Monday, June 10, 2013

The 10 Most Essential "Teen" Movies: Then and Now

It's hard to be a teenager.  As adults, lots of us forget that.  Careers, financial responsibility, and child-rearing make prom preparations and math quizzes seem insignificant in retrospect.  At the time, however, that's all we knew.  Our hormones were racing, our emotions were swinging wildly, and our skin was a mess.  Worst of all, no one understood.

Thank Hughes, we had auteurs to tell our tales.   Those who came of age when I did were blessed with the defining films of the genre.  Oh, I know.  Before Ferris Bueller there was Danny Zuko and whoever James Dean played in Rebel Without a Cause.  Still, the '80s were the Golden Age of teen film.

Unlike most of my peers, I didn't leave teendom behind when I entered the real world.  I'm still witness to teen drama on a daily basis, in all its hyperbolic glory.  What's fulfilling about teaching English is introducing young people to the great stories that came before their existence.  Half of this entry is dedicated to making sure the younger generation doesn't miss out on all the great teen flicks that came out before they were born.  These films are mandatory viewing for today's youth.  The best news?  None of them are in black and white.  Trust me; that's huge for them.

The other half is for folks my age and above.  Perhaps you haven't watched movies that focus on teen turmoil since you left the demographic yourself, figuring that as you grow up you must put away childish things. Maybe you don't think you can access those same emotions anymore.  But that's what great art does.  It taps into deeply buried feelings and makes them present.  If you haven't seen any of these new classics, rest assured: They'll bring back all that old angst... in the best possible way.  Remember, you're just visiting for a couple hours; adolescents are stuck there for what seems like eternity.

For the distinction between "then" and "now," I'm drawing the line at 1996, the year I turned 20.  It's my blog, and them's my rules.  Oh, and they're presented in no particular order.


The Breakfast Club (1985)

The grandaddy of the genre.  It wasn't the first, but it's the most oft-referenced.  Wanna start getting a whole bunch of allusions you've been missing?  Watch this ode to cliques, friendship, and Saturday school.  Did we ever figure out if Emilio Estevez breaking the glass with his scream was supposed to be real, a metaphor, or a marijuana-induced hallucination?  Admittedly a pretty lame moment amidst an otherwise perfect blend of anti-authority laughs and tender bonding. 

Best line: "Can you describe the ruckus, sir?"
Signature song: "Don't You Forget About Me" (Simple Minds)
Post viewing question: "So...what have these actors been in recently?  They must be huge stars, right?"

 Sixteen Candles (1984) 

John Hughes' (and Molly Ringwald's, and Anthony Michael Hall's) warmup to The Breakfast Club is less poignant but funnier, at least in my book.  It's also the precursor to another Hughes film: The packed house full of annoying relatives who ignore the film's protagonist is the inspiration for Home Alone.  Special bonus points for non-p.c. humor in the form of Chinese foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong, which mostly comes at the expense of bewildered elderly white people.

Best line: "No more yankie my wankie.  The Donger need food!"
Signature song: "If You Were Here" (Thompson Twins)
Post viewing question: "Wait.  So in the '80s you could show a high school girl showering, with other girls ogling her bare breasts, and it would be rated PG?  What happened?"

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

When you think about it, John Hughes' run of these three movies in three years is about as unbelievable as a teenager in 1986 being able to hack into his school computer system and lower his absence count.  Most people would kill to make one movie that good in their lifetimes, and Hughes made one iconic, timeless film per year three years in a row.  Plus a whole bunch of other ones that are pretty good as well (see Honorable Mentions).  People keep telling me there's a God, but John Hughes is dead and Michael Bay's making Transformers 4.  Point, atheists.  Anyway, if the kids who cut my class were half as adventurous or full of life as Ferris is, I wouldn't mind them skipping.  Hell, I'd encourage it. 

Best line: "The question isn't what are we going to do today; it's what aren't we going to do today?"
Signature song: "Twist and Shout" (The Beatles)
Post viewing question: "What happened when the real 'Sausage King of Chicago' showed up to claim his reservation?"

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Out of all the films on this list, I think this is the one that today's teens would be most surprised by.  A high school girl has sex with an older guy, has an abortion...and that's not even what people remember about this film.  We remember Judge Reinhold telling off the annoying customer, Mr. Hand "sharing" Spicoli's pizza, Damone's dating advice, and of course this.  This times a million.

