Islands In the Stream: Week Three
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/06/20 11:36:03
Another week, another round of daily streaming suggestions for you to help pass the time.
On to the third week of this new endeavor of offering a daily streaming recommendation for you to peruse from the vast amount of stuff out there. Hopefully you will find them helpful and/or entertaining and keep coming back every day until all this lunacy finally ends. If not, feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com to explain how terrible I am at this or, even better, you could perhaps suggest a title of your own that I might tackle at some point.In the last couple of weeks, "Desperately Seeking Susan" came up on my radar for a couple of reasons. One was the passing of co-star Mark Blum on March 25 from coronavirus complications and the other was the seemingly impossible bit of news that the film was now officially 35 years old. After a sufficient amount of reeling from that particular discovery, I sat down to take another look at it and see how a film that once presented itself as the hippest thing around, at least by mid-Eighties multiplex standards, was holding up these days. Turns out, it has more than stood the test of time and while it clearly has a certain nostalgia value for those viewers who were around to see it back in the day, it still has a freshness and vitality that cannot be denied. Essentially an 80s-era riff on the screwball comedies of the Thirties and Forties, the film starred Rosanna Arquette--although that fact was lost on some people at the time--as Roberta, a pampered but bored New Jersey housewife who lives vicariously through the ads that she sees in the personals section of the newspaper, especially one from Jim (Robert Joy) who is "Desperately Seeking Susan" for a meeting in Battery Park. Susan (Madonna), who has been spending time with a mobster in Atlantic City, heads off to New York, lifting a pair of elaborate earrings from the guy's coat before leaving, for the advertised assignation, leaving only a few minutes before he is rubbed out by an assailant. Roberta turns up to witness the reunion between Jim and Susan before he goes off with his band. Noe fully intrigued, Roberta follows Susan into the city, even purchasing her distinctive jacket after Susan trades it in at a vintage store. I wouldn't dream of spoiling what comes next for those who haven't seen the film but, suffice it to say, it includes such elements as amnesia, mistaken identity, deadly gangsters, magicians, and the glory days of movie theaters that actually projected their wares via the miracle of 35MM film. When the film began shooting in 1984, Madonna's star was on the rise but by the time it came out, she was literally one of the biggest names on the planet and a project in which she had a key supporting role was now looked at by practically everyone as "The Madonna Movie"--so much so, in fact, that a lot of observers, then and now, have not always given the film its deserved due. The screenplay by Leora Barish is an inspired confection--one apparently inspired by "Celine and Julie Go Boating" (1974)--and while one could perhaps gripe that it could have been a little sexier and edgier than it ultimately was (the studio apparently insisted on a PG-13 rating so as not to shut out younger Madonna fans), the lightness of the tone somehow fits with the essentially frothy nature of the story. (Moviegoers would only have to wait a few more months for the darker version of this tale in the form of Martin Scorsese's "After Hours.") Director Susan Seidelman, following up her celebrated 1982 indie debut "Smithereens," keeps all of the narrative plates spinning and brings a nicely funky feel to the proceedings that still feels offbeat without ever coming across as dated. She also demonstrated a keen eye for casting as well--although the effortlessly charismatic performances from Arquette, Madonna and Aidan Quinn, as a movie projectionist who mistakes Roberta for Susan, got most of the notice, the cast is practically bursting with future names making early screen appearances such as Laurie Metcalf, Will Patton, John Turturro, Ann Magnuson, John Lurie, Steven Wright and Giancarlo Esposito. Whether you are revisiting it or encountering its charms for the first time, "Desperately Seeking Susan" is a blast from start to finish that will leave you with a smile on your face and your toes tapping once "Into the Groove" hits the soundtrack. (Amazon Prime)
"The Hitch-Hiker" (1953) is a gritty low-budget item that has gone into the history books for being the only example of a classic film noir to be directed by a woman, actress-turned-filmmaker Ida Lupino. That makes for an interesting bit of trivia, of course, but it isn't nearly as interesting as the film itself, a gritty and gripping drama that still packs a considerable punch today. Loosely based on the brutal crime spree committed by Billy Cook that took the lives of six people over the course of 22 days beginning on December 30, 1950, the film starts off with two old friends, Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) heading to Mexico for a fishing trip. Just outside of Mexicali, they pick up a guy on the side of the road who seems to be having car trouble. Alas, he turns out to be Emmett Myers (William Talman), a psychopath who has been leaving a trail of bodies behind him from Illinois to California. This isn't a