Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

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Learn it.  Know it.   Live it. Stacey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the 15 year old girl who wants to date and takes tips from the more experienced Linda (Phoebe Cates) who teaches her how to give blow jobs using carrots at lunch in the school cafeteria. Stacey has her virginity taken by a 26 year old in a football field dugout and never hears from him again. Her older brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) is a senior working a MacJob at a fast food joint and is in a going-nowhere relationship for two years with Lisa (Amanda Wyss) who works there too. Stacey’s classmate Mark ‘Rat’ Ratner (Brian Backer) falls for her but she winds up knocked up by his mentor Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) who welshes on paying for the necessary abortion. Stacey’s classmate Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) is a stoner slacker who is the bane of history teacher Mr Hand (Ray Walston) but they wind up coming to a detente just in time for the end of the school year. Adapted from Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe’s undercover observational book about a year in the life at a California high school, Amy Heckerling’s feature debut is a sweet and funny if episodic look at some very relatable kids. She helped Crowe rewrite the original screenplay.  Not as raucous as Porky’s or as insightful as The Breakfast Club, it’s notable for not making a big deal about abortion (or topless shots of its female stars) but mainly for being a breakout film for so many future stars and Academy Award winners – including that legendary turn by Penn as the ultimate stoner surf dude. Totally rad!

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The Beguiled (2017)

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You vengeful bitches! I had high hopes for Sofia Coppola’s take on the Don Siegel Southern Gothic movie that made such a difference to our perception of Clint Eastwood way back when. Coppola has created such an interesting catalogue of films that are female-centred and immediately recognisable from their diffused palettes, lens flare, sense of mystery,soundtracks, alienation from family and the ultimate unknowability of teenaged girls. Colin Farrell plays Corporal John McBurney, the Irish soldier of fortune fighting for the North lying wounded in the woods near Martha Farnsworth’s boarding school for young ladies in deepest Louisiana when he is found by little girl Amy (Oona Laurence) on her daily mushroom-picking trip. She drags him back to the almost derelict building and the decision is made not to report him to the Confederates passing through the area despite the objections of staunch loyalist Jane (Angourie Rice, who was so great in The Nice Guys). There are only five students and the eldest is Alicia (Elle Fanning) and their teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) is the woman most obviously hot to trot – sad and clearly desperate for a man and a reason for escape. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to McBurney while he is unconscious and there are a lot of shots of water pooling in the cavities of his neck and abdomen. His objectification is writ large by the simple expedient of not having the camera include his face. Farnsworth admits to having had a man before the war when McBurney asks but as each of the girls enters his room to get a look at him and steal a kiss (a foxy Fanning) he realises he can play them off against each other. He learns to walk again and helps out, cutting wood and generally being the maintenance man. But all the while he has become the women’s fantasy. The problems really begin when each of them finds out what he is doing with the others. When Edwina invites him to her room after a particularly excruciating dinner and dance in this Gothic manse, she finds him having sex instead with Carol and takes terrible revenge …. And Farnsworth aims at keeping him there forever. There is something not quite right about the film. The control and the tone never really articulate the plot’s inherent collective madness, something that was so brutally effective in the earlier adaptation. The photography doesn’t come close to the beauty of Bruce Surtees’ work and that is surprising given Coppola’s customary attention to appearances (and the consequently unfortunate effect on the way Kidman appears). The relative containment of the story to the building doesn’t really work since so many of the shots are repetitive and one has the paradoxical desire to see more of the outdoors. Coppola has dropped some of the previous film’s elements – the black servant, the flashbacks to Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother – and this vacuum is not replaced with enough plot to sustain the story’s mordantly black tone. The performances are uniformly good and Dunst and Fanning are obviously back working again with Coppola. (And if you still haven’t watched Marie Antoinette go look at it now to watch Dunst give a complete performance as the child bride.) Farrell gives a good account of himself as a man who can’t believe his good luck even if it’s quite disconcerting to hear him speaking in an Irish accent. The young kids are very good in their roles and while Dunst’s part is not written especially well the sex scene with her buttons spilling over the floor is one of the best things in the film. Fanning is just a little too odd – but she has definitely grown up since Somewhere. Laurence is especially good as the little girl who stands up for McBurney right up until he hurts her little turtle Henry. The revenge is all too clearly telegraphed in a way that it wasn’t in the earlier film and that is the ultimate disappointment:  the staircase scene is thrown away.  There are some nice touches – the use of jewellery (Coppola loves fetishising sparkly objects) and costume and some Hitchcockian shots of the women’s hairstyles from behind. But it can’t make up for the lack of real tension. There is good use of music – that’s Mr Coppola’s band Phoenix reinterpreting Monteverdi’s Magnificat on the soundtrack and there’s apposite use of Stephen Foster’s song Virginia Belle.  Overall however this just doesn’t work the way you want it to do and despite its relatively short length (94 minutes) for a contemporary film it has its longeurs. Coppola adapted the original screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, a woman who was writing pseudonymously as ‘Grimes Grice’ which is the name mysteriously used on the film’s credits. Despite my reservations about this,  I find Coppola a fascinating – even beguiling! – director and I’ve reviewed Fiona Handyside’s new book about her in the latest issue of Offscreen which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.

