Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mean Girls (2004)

Lindsay Lohan, the actress, I miss you.

I saw Lohan's film debut, The Parent Trap (1998), on the big screen in 1998. Then, she was 12 and showed great promise as an actress.

Mean Girls, which followed six years later, is another career highlight before Lohan hit tough times starting in 2007. Driving under the influence, several stints in rehab, brushes with the law. Lindsay, what went wrong? Were your friends a bad influence? Friendship gets put under the microscope in Mean Girls.

The film has a neat premise. Take a girl, Lohan's Cady Heron, who has been home schooled while her parents worked in Africa. There, Heron learned about how to survive in the wild.

Then, she starts high school.

Heron soon learns all kinds of cliques exist at her place of learning. Only one - outcasts Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan) and Damian (Daniel Franzese) offer her a friendly welcome. The Plastic Girls - Regina George (Rachel McAdams), Gretchen Wieners (Lacey Chabert) and Amanda Seyfried (Karen Smith) are tops. Well, most of that honour belongs to Regina. She's the Queen Bee, the beautiful blond everyone else wants to be.

Bad blood between former friends George and Ian prompts the latter to hatch a plan. Heron will befriend Regina and her crew with dreams of revenge for a past wrong. Trouble is, Cady finds she starts to like being part of a group everyone else follows religiously. A gifted student, she opts to go the dumb route in math and her average falls - dramatically. She dreams of Aaron Samuels (Jonathan Bennett), the nice, good-looking guy who sits in front of her in math. Too bad he's the ex-boyfriend of Regina. The Queen Bee doesn't take kindly to Heron's interest in her past beau.

Mean Girls is several films rolled into one. It's, at times, a gross out comedy with nods to flatulence and breast augmentation. Mean Girls can be a sharply written and wise comedy from Tina Fey, who also appears as math teacher Ms. Newbury.

"Moderately priced soaps are my calling," Janis suggests at the retail store she works at. "In girl world all the fighting had to be sneaky," Cady learns. "You smell like a baby prostitute," Janis suggests when Heron dabs the perfume a little too eagerly. "She knew it was better to be in the Plastics hating life than not to be in at all," Cady observes when plans to topple the group begin working.

Mean Girls can also be very, very funny - if over-the-top, when students learn of the contents of Regina's Burn Book, a catty tome filled with rumours and secrets of all the other girls at the high school. It's during this scene I wondered if Mean Girls was trying to give nods to other teen or education-related films. Is that a hint of Carrie when Regina smiles at all the fights her comments cause? Isn't that a reference to Lean on Me when principal Mr. Duvall (Tim Meadows) grabs a baseball bat when the mayhem starts? And could that be a suggestion to Heathers when it's suggested several nasty ladies are killed by a passing school bus? Readers, please weigh in.

There's also a very funny reference to group bonding activities when all the girls must apologize to someone they've wronged before falling backwards to be caught by a crowd of classmates. Smart stuff.

Finally, how about Mean Girls' nod to complicit parents who don't lay the law down at home? Regina talks her parents out of their master bedroom. Her younger sister watches wildly improper sex-related videos on television. One, a nod to Girls Gone Wild, is a little uncomfortable to watch. Mrs. George (Amy Poehler) wants to be a friend, not a guiding force who lays down the law when needed.

If this is what life is really like for girls in high school, ouch. Back stabbing and trash talking. Yikes. But, to echo a comment I believe the late Roger Ebert made many years ago, why are these kids so old?

Rachel McAdams was in her mid-twenties when Mean Girls was shot in Toronto and New Jersey, same with Daniel Franzese. At least Lindsay Lohan was still in her late teens. Why aren't younger actors used?

Lindsay, you're a fine actress. You're great to watch here as the new kid trying to get the lay of the land in a savage world. Get yourself cleaned up and start to get people talking about your work on the big screen again. Thanks.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Junior Plastics made a brief appearance at the film's end. Megan Millington and Shannon Todd have done little else. Tara Shelley has 10 screen credits.

Nice touch. A remake of Blondie's Rip Her to Shreds helps open the film.