secret--he admits who he is practically from the moment he gets into the car as he takes the two men hostage and force them to drive to town where he can escape on a ferry. What transpires is a game of psychological cat and mouse as Myers constantly torments his two hostages while they try to figure out a way of outwitting him before it is too late. As her previous films as a director, most notably the daring 1950 rape drama "Outrage," dealt primarily with women's issues, this film proved to be a decided change of pace for Lupino and she ended up doing wonders with it. The screenplay, which she co-wrote, is lean, mean and effective in the ways that it illustrates the torments suffered by the two ordinary guys at the hands of one of the more unrepentant villains in the annals of noir. Her direction is equally inspired, especially in the way that it eschews nearly all of the standard noir tropes (there is no femme fatale to speak of and the Mexican desert local could not be more removed from the dark city streets usually favored by the genre) and yet still stands as an ideal example of that style of filmmaking. Perhaps as a result of being an actor herself, she also gets strong and intense performances from her three central actors--as the crazed Myers, Talman is so creepily effective and menacing that it is startling to recall that just a few years later, he would take on his most famous role as Hamilton Burger, Raymond Burr's eternally overmatched D.A. opponent on "Perry Mason." The film was not a hit when it came out and soon fell into public domain, ensuring that it would only be seen in substandard prints for decades. In recent years, however, it has undergone a considerable critical reevaluation and thanks to a restoration, it is now easier than ever to appreciate it as one of the great underrated works of the classical noir era as well as one of the key films of one of Hollywood's pioneering female directors. (Amazon Prime, Vudu, Tubi)
For reasons that can only be chalked up to sheer indolence on my part, I found myself on the couch on Sunday afternoon watching, of all things, the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello drive-in classic "Beach Blanket Bingo" (1965). It did exactly what it was supposed to do--kill 90 minutes in a relatively painless and deeply silly manner, even if the only truly funny bit came when the narrative stopped dead so that Don Rickles could do a couple of minutes--but it also served as a reminder that the one beach party movie that they did that was genuinely funny and surprisingly creative actually came more than 20 years after the series ground to a halt in the face of shifting times and tastes. That would be "Back to the Beach," a startlingly smart and oftentimes hilarious and wicked satire/homage that found the duo cheerfully spoofing their cinematic legacy. As the film opens, we learn that The Big Kahuna (Avalon) and Annette (Funicello) are married and have spent the last 20 years living in Ohio and raising their kids--elder daughter Sandi (Lori Loughlin, before the scandals), who is now living in California herself, and younger son Bobby (Demian Slade), a teenage punk always ribbing his parents for their banality. On a trip to Hawaii, they decide to make a stop to see Sandi, not realizing that she is shacked up with her amiably goofy surfer boyfriend (Tommy Hinkley). Before long, they get involved with old friends and flames (especially the still-hot-to-trot Connie Stevens), new enemies (Kahuna runs afoul of a gang of local surf punks) and a number of familiar faces in cameo appearances (including Don Adams, Bob Denver, Alan Hale Jr. and OJ Simpson, before the scandals, to name a few) before the big climax in which Kahuna must face the fear that drove him from the ocean two decades earlier in order to win the big surf contest. Although not precisely an official sequel to the earlier films (which is why our heroes are named The Big Kahuna and Annette instead of Frankie and Dee Dee), director Lyndall Hobbs finds just the right tone for the material so that it plays as both a smart and funny deconstruction of those earlier films and their cliches and as an example of what they might have been like if they had been made with a little more care, thought and effort than they were back in the day. The screenplay has a number of inspired zingers (most of them delivered by Slade), the musical numbers (which include Dick Dale and Stevie Ray Vaughn jamming on "Pipeline" and Annette teaming up with Fishbone on a delirious version of "Jamaica Ska") are impressive (this is perhaps the only beach party movie where you come away from it actually remembering the songs) and the two leads prove to be surprisingly good sports as they skew their well-established images, from Kahuna's notable head of hair to Annette's days shilling peanut butter. Even if the rest of the film wasn't a delight--and it is--"Back to the Beach" would still deserve a place in the pop culture pantheon for the indescribably strange and wonderful sequence in which Pee-Wee Herman (before the scandals) arrives out of nowhere, rips up the joint with a rendition of the trash rock classic "Surfin Bird" and then disappears just as quickly as he arrived--so suddenly, in fact, that you may find yourself wondering if something so entertaining could actually exist in this world or whether you simply hallucinated it all. The same goes for the movie as a whole. (Amazon Prime) iTunes.)
