Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Three Favorite Movies in STRANGER THINGS 3

*Warning! Mild spoilers ahead, but only related to minor incidents. No major plot points are discussed.

The third season of Stranger Things continues its love affair with all things 80s, including the movies of that decade and the heyday of the local video rental store, which gives the final episode of the season an opportunity to name drop a number of films that reveal aspects of the characters' personalities. A visit to the video store presents fan favorite Steve and new character Robin with an opportunity to name their three favorite films as a test of their movie knowledge and personal taste. Not surprisingly, Steve goes with some pretty obvious recent choices, while Robin plays the movie snob card by naming three classic films.

Robin (played by Maya Hawke) appears throughout the season as a new kind of girl in the character mix, but one with her own 80s movie roots. She's the edgy, prickly, smart girl who doesn't care about popularity or the usual high school status symbols. Sarcastic and bored with her job at Scoops Ahoy, she torments Steve but also proves herself to be a useful, loyal friend to the former high school golden boy. When asked to name her three favorite movies, Robin lists The Apartment (1960), The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Children of Paradise (1945). Her picks are especially esoteric for a teenager living in small town America in the mid 1980s, where it would have been difficult to see any of those three pictures, but they're intended to show her as a "serious" cineaste who leans toward foreign classics and film school standards. They immediately win the approval of the video store clerk, as well.

Steve's taste is, as Robin admits, "pedestrian" in comparison with her own. His picks, after much stumbling, are Animal House (1978), Return of the Jedi (1983), and Back to the Future (1985), the last of which Steve had just caught parts of during his misadventures with Robin, Dustin, and Erica. We've seen Steve grow a lot as a character since his initial appearance in Season One, but his first choice of Animal House reminds us of the kind of guy Steve used to be and might have remained if not for his experiences with the other Hawkins kids. He doesn't know the names of the specific episodes of Star Wars, either, and he loses even more credibility with the clerk by saying he likes "the one with the teddy bears" instead of going with the more fanboy approved The Empire Strikes Back. Ironically, Robin has included in her list Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, one of the films that George Lucas heavily borrowed from for A New Hope, thus showing that the best approach is to name not an actual Star Wars film at all but to show your depth of knowledge by picking one of its inspirations.

In a season packed with movie references, especially shout outs to horror films like Day of the Dead (1985), The Thing (1982), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978 are equally relevant), and Alien (1979), along with a heavy dose of The Terminator (1984), the final episode's video store scene is a chance for the show to engage the cultural significance of movies very directly and mention some films that fall outside its horror/action/80s frame of reference. Robin's list is more about a hardcore movie buff's idea of what matters, but Steve's list is more in tune with the specific cultural moment in which the show takes place.

Honestly, in retrospect, they're both perfectly good lists, just reflective of very different movie watching moods and perspectives. When I was 18, back in 1990, I certainly hadn't yet seen any of Robin's picks, but I had seen all three of Steve's (I only saw Animal House because I was in college by then and away from parents who strictly cut off my access to R rated films). My top three would probably have been something like The Princess Bride (1987), The Lost Boys (1987), and, yes, Return of the Jedi (I also like the teddy bears. Fight me.)

What were your three favorite movies when you were 18? Were they "classics" or things you had only recently seen for the first time? How does your knowledge of movies - from the 80s or otherwise - enhance your enjoyment of a show like Stranger Things? I'd love to see your thoughts in the comments!

PS - If you're interested in my early teenage experiences with serious cinema watching back in the 1980s, check out "My First Summer of Cinema - 1988."

Monday, July 1, 2019

Classic Films in Focus: CASANOVA BROWN (1944)

What does a viewer expect going into a movie that features multiple marriages, a burning mansion, a kidnapped baby, and a clueless new father on a crash course in infant care? Hilarity seems like a reasonable answer, but that's not what we get with Casanova Brown (1944). While its plot summary sounds like truly outrageous material for a screwball comedy, the end result is quite tame, with far quieter performances than one might expect in a story about characters who take everything to extremes. It's not a terrible film, but it's by no means a great example of the genre, especially when compared to Gary Cooper's better known foray into screwball comedy in the hilarious Ball of Fire (1941). Here Cooper lacks the high energy of a proper screwball heroine to react to, even though he has dueling leading ladies in Teresa Wright and Anita Louise. In the end, Casanova Brown is a modestly amusing picture that offers an instructive example of what makes screwball tick by leaving out an essential component.

Cooper plays Casanova Brown, a domesticated descendant of that other Casanova who stumbles into marriage rather more often than he should. On the eve of his wedding to the cosmopolitan Madge (Anita Louise), Cass discovers that his short-lived union with Isabel (Teresa Wright) has produced a child, whom Isabel plans to put up for adoption. Enamored at first sight of his newborn daughter and horrified by the idea of her being given away, Cass kidnaps the baby from the hospital and attempts to care for her while holed up in a local hotel. Meanwhile, both Madge and Isabel are searching for him with their fathers in tow.

There's certainly plenty of chaos and reversal on hand to fuel a screwball comedy. Cooper's Casanova is no Italian adventurer, much less a predatory seducer, but he still ends up at the altar with three different women. He seems to have a preternatural ability to create crises, as he does when his hastily hidden cigarette reduces Isabel's family home to a smoldering ruin, thus provoking the argument that ends his brief marriage. His reaction to Isabel's plan for their baby is to impersonate a doctor, make off with the infant, and then enlist half the hotel staff in his obsessive baby nursing efforts. Whatever the situation, Casanova Brown always seems to make exactly the wrong choice at the worst possible moment, and most of the film's best scenes rely on that disastrous trait.

The problem lies with the development of the two female characters, neither of whom clicks with Cooper or inhabits her role convincingly. I love Teresa Wright in other films, especially Shadow of a Doubt (1943), but here she seems so painfully young as a love interest for Cooper, and she's far too wounded and pitiful to be a proper screwball heroine. Her Isabel is a sad victim of her parents' foolishness, her groom's stubbornness, and her own inability to stand up for herself. Madge, meanwhile, who ought to be a scheming socialite man eater of the first order, is never even remotely awful enough to warrant being left at the altar. Moreover, Anita Louise looks far more age appropriate as a mate for Cooper than Wright (who was actually in her mid-20s in 1944 but looks so much like a kid that even Casanova mentions it), and one has to wonder about a man who prefers a childlike bride over an actual adult. The only real case made against Madge is the constant harping of her father (Frank Morgan) about how controlling and tight-fisted the Ferris women are, and it's clear that his resentment stems from his own greedy desire to run through his wife's fortune at the utmost speed. Louise might have made a more villainous Madge if the script provided any fodder, but Wright is flatly out of place, even if the role hadn't been so weakly written. Screwball needs screwy women to shake up the social order and disrupt expectations, and when they aren't present the picture falls flat.

Aside from Ball of Fire, try iconic screwball comedies like My Man Godfrey (1936), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Midnight (1939), or The Lady Eve (1941) to see the fireworks when everything goes right. Sam Wood, who directed Casanova Brown, was on firmer ground with more melodramatic material like Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Kitty Foyle (1940), and Kings Row (1942), each of which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Gary Cooper won Oscars for Sergeant York (1941) and High Noon (1952), while Teresa Wright won the Best Supporting Actress award for Mrs. Miniver (1942). You can see both of them, once again paired romantically, in The Pride of the Yankees (1942).