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Forgotten Video: The Back To School Edition

by David Cornelius

So summer’s over, and as the Four Tops so eloquently sang in “Grease 2,” it’s time to go back, back, back to school again, whoa, whoa, I gotta go back to school again. (Hey, it’s better than “let’s do it for our country,” yes?) I could use this as a chance to shamefully admit just how much I actually enjoyed back-to-school shopping - the hunt for the latest school supplies, the smell of a new Trapper Keeper - or, I could go the less geeky route and simply use this as an excuse to examine a big, steamin’ pile of overlooked movies about those crazy, crazy school days.

First up: a back-to-school movie in the purest sense of the word, “Hiding Out” (1987). The film, a favorite from my misspent youth, finds Jon Cryer starring as Andrew Morensky, a stock broker who gets tangled up in some mob doings and winds up shaving his beard, dying his hair in a wacky punk ’do, and enrolling as a student at his teenage cousin’s high school.

It’s a long, long, long set-up just to get us to the meat of the film - twentysomething relives his senior year - but I don’t mind. There’s some fun-dopey action in that too-long set-up; the scenes with John Spencer as a grumpy fed earn some chuckles, and the Cryer-with-beard scenes allow for some late-80s slickness and a nice song or two to work its way onto the soundtrack album. (Side note: the film’s soundtrack is the best thing about the film, most notably for Roy Orbison and k.d. lang’s haunting rendition of Orbison’s “Crying.”)

Anyway. Once enrolled, Andrew - going under the coffee can-inspired pseudonym “Maxwell Hauser,” ha ha - becomes a player in a loose series of episodes: he’s shanghaied into running for class president; he gives his cousin (Keith Coogan, best known from “Adventures In Babysitting”) plenty of romance advice; he falls for sweetheart senior Ryan (Annabeth Gish, in one of her first screen appearances).

Wait a sec… did I just say that this 29-year-old stock broker falls for a 17-year-old high school senior? And that the movie plays it up as a serious romantic angle? And that the entire cast and crew fail to ever see the ickiness in this? Well, yes. It’s just one of the many things that nobody bothered to think through when putting this supposedly lighthearted romp together. (As our own Scott Weinberg put it in his less-than-favorable review of the film: “It’s not every day you get to see a ‘comedy’ in which a gymnasium full of screaming teenagers are threatened by a gun-toting sniper.”)

And yet, the whole thing comes with such a sweet allure - led by Cryer’s natural likability - that its creepier moments are strangely forgivable. Director Bob Giraldi pours on the pleasantness, and it’s easy to get taken in by this weird little world into which Andrew has landed. The jokes are hit-and-miss, but I’m always smiling, all because of the cast - yes, even Keith Coogan brings home the charm. It may be nothing more than a dumbed-down, more teen-movie-centric version of “Peggy Sue Got Married,” but it’s also a relaxing slice of 80s nostalgia. C’mon. Jon Cryer wearing a fish tie? Comedy gold.

1987 was both Cryer’s busiest year, and, arguably, the year that killed his budding career. In addition to “Hiding Out,” he could also be seen in the oddball punk-Western “Dudes,” the Robert Altman flop “O.C. & Stiggs,” the infamous “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace,” and, finally, “Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home,” a comedy best known for being so awful that it landed the dreaded “Alan Smithee” directorial credit. Oh, Teddy Z, will you never learn?

To its credit, “Morgan Stewart” does have four things going for it: the song that plays over the opening credits, courtesy Scottish alt-rockers the Silencers, kicks ten kinds of ass; an early scene in which Cryer and his private school buddies flood an enemy’s dorm room is inventive enough to win a smile or two; an impromptu outburst about being in love allows Cryer to showcase his charisma; and the love interest is played by Viveka Davis, a too-cute actress that had me majorly crushing during my puberty years.

Everything else, though? Buckle yourselves in for some Deep Hurting. The plot, such as it is, involves the misfit son (Cryer) of a Washington power couple (Nicholas Pryor and Vanessa Redgrave, embarrassing themselves) who’s asked to return home after years of boarding school, so he can be a face in his father’s Senate re-election campaign. Once you realize that this film takes place in late December, you’ll understand the level of care that went into putting this one together.