One of the few bits of good pop-culture news to emerge as of late came a couple of weeks ago when it was announced that "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," the acclaimed romantic drama from French filmmaker Celine Sciamma that was one of 2019's very best films, was being made available for streaming unexpectedly early via Hulu. Although a dry recitation of the details of this film's plot might make it sound like a compendium of countless indie film tropes, Sciamma's depiction of the relationship that develops between an aspiring painter (Noemie Merlant in one of last year's best performances) and the recently engaged woman (Adele Haenel, ditto) whose portrait she has been hired to secretly paint was a true stunner that worked both as a meditation on the ability of art to both capture a moment and keep it alive and as a sweeping and at times erotic (though never exploitative) romance like few others. For those who had been keeping tabs on Sciamma's career over the last few years, however, this was not too much of a surprise as her three previous features, all of which were coming-of-age stories dealing exclusively with young women, were just as powerful and provocative, as anyone with a subscription to the Criterion Channel, where all three are currently streaming, can discern for themselves. Her debut, "Water Lillies" (2008), dove into the murky waters of adolescent sexuality with a story of the complex triangular relationship that develops between three 15-year-old girls (including Haenel in an early performance) who are all members of the same synchronized swimming team. As directorial debuts go, this film was as smart and self-assured as one could possibly hope as it takes a premise that could have resulted in something smutty and exploitative and transforms it into a piercing look at the often-tumultuous nature of relationships at that age.
Her followup effort, "Tomboy" (2011), was an equally striking drama about a 10-year-old girl named Laure (Zoe Heran) who moves into a new neighborhood with her family and elects to present herself to the neighborhood kids, especially the friendly and outgoing Lisa (Jeanne Disson), as a boy named Mikael. You may think that you know how the story, which takes place over the course of one summer, develops from this point over the course of an entire summer, develops from this point and without spoiling any of it for you, I can pretty much assure you that your assumptions are wrong. Finally, there is "Girlhood" (2014), her thrilling drama about a young woman named Marienne (Karidja Toure) who, feeling oppressed by her dead-end life at home at school, meets a group of three girls and elects to reject everything she had been before and join up with them as a way of trying to figure out who she is. Again, this is a film that seems as if it is going to head for all the usual cliches found in stories about good kids who fall in with an unruly crowd but it proves to be far smarter and more original than that and the scene in which the girls hang out in a hotel room and rock out to Rihanna's "Diamonds" would prove to be one of the most ecstatic sequences to hit a movie screen in the past decade or so. As a look at these four films will clearly demonstrate, Sciamma's filmography to date is one of the most self-assured bodies of work from a new filmmaker to emerge in this millennium and will leave viewers eager to see what she comes up with next. (Hulu and The Criterion Channel)
Released during a summer movie season that proved to be inexplicably heavy on films featuring teenaged characters working on scientific projects that would prove to be infinitely more exciting than a typical homemade volcano--a bevy that ranged from the gentle oddball fantasy of Joe Dante's largely misunderstood "Explorers" to the sheer loathsomeness of John Hughes's malignant "Weird Science" to Disney's "My Science Project," a film that I cannot recall anything about other than the presence of Dennis Hopper in one of his last make-work projects before his comeback in "Blue Velvet" (1986)--"Real Genius" (1985), Martha Coolidge's hilarious look at group of brilliant students (led by Val Kilmer in one of his best and most winning performances) at a CalTech-like school working on a secret project that they discover has been sold out from under them to the military by their officious professor (William Atherton at his most priggish), was not just the best of that particular bunch but one of the smartest and most inspired teen comedies of that entire decade. The film has been a personal favorite of mine for any number of reasons but in the spirit of brevity, I will only list a couple of them. For one thing, even though it is an utterly goofball comedy through and through, it broke the mold of most teen comedies by relying on intelligence (there is a joke involving the final words of Socrates that I continue to quote when even the slightest opportunity arises)to get its laughs instead of on stupid behavior, casual racism/sexism or mindless destruction--a house may get wrecked during the climax but it is the manner in which the house is brought down, rather than the sheer destructive act itself, that makes it so amusing. For another, it provides a great showcase for Michelle Meyrink, who made a handful of brief-but-memorable performances in a few films during the 80s (the most notable other than this probably being "Valley Girl"(1983) before leaving the industry completely after appearing in the teen suicide drama "Permanent Record" (1988). (Among the countless crimes perpetrated by Hollywood in the Eighties, the failure to make someone as talented, funny and charismatic as her a star has to rank right near the top.) Finally, and perhaps most significantly, it is a film that even my beloved mother--a wonderful woman who has admittedly never been a particularly easy laugh when it comes to movies--finds to be genuinely amusing. We could all use a good laugh at this point in time and trust me, "Real Genius" has plenty of them to spare. Just make sure to have a bowl of popcorn on hand while watching it. (ITunes. Amazon Prime. Vudu.)