Friday, August 28, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Mischief (1985)

Unlike another 1985 film set in the 1950’s, “Mischief” involves no time travel, existing entirely in 1956. Even so, director Mel Damski and writer Noel Black bring 1980’s America with them, scoring an R rating with nudity and no holds barred language. When the film’s requisite Bad Boy is asked why he was kicked out of school, he replies: “Because I fucked two girls.” Well then. It’s almost as if Damski yearned to trample the pristine suburban lawns of Eisenhower’s 50’s to show that no, the two decades weren’t all that different. Almost, I said, because that kind of social commentary ultimately eludes “Mischief.” There’s a sequence in which the department store owned by the town’s overlords has its many mannequins re-arranged one otherwise quaint morning into positions of extremely lewd acts. It could have been like Reese Witherspoon in “Pleasantville” truly Causing a Commotion. Instead it’s just a sight gag, one meant to elicit laughs from an audience raised on “Porky’s”. Alas.

For all its modern flourishes, however, it’s still very much the era in which its set, going so far as to hammer home every expected hallmark, drive-ins and soda fountains, upturned milkshakes and pop tunes aplenty. And it never views any of this with ironic dissonance. It’s as sincere as its main character, Jonathan (Doug McKeon), looking a little like Anthony Michael Hall might’ve looked at the hop. He’s not a geek so much as just purely uncool, a target of the school bully, all of which is at odds with his eyes for Marilyn (Kelly Preston), the most beautiful girl in school. How will he woo her? Enter: the bad boy, Gene (Chris Nash), a greaser who rides into the movie by riding a motorcycle right off the moving truck and over lawns and around shrubbery while everyone looks on in abject horror. Who is this terror of the streets?

He’s tough, sure, but not uncouth, played delightfully by Nash with a real gleam in his eye. When he takes Jonathan under his wing, it’s not to settle a bet or any other machination of the plot; no, he just feels sorry for the twerp. He wants to help. He does, even as he gets into hot water with the school bully by courting his gal and continually running afoul of his old man, played by Terry O’Quinn with a palpable bitterness that seems born of whose life didn’t turned out quite the way he hoped.

In many ways, “Mischief” is as much a bromance as anything else, focusing most of its attention on Jonathan and Gene as unlikely allies, each one helping to prop up the other. The female characters, as you might expect, suffer as a consequence. Gene’s love interest, Bunny (Catherine Mary Stewart), intended as something of a class warrior, torn between dating the town richy rich and the guy from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, comes across like nothing much more than a rag doll of the plot, an unfortunate waste of Mary Stewart’s genuine feistiness. There’s a curious moment near the end when her character and Gene have a row, but it’s seen from the faraway perspective of Jonathan, so we never hear what’s being said even though it looks like they’re really hashing it out. She never gets to truly speak for herself.

But Gene and Bunny remain the mere secondary couple to Jonathan and Marilyn. Refreshingly, he’s actually able to woo her simply by being himself, albeit striking a slightly more confident tone, rather than resorting to any sort of gamesmanship. Their love seems true and Preston here has a discernible liveliness that makes it seem as if her character is truly acting on evolving emotions. You can see this actress growing into someone who could breathe fire like Avery Bishop. The script eventually betrays her, however. She takes her clothes off, the only character in the movie that does, and once she does, she’s transformed into a haughty semi-slut, dumping Jonathan in advance of prom for last year’s school’s quarterback. In other words, she’s a good girl until she strips and then she’s awful and women are stupid and etc.

This story stupidity is underscored in the character of Rosalie, the requisite geek with bad glasses and terrible hair and awful fashion sense. She likes Jonathan, of course, but Jonathan, who is supposed to be our hero, hardly notices Rosalie because he’s too busy making time with Marilyn. Until Marilyn leaves him, of course, supposedly allowing him to determine what it means to be a good person. Except that his affection for Rosalie coincides with her taking off her bad glasses and re-doing her terrible hair and altering her fashion to reveal that she looks exactly like young Jamie Gertz. A guy who thinks he’s taking a stand against shallow values unwittingly reveals his own superficiality. Once Gene finds out there’ll be a reckoning.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Friday's Thursday's Old Fashioned Flashback to the 80's Freeze Frame

Cameron Crowe’s typical cinematic forecasts are laden with optimism. You always know things are going to turn out okay, even if for a moment or more it seems like clouds might be gathering. Jerry Maguire hit rock bottom only so he could come out on top. Even when Penny Lane’s heart was broken, Crowe couldn’t help but bathe her in the most beatific light, writing her a line sure to engender empathetic laughs more than simple pathos. It wasn't necessarily that he refused to acknowledge the shadows as much it was that he preferred to look on the bright side of life.

