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Denofcinema.com: Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Saturday Night At The Movies

From crayons to perfume: Top 10 school flicks

By Dennis Hartley

It’s a funny thing. I know that this is supremely silly (I’m over 50, fergawdsake)- but as soon as September rolls around and retailers start touting their “back to school” sales, I still get that familiar twinge of dread. How do I best describe it? It’s a vague sensation of social anxiety, coupled with a melancholy resignation to the fact that from now until next June, I have to go to bed early. BTW, now that I’m allowed to stay up with the grownups, why do I drift off in my chair at 8pm every night? It’s another one of life’s cruel ironies.

At any rate, since it is “that time of the year”, I thought I would share my Top 10 show-and-tell picks for homeroom. As per usual, I must point out this is a completely subjective list of personal favorites; I am not proclaiming these selections to be The Most Beloved School Movies Ever (in case you’re wondering where I stashed Mr. Chips). So please grade my list on a curve. Also, please keep both hands away from the keyboard (on top of your desk where I can see them) and don’t start snarking until you have thoroughly read and understood this lesson plan completely. Wait a minute (sniff)-is somebody out there eating pizza? Put it down, and pay attention. In alphabetical order:

Blackboard Jungle-I always like to refer to this searing 1955 drama as the anti-Happy Days. An idealistic English teacher (Glenn Ford) takes on an inner-city classroom full of leather-jacketed malcontents who would much rather steal hubcaps and break windows than, say, study the construct of iambic pentameter. Considered a hard-hitting “social issue” film at the time, it still retains considerable power, despite some dated trappings. Vic Morrow and Sidney Poitier are appropriately surly and unpredictable as the alpha “toughs” in the classroom. The impressive supporting cast includes Richard Kiley, Anne Francis and Louis Calhern. Director Richard Brooks co-scripted with Evan Hunter, from his novel (Hunter is more widely known by his nom de plume, Ed McBain). The film also had a hand in making Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” a monster hit.

Dazed & Confused-I will admit upfront that my attachment to Richard Linklater’s amazingly vivid 1993 recreation of a “day in the life” high school milieu circa 1976 has almost everything to do with the sentimental chord it touches within me (I graduated from high school in 1974). The clothing, the hairstyles, the lingo, the social behaviors and (perhaps most importantly) the music is so spot on that I was transported into a total-immersion sense memory the first time I saw the film (no, I wasn’t high-grow up!). Perhaps the first wave of boomers a decade or so ahead of me were similarly affected when they first watched American Graffiti (anyone?). At any rate, I knew all these people! Not necessarily a goofy teen comedy; while there are a lot of laughs (mostly of recognition), the sharply written screenplay offers some inspired moments of keen observation and even genuine poignancy at times. Linklater certainly wouldn’t be able to reassemble this bright, energetic young cast at the same bargain rates nowadays: Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Rory Cochrane, Joey Lauren Adams and Nicky Katt, to name but a few. Two power bongs up!

Election-Writer-director Alexander Payne and his stalwart writing partner Jim Taylor (Sideways , About Schmidt) followed up their noteworthy 1995 feature film debut, Citizen Ruth, with this biting socio-political satire, thinly cloaked as a teen comedy (which it decidedly is not). Reese Witherspoon delivers a pitch perfect performance as the psychotically perky, overachieving Tracy Flick, who makes life a special hell for her brooding civics teacher, Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick). Payne’s film is very funny at times, yet it never pulls its punches; there are some painful truths about the dark underbelly of suburbia bubbling beneath the veneer (quite similar to American Beauty, which interestingly came out the same year). Also notable for Matthew Broderick finally proving that he could lay the Ferris Bueller persona to rest and play an unlikable bastard.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High -Amy Heckerling’s 1982 coming-of-age dramedy is another film that introduced a bevy of new talent to movie audiences: Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Eric Stoltz, Nicholas Cage, Anthony Edwards, and of course Sean Penn as the quintessential stoned surfer dude, who seems to enjoy elevating the blood pressure of his history teacher (a marvelously dry Ray Walston). In the good ol’ days of VHS, I can remember searching in vain for a rental copy that didn’t suffer from extensive “freeze frame” damage at right about that moment where Cates reveals her, erm, hidden talents. Heckerling later returned to the same California high school milieu (updated for the 90s) for her hit Clueless. Rolling Stone reporter (and soon-to-be film director) Cameron Crowe scripted from his book, which was based on his experiences “embedded” at a San Diego high school (thanks to his youthful appearance, Crowe had successfully passed himself off as a student for a year).Gregory's Girl- Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth’s delightful examination of puppy love crosses over from one of my previous Top Ten lists. Gawky teenager Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) goes gaga for Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), a fellow soccer player on the school team. Gregory receives love advice from an unlikely mentor, his little sister (Allison Forster). His male classmates offer advice as well, but of course they are just as clueless as he is (although they put on airs of having deep insight on the subject of girls, naturally). In fact, Forsyth gets a lot of mileage out of that most basic truth about adolescence-the girls are usually light years ahead of the boys when it comes to the mysteries of love. Not as precious as you might think, as Forsyth is a master of low-key anarchy and understated irony. You may have trouble navigating the thick Scottish accents, but it’s worth it. Also with Clare Grogan, whom music fans may recall as lead singer of Altered Images, and Red Dwarf fans may recognize as “Kristine Kochanski”.