Un moment d’egarement (1977)

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Aka In A Wild Moment/One Wild Moment. Auteur Claude Berri a fait un cycle de films sur la masculinité au début des années 1970 et c’est probablement l’un des plus fantastiques, un conte de deux hommes fortysomething en vacances dans la Riviera avec leurs filles adolescentes. Jacques (Victor Lanoux) est le père de Françoise (Agnes Soral) qui aime soudainement le divorcé Pierre (Jean-Pierre Marielle) et le séduit à la plage après avoir été invité à un mariage. Il est très pénible de voir une jeune fille de quinze ans grimper au-dessus d’un homme d’âge moyen résistant, mais après son premier choc, il ne fait rien pour apaiser sa poursuite agressive. Sa propre fille Martine (Christine Dejoux) suspecte que quelque chose soit écoulé. C’est certainement plus dramatique que la comédie. Il y a de bonnes scènes: quand Françoise avoue à son père, elle a dormi avec un homme de quarante ans, c’est bien écrit et crédible et elle ne lui dira pas qui c’est. Dans un casino, il pense qu’un chanteur est le coupable et l’attaque dans les toilettes pour hommes. Quand Pierre voit que Françoise disparaît avec un garçon de son âge, il est clairement jaloux de ce qu’il interprète comme un rejet. Le désespoir de Jacques est total et la scène où Pierre est propriétaire des incidents (quelques fois – ce n’est pas une affaire) est rafraîchissante à la profondeur de leur amitié. La dernière scène, quand Pierre rencontre Françoise, est un cliffhanger: il n’y a pas de conclusion réelle, bien que nous puissions probablement l’écrire. Il est facile d’oublier, compte tenu du calibre de l’écriture et de la performance, qu’il s’agit effectivement d’une histoire d’exploitation sexuelle assez choquante. On lui a donné un remake d’Hollywood comme Blame It On Rio.

Chinatown (1974)

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How do you describe a movie you’ve seen? How do you write a movie you’ve seen in your head so many times it’s like you lived it? The stars aligned when this one was made. Robert Towne turned down a lot of money to adapt The Great Gatsby for producer Robert Evans to decamp to Catalina Island with his great friends – the scholar Edward Taylor and his dog Hira. There, in the winter of 1971, he wrote one of the great Hollywood films, a fictionalised telling of the diversion of water from the Owens River Valley, set a few decades later than it occurred.  Private eye Jake/JJ Gittes was based on his friend Jack Nicholson, who played the role as born to it. Los Angeles, 1937. Jake is hired by a woman to investigate her cheating husband and gets mired in a mystery he could never hope to solve:  the corruption infesting the State of California and the distribution of Water (and Power), unwittingly finding himself falling in love with an heiress who’s given birth to her sister/daughter, the progeny of the man responsible for raping the land. Towne wrote a second draft which reads like Hammett, a beautiful exercise in pulp noir: I love it so much I dream about that biplane ride out to Catalina. But director Roman Polanski forced Towne into a third draft with an altered ending which is what was shot. Even with plot holes it’s extraordinary, shocking, funny, terrifying and blindingly brilliant, a sublime cinematic experience. It’s a modern classic, for which Towne won the Academy Award. The guide at Paramount may be too young to know about it when you do the studio tour but if you want to know more you can read my book about Towne and this film and all the other screenplays he’s written and films he’s made: https://www.amazon.com/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481117503&sr=1-3&keywords=elaine+lennon.

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Strangerland (2015)

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The words Joseph Fiennes on a movie poster are enough to strike fear into even the most hardened of filmgoers. He’s paired with Nicole Kidman as the parents of two kids who go missing right before a dust storm envelops the Australian desert town where they’ve moved. The parents have split up and she’s left finding out through reading diaries that her 15-year old daughter is the town slut. When Fiennes shows up he says she takes after her mother. She accuses him of molesting their daughter (called Lily, rather ironically). She tries to have sex with policeman Hugo Weaving and the Aboriginal who had sex with her little girl. The Aboriginals think the children have been taken by some Rainbow prophecy which is really helpful. Fiennes locates his son by the simple expedient of going in the opposite direction taken by the police. The boy is unable to speak, no matter how many times Kidman shakes him, but eventually Fiennes gets it out of him that his older sister went off in someone’s car. In other words, WTF????? Now I need to make one of those nice Rorschach blots like the aliens in Arrival before I get really rude.

