May 15, 2017

"Risky Business" Still Feels Daring, and Relevant.

Nearly 35 years later, Risky Business seems hardly to have aged at all. It was the 80s’ answer to The Graduate, a youth comedy having an existential crisis, and featuring an emerging star, Tom Cruise, who even resembles Dustin Hoffman, especially when he sports a pair of dark sunglasses atop his hawkish nose. But there’s a difference between the actors, too: Hoffman has a subdued quality that he occasionally overcomes; Cruise is manic, perpetually revved up, which makes his character, the careful, obedient Joel Goodson, all the more inviting: When his parents go away for a week, Joel turns on the stereo and struts around the living room in his skivvies to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll”; it’s one of the sexiest moments in the movie, not to mention an iconic scene for the 80s.

Surely this was the moment when audiences knew a star had arrived. And say what you want about Tom Cruise (he’s taken a good bit of unfair shellacking from fans and critics for a long time): the man has star power. And he's totally believable. You have to stretch your imagination ever so slightly to believe that Dustin Hoffman’s in heat for Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, but we can practically feel Tom Cruise’s racing pulse when he encounters Lana, the upscale call girl who turns his life upside down.

When Lana, played by the startling, icy-tender Rebecca de Mornay, enters the Goodson residence (a stately WASP-nest in suburban Chicago), it’s like a fever dream, practically lifted from a horror movie, with an eerie wind blowing the French Doors open, and leaves rustling and spilling into the house, and Joel, vulnerable yet expectant, lying on the couch, waiting for his unknown lover to come and ravish him. (Not before he’s visited by a male escort in women’s clothes, in a surprisingly hip and amusing scene.)

Like Cruise, Rebecca de Mornay was unknown at the time Risky Business premiered, but her performance shapes the role into something meaningful and magnetic. She’s not a floozy. De Mornay gives Lana a cool, powerful moxie that is both a turn-on and a foil for Joel Goodson, the boy with too many desires and not enough outlets for them. He’s goaded by his buddy Miles (80s teen comedy favorite Curtis Armstrong, of Revenge of the Nerds), who gives Joel a big speech about letting go, saying, “what the fuck” every once-in-a-while. When Joel finally heeds these words, disaster after disaster unfolds: Lana purloins his mother’s priceless glass egg (a ridiculous accoutrement that sits on the living room mantel); Joel sinks his dad’s porsche into Lake Michigan; and, seeing an ideal market in Joel’s steamed-up high school buddies, Lana turns the Goodson house into a makeshift bordello. Risky Business has a deliciously complex view of American values, which are inherently hypocritical when it comes to sex: Joel imagines the police encircling his house because he’s got a girl in his bed; it’s sexual policing, and he’s been caught red-handed. (The neon sign burning over his window casts an X-rated hue over the night scenes in Joel’s bedroom.)

Risky Business has been advertised as a comedy for far too long, with that famous Tom Cruise underwear-dance suggesting a lightweight tone akin to Sixteen Candles. Not that I have anything against comedy, but Risky Business defies genre-labeling, and so to expect this movie to be Porky's, for instance, is to invite disappointment. Of course, the movie is funny at times (and its sensibility is often comical), but director Paul Brickman’s vision is darker and more complex. Unlike Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a movie that reinforces the underside of capitalism (because Ferris is a spoiled upper-middle-class kid with no conscience who gets everything he wants), Risky Business has a deep discomfort with the capitalistic age of the 80s, and Joel becomes a vehicle for that discomfort.

Joel’s teenage angst is transmuted into a deeper, richer kind of angst, one that will probably stay with him past his youth. He's afraid of the future, afraid of making a mistake, and it's pretty clear that in Joel's world, one slip-up could destroy everything else. If many of those lighter 80s comedies are beloved classics in their own right, Risky Business stands apart from them in that it’s more complicated and adult in its sensibility, and as such it asks more troubling questions, without pandering to its audience like The Breakfast Club, which concludes that teenagers are right about everything. Risky Business exposes the hypocrisy of adults without congratulating the adolescents for their purity: Most of them are just as corrupt, as we see in the scene when Joel’s friends announce their plans to “make a lot of money,” and he’s struck by their brazen materialism.