There’s stuff here about Morgan clashing with his stuffy mom, Morgan falling for the adorable punk gal, Morgan discovering a nasty scheme being perpetrated by dad’s slimy campaign manager (Paul Gleason - who else?). Meanwhile, there’s an entire scene devoted to Morgan waxing the floor, causing everyone to fall! Oh, and one running gag finds the Russian servants not being very good at speaking English. What a country!

The only reason to catch this one is if you used to watch it endlessly on cable way back when, and you want to revisit old times. Be warned, however: the film’s badness is hypnotic - I have on multiple occasions caught myself watching the entire movie on late night TV, unable to turn away as I keep asking myself, “Why?! Why?! Why did nobody realize the elections were six weeks ago!”

Faring much better in the realm of quirky characters is Winona Ryder, whose turn as Dinky Bosetti in “Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael” (1990) cemented her in my teenage mind as the alterna-chick of choice. The film, penned by Karen Leigh Hopkins and directed by Jim Abrahams (yes, he of “Airplane!” fame), is an uneven but ultimately heartwarming tale of lost youth. Dinky is the closest thing to a goth chick the sleepy town of Clyde, Ohio, can claim at its own; perpetually dressed in oversized black sweaters, face hidden behind a ragmop of hair, the terminally depressed teen is an outcast in school and at home.

In a weird bit of hoping to belong, Dinky has become convinced that she is the long-lost daughter of Roxy Carmichael, a mysterious local celebrity whose plans to return to Clyde send the town into a tizzy. It’s with the townsfolk that Abrahams gets to sneak in his trademark sense of humor (watch for a few brilliantly subtle sight gags), as Small Town America gets skewered for the gossipy bowl of kitsch that it is, and the cult of celebrity gets lampooned for the empty silliness that it is.

But the film’s punchlines at the local yokels’ expense are actually its weakest points. The film works strongest as a rallying cry for troubled youth (1990 also saw the release of “Pump Up the Volume” and “Edward Scissorhands,” two other sharp studies of suburban teenage life), as well as a tender study of regret. For the former, we get Ryder’s Dinky, trapped in a town that doesn’t understand her, all while she’s failing to understand herself. And for the latter, we get Jeff Daniels as Denton Webb, the man who once dated Roxy Carmichael but was unable to hold on to her; Roxy’s return forces him to confront memories and feelings long forgotten.

It’s a cozy little dramedy (for lack of a better, actual word), one that gets us smiling through the hiccups in the plot and the occasional dip into melodrama. When Dinky repeats the film’s ultimate message - “It’s good to want things” - we get a burst of warmth, as the misfit finally finds her place.

Keep an ear out, by the way, for Melissa Etheridge’s achingly beautiful love song “I Will Never Be the Same,” which gets co-opted as the movie’s unofficial theme.

OK, now it’s time for another lesson in Dave’s Segues: The year before “Roxy Carmichael,” Ryder hit big with “Heathers,” a comedy about teen suicide. And not too long before that, Keanu Reeves - Ryder’s “Dracula” co-star - starred in “Permanent Record” (1988), a drama about teen suicide. (And with that, another transition is complete. Isn’t it fun?)

Reeves is, and please believe me here, the best thing about “Record.” He still gives off that surfer-stoner vibe that’s pure Keanu, but here, in his youth, it works to wonderful effect - there’s enough rampant teenage energy knocking around that it takes no effort to believe Reeves in the role. Even when the problematic script calls for some iffy, over-the-top moments, Reeves holds on and gets the material to work despite itself.

There are too many of those problematic moments in the script (by Jarre Fees, Larry Ketron, and Alice Little, for those keeping score) to make the film as overall effective as it was when I saw it long ago. The dialogue alone is far too uneven, wavering between believable teen talk and over-written duds. (Says one student, “He says he was going for a walk. Brother, did he ever.” Who outside of Abbott and Costello movies actually talks like that?) And then there’s the final scene, a moment so embarrassingly cheesy that it feels like it was lifted out of an entirely different film. Do we really need, in a movie that’s trying to be real and relevant, a Big Moment that allows not only for the Grandstanding Moment of Defiance (followed, of course, by Slow Clap), but for the “good” adults to boo-hiss the “bad” one, just so we can all feel good that he got what-for?

A few bad choices aside, there is a refreshing sincerity to the work, mainly on an emotional level. The story, which deals with a student’s unexpected suicide and the feelings that erupt in the weeks following (this being one of those stories where the less said the better, that’s all you get plot-wise from me), manages, in all its clunky ways, to be a quiet, touching exploration of grief. Director Marisa Silver makes the wise decision to concentrate less on what’s said and more on how; to watch the cast in action is to see sadness pouring out from every bit of body language.

