looks haggard, yet still hot, which he simply is, haggard or no. Julianne Moore plays his sexy mysterious past-come-back to talk him into saving the world. Best of all, we get Michael Cane as an aging hippie, which promises to be awesome/hysterical (New Word Alert- awesome-terical!), even if this is a serious picture.

Children of Men
is directed by Alfanso Cuaron. This means we get to see the most entertaining version of ‘from the director of…’ in the whole lot of trailers, since Cuaron is the man who directed Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I imagine meetings of movie trailer editors trying to decide which film best represents what to expect from Children of Men, and then going home to cry.

The two films I went to see this weekend were The Illusionist and Hollywoodland, which I promise to dissect elsewhere. It was interesting to see the aforementioned zeitgeist pairing trailer for each one, namely The Prestige and The Black Dahlia.

I’ll be honest. Before seeing The Illusionist, I had my doubts about the feasibility of two successful films based on apparently the same topic: turn of the century magicians. After seeing The Illusionist and also the preview for The Prestige, I’m relieved to say they appear to be different, but both highly entertaining animals.

I can’t start here on The Illusionist or I wont be able to stop, but The Prestige features Hugh Jackman and (heavy sigh) Christian Bale as competing magicians with Scarlett Johanssan as the girl in the box. If at least one of those three actors do not turn you on, maybe it’s time to check your meds. There’s also Michael Caine, but not, unfortunately, as an awesome-terical hippie, so I will have to reserve judgment.

Hollywood has been trying to make a film about The Black Dahlia murder case for a very long time. The Dahlia was also known as Elizabeth Short, an unsuccessful actress who, in 1947, unfortunately became famous for being murdered in bloody, grisly fashion. The movie is based on the James Ellroy novelization of the crime.

It’s perhaps not a happy observation that society has finally reached a point where we can stomach and perhaps be entertained by the story of a brutal crime which was simply too much for anyone to tolerate or comprehend when it happened. The movie looks like a good solid noir that could give LA Confidential a run for its money.

In every group of previews, there are always one or two big dogs, of which The Departed is one. Martin Scorcese weaves a tangled web of police corruption starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, Marky-Mark Wahlburg, and The Jack. It looks awesome. I’m not man enough to try to reduce it for you beyond good cop/bad cop/good criminal/bad criminal and Jack Nicholson. What more could you possibly want?

But we started this journey taking bets for Oscar nominees. After the trailers rolled there was one clear leader. All The King’s Men stars Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, and Anthony Hopkins. It was directed by Steven Zaillian, who wrote Scorcese’s last picture, Gangs of New York, as well as adapted Schindler’s List.

This group has, count them, 18 Oscar nominations and two wins amongst them. Throw in things like composer and cinematographer and you’re looking at 25 and four. None of that would matter if the movie looked like a dud, but the trailer sure doesn’t.

By the time Sean Penn was through his 60 seconds of pontificatin’, gyratin’, politicizin’ and whole hog scene devourin’ as the depression era politico for the common man, the audience was practically on its feet. I wanted to laugh, cry, applaud, and formant proletarian revolution. Not bad for a trailer.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

DVD Not To Miss - Brick

She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.The Big Sleep

Do you trust me now?
Less now than when I didn’t trust you before.
— Brick

Brick, directed by Rian Johnson, and released on DVD in August, is a great noir mystery, reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett or James Ellroy. Like any Bogart film or Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, it has sharp, witty dialogue which is less realistic than it is how we all desperately wish we could communicate.

It is set in Southern California which, for all its natural and artificial beauty, has another side — a yellowing grass, dying palm tree, mall parking lot suburban wasteland which can appear very much like hell without any imagination whatsoever. It has a beautiful blonde in distress, a loner who wants to save her, authority figures who want him to rat or be sold down the river, a complicated web of bad drugs and betrayal, a drug kingpin who may or may not be real, and a sultry brunette who is definitely femme, possibly fatale as well.

Every great mystery has its conceit. In The Maltese Falcon it was to believe a nebulous black statue was worth dying for. Chinatown depends upon accepting that, in Southern California anyway, water is something worth killing for. Brick requests that you accept that high school is one of the most dangerous places on earth, and late adolescence the most dangerous time.

Our hero, Brendan, receives an hysterical, almost unintelligible phone call from his ex-girlfriend Emily. Two days later she is dead. He starts asking questions. “Who’s she been eating lunch with?” he asks a friend. “I couldn’t say,” is the reply. “Lunch is many things. Lunch is complicated.” Brendan could call the cops, but knowing who done it isn’t enough. He needs to know why, maybe break a few heads, make somebody pay for what he couldn’t prevent.

The problem with most movies set in high school, even clever ones, is that the stakes are so very low. Will he/she go with me to the prom? Will I pass the essential exam? Will the big game be won? Will my parents let me down in some critical way and yet will I grow enough to forgive their humanity? Even edgy or macabre tales like Heathers or Mean Girls, which show just how evil teens can be to each other, are presented as comedies, with a knowing wink to the audience.

We laugh and shake our heads. Aren’t we so much older and wiser now? If we’re honest with ourselves, we would acknowledge that our relief comes from a much more primal place. Like war veterans, we are just desperately glad to be out of there with all our limbs intact. Under no circumstances, even knowing now what we didn’t know then, could we be induced to go back. Repression and careful whitewash of memory seems the only way we could be induced to send our own children through the gauntlet.

Adults may stumble in and out of the periphery, but teenagers inhabit a world unto themselves. Caste is determined by where and with whom one eats lunch. Friendships are malleable, practical coalitions designed to help navigate rocky shoals. Love is a heavy weight. As currency it doesn’t buy much. It certainly isn’t enough to save friends from destroying themselves.

The grace of Brick is that it acknowledges just how very high the stakes are for those who wander the linoleum halls. High school is not where one spends the last golden days of childhood, but the place where one gets jumped into the gang of adulthood. If Lord of the Flies is not assigned reading, it should at least be issued as a survival guide. Brick knows that some kids get lost. They don’t successfully navigate anything. They make serious mistakes, make wrong choices, that will determine a downward trajectory for their lives.

If I’ve made it sound all dark and dismal, rest assured that, like the best film noir, there is plenty of humor. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who I confess is my new baby crush (sorry Jake Gyllenhaall) portrays Brendan, the stoic, wisecracking kid whose brain never stops working the angles, who is always hiding a surprise up his sleeve, even as he wears his heart upon it. Emilie de Raven, known to some of us as Claire from Lost, takes a welcome respite from the land of whine and mangos, to give us Emily, the ethereal beauty Brendan cannot let go. Emily left Brendan because she couldn’t stand his solitary life, but her attempts to transform into a social butterfly prove deadly. Like the best gumshoes, Brendan is motivated not only, or even mainly, by love, but by guilt.

Brick isn’t perfect. It appears that the characters attend a high school completely bereft of a student body, beyond themselves. A few of the characters push the lid over the top, and a few are confusingly extraneous. But in its entirety, the movie is entertaining as hell, and I still find myself musing over what became of the characters after the title credits roll. It’s a great accomplishment for a young director with a young cast.

Teen movies often have an unspoken underlying premise in which high school is seen as less serious than the adult world. But when your head is encased in that microcosm it's the most serious time of your life. – Rian Johnson

--This article has been modified since it was originally published on my sister site, Popular Librarian in June of 2006.