Best line: "I've been thinking about this, Mr. Hand. If I'm here and you're here, doesn't that make it our time? Certainly, there's nothing wrong with a little feast on our time."
Signature song: "Moving in Stereo" (The Cars, and no, I'm not linking to that scene; this is a family blog). 
Post viewing question: "Why is Spicoli so serious now?  Because he and Madonna got a divorce?"

Say Anything... (1989)

Sure, pretty much everybody recognizes the uber romantic "boom box over the head" gesture.  I prefer the less grandiose moments: When Lloyd teaches Diane to drive a stick shift, when he kicks glass out of her path, the guts he musters to call her in the first place.  It's simply impossible not to root for John Cusack's lovable everyman.  There's also the splendid monologue about not wanting to "buy, sell, or process anything" for a living, an awesome party scene, and some of the best teen songwriting ever. "Joe lies...Joe lies...Joe liiiiiiiiiies...when he cries...when he cries" wails Lloyd's heart-stricken gal pal.  Perhaps the most underrated film of the genre.

Best line: "What I really want to do with my life - what I want to do for a living - is I want to be with your daughter. I'm good at it."
Signature song: "In Your Eyes" (Peter Gabriel) 
Post viewing question: "Why don't more people sing 'The Greatest Love of All' at their graduations?"

Honorable Mentions (Really, you should see all of these, too):

Weird Science (1985)
Better Off Dead (1985)
Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
Heathers (1988)
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Dazed and Confused (1993)
Clueless (1995)


  10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

There's no way this movie should work.  A teen flick based on a Shakespeare play (The Taming of the Shrew) set at a palatial high school where obvious stereotypes abound?  Yet it does work, in spades.  There's nothing terribly original here, but the dialogue is clever, the soundtrack is fun '90s cheese, and most importantly, the film showcases two tremendous young talents in Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Julia Stiles is also fantastic as "The Shrew," and Larry Miller steals every scene he's in as the protective father who's also an obstetrician, terrified that his teen daughters will meet the same fate as so many he's encountered in his career.

Best line: "Kissing? That's what you think happens? I've got news for you. Kissing isn't what keeps me up to my elbows in placenta all day long."
Signature song: "I Can't Keep My Eyes Off of You" (Heath Ledger)
Post viewing question: "Did Robin know he was enlisting the help of The Joker?"

 Easy A (2010)

Like 10 Things, Easy A takes something old (The Scarlet Letter) and makes it pop.  It features a career-making performance by Emma Stone, who is sassy, smart, and sexy as a teen who does the unthinkable: She intentionally tarnishes her own reputation.  What starts as a noble favor to a gay friend looking to stay in the closet turns crushing when she turns into the town harlot (by word of mouth only), even covering for her guidance counselor's (Lisa Kudrow) illicit affair.  The film's greatest power might be that it encouraged an interest in the source material.  Several of my students chose to read it for their American history book report.  The interest was fleeting once they actually read Hawthorne's dry, rigid prose, but still.

Best line: "After we watch 'The Bucket List,' remember to cross 'watch "The Bucket List'" off our bucket list."
Signature song: "Pocketful of Sunshine" (Natasha Bedingfield)
Post viewing question: "So, did Amanda Bynes take her paycheck from this movie and go straight to her meth dealer, or did she stop for In n' Out first?"

Rushmore (1998) 

Wes Anderson's most complete and comprehensible film.  No, shut up.  It's not that other one.  This.  There's no movie version of The Catcher in the Rye, yet something about this film embodies that book's spirit.  As a teacher, I've known kids a lot like Max Fischer.  They're intelligent, mature, creative...and completely bored by academia.  He finds a "mentor" of sorts in Bill Murray's character (who has twin boys he can't tell apart and despises), and the rest is cinema gold.  So many good lines, from the dismissive ("I like your nurse's uniform, guy." "These are O.R. scrubs."  "Oh. Are they?") to the wistful ("I saved Latin.  What did you ever do?") and finally, the boastful ("My top schools where I want to apply to are Oxford and the Sorbonne. My safety's Harvard.").  If Say Anything is the eighties' most underrated film, this surely is the nineties' version.

Best line: "Tell that stupid Mick he just made my list of things to do today."
Signature song: "A Quick One While He's Away" (The Who) 
Post viewing question: "Why don't all Wes Anderson's films make this much sense?   