But that tug-of-war between making money and being happy–and making a contribution to the world–rumbles in Joel’s mind too. He’s terrified of ruining his life, of not getting into Princeton and making a good living, but he’s also terrified of becoming his parents. And Paul Brickman does not provide easy answers. If one of the marks of a great movie is its lingering effect on us, Risky Business may in fact be a great movie. This movie transfixes us, and we wonder about the characters. What became of them? What did they accomplish? Did they end up together or apart?

The absurd (and funny) ending (another iconic moment) when Joel must buy back all the furniture from his house, which has been stolen by a vengeful pimp named Guido (Joe Pantoliano), adds to the film's otherworldly, out-of-body-experience vibe. And Brickman uses Tom Cruise’s narration, conveying a cynical hopefulness, and Tangerine Dream’s great neon waterfall of a score, to great effect. It's hard not to fall under the spell of this movie, and so we too are walking around in a dreamlike state, just like Joel. It's like a John Hughes teen comedy mixed with a Michael Mann thriller with a little Buñuel surrealism thrown in for good measure. Risky Business has the makings of great pop cinema: it is distinctly American, it is cool and sexy and bold, and it pushes us, making us feel things we don’t expect, bending genres, taking unfamiliar turns down dark alleys, and all the while, we're confident that this movie knows exactly what it's up to.

May 10, 2017

Remembering Jonathan Demme: Philadelphia

Jonathan Demme’s passing has already been noted – by writers far more qualified than me. But I want to offer a few words on his films, particularly Philadelphia, which I just recently watched. Encountering Demme’s work in the way I have, in a random and unpredictable fashion (more on that later) reminds me how much of my film knowledge has been accumulated in haphazard, almost nonsensical ways, devoid of historical context. I saw Demme’s slick, terrifying thriller Silence of the Lambs (1991) years before I saw his wacky, clever comedies Married to the Mob (1988) and Something Wild (1986). I haven’t seen Melvin and Howard (1980), the film which put Jonathan Demme on the map, or Stop Making Sense (1984), the Talking Heads concert movie that remains one of the most critically acclaimed concert movies ever. And this week, for the first time, I sat down and watched Philadelphia (1993). I knew enough about Philadelphia to feel as though I’d seen it. My parents used to watch it frequently, or at least my vague memories suggest that Philadelphia was on the rotation cycle. They like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. My family is conservative and Evangelical Christian. We were raised to believe that homosexuality is a sin. We were probably taught that AIDS was something bad people got (although I don’t remember my own parents saying this, thankfully) because they had it coming.

I sat down to watch Philadelphia partly because it was mentioned on the Slate Culture Gabfest’s recent episode about Demme. But more importantly, I needed to watch something depressing. I was in the throes of an unbearable depression, and I thought maybe if I watched enough sad movies, I could just let the pain bleed out. Is anything sadder than watching Tom Hanks, the Everyman of the 90s, die of AIDS? Is there anything more gratifying than watching Denzel Washington, the other Everyman of the 90s, defend him in court?

I wept. But I don’t think Philadelphia is a great movie. I used Philadelphia because I knew it would milk the tears out of me, and the movie did its job. But I don’t feel the same affection for it that I feel for other sad movies that I love, like Manchester by the Sea and You Can Count on Me, or Moonlight, or Ordinary People. Philadelphia exists on some other plain for me. It’s a very well-made and socially conscious movie with two great actors, and as much as this movie makes me feel its pain, it’s hard not to feel its intentions, which are admittedly very good intentions, announcing their presence.

