Tuesday, September 18, 2018

High School Movies, Then and Now

Netflix recently released a handful of romantic comedies set in high schools, including To All the Boys I've Loved Before and Sierra Burgess is a Loser, and their arrival has provided an opportunity to watch a new generation of high school movies and reflect on those that came before, particularly the iconic 80s films of John Hughes. A lot has changed since The Breakfast Club made its debut in 1985, but the basic anxieties of middle class American high school students seem to be the same: fear of rejection, longing for love/acceptance, frustration with parents, and a combination of both hope and fear at the prospect of growing up, whatever that means. At the same time, modern high school movies have opened up in terms of characters - and who gets to be a protagonist - in ways many of us Gen Xers could never have imagined when we were teens, and that's a heartening evolution even when the new movies have problems of their own in terms of representation or execution.

I admit to being mystified by many of the situations depicted in high school movies. My own high school experience was so catastrophically miserable that I escaped to college a year early and never looked back. I didn't see myself in the high school pictures of the 1980s - I was an aggressively nerdy girl who devoured books whole and got kicked out of class for asking too many questions (no, really; I spent 10th grade doing "independent study" for World History because I showed up to class having already read every damn book about Ancient Egypt in the school library and went full Hermione Granger on the subject until the teacher got sick of me, which took all of three days). However, thanks to the gendered roles in movies like The Breakfast Club, I got pegged as the Ally Sheedy "weirdo" instead of the Anthony Michael Hall "nerd" type, although to be fair I probably would have been beaten up and bullied equally often under either label. At any rate, I didn't see myself in the movies then and still don't see much of that younger me in the movies now (thank you forever, J.K. Rowling, for giving me both Hermione AND Luna Lovegood as variations of the girl I once was). My own teenager, now a high school senior, also doesn't "get" high school movies thanks to being homeschooled. She tried 9th grade at a local school and quickly decided it wasn't for her. We're neither of us the people for whom these movies get made.

On some level I find high school movies interesting precisely because most of them seem like stories about alien worlds to me. What is this thing called popularity? What's with the wild parties? Did my peers actually do stuff like that and I was just oblivious? (Spoiler: They did, and I was.) The new Netflix high school movies have a sweetness about them that I also find appealing; there's less sex and a lot more focus on girls' complex emotional lives and their relationships with other girls. We didn't see a lot of that in the 80s, and it's encouraging to see it now, even in the darker Netflix TV show, Stranger Things, where Nancy's whole vengeance and truth-finding arc is driven by her love for and guilt about Barb. Speaking of Barb, Shannon Purser's brief but compelling performance on Stranger Things made me delighted to see her as the protagonist in Sierra Burgess is a Loser, and even if the film gets into trouble with its Cyrano de Bergerac revision it's still worth watching because Shannon Purser is so good and so authentic as the kind of girl we didn't see in high school movies before. I'd like more movies with Shannon Purser, please.

I do think high school movies have come a long way in terms of how they depict adolescent experience and whose stories they're willing to tell, but there's still plenty of ground yet to be covered. I have no idea if the Andy Hardy pictures resonated with the real lives of teenagers in the 1930s, but they certainly glossed over the darker realities of youth in the Great Depression. Now we get a wider range of views, from the 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower to Love, Simon (2018) and To All the Boys I've Loved Before, which blends its rom-com setup with explorations of what it means to belong to two cultures and what's like to grow up with an absent or deceased parent. Browsing through the posters for high school movies I do think we could use more young people of color in leading roles and more stories about lesbian, trans, and non-binary teens that aren't dark dramas or tragedies because those kids need to see themselves in hopeful, romantic, and light-hearted comedies, too. If I'm still pleased in my mid-40s to see high school movies include more characters I can identify with, then imagine how important it is to today's 16 and 17 year olds to get that in the high school movies they're watching.

There's a 99% chance that your high school experience was really different from mine (but more likely that it was also catastrophically miserable in its own special way). What do you make of high school movies now that you look back at the ones you saw when you were a teen? What do you see in the new ones being made today? Feel free to share in the comments!

PS - I can't end this post without a special shout out to Sky High (2005), a live action Disney film that has long been a favorite high school movie in my house of dedicated comic book nerds. It's goofy and even absurd but pitches the high school experience in a way that my husband, kid, and I all find immensely appealing. It offers diverse characters, lots of self-aware humor, and some very entertaining action scenes that take school fights to a whole new level. Plus, it has Bruce Campbell, Kurt Russell, Lynda Carter, and Cloris Leachman in it!