Massacre at Central High- I know I’m going to get some arched eyebrows with this selection. Despite the title, this is not a slasher movie; it’s more of a social satire/political allegory. You've seen the setup before-a gang of alpha high school bullies are terrorizing and intimidating their classmates at will, until the "new kid" rolls in and changes the status quo, Yojimbo style. The film veers into Lord Of The Flies territory, with allusions to class struggle, fascist politics and what-would-happen-if-there-were-no-adults-around anarchy. Don't get me wrong, this ain’t exactly Animal Farm; after all, the film stars Robert Carradine and Andrew "direct-to-video" Stevens, but for its budget and its genre, it’s oddly compelling. A U.S. production, but director Rene Raalder hails from Holland.

National Lampoon's Animal House- “Thank you sir. May I have another?” The twisted brain trust behind the National Lampoon produced this riotously vulgar and slyly subversive ode to college frat house culture, which became a surprise box-office smash in 1978. The film kicked off a lucrative Hollywood franchise for the magazine, and (building on the groundwork that was established by M*A*S*H and Blazing Saddles) opened the floodgates for a whole new genre of raunchy, uninhibited and politically incorrect movie comedy. The film is also notable for launching the fruitful careers of director John Landis and future director Harold Ramis (who co-wrote with Doug Kenney and Chris Miller). And what a brilliant ensemble cast: Tom Hulce, Tim Matheson, Peter Riegert, Karen Allen and Kevin Bacon (all unknowns at the time) along with screen vets Donald Sutherland and John Vernon. And no, I haven’t forgotten the guy who steals the show! I’m usually not a fan of physical comedy, but for some reason, everything John Belushi does in this movie, whether it’s falling off a ladder, smashing a guitar, crushing a beer can on his forehead, or simply arching his eyebrow-puts me in complete hysterics.

Rock 'N' Roll High School-As far as guilty pleasures go, this goofy bit of anarchy from the stable of legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman rates pretty high (and one suspects the creators of the film were, erm, “pretty high” when they dreamed it all up). Director Alan Arkush invokes the spirit of all those late 50s rock’n’roll exploitation movies (right down to having 27 year-old actors portraying “students”), substituting The Ramones for the usual clean-cut teen idols who inevitably pop up at the school dance. To this day, I’m still helplessly in love with P.J. Soles, who plays Vince Lombardi High School’s most devoted Ramones fan, Riff Randell. The great cast of B-movie troupers includes the late Paul Bartel (who directed several of his own cult classics under Corman’s tutelage) and his frequent screen partner Mary Waronov (as the uptight, iron-fisted principal). Although no one’s ever copped to it, I’m fairly sure this film inspired Square Pegs, the short-lived cult TV series from 1982. R.I.P. Joey, Dee Dee and Johnny.

To Sir, With Love-A decade after he co-starred in Blackboard Jungle, Sidney Poitier traded the switchblade and the bad attitude for a nice suit and an earnest lesson plan; it was his turn to play the mentor. This well-acted 1967 drama offered a bold twist on the usual formula (for its time). Movie audiences were accustomed to watching an idealistic white teacher struggling to tame the wild (and usually “ethnic”) inner city students; in this case, you had an idealistic black teacher trying to relate to a classroom chockablock with citizens of the unruly, white British working class. It’s a tour de force for director James Clavell, who also wrote and produced. Culture clash is a dominant theme in many of Clavell’s novels and films; most famously in Shogun. The film is a great “swinging 60s” time capsule-thanks to a spunky performance of the memorable theme song by Lulu, and a brief appearance by the Mindbenders (don’t blink or you’ll miss future 10cc co-founder Eric Stewart). Co-stars include Judy Geeson (delivering a poignant performance) and future rocker Michael Des Barres (vocalist for Silverhead, Detective, Power Station).

Twenty-Four Eyes-This naturalistic, tremendously moving drama from Keisuke Kinoshita could very well be the ultimate “inspirational teacher” movie. Set in an isolated, sparsely populated village on the ruggedly beautiful coast of Japan’s Shodoshima island, the story begins in 1928 and ends just after WW 2. This is a deceptively simple yet deeply resonant tale about a long term mentorship that develops between a compassionate, nurturing teacher (Hideko Takamine) and her 12 students, from grade school through adulthood. Many of the cast members are non-actors, but you would never guess it from the uniformly wonderful performances. Kinoshita enlisted sets of siblings to portray the students as they “age”, giving the story a heightened sense of realism. The film, originally released in 1954, was hugely popular in Japan; a revival some years later enabled it to be discovered by Western audiences, who warmed to its humanist stance and undercurrent of anti-war sentiments. Keep a box of Kleenex nearby.

Extra credit (10 more)-The Class , Rushmore, Flirting
The History Boys, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Heathers, Four Friends, 400 Blows, The Browning Version, If...

Class dismissed!


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