Philadelphia exists to show homophobic people that gay people are human beings. It’s not the most complex depiction of gay people, and it’s certainly dated nearly 25 years later, but there’s an undeniable power in its grim slick Hollywood texture, in the choice of Tom Hanks, a comedy star, to play this lawyer who’s fired by his firm for being gay (and afflicted with AIDS). The homophobic man (or woman) is asked to identify with the Denzel Washington character. Washington plays Hanks’s lawyer, a local TV celebrity who despises gay people even as he defends one. Washington’s performance reminded me of his character in Fences, a character I really found insufferable. But, unlike so many lofty yet hollow message movies, Philadelphia has a real, beating heart, and that is the heart that Jonathan Demme infused into all of his movies. Even in something as unsuccessful as Ricki and the Flash, Demme’s final film, he could make us care about the characters. We move beyond congratulating him for having lofty social intentions, and just feeling like we’ve spent two hours getting to know a few people exceptionally well. So even when Demme doesn’t succeed, or partly succeeds, his work is always worth watching. As so many people have already mentioned, Demme cared deeply about human beings, and this is the thread that runs through his diverse body of work.

In fact, the most moving part of Philadelphia may be the opening credits, where we see a montage of different locations in the city, all of them populated by people: walking to work, cooking dinner, playing in the streets, cajoling and carrying on, hobbling with grim seriousness: the sequence is a moving portrait of all the varied pulsating little threads of human life that make up a city, punctuated by Bruce Springsteen’s moving, hymn-like pop ballad, “Streets of Philadelphia.” Where much of Philadelphia feels weighed down with grim importance, this opening sequence feels vulnerably light and almost sacred. What a gifted filmmaker we have lost, who could put so much thought and feeling into so many different kinds of movies.

As Peter, Tom Hanks gives a moving performance. (And of his two Oscar-winning performances, I'll take this one over Forrest Gump any day.) I think I admire him more for making the choice to play an openly gay man (whether it was a calculated choice or not), than I like the performance, as good as it is. (And trust me, I wept like a baby at the end of the movie.) But there are other performances that I savored more, like Mary Steenburgen as the opposing attorney, who tries to discredit him for being "reckless," or Jason Robards, playing his boss at the law firm, the typical old Philadelphia fogey who bristles at the thought of allowing a gay man into his fold, or darling Joanne Woodward, who doesn't have enough screen time, as Peter's mother.

But we must bear in mind that just because a movie has a walloping emotional effect on us, that doesn't make it a great movie. Philadelphia is a pretty good movie, with some great parts. In less capable hands, Philadelphia would have been a real mess, too content in its own liberal-mindedness to actually reach people. As it is, I think Philadelphia is the kind of movie that actually might change some people's minds, and more importantly, their hearts. Even if it's not a great movie, that's good enough for me.

May 07, 2017

"The Lost City of Z" is the adventure film to see this year.

The Lost City of Z, directed by James Gray, depicts the life of the English adventurer Percy Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam). In the early 1900s, Fawcett embarked on several expeditions to South America in search of an alleged Amazonian civilization which he called “Zed.” The Lost City of Z, which is a classic adventure tale punctuated with humanism, is a meditation on exploration, masculinity, empire, and, ultimately, humanity. The film juxtaposes the supposed savagery of ancient tribes of Amazonian people with the supposed civilization of the Victorian English, and shots of their starched suits and tea services and their stuffy meetings in stuffy rooms frequently fade into vistas of humid jungles and the winding Amazon, where Fawcett and his team of fellow adventurers (including Costin, his right-hand man, who’s played by Robert Pattinson, concealed beneath a great bird’s nest of a beard) encounter people who’ve seldom, if ever, observed white flesh before.

Gray paints a vivid picture of the post-Victorian English world and all its political and social problems, without succumbing to preachiness. Or, perhaps it is a new kind of preachiness, one that feels more palatable than direct soapboxing. When Fawcett’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller, giving a fine, tough performance) asks to come along with Percy on his second voyage, he lectures her on a woman’s role in the family (in this case, to stay behind and pick up the pieces if he never comes back) and on women’s inherent physical inferiority, unconvinced by his wife even after she’s born him three children. Nina relents. Gray isn’t telling us what to think, but he’s conscious of the wrong-headed thinking of the period.
And the allure of male power and the lies of empire remain a dominant force in the world even today. But part of Gray’s talent as an artist is his ability to depict humans in all their complexity. On the third, fateful voyage, Percy’s now-grown son Jack accompanies him, and when they realize they may never return to England, a kind of mystical peace sweeps over Percy as he reflects on the deeper implications of their journey: they’ve left all the silly, superficial machinations of society behind and have discovered something primally beautiful and true: the inherent mystery of life, and the immutability of destiny.