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: BLONDE CRAZY (1931)

Blonde Crazy (1931) is a Pre-Code cracker that really puts the slap in its slapstick, with Joan Blondell regularly smacking costar James Cagney as the pair make their way through a series of scams and double crosses. Cagney's conman deserves Blondell's tough love; his Bert is too smart for his own good and always on the make, especially when attractive women turn up, but Cagney works the flawed charm of the character for all he's worth, and he and Blondell have excellent chemistry. Director Roy Del Ruth skillfully handles the mix of comedy and drama in this Depression Era tale of likable schemers, which also features Louis Calhern, Ray Milland, and Guy Kibbee.

Cagney plays enterprising hotel bellhop Bert, who uses his job primarily as an opportunity to run crooked schemes. He helps Anne (Joan Blondell) get a position at the hotel in order to chat her up, but when she forcefully rejects his smooth talk he ends up making her his partner instead. The pair work their way up and out of the hotel, but in the city they become entangled with big time conman Dapper Dan (Louis Calhern) and his partner, Helen (Noel Francis). Anne eventually tires of Bert's relentless schemes and falls for the seemingly straight arrow Joe (Ray Milland), but Joe turns out to have a few crooked angles of his own.

There's plenty of tantalizing Pre-Code action in Blonde Crazy, with illicit booze, gambling, adultery, honey traps, robbery, and Joan Blondell's brassiere stuffed full of cash. It's a world of moral relativity that Blondell's character enters somewhat by accident; she's not naturally crooked but is tough enough to handle herself in spite of constant sexual harassment. Anne isn't much bothered by Bert's scams because he usually swindles other swindlers, but she draws the line at outright robbery. When she decides to get out of the game and marry Joe, Bert realizes that he's missed out on his opportunity for a better life with Anne by his side, and he quits, too. Bert's inclination to go straight is then ironically thwarted by Anne's distress when Joe is revealed as the worst crook of them all.

Cagney and Blondell carry the picture with their performances, with Cagney clearly relishing the wolfish energy of his character and Blondell striking just the right balance between cynicism and vulnerability. Bert's favorite endearment, a drawled "Hoooney!" that he often directs at Anne, rolls out of Cagney's mouth with a cocksure smirk that perfectly sums up his personality. Supporting the pair most notably are Louis Calhern and Noel Francis as con artists who make a mark of Bert and cheat him out of his own ill-gotten cash. Their ruthless efficiency makes our protagonists look like angels, but Anne figures out a way to get even with them. Guy Kibbee makes a memorable appearance as one of Bert and Anne's early marks, while Ray Milland pops up fairly late in the picture as the rival for Anne's affections. We don't really see enough of Milland's Joe to form opinions about him until the very end, and it's kind of a shame that Milland doesn't get to work that shifty glint in Joe's eye a little more before his final act of selfish betrayal.

Roy Del Ruth, who started in the silent era, directed a wide variety of pictures, including Born to Dance (1936), It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947), and The Alligator People (1959). For more of Cagney and Blondell together, see The Public Enemy (1931), The Crowd Roars (1932), Footlight Parade (1933), and He Was Her Man (1934). Ray Milland is just a young up-and-comer in Blonde Crazy; catch him in his prime in the 1940s in The Major and the Minor (1942), The Uninvited (1944), and The Lost Weekend (1945).

Blonde Crazy is currently streaming on FilmStruck.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Movie Log for June 2018

I've been unusually busy this summer, which means that my movie viewing has been fairly limited. In spite of that, I've been enjoying the summer blockbuster fare and classics on FilmStruck, which has a wonderfully robust collection that changes frequently (the subscription is definitely worth it, so check out FilmStruck if you don't already use it!).

Because my new, unpaid "day job" is pretty stressful, I'm gravitating toward comedies more than ever, especially English ones that provide me with an escape from the concerns of the day. Filmstruck has been happy to provide exactly what I'm looking for, with Ealing comedies, Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple films, and other light romps.

