Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rock Hudson and his Pretty Maids

Here's a saucy little number for you. Pretty Maids All In A Row, directed by Roger Vadim (Barbarella) and written by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (!) and released in 1971, is a bizarre mixture of sex comedy, police procedural, thriller and a fairly skewed after school special. It opens with a handsome young lad named Ponce (John David Carson) who rides his moped to school while scoping various good looking girls who are strolling on the sidewalk. Ponce looks nervous and throughout the film often is at the sight of the opposite sex, especially the arousing new substitute teacher Miss Smith (Angie Dickinson). He's the poster boy for hidden public erections.

Ponce has a close relationship with Mr. McDrew (Rock Hudson) who is affectionately referred to by the student body and faculty as "Tiger". Tiger has his hands full at the school. He's the assistant principal, guidance counsellor with a PhD in psychology, and he's also the football coach. He frequently takes it upon himself to have sexual trysts with just about every female student and since this is a Roger Vadim film, all the girls look like Playboy playmates. There's not an ugly or plain looking girl in this movie.

Ponce discovers the corpse of one of these student beauties in the washroom, leading to a police investigation led by a cool headed police chief (Telly Savalas) who speaks with quiet authority and keeps his sunglasses resting atop of his bald head. There is definitely a moral vacuum at the school. When the principal (Roddy McDowell) discovers the dead student, he keeps emphasizing that she was "a good little cheerleader".

More female students are found dead and Savalas sticks around campus, questioning the students and teachers and eyeing his favorite suspect, Tiger, who's office has a neon sign above the door that says "Testing" and is lit red whenever he's having a quickie with a student.

Meanwhile, the shy and timid Ponce is getting friendly with Miss Smith, who under the advisement of Tiger, plans to help Ponce with his sexual insecurity. She invites him over to her house for "homework". A second visit leads to her giving the innocent boy some good bath. And of course, if Angie Dickinson is sweet enough to offer that to you, you're a fool for saying no.

Pretty Maids is a freewheeling and almost senseless romp. Is it a satire? If so, what is it satirizing? The sexual revolution which was hot stuff at the time this film was made? In one scene a fetching Asian American student proclaims to Savalas who's questioning her as a witness, "Our generation is not afraid of feeling affection, or expressing it." By affection, she must be insinuating sex and preferably sex with a teacher who looks like Rock Hudson, nevermind the fact that he's married and has a daughter.

My god, the 70s seemed like a strange time. There's no way this film would be made today by a major studio. The latest "teen sex comedy" I've seen is Easy A, which I liked, but is on a different planet culturally and morally compared to Pretty Maids. In Easy A, there is no sex, only discussion and implication of it, leading to a strong moral conclusion against promiscuity. In Pretty Maids, sex is constantly an extra curricular activity amongst students and teachers and there is no statement made. If made and released today, the moral majority would be red hot with protest.

I don't really know what to make of this me-decade cinematic oddity. It's certainly original and bold but to what point? Maybe there is none. Most sex comedies don't really need a point I guess. Maybe it's just the silly wet dream of it's creators. Perhaps it's nihilistic in the interest of comic shock value. But then isn't the sight of a nude Angie Dickinson enough? If you're in the right frame of mind and you have a love for kitschy 70s cinema, maybe it is.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Letting her in forever

An American version of the excellent 2008 Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In I suppose was inevitable, although not unwelcome. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) is the man behind this U.S. version which retains the exact tone of the original and occupies it with well cast actors and a proper and well tuned sense of gloom and dread.

The world of both these films is lacking in any definition of joy or sunniness. This is a bleak, dark and cruel world filled with broken families, scarred children, subzero temperatures and bizarre murder.

The setting in the remake is 1980s New Mexico. A worrisome detective (underrated actor Elias Koteas) is conducting an investigation of some brutal murders in which the victims have been drained of all blood. He knows a creepy middle aged man (Richard Jenkins) is involved but that's only one loose piece of the puzzle. This man lives in an apartment complex with a solemn young girl named Abby (Chloe Moretz). Abby sits quietly outside on the snow covered monkey bars in the courtyard of the complex. She wears no coat and is barefoot and pale skinned. She meets a troubled lone boy named Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) whose mother drinks alot of wine and has angry phone conversations with Owen's estranged father. He is often left to his own devices, friendless and the victim of some extremely sadistic school bullies who refer to him as a "girl."

Abby and Owen of course become kindred spirits although she is reluctant and elusive, not sharing any real information about herself but still drawn to the fragile boy. These two lead lives in which the adults are either detached or dangerous.

If you've seen the original film or at least the trailers, you'll know that Abby is a vampire and becomes a profound but conflicting presence in the Owen's life. Can he accept her deadly nature?

Let Me In is very faithful, perhaps maybe too faithful, to Let The Right One In, although it's just as visually evocative and brutal and at times moving. The difference aside from the country it's set in, would be some small story structure changes and the era. The film takes plenty of opportunity to remind the audience it's 1983, by showing a Ronald Reagan address on television (in which he states evil does exist) a familiar 80s soundtrack and in a brief moment of humor, a cashier is seen dressed in Boy George attire complete with the hairdo. Drawing attention to the decade doesn't really seem necessary to the story even though some of the soundtrack choices are perfect ironic counterpoints to the brooding events on screen.