Wow. Tim Meadows played Sammy Davis, Jr., in Wayne's World 2. Saw the film, didn't remember his appearance as the Candy Man.

Lohan's first credit was as a trick or treater dressed as garbage on David Letterman's talk show in 1992.

Director Mark Waters also guided Lohan through another early career highlight, the remake of Freaky Friday 2003.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

Rio Grande is still tops in my books.

I've watched all the titles in director John Ford's cavalry trilogy in recent weeks.

Fort Apache had too much comedy for my taste. I didn't buy the romance between John Agar and Shirley Temple - even though the couple was married in real life at the time.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is better than Fort Apache, but comes nowhere close to Rio Grande's power.

The romance doesn't work here either. 2nd Lt. Ross Pennell (Harry Carey, Jr.) and Lt. Flint Cohill (Agar) are both wooing Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru). There's a lot of squabbling, but not much romance. The yellow ribbon in Dandridge's hair suggests she has a fella in the cavalry, but she won't identify her sweetheart. Is it Pennell or Cohill?

Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles (John Wayne) is nearing the end of his command days. The timing is not great. Various Indian tribes are putting aside old differences and teaming up to drive settlers from their land. Ten thousand warriors are itching for a fight. General Custard and his men have been wiped out. Brittles is ordered on patrol, in part to make sure Dandridge and Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick) get out of harm's way.

Brittles, literally just days away from punching out, struggles for success on his mission. He's frustrated because everything he was supposed to accomplish fails. It's not the way he wants to leave his post.

Death gets plenty of attention in this film. Brittles regularly visits the grave of his wife. How she died we don't know. A United States' paymaster is killed in an Indian attack. One of Brittles' men is gravely injured by the Indians. Time is tight for the life-saving surgery he needs. Another veteran trooper is killed in battle.

Victor McLaglen's characters have a definite thirst for liquor in each of these films. What starts out as a fun way of Top Sgt. Quincannon hitting the bottle for a quick jolt turns into an extended sequence involving civilian clothing, plenty of booze and six other cavalry members. This scene goes on much too long.

Fortunately, things pick up when Brittles decides to keep serving the cavalry after his official retirement. He rides into the Indian camp to make an appeal to Chief Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree) to avoid war. When that fails, Brittles has a Plan B that's impressive to watch.

There is, again, some beautiful images in this colour film. Wayne is great as a veteran leader at the end of his days. Natwick and Ben Johnson offer solid support work.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon has its moments, but Rio Grande is easily the best of Ford's cavalry films.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACT: Last week I lamented Fred McMurray's last film role was in disaster maestro Irving Allen's The Swarm. Poor Joanne Dru. Her last appearance on the big screen was Super Fuzz in 1980 with Ernest Borgnine and Terence Hill.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was Chief John Big Tree's second last movie appearance. His career began in 1915 with Author! Author!

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Apartment (1960)

It's good to see the Academy Awards found room to honour this very fine film by Billy Wilder.

In a recent review, I lamented not even a single Oscar nomination - let alone a win - for John Ford's The Searchers featuring John Wayne in a career performance.

But The Apartment was definitely recognized at the 1961 Academy Awards. This comedy/drama won five trophies, including nods for picture, director and writing.

It's interesting to watch The Apartment now in a world where friends with benefits are touted - a sexual relationship, but no long-term commitment.

Women are largely used, and tossed aside, for the pleasure of business executives in The Apartment.

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is one of many thousands of life insurance company employees in New York City. He has made his apartment available for his superiors' trysts for about a year. There's no suggestion Baxter has any moral qualms about what he's doing. Maybe he wants to get ahead. Maybe he's afraid of what will happen if he refuses to act as host. His plans and concerns are routinely ignored by his bosses ready for some time with their respective mistresses. He stays late at work - not so much because he's that dedicated, but his apartment is in use. That means nights with little sleep and the poor health that results.

In insurance terms, Baxter's bosses have transferred the risk of their affairs to him. He's the one who has to deal with neighbours who complain about the noise and his apparent constant stream of girlfriends. A Christmas office party also reminded me of a similar scene from a first-season episode of Mad Men. A woman does a striptease. Couples make out in offices and in common areas. How many of these folks are cheating on their spouses?