My spouse, ever eager to suggest movies that appeal more to his own tastes, has introduced some horror into the mix, which explains the presence of Found Footage 3D (although I have to say it was quite funny and worth your time if you enjoy horror comedies). Shudder continues to be our go-to streaming service for horror, although I would still like to see more silent, classic, and B horror selections there. The "Foundations of Horror" category needs more entries to live up to its name, and I'd love to have access to more Hammer and drive-in sci-fi horror.

Here's the movie log for May and June of 2018 -


After the Thin Man (1936)
Found Footage 3D (2016)
Another Thin Man (1939)
All This And Heaven, Too (1940)
Black Panther (2018)
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Merry Andrew (1958)
The Wicker Man (1973)


Julia Misbehaves (1948)
Oceans 8 (2018)
Incredibles 2 (2018)
Queen Christina (1933)
Murder, She Said (1961)
The Ladykillers (1955)
Game Night (2018)
Murder at the Gallop (1963)

What are you watching this summer? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: JULIA MISBEHAVES (1948)

Directed by Jack Conway, Julia Misbehaves (1948) is a charming, frothy romantic comedy that reunites the stars of Mrs. Miniver (1942) for a rather different look at the ups and downs of marriage. Greer Garson kicks up her heels as a bohemian performer long estranged, but not divorced, from husband Walter Pidgeon. The picture also features a host of familiar faces, including Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Lawford as a young pair with romantic issues of their own and great character actors like Cesar Romero, Nigel Bruce, Mary Boland, Reginald Owen, and Henry Stephenson. The cast alone makes the film worth seeing, but Garson and Pidgeon share a delightful chemistry that enriches their scenes together even when their characters are being most ridiculous.

Garson stars as Julia Packett, who long ago left her husband and infant daughter and returned to the stage to make her own way. Broke but persevering on pluck and a steady stream of schemes, Julia is surprised by an invitation to her daughter's wedding and decides to attend. Her mother-in-law (Lucile Watson) hopes to eject Julia from the nuptials, but husband William (Walter Pidgeon) quickly falls for her all over again, much to his mother's dismay. Meanwhile, daughter Susan (Elizabeth Taylor) is preparing to marry an unseen groom while fighting her attraction to the handsome young Ritchie (Peter Lawford).

Julia Misbehaves resolutely focuses on the comedic aspects of its material, but there's a lot of heartache lurking beneath the bubbly surface. Over the course of the picture we learn that Julia married William when she was only seventeen and he was a young soldier abroad. They had happy days together at first, but we get the distinct sense that their separation was orchestrated by William's mother, who disapproves of Julia and schemes to divide them once more by inviting Julia's acrobatic admirer, Fred (Cesar Romero), into the Packett family home. Several scenes touch on the longing Julia has felt to be reunited with Susan all these years, and the conversations between Julia and Mrs. Packett suggest that Julia was forbidden that contact. These details matter because we're supposed to like Julia and understand that she didn't just abandon her family for life on the stage; she was pushed out against her will when she was still very young. When she returns, Julia has become a force in her own right, no longer vulnerable to Mrs. Packett's intimidation.

The story, therefore, is essentially a comeback comedy, with Julia regaining the things she lost so many years ago. In order to survive and become a match for the scheming Mrs. Packett, Julia has learned to be quite a schemer herself. She wheels and deals to get the money she needs; we first see her in a bathtub threatening to commit suicide in order to induce her friend Benji (Reginald Owen) to pay off her debts. She later bamboozles an old gambler (Nigel Bruce) so that she can buy gifts for Susan. The men in the picture also resort to underhanded plots for good causes; William turns out to be just as crafty as his mother and his wife, especially as he works to rekindle the flame of his marriage, while Ritchie hatches plans to frighten Susan into his arms with some help from a friendly bear. Even sweet Susan turns out to have a few schemes up her sleeve at the story's close, much to the surprise of her parents. Everybody, it seems, has to be a trickster sometimes in order to make happy endings happen.

Julia Misbehaves is the final film directed by Jack Conway, who had started in the silent era and gone on to direct a number of Jean Harlow comedies, including Red-Headed Woman (1932), Libeled Lady (1936), and Saratoga (1937). Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon star in eight movies together, with Julia Misbehaves as their fifth pairing and a rare foray into comedic territory. More typical of their collaborations are Mrs. Miniver (1942), Madame Curie (1943), and Mrs. Parkington (1944). For another film featuring both Peter Lawford and Elizabeth Taylor, see the 1949 adaptation of Little Women, or move on to Father of the Bride (1950) for more of young Liz in a wedding dress.