The actors all do a great job of convincingly conveying anguish, grief and anxiety. There is nothing over the top. Visually, there are some truly compelling moments, especially a car collision scene that is amazing directed and photographed.

The downside to this film and many exceptional remakes that stick close to the essence of the story and action is that there is a lack of surprises. While Let Me In is a worthy new version, if you've seen Let The Right One, you'll see the next scene coming and wonder if it will be recreated better or worse. A terrifying and ingenious climax set in an indoor pool at night was the high point of the first film and here it is well executed but it reminded me that the former film pulled it off much better because you never saw it coming.

The makers of Let Me In know perfectly well why and how the Swedish predecessor pushed the right buttons and created a horrific story that also contained genuine and touching sadness and tragedy. But even though you can reinterpret a story very well with the right creative people at hand, if the original version struck a chord, you can never top what was done first.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The online revenge of a nerd

The Social Network tells the fateful true story of how a bitter computer genius created a cultural monster that brought anonymous people together online while it's erudite creator alienated his only true friend who helped finance it. Mark Zuckerberg, the world's youngest billionaire and the antagonizing protagonist of the film, created Facebook after getting the seed of the idea from two identical twin Harvard jocks (played by one actor, Armie Hammer) who came to Zuckerberg looking to start up a social network site exclusive to the college. This led to excruciating lawsuits being filed while simultaneously Facebook spread from one Ivy League school to the next before becoming a public phenomenon worth 25 billion dollars.

Zuckerberg (played with intense focus and adroitness by Jesse Eisenberg) is seen as a single minded, pompous and ambitious nerd with no empathy or patience for others who aren't on his wavelength. In the film's extremely well written and acted first scene, he and his very soon to be ex-girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) sit in a campus pub and exchange rapid and curt words over the idea of belonging to exclusive clubs and the desperate desire to fit in. Zuckerberg shows a lack of respect and understanding towards Erica's views and she immediately and without any sugar coating, dumps him on the spot. "You're exhausting to be around!" she moans. Mark's brilliant matrix of a brain can't even fathom this to be serious and he simply replies "Do you still want to get food?"

Enraged, he goes back to his dorm, gets drunk and hacks into Harvard's server and creates a webpage in which the photos of Harvard girls are placed side by side in a "Hot or not hot" type of voting system. This mean spirited prank is proven extremely popular in what seems like minutes and subsequently Mark gets slammed with academic probation and quite the rep.

This leads to the social networking site creation which the twin brothers propose to Zuckerberg only to find themselves stonewalled when Mark runs solo with their initial idea and creates what we now know and all love as Facebook. He turns to his friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) for the startup financing which leads to him being frozen out of the company once a rival enters the picture: cocky Napster co-founder Sean Parker (very well played by Justin Timberlake) who gets wind of the burgeoning site after a one night stand with a college girl who's become addicted to it. Parker promises big bucks and the high life to the introverted Zuckerberg. Saverin is not impressed by the arrogant and hucksterish Parker and locks horns with him. Mark seems stuck in the middle, lost in his tight and unbreakable focus as he works tirelessly to build the site bigger.

The Social Network, directed by David Fincher (Seven, Zodiac) and written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) is a very absorbing and insightful look at how quickly and even modestly one of the world's most obsessed over sites was created and the toll it took on a friendship that led to a multi-million dollar lawsuit on top of the one the rowing twins brought forth. Despite the fortune and fame, it doesn't seem like much fun to be Mark Zuckerberg.

The performances are fantastic, with Garfield a standout as the sympathetic and stressed out financier and COO of Facebook. He comes across as the most interesting and relatable character in the picture: a basically good kid, hard working, smart, exasperated, eager to please his best friend, while possessing a strong desire to belong to a macho fraternity and all the emasculating humiliation he must face with it. Poor Saverin becomes a casualty of big business imposing on him while seducing his friend.

There are heavily detailed scenes of depositions given by the people looking to sue Zuckerberg while he fiercely defends himself. This is intercut with what led to that and what follows after Facebook becomes a major commodity and Zuckerberg and his trusted crew of programmers move out to a bungalow in California to continue their work while filling themselves up with booze and pot courtesy of Parker while they become the richest rich kids in the world. It's like the classic small band makes it big but some members get left behind story only the instruments are computers but the egos are just as big as rising rock stars.

Is the film worthy of it's major critical hype? Well, plainly put, it is simply a very good picture: directed with great craft and style without being too over stylized to overshadow the story. The screenplay by Sorkin is very well written, with punchy dialogue and well drawn characterizations. Trent Reznor's score is noteworthy as well. Ultimately, it's a solid and relevant story that's entertaining and extremely involving even though you might find yourself lost in the details of computer geek speak but not so much that you'll be taken out of the movie.

Overall, the film reminded me that Facebook is indicative of human nature. We spend hours divulging our personal business and feelings in hopes of some fleeting recognition amongst our friends (real friends and "Facebook friends") The site is a public post-it note, online locker room, open diary, bulletin board and other various facets of communication all rolled into one neat package. What started as an online club that represented the exclusivity and snobbery of a posh university soon gave way to something that anyone and everyone globally can access and obsess over daily. I'm guilty of being addicted to.