Friday, October 8, 2010

Fire with Fire or School Girls (Virginity) in Peril

Prior to the late-seventies, if you wanted to see a specific movie there were only two viable options, see it at the theater, or wait, sometimes years, for it to come on commercial television. The widespread commercialization of the VCR, proliferation of video rental places, and cable TV changed all that. But it was a change that happened very slowly due to the high cost of the media products (VCRs were close to a thousand dollars when they first hit the market and video cassettes averaged around $99, if they were available for sale at all). But as the years passed, the prices came down and more and more people enjoyed the unique experience of owning a movie. There was something almost magical about that experience and the newfound ability to view a film at any time and as frequently as you wished. The first video movie you obtained was particularly memorable. Whether it was a good or bad film, it belonged to you and could be viewed at will. Sounds passé, and kind of ridiculous now, but I can't overstate the impact of that feeling of entertainment empowerment. It was like being a lifetime mass transit user who finally enjoys the freedom of his own car. Unfortunately, with the demise of the brick and mortar video store, and the progression of digital technology, that magic has all but disappeared. Watching a movie on the iPhone is a technical marvel, but lacks the impact of obtaining the previously unobtainable. "What was the first movie you watched on Netflix Instant?" is a question that just doesn't resonate nostalgically. But, like my first car, my first love, and my first beer, I still remember my very first video movie purchase…

It was 1987, I was broke and literally eating the government cheese. The good news was, I'd just been hired by the same people who were giving out the free cheese to sort tax returns. Now all I had to do was figure out how to spend all of that newly acquired fresh government salad. I could replace the packing crates in my studio apartment with real furniture, or I could buy one of those new fangled home cinema viewing machines I'd been hearing so much about over the past decade. I wound up buying a new, super cheap, video cassette player, that's right, a VCP, and it still cost me over 125 large. I then realized I still needed to get a movie to play on it. It somehow felt wrong to stick a nasty, used, disease ridden rental cassette in my shiny new virgin machine, so I stopped off at the local Tower Records and blindly grabbed the cheapest new cassette out of the bargain bin I could find. Basically, I just wanted to make sure my player worked, and my expectations were beyond low for a movie that could be purchased for $5.99 plus CA sales tax. I was fairly surprised by what I got -

Synopsis: Craig Sheffer plays a nice hunky boy who has been sent to a juvenile offender youth camp in the woods. While competing in a marathon run with a rival group, he espies Virginia Madsen's character photographically recreating Millais' Ophelia in a river he stumbles across. She simultaneously peeps him, and is smitten. They spend the rest of the movie trying to get together. 

Despite the unbelievable and overly romanticized premise, this film is actually quite strong and enjoyable in a number of areas:

Setting/Cinematography  The British Colombia forest locations were incredibly beautiful and cinematographer Hiro Narita, who was the DoP on Never Cry Wolf, did a solid job with the outdoor photography.

Music and score   Howard Shore did the lush orchestral score which was very good and complemented the 80's pop hits on the soundtrack quite nicely. They included some nice selections from Prince, Bryan Ferry, James House and Wild Blue.

Acting   Sheffer and Madsen are both excellent and have good chemistry together. I was a fan of Madsen's after seeing her in Electric Dreams, and she put in another solid performance here in what could have been a two dimensional dream girl role.

Cast  Besides Madsen and Sheffer, whose characters take up most of the screen time, there's a pretty solid cast backing them up including, DB Sweeney as Sheffer's nemesis, Jon Polito (Casper the gangster from Miller's Crossing) as the boss guard, veteran TV actress Jean Smart as the Nilf-y Sister Maria, Kate Reid from Atlantic City and Equus, Kari Wuhrer from Sliders, Tim Russ from Star Trek Voyager, Penelope Sudrow from NoES 3, Jeffrey Jay Cohen from the Back to the Future trilogy, and David Harris who played Cochise in The Warriors.

In addition, for the type of movie this was, the production value was pretty darned impressive. Someone spent some time, money and effort on the film, and it showed.

Sounds pretty fantastic so far right? Unfortunately, there is a near fatal flaw and it's the screenplay. I knew there was going to be trouble the first time I watched the film and observed no less than four screenwriters credited in the opening. Never a good sign, and it wasn't for this film. The story seemed like a misbegotten mash up of Bad Boys, Romeo & Juliet and Heaven Help Us. You can actually see vestiges of the script re-writes if you look closely. Jon Polito's character, who was right out of a 70's prison movie, was wildly over the top and unbelievable. For the entire length of the movie, his character ran around brandishing a loaded shotgun and threatening unarmed teenaged boys. It's not Polito's fault, that's how the character was written. The Jeffrey Jay Cohen character, who has some of the film's worst dialogue, played a combination of juvenile delinquent, cartographer and class clown. Whatever. The majority of the clunky writing seemed centered around the boys and the goings on at their detention camp. The dialogue in these scenes just sounded false and cringe-inducing. It didn't break the movie, but it was definitely the weakest aspect. However, the writing seemed to markedly improve when the focus switched to the girls' school or just the Madsen and Sheffer characters and became at least passable. 

Overall, I received more than my money's worth for the video which I still possess, and have easily viewed more times than any other. I was surprised by the strengths of the film, and I think they ultimately won out over the weak script. Not a classic, but entertaining and of surprisingly high quality, and best of all, the first movie I ever owned. Final Score:

Very Cool - Friday the Thirteenth part V: A New Beginning is the movie the boys go to see in the nearby town, and you can actually see it playing up on the screen for a change. Nice!

Not So Much - This film is unavailable on DVD which is not surprising because getting the music rights alone for Computer Blue from His Royal Doucheness would be highly unlikely. Shame, because the look and music in the film would shine even more on DVD or Blu-ray.

WTF? - For a film that was made right in the middle of the 80's and which features a big dance set piece, the clothing and hairstyles were very conservative and distinctly un-cheesy. The music video for the film was another matter entirely. While it serves as a great trailer for the film, and the song is very catchy, check out the humongous 80's hair on Wild Blue's lead singer Renee Varo and note that it is actually dwarfed by her bandmates':

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