Surprisingly for a teen flick, “Record” gives ample screen time to the grown-ups. Richard Bradford has some lovely scenes in which he, as the kindly school principal, realizes that he should have picked up on the student’s signals, that if only he could have helped. Barry Corbin and Kathy Baker appear as the student’s parents, and instead of the expected melodrama, we get a subtle, more thoughtful approach to the roles. Most teen movies leave the adult roles to one-note stereotypes (if they’re seen at all); here, they’re full-blooded characters, every bit as important as the kids.

Still, I can’t get around the movie’s hiccups, the biggest of which is that damn ending. It’s forgivable, considering how well the rest of the film works, but it’s such a bad choice that it’s hard to forget.

Those looking for a more modern look at teen life will do themselves a great service by picking up a copy of “Angus” (1995), the teen comedy that sank at the box office but became a cult hit of sorts thanks to endless reruns on basic cable. As far as high school movies go, “Angus” ranks among the very, very best, a sweet, heartbreaking, huggable number overflowing with honesty and compassion.

The first thing the filmmakers get right is that they put actual teenagers in the cast. And so, instead of suspend-your-disbelief 25-year-olds, we get a story about high school freshmen that’s actually played out by high school freshmen. In the title role of the overweight, geeky Angus Bethune, the producers cast Charlie Talbert, whom, legend has it, was discovered at a local Wendy’s and nabbed the part despite a complete lack of acting experience. Which is astonishing, considering how well Talbert handles the material - the entire film depends on the title role, and Talbert keeps everything together perfectly. (He’s so good here that it’s a shame that he’s done nothing but throwaway B pictures since.)

At his side are some familiar faces: a young James Van Der Beek plays the jerky football hero; Chris Owen, later of “American Pie” fame, stars as Angus’ dorky best friend (and as such delivers perhaps the most accurate portrayal of teenage geekdom yet put to screen); Ariana Richards, best known from “Jurassic Park,” turns up as Angus’ love interest; Kathy Bates is Angus’ goofy trucker mom; George C. Scott gets top billing in a fun role as Angus’ grandfather, a gruff guy whose motto in life is “Screw ’em!;” and even Rita Moreno pops up for a few minutes as a dance instructor.

Perhaps it’s the fine cast, or perhaps it’s the knowing sensibilities that the filmmakers lend to the story. Whatever the reason, “Angus” manages to soar despite opportunities for failure at almost every turn. This is a film dependent on cliché after cliché - so much so that, yes, Angus even gives a big speech at the dance at film’s end - and yet the viewer never turns away. There’s so much truthful humor and touching drama here, presented so simply and yet so elegantly, that despite its use of every teen movie formula in the book, the film becomes a pure joy.

But enough about the kids. What about the teachers? Just as the teen movie market has been saturated for ages, so too is it possible to drown oneself in a sea of movies about teachers. It’s surprising, then, that one such film that’s failed to carry itself through the years is the one that’s simply titled “Teachers.”

“Teachers” (1984) is a mess of a film, and it’s perhaps appropriate that the director is Arthur Hiller, whose career has always been all over the map. But thanks to a first rate cast and a screenplay (from first-timer W.R. McKinney) that works hard to build interest in its characters, the movie works more than it fails.

If “Blackboard Jungle” (1955) was a knee-jerk reaction to fears of rampant juvenile delinquency in the 1950s, “Teachers” is a knee-jerk reaction to all those news stories in the 1980s that told of kids graduating high school without ever learning how to read or write. Indeed, the story kicks off with a run-down, overcrowded, underfunded urban high school getting sued by a former student who’s illiterate but was given a diploma anyway.

That’s just one of the school’s issues; the list also includes unchecked violence, teachers having sex with students, and everybody more or less not giving a crap about anybody. The film’s hero is a drunk teacher played by Nick Nolte, which should tell you something. He’s having a crisis of faith - can he reach these kids anymore? - all while he seems to be the last teacher in school who honestly cares.