Gray has a healthy love for the adventure genre, and he provides the usual touches we’ve come to expect from these movies (going all the way back to Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines): the bugs, the storms, the snakes, the raging river, as men seemingly travel back in time to confront some kind of mystical destiny. In one scene, the men are forced to jump out of their raft to avoid the sharp arrows being fired at them by natives, only to be accosted by a school of piranha. As I think back upon this scene, what strikes me most is Gray’s elegance even in the midst of something as frightening as this moment. Those arrows swoop down like little rockets: he shows us just how terrifying it would be to face a shower of pointy spears coming down on you; and yet, Gray resists the urge to sensationalize this moment. (In my mind, I couldn’t help thinking of that 1978 horror movie, Piranha, which probably added to the tension.)

The intensity lasts but a minute, and then they’re back on the raft, back on their long, long journey into the unknown. These moments of sensationalized terror, which would be the high points of an Indiana Jones movie, are not the focal point of Z. The thrill of discovery drives Fawcett on, despite the man-eating fish and the spear-throwing natives and the bugs and the starvation.

But within that act of discovery is the deeper realization that, as Fawcett says in the movie, the world is unknown to us; there is so little that we really know, so much left undiscovered. The obsessive need to understand everything is probably folly, and probably arrogance, as Gray’s film shows us often: Fawcett himself is a man dogged by feelings of inadequacy (his father was a notorious drunkard that left a blight on the family name); we see him in the beginning of the film rounding up a bunch of Irish soldiers as they hunt for a sleek, impressive buck in the woods; It’s Fawcett’s gun that kills the animal dead, but at the party of Irish and English military personnel, Fawcett’s excluded from the honorary table with the big dogs, because he’s from a bad family.

It’s English class snobbery which initially compels Fawcett into the South American jungle, even though his smart, independent, and loving wife Nina knows she may never see him again. Each time he comes back to England is like a dream: another child has been more, each of them discovering their father like some phantom, whom they’ve only heard about. When Jack, the eldest boy, by now an adolescent, who’s watched his father go off on multiple failed missions to the Amazon, jeers, “You’re a failure!” and Percy strikes him, we’re stunned, but not surprised. Empire is nothing but the perpetuation of fatherly dominion taken to the macro level, and we can imagine a million English fathers experiencing similar feelings of dissatisfaction and failure in turn-of-the-century England.

The Lost City of Z recalls Martin Scorsese’s difficult but unforgettable film, Silence, the story of two 17th-century Jesuit priests searching for their mentor, a priest who left for Japan (where Christians are being killed for refusing to denounce their faith) and has never come back. These young priests confront their own doubts as they search for the man who gave their faith its meaning. Both of these films examine the dangerousness of inquiry: When Percy Fawcett argues for the existence of an ancient civilization in South America, he rattles the calcified hearts and minds of the old fogies at the Royal Geographic Society, threatening British religion with British rationality.

The Lost City of Z ponders these questions with poetic grace. Gray isn’t dogmatic or pedantic: he cares deeply for these characters, as he cared for Marion Cotillard’s prostitute in The Immigrant, a woman who went to confession and wondered if God could ever forgive her for the things she had done to help get her sister out of Ellis Island. Z goes one step further, in a sense, by wondering if we can dismantle our own beliefs and still look around us with a sense of dazzled wonder at the world, even though our own smallness becomes increasingly obvious. In James Gray’s films, the answer is yes. Or as Nina Fawcett puts it, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”

Co-starring Tom Holland as the grown-up Jack Fawcett; Angus Macfayden as a wealthy British explorer who betrays Fawcett and his men; Edward Ashley, Ian McDiarmid, Franco Nero, and Harry Melling.