The Goddess (1958)

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Portrait of a Young Girl:  Innocent fatherless little Patty Duke grows up in the South with a hate-filled single mother (Betty Lou Holland) to become busty Kim Stanley whose lonely life is transformed when she becomes America’s screen love goddess. Ah, Hollywood. Every actor’s story is a morality tale, ain’t it. It is widely assumed that despite its superficial origins in Ava Gardner’s life, this was about Marilyn Monroe. Monroe was already a legend in the mid 1950s when Paddy Chayefsky decided to write her up as an allegory of stardom, or perhaps a cautionary tale. She’d been mocked in George Axelrod’s long-running Broadway satire, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? where ‘she’ was played by Jayne Mansfield (she of the genius IQ – for real) there and in the screen version as ‘Rita.’  Monroe had acted in the screen adaptation of Axelrod’s play The Seven Year Itch. Then a clever dick journalist wrote a book about her, Will Acting Spoil Marilyn Monroe? because, you know, she was just a dumb blonde, not an actress playing one (in just two films, actually). The big irony was in hiring first-timer Stanley (born Patricia Reid), the renowned stage actress, who was at the Actors Studio at the same time as Monroe, to play Marilyn – here she’s called Emily Ann and her name is changed to Rita Shawn for her Hollywood career. Stanley had been the lead on stage in Bus Stop, which Marilyn produced as a film under her own banner:  not so dumb. Stanley was no beauty and wouldn’t have been able to carry the film. Monroe’s sister in law, Joan Copeland, plays Emily Ann’s aunt here. Monroe’s then husband (and Copeland’s brother), Arthur Miller, thought Monroe should sue over this production (which didn’t stop him from being quids in on several occasions himself).  Portrait of a Young Woman: She marries young to a soldier whose character seems to have been ascribed certain aspects of Monroe’s family history of mental illness. The rumour that Monroe herself occasionally spread that she’d had a baby as a teenager is dramatised but as a legitimate but unwanted product of this unwise marriage – Mom is left holding the baby for a spell before the divorce comes through and the father gets the child. Later she’s married to a boxing promoter – played by Lloyd Bridges, which yields a nice meta reference:  in This Year’s Blonde, 25 years later, the Moviola segment about her in the Garson Kanin TVM adaptation, Bridges plays Johnny Hyde, the agent with whom Marilyn lived on and off for two years while he tried to build up her screen career. Portrait of a Goddess:  Installed in Hollywood, friendless Emily Ann/Rita’s had a nervous breakdown and delayed a film and her now deranged religious fanatic mom comes to visit and her daughter wishes her dead. The film concludes in very downbeat fashion following the mother’s funeral when the loneliest star in the world only has her entourage for company and a secretary tending to her.  There is not a laugh to be had and Stanley decried the way the film was edited, draining all humour from the work in which she was in any case obviously miscast. Chayefsky’s screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award. Blacklisted John Cromwell directed this major production, his last time in Hollywood after a seven-year block on his career. One can only shudder at the creative licence so many men took in interpreting their distressing version of Hollywood’s greatest legend in her lifetime, short as it would be: her first husband describes 1957 as “this year of suicide and insanity.” They wanted to illustrate the dark side of the American dream. Those ugly men got their revenge on all the uppity women who abhorred them, didn’t they. Ironically, for all her acting skill, Stanley herself had a major mental breakdown when critics in London trashed her performance in an Actors Studio production of The Three Sisters in 1965 and retired from the stage for good. There really are no happy endings.

 

 

Sahara (1983)