Mean Girls (2004)

Otherwise known as the moment we collectively realized that Tina Fey is, in fact, completely awesome.  She wrote this razor-sharp satire of teen cliques and the ruthless pack behavior they inspire.  If it were made a decade before, Winona Ryder would've played the lead.  Instead, it went to Lindsay Lohan, who of course is...amazing.  Seriously.  Watching her performance now is awe-inspiring but also sad.  It's a snapshot of what might've been (perhaps still could be?  Robert Downey Jr. was a total mess for most of his 20s and 30s, after all).  Rachel McAdams is wonderful as well, so much so that I often refer to villainous Abigail Williams from The Crucible as Adams' ruthless Regina George. 

Best line: "Gretchen, stop trying to make 'fetch' happen! It's not going to happen!"
Signature Song: "Jingle Bell Rock" (The Mean Girls)
Post viewing question: "Did Lindsey Lohan refer Amanda Bynes to her meth dealer, or does she not like to share?"

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

I haven't read the book, and from what I understand there was a touch of dissension amongst those who were fans of the novel because the film took certain liberties (as most adaptions do).  To me, the movie's nearly perfect.  It's not often I claim to be "touched," but this one got me.  It's funny, sweet, relatable, and best of all, set during the time I was in high school- the early 90s (despite the scene where Emma Watson and Ezra Miller perform a joyous dance routine to '80s anthem "Come on, Eileen").  It's the only film on this list that I've seen just once, and I knew right away it was a classic.  I can't wait to watch it on cable, 25 minutes at a time, for the rest of my life, like I have the rest of these films.

Best line: "We accept the love we think we deserve."
Signature Song: "Heroes" (David Bowie)
Post viewing question: "Is there any way we, as a society, can get a restraining order on behalf of Emma Watson that keeps Lindsey Lohan and Amanda Bynes three states away from her at all times?"

Honorable Mentions:

American Pie (1999)
Election (1999)
Bring it On (2000)
Donnie Darko (2001)
Superbad (2007)
Juno (2007)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

An English Teacher Reviews The Great Gatsby

Like many a high school English teacher across the dark fields of the Republic, I've taught F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel to hundreds (thousands?) of students, and this is mostly for them.  However, I don't mind taking the rest of you for a ride in this circus wagon.  Nobody needs an invitation; just come with a simplicity of heart that is its own ticket of admission.

As you may be able to tell from the three allusions I dropped in the intro there, I love Fitzgerald's prose and had little hope that noted "Look at ME!" director Baz Luhrmann would do any better job than the myriad other filmmakers who have taken a stab at it, most notably Jack Clayton's dreary, schmaltzy 1974 version starring Robert Redford, which is the one I've shown in class every year so far.  Really, I was just hoping that this new flick would just be marginally better than the Redford version.

Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Baz's take on Gatsby isn't merely slightly superior to the old one but leagues better.  It's not a perfect film by any stretch.  There's plenty to quibble with, and I'll get to that.  But it gets enough right that I feel confident about showing this updated version to my junior classes from now on.

The Good:

-This guy:
He's not going to win any awards for it, but there aren't many actors who could carry the role the way he does.  Hell, Redford's a great actor, but even he seems to slump under the weight of the character.  Leo plays him exactly right.  He's ambitious, duplicitous, charming, and insecure.  Look at that smile.  It's a major facet of the book, and Leo nails it.  Bottom line: It's a role for a movie star, and Leo's one of the biggest and brightest ones we've got.

-Nick as a broken-down alcoholic writer during the stock market crash. It's the film's biggest risk, and the likeliest to ruffle traditionalist feathers, but I liked it.  Basically, the movie turns Nick into Fitzgerald, who died broke and alone, despite the success of Gatsby.  This allows Fitzgerald's transcendent language to appear and be heard, despite the fact that the Nick of the book never mentions being a writer of any sort.  Maguire even looks like the troubled-but-gifted author, especially with the haircut he sports during his scenes at the clinic.  It's no secret that Nick is a version of Fitzgerald himself; both come from the Midwest to New York and are appalled yet drawn to the lifestyles they experience there.  I've always argued that Fitzgerald was trying to warn not only America but also himself of what the ravages of excess would wreak upon each, although the downfall of both was inevitable.