Yet anymore that optimism too often completely obscures the shadows. God knows my affection for “Elizabethtown” but even I can see through the rose-colored glasses to confess the suicidal nature of Drew is just a screenwriting put-on, never rendered, not even for a moment, in the filmmaking or accompanying Orlando Bloom performance. And maybe Crowe’s most insulting moment in his increasingly insulting canon thus far arrives in the recent “Aloha” when a visit with a Hawaiian independence activist grows genuinely terse before collapsing into a smiley face sing-along where...uh, I dunno? Everything is okay now, I guess?

What makes it doubly disappointing is that Crowe does know to capture pain and sadness on screen. Even if Orlando Bloom could not quite convey it in “Elizabethtown”, Paul Schneider, playing Bloom's character’s cousin, could, never more so than in an immaculate moment when his father decrees “You can’t be buddies with your own kid.” The sad-eyed smile Schneider submits in response is absolutely incredible, expressing an expected disappointment cultivated over a lifetime of his father’s sentiment being enacted.

But that shot involving a father reminds me of another shot in a Crowe film involving a father. “Say Anything”, Crowe’s directorial debut, is primarily known for its honesty, the genuine insight into a teenager’s existence, the decency of its famed boom box-toting protagonist and the forthrightness between a daughter and father. Of course, that father, Jim Court (John Mahoney), is eventually revealed to be a liar, a monster wrapped in chivalry co-opting his daughter’s success like he’s a father from “Friday Night Lights.”

Crowe isn’t often heralded as an inventive visual stylist, but then sometimes all you need in a frame is stillness and an effective coupling of locale and situation taken in the context of a character’s preceding arc. That’s what we get when we find Jim Court locked inside his bathroom, sitting in the tub, where Mahoney’s expression of understated terror acknowledges having dug his grave with a shovel of financial malfeasance. It’s one shot in Crowe’s oft-optimistic canon that is stripped of even the slightest hope, implicitly encapsulating a feeling familiar to anyone who’s reached not a fork in the road but the beginning of a dead-end street. No one feels the world closing in on them until it already is, and by then it’s too late to make an escape.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

This One Scene in The Mend

The first time I visited my best friend in New York City I hadn’t even been there more than two hours and we hadn’t even been out of his apartment for more than fifteen minutes before we encountered some semi-lunatic shouting at the top of his lungs. He was walking by himself on the other side of the street, fiercely hollering unintelligible pleas for…something. As someone who came from Midwestern reticence and Phoenician indifference, places where pretty much everyone lived their respective out-of-home lives in cars and office parks and chain restaurants, it was somewhat startling. To the Brooklyn dwellers all around me it was no big eye-raiser; they hardly noticed him.

I’ve since lived in Chicago for a decade and have come to fully understand what can drive a man to scream at no-one-knows-who about who-knows-what. The proximity of everything in the city – people, people’s pets, more people – becomes exhausting. I like to go running to find solitude but solitude is hard to find on the jogging path when baby carriages are wielded like weapons and a father playing catch with his son means you might just get beaned by a ball and every car runs every stoplight. Your dwelling is supposed to be your respite but respites within a city too often feel less like a place of peace than the trash compactor in “Star Wars” where the walls – your own walls! – are closing in on you. Your neighbors above you are loud. Your neighbors below you are loud. Rents escalate and space is limited. And the outside world feels ever more omnipresent inside what with the shrieking siren of social media constantly beckoning. To stop the overflow of everything you find yourself hoping and praying that the power will go out and you can just have time to yourself. But even then I find myself worrying that with nothing to distract me all that will remain is the cacophony of noise inside my head, much of it leftover from time on the streets trying not to freak out.

“The Mend” is a film of immense claustrophobia, detailing two brothers, Mat and Alan, whose physical proximity to one another shrinks as the film progresses, until they are right on top of one another in a film that has gleefully gone mad which means they have gone mad which means we have gone mad which leaves the whole lot of us sweating out feelings. A significant portion of the film takes place within the limited confines of Alan’s apartment, partly during a power outage that often reduces the already limited space to just what you can see, partly during a cocktail party that hit the agony of a cocktail party so acutely I felt like I was having trouble breathing. But it’s claustrophobic even when it gets out of the apartment and into New York City, like everyone is hemmed in and right on top of each other.