The film attempts to be a high school revision of Hiller’s “The Hospital,” which was in itself a spin on “MASH.” (If the line “It’s not a school anymore, it’s a loony bin” doesn’t sound familiar to you, you need to rent “MASH” tonight.) The film stumbles in early attempts at bitter satire, such as its wink-wink-don’t-you-get-it approach at having one of the school’s best teachers actually be an escapee from a mental ward. It tries too hard to be wacky, which undercuts the somber message it wants to deliver. Or, when not going for wacky, it gets tangled up in an inescapable awkwardness. (“There’s nothing worse than a female lawyer with a cause,” goes one line of dialogue, followed by, “Except a male teacher without one.” Exchanges like these simply don’t work, and they’re everywhere in this film.)

Fortunately, the script straightens itself out before the first hour’s up, and soon we’re surprised to actually find ourselves thoroughly involved in the subplot in which Nolte becomes determined to get through to a troubled teen (Ralph Macchio, who aims to come off as James Dean but looks more like Sal Mineo), or the one in which a student (Laura Dern) discovers she’s pregnant, and the gym teacher’s the father. (Heck, if nothing else, “Teachers” makes for a great game of spot-the-actor; Morgan Freeman, Crispin Glover, and Richard Masur are among the supporting players.)

The story begins to collapse in the final act - are we really to believe that on a day in which two characters die in school, nobody would bother sending the kids home? - but by now, the characters have been so tightly created that we’re watching for them, not the plot. Films with similar messages may have been done much better later in the decade, but none of those movies we are straight-up fluffily entertaining. For all it does wrong, “Teachers” still manages to do plenty right.

But now it’s time to graduate from high school to college, and so we come to “How I Got Into College” (1989), the third and final theatrical feature from comedy director Savage Steve Holland. Holland, the Disney Channel regular who gained 80s cult status for “Better Off Dead” and its weaker follow-up, “One Crazy Summer,” here tackles for the first time a script not penned by himself; for “College,” Terrel Seltzer (“Dim Sum,” “One Fine Day”) provides scripting duties. (Holland was brought in to replace the film’s original director, who was fired during production.) That said, Holland manages to put enough of his own unique style into things that the movie’s feel is virtually indistinguishable from his earlier works. (When one character keeps mentioning how his post-high school dream is to hook up with renegade game show hostesses traveling the world with unclaimed prizes, that’s silly. When this running gag is capped by a Bob Eubanks cameo, that’s pure Holland.)

Corey Parker stars as Marlon Browne, a teen who’s not sure of much, but he does know that he’s destined to go to the same college as his crush, Jessica (a pre-Skeletor Lara Flynn Boyle). Thing is, Jessica barely knows he exists. And Marlon’s not the best student when it comes to raw numbers - which brings us to the other plotline of the film: college recruiter Kip Hammett (Anthony Edwards) yearns to make admissions about people, not test scores and grades.

This double story gives the movie a schizophrenic feel. In Marlon’s case, it’s typical teen comedy punctuated by Holland’s trademark fantasy sequences (in this case, an SAT-obsessed Marlon sees the “Person A” and “Person B” from all those math word problems act out their dilemmas) and light romance, as Marlon and Jessica slowly become friends. In Kip’s case, it’s a bit of reality-stretching, as he and his fellow recruiters (Finn Carter plays the sweet one; Charles Rocket plays the mean one) spend far more time than your admissions officer ever did, building a friendship between college and prospective student.

Subplots abound here, and yet it all works out in the end. It’s perhaps Holland’s lightest work, his dark, bizarre humor replaced with bouncy mainstream comedy. This means it’s less quotable than “Better Off Dead” and less outrageous than “One Crazy Summer,” but it’s also instantly endearing. Parker makes a likable leading man, and Edwards is always worth screen time. The jokes, meanwhile, are consistent in their quality; anyone who’s suffered through standardized testing will get a kick out of the majority of punchlines.

Once in college, Parker stuck around for “Big Man On Campus” (1989). If the title doesn’t ring any bells for you, consider that it was originally titled “The Hunchback of UCLA.” Yes, it’s that movie, the one in which writer Allan Katz casts himself as a hunchback who’s discovered in a campus bell tower and becomes the focus of a study by psychology professor Tom Skerritt.

Parker fits into the story by being the unlucky student chosen to move into the bell tower, to be the hunchback’s roommate. Explaining why this happens would take several doctorates in various fields of study, so I will simplify things by telling you that Katz thought it would be funnier this way. He was wrong.