WHERE TO WATCH: Julia Misbehaves is currently streaming on Filmstruck.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936)

After the Thin Man (1936) reunites director W.S. Van Dyke and stars William Powell and Myrna Loy for a sequel to the 1934 hit, The Thin Man, in which Nick and Nora Charles first cracked wise and drank heavily through a crime-solving adventure. We pick up right where we left off at the end of the first movie, with Nick, Nora, and Asta on a train to California, which makes the first two films a great double bill, even though they were released two years apart. After the Thin Man offers more of everything that made the first picture such a success, with the wealthy couple boozing their way through the new year and a series of homicides. Along for the ride are a number of familiar classic stars, including James Stewart, Joseph Calleia, and George Zucco, as well as Elissa Landi as Nora's troubled cousin, Selma.

Nick and Nora (Powell and Loy) arrive in San Francisco for New Year's Eve only to find that Nora's cousin, Selma (Elissa Landi), is in distress after the disappearance of her faithless husband, Robert (Alan Marshal). Nick has no trouble locating Robert and his mistress at a crowded hot spot, but then Robert turns up dead in front of Selma's house, and it looks like Selma might have killed him. Her longtime admirer, David (James Stewart), arrives on the scene to help, but Robert is just the first corpse of the mystery, and two more rapidly follow. With plenty of suspects on hand, including sketchy businessman Dancer (Joseph Calleia), jealous loser Phil (Paul Fix), and sinister Dr. Kammer (George Zucco), the police have their work cut out for them, even with Nick and Nora's help.

Much of the comedy of this outing lies in the contrast between Nick and Nora's social sets, whom we first see set against each other and then brought together thanks to Robert's shady habits. Nick knows every low-life, ex-con, and purse snatcher in town, and even the guys he sent to prison seem to like him. When Nora is greeted by a well-heeled couple in a passing car, she wryly tells Nick, "Oh, you wouldn't know them, darling. They're respectable." It turns out, however, that Nora's relations are not all that respectable themselves; they merely preserve the appearance of respectability while engaging in coercion, blackmail, adultery, and obstruction of justice. Selma's philandering husband is up to his neck in self-made trouble, but Selma's mother (Jessie Ralph) bullies and manipulates Selma into keeping quiet about his disappearance and his behavior. The rest of Nora's relatives are just antiquated bores; poor Nick has to make up both sides of the conversation when he's left alone with a table full of snoring, elderly gents after a family dinner party. It's little wonder that both he and Nora prefer Nick's more exciting acquaintances.

Asta's domestic woes feature as an odd running gag throughout the film, creating a canine version of the plot's themes of adultery, betrayal, and romance gone wrong. Asta returns from his Christmas travels to find that Mrs. Asta has produced a litter of puppies, but one of the bunch looks suspiciously like the Scottish Terrier who keeps sneaking onto the property. Asta chases his rival off repeatedly but never seems to get rid of him for good. Perhaps it's the stress of his romantic frustrations that makes Asta snatch and then eat part of a vital clue. Nick and Nora, who lavish attention on Asta, never seem to give the slightest thought to Mrs. Asta and her children, which might explain why the neglected pup, shut up in her backyard pen, has gone looking for affection elsewhere. At least the dogs don't resort to murder to solve their problems with each other, and on the whole they're better behaved than most of the movie's humans.

Powell and Loy continue the series with Van Dyke in Another Thin Man (1939) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) before moving to other directors for The Thin Man Goes Home (1944) and Song of the Thin Man (1947). For more of a very young Jimmy Stewart, see Wife vs. Secretary (1936) and Born to Dance (1936). Look for Elissa Landi in The Sign of the Cross (1932), By Candlelight (1933), and The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). Penny Singleton, billed as Dorothy McNulty, proves quite a scene stealer as nightclub singer Polly; she would go on to play the title character in more than two dozen Blondie films and provide the voice for Jane Jetson in the cartoon TV series, so be sure to appreciate her early appearance here.

Want to watch The Thin Man series? All of the films are currently available for streaming on FilmStruck.

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Monday, April 30, 2018

FilmStruck! Finally!

I'm delighted to announce that FilmStruck has finally arrived at our house. While I have been watching the development of this new streaming service since its early days, I had to wait for it to be available for Roku devices to enjoy it myself. Travel and commitment schedules made the first few months of 2018 too busy to take full advantage of the free trial period, but now that I'm finally signed up I look forward to watching lots of TCM Selects and Criterion Channel films through the long, hot summer.