To wit, our three principal characters, Mat, Alan and Andrea, are at a coffee shop, seated at an outdoor table. Mat has a fairly large coffee. His oft-aggressive demeanor suggests he doesn’t really need caffeine, but too bad. He’s having some. Perhaps the beverage is contributing to the look on his face, an aggrieved eye-squint frown aimed at no one in particular, just straight ahead, like a particularly unpleasant thought his stuck to his over-taxed. I love this facial expression. Then, a window in the apartment above them opens as a guy leans out. “Save me!” he yells. “Get me out of here!” Jordan Hoffman of The Guardian mentioned this scene and seemed to think the guy’s cries resulted from a lover’s quarrel. Yet I have no idea how Hoffman elicited a lover’s quarrel from this image. We don’t see the man’s lover. There are no hints provided of a quarrel. To us and to Mat and Alan and Andrea he’s just some guy yelling out a window. And while they see him, the trio doesn’t really react, perhaps because at a certain point it becomes virtually impossible to differentiate the voices in their head from the voice in the window.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew was a term bestowed upon a collective of stellar session musicians who through the 1960’s played on some of the most seminal records of all time. Like, the instrumentation on the note-perfect “By My Baby”? That was them. And their most famous contributions are heard and discussed throughout this 2008 finished documentary that was comprised of footage shot over 12 years beginning in 1996 and only earned theatrical release earlier this year with aid from a Kickstarter campaign. The film was directed and produced by Denny Tedesco, son of the late Tommy Tedesco, lauded guitarist savant of The Wrecking Crew. While this allows for some genuinely heartfelt passages of son cosmically communicating with Dad, it also wraps the film in a gauzy nostalgia. This isn’t a serious-minded examination so much as a cheerful remembrance.

Tedesco the director uses footage of his father along with three other defining members of the unofficial group as the film’s backbone. The quartet sits around a table, like it’s a family reunion, swapping stories, laughing, having a great time. And interviews with other members strike the same chord. “I’ll tell you a funny story about your dad,” says Glen Campbell to the director just off camera, implicitly capturing an intimate feel that also comes across unwieldy. Relayed in segments, the entire film feels off the top of the head, as if invented on the fly. With somewhere around thirty total members contributing to the ensemble over the years, Tedesco struggles to keep a grip on who’s who as well on the abundance of information, prompting intermittent bursts of surprising joy between repetition.

It’s an heir of sorts to “20 Feet From Stardom”, the exemplary 2013 documentary chronicling the story of so many backup singers whose limitless contributions were often relegated to the shadows. But whereas that film plunged deeper than surface, focusing on a group of enormously talented women struggling to make peace with their particular place in the world, “The Wrecking Crew”, ironically, never gets below that surface, as if its emulating the surface-level pop groups for whom The Wrecking Crew did so much legwork.

So many members of The Wrecking Crew reference the incredibly long hours, sometimes manifesting themselves as impossible-sounding 24 hour days in which they would essentially cut an entire album across the spectrum of different L.A. recording studios, and they all express remorse at time spent away from family. “I was a better grandfather than I was a father,” says saxophonist Plas Johnson. There is serious regret detected in these voices, yet Tedesco the director never goes digging for it, preferring to let it hang in the air and then dissolve like mist.

More than anything, “The Wrecking Crew” simply wants to give its titular collective the due it has long deserved. It occasionally romanticizes its subjects out of proportion, as if the entirety of the music industry subsisted solely on their talent. They were integral, no doubt, yet a band such as The Byrds proved themselves incredibly talented and influential musicians, much more so than this documentary might lead you to believe. Still, Roger McGuinn turns up on camera to confirm that of the band only he played on “Mr. Tambourine Man”, and to pay proper homage to its real players, Tedesco the director imposes black & white stills of them on the screen while the song soars on the soundtrack, an incredibly moving reminder that every song we cherish is only as deep and true as every single person involved in its rendering.

Monday, August 24, 2015


“Prince”, Sam de Jong’s directorial debut is just another coming of age opus though it’s not just another coming of age opus. Yes, its aesthetic references filmmaker after filmmaker, barreling from Fassbinder to Scorsese to Refn in the blink of an eye, but this is a film primarily about teenagers and what are teenagers if not desperate adopters of poses? And so the faux-“Prince”, Ayoub (Ayoub Elasri), a Dutch Moroccan teen in an Amsterdam housing project, desperate to impress, cycles through poses like the film featuring him.