-This scene:
Gatsby and Daisy's reunion is perfect.  It's awkwardly funny, dramatic, and well-staged.  It's a fine example of what Luhrmann can do when he slows down for a moment and stops swooping the damn camera all over the place.  It also reinforces the awkward position of Nick; he narrates the film yet is not present for some of its most central action.  He is both "within and without" as he stands outside in the rain while Gatsby and Daisy get reacquainted in Nick's bungalow. 

 -The best film adaptations stick to the story without being slaves to them.  In addition to the major framing device of Nick writing the book from rehab, Luhrmann changes a few things, and most work well.  For instance, I didn't miss Gatsby's dad ("My name is Gatz") showing up at the end, as he does in the novel.  It's pure falling action, and too much of that sucks a film's ending dry.  I also didn't mind accelerating George Wilson's hunt for Gatsby by having Tom give up his rival's name and address to the grieving husband immediately after the accident, rather than letting Wilson seek Tom out the next day, as he does in the book.

I was more bothered by the film's omission of Nick's final conversation with Daisy and Tom, where it becomes clear that Daisy has never told Tom that she, in fact, is the one driving the car which kills Myrtle Wilson.  This detail helps to get across the notion that Tom isn't the "bad guy" keeping Daisy from true love.  Daisy chooses Tom's pearls over Gatsby's letter early in the story, then she again chooses the stability of Tom's inherent wealth over Gatsby's hard-earned but ill-gotten gains.  Fitzgerald's point is that Daisy is an attractive but false goal, like so much of what what we hold in esteem in America, and lots of readers miss that.  However, I'll cut Baz some slack.  The scene near the end where Daisy won't take Nick's call and doesn't even acknowledge Gatsby's funeral is an adequate substitute. 

Most importantly, lots of Fitzgerald's words make it into the film.  They're the real stars, after all.  Any version of Gatsby absolutely must have those beautiful, poignant final lines ("boats against the current," and all that), but the Redford version doesn't, amazingly enough.  Even when the lines are altered a bit, it's no travesty.  For instance, Nick's line about "reserving judgement is a matter of infinite hope" becomes "I look for the best in people," which is almost exactly the way I translate it in class.  Major demerit for no "Her voice is full of money," though. 

The Baz

Because I'm an English teacher, I've also seen Luhrmann's other notable literary adaptation, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (also starring a much younger DiCaprio) dozens of times, which is the main reason I was skeptical about what he'd do with Gatsby.  The actors literally yell lines at each other, in order to create tension, I suppose.  The tone is all over the place, from silly to surreal to melodramatic.  It's a completely frenetic experience.  Perhaps Baz has matured and mellowed a bit, as he managed to dial it down a bit for Gatsby.  Still, all of his greatest hits are present:

-The anachronistic music.
This has been the most frequent complaint from students who've seen Gatsby.  Ironically, teens are the ones who seem offended that Baz likes to insert today's pop music into historic settings.  I think they feel pandered to.  Anyway, they wanted "The Charleston" and got Kanye and Lana Del Rey instead.  I actually don't mind this trademark of his.  I liked Jay Z's score, and Romeo + Juliet's soundtrack is one of the few redeemable things about that messy film.

-The swooping camera.  Meh.  He uses it a bunch to give a sense of setting, showing where Gatsby's mansion is in relation to the Buchanans' manor.  Yes, it's overdramatic.  But it really didn't bother me like the...

When Gatsby comes to pick Nick up for lunch, he does donuts around Nick's place for awhile first.  Why?  It certainly doesn't fit with his carefully manicured character.  But his fancy yellow car makes a great VROOOOOM, so you gotta have it, I guess.  Then Gatsby proceeds with the exposition of his (fake) early life on their way to New York, but you can't really concentrate on it because he's driving like he's in the Indy 500.  Fast, fast, loud, loud.  That's Baz, to the core.

-Baz apparently also thinks drug-addled fever dreams are an effective storytelling device.  The scene in Myrtle's apartment is like watching when Leo meets Claire Danes in R+J in a cracked mirror.  Substitute the dude playing the sax on the balcony for Mercutio's inexplicable drag show, and you're there.  Just a diaspora of absurd facial expressions, outsized reactions, loud music, and a constantly spinning camera.  Note: I'm pretty sure this description covers the entirety of Luhrmann's other famous film, Moulin Rouge, but I only saw that once, over a decade ago, so I'm no expert. 

Nolanometer Final Grade: B

For perspective,
Redford's Great Gatsby: C-
Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet: D+