I hope that FilmStruck will fill a gap that mainstream services have left yawning of late. I haven't been able to get my classic movie fix from Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. (Prime is the worst in some ways; it tantalizes and then disappoints with its muddy, unwatchable copies of public domain fare.) The spouse will also be able to watch his fill of Godzilla movies and cult horror, which ought to make him happy to pay for me to indulge in my own favorite genres.

Now that we've joined the FilmStruck family, let me know what you've been watching there and what you think I ought to add to my watchlist. It's already bursting, but there's room for more!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: THE WRONG ARM OF THE LAW (1963)

Directed by Cliff Owen, The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963) provides a genial, humorous look at the symbiotic relationship of cops and crooks in mid-century London, with Peter Sellers appearing to great effect as a criminal gang boss and Lionel Jeffries co-starring as an ambitious officer of the law. The picture is primarily a heist plot with plenty of comic twists, including the disruption of the "natural order" by a group of Australian interlopers who pose as coppers to make off with the bandits' boodle. Sellers gives a delightful performance that puts his chameleon talents on display, while Jeffries bumbles hilariously behind and beside Sellers' quick-thinking crook. Bernard Cribbins also makes a memorable appearance as one of Sellers' partners in crime, while the lovely Nanette Newman plays Sellers' duplicitous girlfriend.

Sellers stars as Cockney crime boss Pearly Gates, who masquerades by day as a legitimate French businessman who makes ladies' dresses. When his criminal jobs are repeatedly upended by a trio of "cops" who make off with the haul and leave the crooks behind, Pearly realizes that a new gang is using police uniforms to rob the robbers. Meanwhile, the determined but incompetent Inspector Parker (Lionel Jeffries), tries to nab Pearly's men but can't find any of the stolen goods. Pearly and his fellow crime boss, Nervous O'Toole (Bernard Cribbins), propose a collaborative effort with the police to shut down the fake cops once and for all, but Pearly doesn't suspect that the interlopers' inside informant is his own girlfriend, Valerie (Nanette Newman).

It's great fun to watch Sellers shift between his refined French persona and the Cockney patter of Pearly Gates, especially when other characters force him to switch gears quickly. Pearly is clearly the smartest person in the room, except when Valerie is around, and then he discloses all his plots and jobs without ever suspecting that he himself is being played. Inspector Parker, inevitably teased as "Nosy" by everyone else, is a bumbling foil and eventual sidekick to Pearly, with Sellers and Jeffries playing off each other in several key scenes, especially in the third act.

Most entertaining, however, is the absurdly orderly world of London's criminal gangs, an inoffensive set, really, who surrender without a fuss when caught and never hold a grudge against the police for arresting them. Cops and robbers is just a game here, without real danger or consequences, and thus a cat burglar can enter the room of a sleeping young woman and steal only her valuables and perhaps a secret kiss (one that also slips her earring from her ear!). The London thieves are easy pickings for the fake cops because it doesn't occur to any of the crooks to fight back against men in uniform, and when given the opportunity the thieves simply make their escape. Their adherence to order reaches its ridiculous height in the scene where Pearly calls a meeting of all of London's criminal elements, and the gathered crooks and cons religiously observe Robert's Rules of Order. They are, in fact, much more organized and effective than the police, a fact that becomes clear when the cops botch their parts of the plan to catch the Australian gang in the act.

The action in The Wrong Arm of the Law zips along and keeps the viewer guessing about where all of these shenanigans will lead, and if you've exhausted the available stock of Ealing comedies this film makes a great follow-up. Peter Sellers is best remembered today for the Pink Panther films, Being There (1979), and Dr. Strangelove (1964), but you can also see him with Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers (1955). Watch for John Le Mesurier as the Assistant Commissioner, along with Dennis Price and a young Michael Caine in uncredited roles. Cliff Owen went on to direct The Vengeance of She (1968) and No Sex, Please: We're British (1973). Catch Lionel Jeffries in Camelot (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968); Jeffries also directed Bernard Cribbins in The Railway Children (1970). Nanette Newman appears in The Stepford Wives (1975) and as the adult Velvet Brown in International Velvet, a 1978 sequel to the original film starring Elizabeth Taylor.