It opens as a heightened slice-of-life, with documentary-like head-on shots of its principal characters juxtaposed with dreamy synth music. Ayoub is just another aimless adolescent, blowing up mailboxes for no reason, saddled with a depressed mother (Elsie de Brauw) whom his half-sister Demi (Olivia Lonsdale) doesn’t want to be like and a junkie father (Chaib Massaoudi) that Ayoub helps even as he pledges to avoid the same bottomed-out fate. His life gains true purpose, however, when he spies Laura (Sigrid ten Napel.) She’s not just another girl; she’s the most beautiful girl in the world. Alas, she is dating a bully and to win fair maiden’s heart, Ayoub figures he’ll have to transform himself into someone worthy of her affection.

A critical early shot finds Ayoub staring at his own reflection in the window of a purple Lamborghini, the symbol of pre-eminent style, a vehicular version of Driver’s Scorpion jacket. If he can sit behind that wheel, he can become necessarily cool, the sort of trendy top dog to which Laura would be drawn. And that's because being cool, as gangster savant Alien once opined, is all about having shit. Kalpa (Freddy Tratlehner) has shit. He’s a one-time geek turned gangster who offers a key to the magical kingdom, dangling a pair of Zanotti kicks in front of Ayoub like brass balls. He can help Ayoub beat up the bullies and hold Laura’s hand. And as Ayoub transforms into an undersized high-roller, the film’s style intensifies, leaving behind its outsized version of reality for something approaching a Eurotrash music video fever dream with this teenager as its star.

“Prince” is like an amplified fairytale, one beset with bursts of violence and foul language. The more ramped up de Jong’s filmmaking becomes, the more detached Ayoub becomes from who he was, threatening to become some variation of his father just like he said he wouldn’t. The film is chock-full of symbolism, from an oft-heard, never-seen thunderstorm heralding Ayoub's brewing crisis of conscious to the incredible over-the-top moment when Ayoub is forced to watch Kalpa slaughter a pig. This is not merely some demented pastime, of course, but an evocation of how the sausage gets made, of what it takes to be the coolest kid on the block. And it doesn’t take Ayoub long to realize he wants to abdicate his natty throne.

For all its effective waxing on the pretense of popularity and absurd machismo, you do wish the film did better by some of its characters, some of which lean too hard on archetypes. Laura is nothing much more than a winsome emblem and there is a whole other ten minutes of the relationship between Ayoub and his half-sister screaming to be explored in a longer movie. Still, overall the film remains successful, and often wrings genuine emotion, like a late film funeral that is an indelibly effective illustration of vanity being set aside in the name of empathy. It’s when the movie makes the turn for home, deliberately ditching its Zanottis for a pair off the discount rack, good guys overthrowing the bad boys, a rejection of empty panache for old fashioned decency.

That's why for all its influences the coming-of-age film it most comes to represent, believe it or not, is “Almost Famous.” In the end, the only true currency in the bankrupt world surrounding Ayoub is what he shares with other characters when they’re uncool.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: They Live (1988)

As “They Live” opens, an astutely named vagrant, John Nada (Roddy Piper), talking of coming out west because there was no work back east, settles down at an L.A. hobo camp, a laconic yet insistent blues riff underscoring these hard times. It feels like the 1930’s. Yet, the technology, the shimmering skyscrapers taunting the shantytown in the distance and John Nada’s mullet betray its real time and place – this is 1988, the last year of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, an era that in the context of John Carpenter’s film looks less like Morning in America than Nighttime in Hell. Born from the tradition of 1950’s sci-fi films, walloping Eisenhower-era allegories that saw suburbia-infused America as a place more or less overrun with dutiful aliens, “They Live” is an obvious yet no less effectively scathing parable of Reaganomics, imagining the 1% as aliens from outer space who consider the lowly earthlings beneath them as “third world.”

Carpenter has generally been something of a low-budget minimalist and more than any other film of his, perhaps even the seminal “Halloween”, this moneyless modesty works in delightful harmonic tandem with the finished product. “They Live’s” do-it-yourself attitude merely enhances the grass roots movement that the impoverished and the screwed eventually organize against their oppressors. That homespun sensation is also captured in the central casting of Piper.