Baxter's life is challenging enough with balancing different requests for his apartment. Things get even trickier when he falls for elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). She's the latest short-term conquest for Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), another bigwig with Consolidated Insurance. Jeff wants her back. Fran really loves Sheldrake, but is despondent when she learns plenty of other girls have shared his affections over the years. His proclamations - I love you, I want you back - are part of a well-oiled machine of using and dumping women. Kubelik ponders suicide. "He doesn't give a damn about me," she realizes at one point. "I was jinxed from the word go."

Baxter's room service earns him a promotion from his bosses, but the support of folks like Joe Dobisch (Ray Walston) is largely conditional on his not making any waves. He'll stir things up if he decides to pursue Kubelik for himself.

The performances in this film are great. The script is exceptional. Watch this film.

RATING: 10/10

FUN FACTS: Naomi Stevens, who appears as Baxter's next door neighbour, appeared as Mama Rossini in Fred MacMurray's television series, My Three Sons. Her screen husband, Jack Kruschen, was nominated for best supporting actor for his work in The Apartment.

Fred MacMurray made some fine films, including Double Indemnity. It's too bad his last film credit was 1978's killer bee movie, The Swarm.

Hope Holiday appears briefly as Mrs. Margie MacDougall, a woman Baxter meets when he hits a bar on Christmas Eve. It's one of just 28 acting credits for Holiday.

Wilder Times Kevin Lilly offers some interesting insight into The Apartment. Interesting facts include:
- Wilder's idea for the film began after seeing David Lean's Brief Encounter.
- The office scene where Lemmon toils on the 17th floor of Consolidated Life was shot on the same soundstage as part of Porgy and Bess.
- Wilder tweaked his story when he learned Shirley Maclaine knew how to play gin rummy from her association with the Rat Pack.
- United Artists suggested Groucho Marx play Dr. Dreyfuss.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Searchers (1956)

John Wayne: The Searchers is one of the finest westerns ever made.

Credit one of John Wayne's best performances and stunning cinematography - in VistaVision - by Winton Hoch (The Quiet Man, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) for making this a must-see film.

The film opens in Texas in 1868. Ethan Edwards (Wayne) arrives at his brother's home. Numerous questions surround his past. What has he been doing in the three years since the Civil War ended? Why does he have so much money? Is he suggesting he was involved in illegal activities?

Edwards barely has time to settle in when he joins a search for missing cattle. That theft of livestock proves a ruse so Comanche Indians can wipe out his brother's family. The two daughters, Debbie (played by sisters Lana and Natalie Wood) and Lucy (Pippa Scott), are taken captive. Edwards and his nephew, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), launch a years-long quest to find Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) and rescue Debbie. Lucy is found - dead.

Edwards loathes Indians, is happy to kill as many as he can - and their sources of food. He welcomes a chance to gum up their chances in the afterlife too. That hatred begins to seep over into his feelings towards Debbie. He appears willing to gun her down rather than take her back to live with her surviving family.

There's a nice romance with Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) waiting, and waiting some more, for Martin to come home. Comic relief largely comes courtesy of Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis). He's sweet on Laurie, but is about as bright as a burned out light bulb. Keep an ear open for his pronunciation of fiancee. It's the best laugh in this nearly two-hour film. Ward Bond is very fine as part-time reverend, part-time leader of the Texas Rangers, Rev. Samuel Johnston Clayton. Hunter stands up very well next to Wayne.

The film's ending is powerful, recreating the opening scene in reverse with no words spoken.

Watch John Wayne: The Searchers.

RATING: 10/10

FUN FACTS: Jeffrey Hunter also appeared in The Longest Day, with John Wayne.

John Qualen, who appears as Lars Jorgensen, was Berger in Casablanca.

Olive Carey, who plays Mrs. Jorgensen, made her last film appearance in Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.

Hank Worden, appearing as Mose Harper, earned his last credits with David Lynch's Twin Peaks.

Beaulah Archuletta, who ends up as Martin Powley's wife at one point, made her debut in Key Largo.

The Searchers marked Pippa Scott's first movie role.