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One of those films that never made it to my small town when I was a kid, I’ve finally seen the motor racing movie with Brooke Shields, the It Girl of the Eighties. From jeans to beauty, she had it made. Those eyes – those eyebrows – that mane of hair  … it didn’t really surprise to learn from Who Do You Think You Are? that the fabulous cover girl and controversial star of my childhood was descended through her paternal grandmother, an Italian aristocrat, from the Holy Roman Emperor, several Popes and Louis XVI. There seems to be a lot of cross dressing in my current viewing slate and this is no different. When Brooke arrives in the desert in 1927 for the international car race her late father dreamed of winning in his own design she needs to pass for male in this Arab world so she dresses in a linen suit, fedora and a moustache. It works, for a bit. Challenged by German driver Horst Buchholz,  she is conveniently abducted by John Rhys-Davies (back in the desert after Raiders of the Lost Ark) and falls in love with his nephew the sheik Lambert Wilson – and why not? Though it takes a while for the penny to drop with Brooke that his claim on her is physical in more ways than one. High jinks ensue as she wants to escape during a tribal war involving machine guns and cool improvised tanks and her team is being held hostage, while John Mills turns up as the sheik’s secretary, a university professor…  and there’s still a race to be won! I’m a petrol head and don’t care who knows it so I love the machines and all the high drama surrounding this landscape-driven piece and the photography by David Gurfinkel and Armando Nannuzzi is lovely. Nor do I object to this inadvertently being my third Perry Lang film in ten days! Brooke was too young to legally drive in Israel where this was shot by production team Golan-Globus (the Go Go Boys as they were known) so the Government had to give special permission. Written by the ultra-fascinating personage of James R.Silke, illustrator extraordinaire (including for Capitol Records), Grammy winner for best album cover (Judy at Carnegie Hall), novelist, the man who started up Cinema magazine in LA, producer and even a role on The Wild Bunch as an uncredited costume designer for friend Sam Peckinpah. Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, son of Victor and all-round Hollywood action and western expert, who learned his trade with Johns Ford and Wayne starting as assistant director on The Quiet Man. There’s a jaunty score by Ennio Morricone to liven things up even more.  The tagline for this was: “She challenged the desert, its men, their passions and ignited a bold adventure.” I can confirm the veracity of this claim. However Shields’ performance earned her the record-breaking score of two Razzies for the same role – Worst Actress and Worst Supporting Actor – harsh! I thought she was pretty great as a Blue-Eyed Demon! Pretty baby indeed. Ironically Shields’ aristocrat grandmother died in a car crash in Italy travelling home from her nephew’s wedding to director Luchino Visconti’s niece. Royal in so many, many ways.

White Bird in a Blizzard (2014)

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Gregg Araki figured big on the Nineties film festival circuit and his edgy teen fare was a key part of queer/indie cinema. I think Mysterious Skin is his best work, and that came out in 2004. This adaptation of a novel by Larua Kasischke is an unsatisfying drama but strangely it’s the first film in which I find Shailene Woodley remotely tolerable. Normally she makes me want to peel my face from my skull: I cannot articulate why. Another problem for me and no doubt her is that the role here required her to get her top off, an issue for a lot of young actresses, although I don’t think Meryl Streep ever got that particular memo. It’s the late Eighties and Mom Eva Green disappears, leaving Kat (Woodley) living alone with her dad (Christopher Meloni). Instead of grieving, Kat has sex with her next door neighbour, Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) and the detective (Thomas Jane) in charge of the investigation.Therapy has no effect on her whatsoever:  she just has sex. A few years later she’s at college and comes home for the vacation. Dad’s got a love interest,  Jane tells her he thinks Dad killed Mom and her friends remind her that when they tried to convince her that’s what must have happened she just didn’t listen. They wonder why the freezer in the basement rec room is padlocked … and somehow all her fantasy memories of Mom in the snow make sense. Sigh. Not much mystery here then and the final revelation isn’t rocket science. The soundtrack is great though.

L’Annee des Meduses (1984)

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The French they are a funny race and if you’re allergic to women’s breasts best not watch … most of this. They’re all off to the Riviera for the summer and it’s bikini tops off all round in this low key thriller about teenaged Chris (Valerie Kaprisky) and her maman, Caroline Cellier,who leave Papa back at home while each pursues their affairs. Then Chris becomes dangerously jealous of her mother’s relationship with gigolo Bernard Giraudeau … Christopher Frank adapted and directed his own novel and you have to admit French psychodramas are better than anyone else’s. Watch out for an early appearance by Emmanuelle Seigner. Wonderfully photographed by Renato Berta with a suitably disturbed/disturbing score by Nina Hagen – remember her?

Never Been Kissed (1999)

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Speaking of Drew Barrymore… what do you mean a high school/newspaper movie mashup?! And here it is. She’s Josie Geller, junior copywriter st the Chicago Sun-Times, run by the hilariously irascible Garry Marshall (golly I miss him already) sent back undercover to her old high school to get juicy stories  exposing teenage culture. But only the geeks led by Leelee Sobieski like her so it takes her lovable older brother, failed pro ball player Rob (David Arquette) to re-enrol, thus conferring her with enough cool to infiltrate the best clique. Thing is, she falls for her teacher, the (then-) gorgeous Michael Vartan (seriously – what has happened to him?) There are frequent funny flashbacks to the first time round and some very knowing homages, especially to Carrie (youknowwhatimean). Talk about reinvention. Great fun and Barrymore is winsome and believable in a script by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, directed by Raja Gosnell.