As detailed in The Masked Man’s loving, comprehensive, honest obit for Piper at Grantland earlier this month, “Rowdy” Roddy pulled himself up by the bootstraps, not a golden boy but a fall guy made good, one who felt deserving enough to be a champion even though he was never afforded the privilege of actually holding the preeminent belt. Yes, Piper is noticeably stilted, in his delivery, in hitting his marks, occasionally even in roughing people up, and that’s okay. “Figures it’d have to be something like this,” he says in that way only a burned out day laborer indifferent to the world’s myriad of social injustices could. You couldn’t have Cruise in this role just as you couldn’t have Kilmer as his best friend – no, that part goes to Keith David, casting as perfect as Piper. David is not a star, not even close, but rather a quintessential journeyman, the kind that puts his head down, whatever the product, and does an honest day’s work, a quality that defines his “They Live” character, Frank Armitage.

“They Live” is just as effectively economical when it comes to props. It is by the grace of sunglasses that John Nada deduces he’s in the midst of a covert alien takeover. By putting them on, he is able to see which humans around him are merely pods for their outer space invaders. Not only that, they turn him onto the nefarious reality of advertising, revealing billboards as a media form of facism, to quote the future Celine, someone who probably appreciated “They Live” on late nights at the dormitory at the Sarbonne. The sunglasses themselves are the kicker. They aren’t “Top Gun” Ray-Bans but the oversized just-keep-the-sun-out-of-my-face utilitarian sunglasses from the drug store. If he saw himself through his sunglasses wearing the sunglasses he’d probably see “Buy Ray Bans.”

“They Live”, however, is not simply a case of standing back and taking satirical potshots at the rich and famous. No, Carpenter turns it back around on the rest of us, suggesting our own complicity. “I’ve walked a white line my entire life,” says Frank. “I’m not about to screw that up.” “White line’s in the middle of the road,” replies Nada, “that’s the worst place to drive.” In other words, toeing the line as a means to ignore the reality of what's happening all around you will only lead to dire consequences further down the road. There are distinct parallels to be drawn to modern day America, one where the middle class has all but eroded, where the rich just get richer and the poor just get poorer and every morning on the train into downtown I see a makeshift shantytown sprung up along the cement banks of the Chicago River in the shadow of tall buildings.

Midway through, for a few moments, it seems like “They Live” will abandon its gleeful satire for a good long bout of B-movie ass kicking. Yet that never quite happens. Just when it’s revving up, it cools back down. Carpenter never loses sight of what he’s sending up. And that goes just as well for the film’s most spectacular set piece, a “Rowdy” Roddy Piper wrestling match that is jam-packed with thematic heft so many movies that fancy themselves “award contenders” or “avant garde” couldn't dream of transmitting.

Nada wants Frank to put on the sunglasses. Frank won't do it. Nada insists. Frank refuses. That leads to punches. And then more punches. For a full six minutes, Nada and Frank have a back-alley boxing match. This wasn't simply a concession to Piper fans in the audience just as it wasn't a question of eyewear style for Frank; those sunglasses were the blue pill/red pill when there wasn't even a PowerBook. Nada was giving Frank the choice to see reality and Frank wanted to just say no to what was really going on. It might have been morning in America but Carpenter was well aware that too much of America was still asleep and in “They Live” he was telling everyone to wake the hell up and put on the fucking sunglasses.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Friday's Thursday's Old Fashioned Flashback to the 80's Freeze Frame

To a bright-eyed ten year old in 1987 this is what the grown-up wonderland of “offices” and “business” looked like – people in suits towering over us as we looked on bright-eyed, that charismatic dude from that “Family Ties” show functioning as our doppelgänger.

I pretty much assumed this is how things would be when I got older and had to work for a living. That it was all fun and games, that all you really needed to do work, whatever that was, were “poster boards, colored pencils, colored push pins, a T square, a drawing table, and lots of pencils”, and that you could have your secretary order your lunch. Then, you kicked back and looked cool, maybe you got to fall in love with a co-worker. My youth all was as simply wonderful as “Walking on Sunshine” and the adult world would be too.

It isn’t, of course, and you learn this pretty quickly. None of us are Carlton Whitfield or Brantley Foster; we’re all just Peter Gibbons. “The Secret of my Success distills 1987 down to its awful essence,” wrote Nathan Rabin for the tragically shuttered Dissolve and that essence is essentially “Walking on Sunshine.” I get what he’s saying, and he’s not wrong, but 1987 through a ten year old’s eyes is a different things and I’d give anything to see it through those eyes just one more time.