In fact, most of what Katz does here with both his script and his performance is wrong. His attempts at physical comedy are bland, predictable, and overplayed to the point of embarrassment. His go at verbal comedy - he gives Parker a wiseacre attitude that’s supposed to be on the level of Bill Murray or early Chevy Chase - is a disaster, leading us to hate the guy who’s supposed to be the likable best friend character. His hopes for romance are just plain icky. And I’m not sure what he was thinking when he chose to end the story on the set (broadcast live, because Katz has no understanding of how television works) of a generic version of “The Morton Downey Jr. Show.”

Yeah. Remember that show? Yeah.

Which makes it all the more bizarre that smack dab in the middle of this disaster of a movie, there’d be a scene as funny and as smart as the one in which the hunchback and the professor sit down and decide that the hunchback deserves a name. At first the hunchback opts for “Judy Finkel,” then “William F. Buckley,” both of which are so out of left field that they’re admittedly hilarious. But no, the professor states, a name should be picked that doesn’t belong to anyone famous. Which leads to this immortal exchange:

The hunchback: “Anyone famous named Bob Maloogaloogaloogaloogalooga?”
The professor: “I doubt it.”

Then again, maybe all of this is funny to me because at this point, the total badness of the movie has worn down every fiber of my being. This film breaks your spirit, and then it dumps this dialogue on you, and you laugh. You laugh quite a bit, maybe even so much that you gain hope that the rest of the film will be this much fun. Only it’s not, and so your spirit breaks a little bit more.

In other words, this is a bad, bad, bad movie.

But a bad movie’s a terrible way to end a too-long, too-rambling column, and so, for our final selection, we return to high school - the swingin’ high school of the 50s, daddy-o! “High School Confidential!” (1958) is an explosion of exploitation, Eisenhower-era style. This is a drive-in flick, directed by B movie maestro Jack Arnold, that’s so determined to thrill the teens, we open and close with an inexplicable cameo from the Killer himself, Jerry Lee Lewis, who just happens to be driving through the town on a flatbed truck, banging the movie’s theme song out on his upright piano. Granted, it’s a great song, but still. The hell?

“Confidential” gives us everything, and how. The main story involves fast-talkin’ rebel Tony (Russ Tamblyn), who’s transferred to the local school after getting kicked out of one too many back east (making it seven years of high school total, but Tony probably shouldn’t be bragging about that fact.) He’s looking to make a power move, which in this school means becoming the new president of the Wheeler Dealers, which is either a badass gang or a prep club consisting of the class president and his friends, which is admittedly slightly less badass. Slightly more badass is the notion that Tony’s also looking for some action in the exciting industry of drug dealing - meaning that in addition to the drag races, beatnik nightclubs, pool parties, and swingin’ sock hops, this film also features a stern warning about the dangers of illegal substances.

Yup, the kitschiest parts of this one is when all plot slams to a halt so that the parents in the audience can learn more about drugs. Did you know, for instance, that drug addicts rarely say to one another, “Let’s go smoke a marijuana cigarette?” No, sir, they’re apt to use modern slang, suggesting to each other, “Let’s turn on” or “Let’s blast a joint.” (Mercifully, the plot does pick up quickly once Tony joins forces with the town’s drug kingpin, allowing the film to carry a less awkward - if no less subtle - word of caution.)

The downright strangest aspect of “Confidential” has nothing to do with pot and the heroin to which it inevitably leads. (Hey, would a 50s teensploitation flick get its drug facts wrong?) The craziest, nuttiest, bang-your-head-against-the-nearest-convenient-blunt-objectiest subplot is the one in which Mamie Van Doren, wearing a bullet bra so pointy it could be banned in most states, turns up as Tony’s sexed-up aunt. The fact that she’s constantly hitting on Tony is disturbing enough; the fact that a later plot point renders her character’s entire existence moot makes it stretch beyond disturbing and into full-on Crazyville.

And man, what fun all this Crazyville nonsense is. “Confidential” is one part social commentary, two parts random drive-in thrills, and ten parts plot hole-riddled lunacy. It’s hep, man, it’s real hep. Don’t be no L7, cat. Hook this jam, dig?

Hiding Out,” “Permanent Record,” “How I Got Into College,” and “High School Confidential!” are all currently available on DVD. As of this writing, “Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home,” “Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael,” “Angus,” “Teachers,” and “Big Man On Campus” have all yet to be released on DVD; new and used VHS copies of these titles can easily be found online.

link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=1589
originally posted: 09/07/05 18:29:48
last updated: 09/29/05 22:26:49
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