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In the July 23, 2007 issue of TIME magazine, an article surveyed several prominent writers as to what guilty pleasures they would indulge in if they were to follow their heart’s desire in their summer reading. Jane Smiley chose an erotica/sadist novel, Magaret Drabble would read Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Alexander McCall Smith selected Dick Francis, and Joyce Carol Oates opted for Mad Magazine.

Just wondering, what movies would they have chosen to watch, if Dick Francis and Jules Verne are considered guilty pleasure? As for me, watching old movies that I missed some time in my past, and there are a lot, became my summer indulgence. Guilty pleasure? Don’t think I need to feel guilty about them, however, they do represent a quirky and offbeat sort. Here they are, with my hindsight critique…now flashback to:

1986  Pretty in Pink


Why I missed out on preppy movies like this one, I haven’t a clue. But, it’s more than just nostalgic viewing them now. Why, because I’m discovering for the first time Andrew McCarthy, Molly Ringwald, and, yes, James Spader in his youthful days. The power of young love driven by hormonal surge and pure fantasy or infactuation could still be no match for societal norms and peer pressure. Rich boy, poor girl, two starcrossed lovers separated by a mere railway track, a demarkation of social inequality in wealth, opportunities, future…Oh, we’ve seen them before, in the classic Love Story, and the like. But it’s always a treat looking at young, fresh faces like McCarthy and Ringwald, and … Spader… who cares he looks like he’s been repeating his senior year in high school a few times. If it’s a miscast, it doesn’t bother me a bit, because watching Pretty in Pink is like licking a strawberry ice cream cone on a hot summer day, it’s indulgence enough.

1987  Less Than Zero


McCarthy and Spader reprised the next year to make this movie, but this time, Robert Downey Jr. stole the show. Less Than Zero probably is one of the classic drug addiction movies. The story takes place again, among the decadent world of rich, young Californian high school grads. McCarthy, a college freshman came home after his first term of college to find his buddy RDJ helplessly hooked on cocaine and deeply in debt. Together with his girlfriend Gertz, who has shifted her attention to RDJ since he left, McCarthy tried to rescue his friend from his pathetic downfall. This time, Spader acted more like his age, as a slick and manipulative drug dealer. Watching a young man self-destruct was not an enjoyable experience. The pleasure in watching this movie though is that one sees the pivotal performance of a superb actor hitting his stride and gaining momentum in his career. As one critic said, this movie put RDJ on the map. Compared to Maggie Cheung in Clean, which I reviewed some time ago, RDJ comes out a much stronger contender.

1996  2 Days in the Valley

This is what I call indulgence, three Spader movies in a row. This one is a much more interesting mix of characters. Watching it reminds me of “Crash” (2004) where a group of seemingly unattached characters would finally be strung together as the story unfolds, coming to a brilliant and climatic ending. But of course, 2DITV is not Crash, it does not convey a serious message like racism, it just…purely…entertains, pure summer fun. What do a mild-mannered hit man, a female Olympic skier, a snobbish art dealer, a cold blooded killer, a loving widow, a down-and-out movie director, and two vice cops have in common? They don’t, and this is exactly what the movie is saying, hauntingly. 48 hours in the San Fernando Valley, CA, could bring about a lot of changes in these lives. We cross paths with people who may have nothing to do with our lives every day, and yet as circumstances unfold, we are entangled into a web of human relations and coincidents. Our best bet is to take the right step, at least that we can have some control. The superb acting and the intricate plot make it a fun and wild ride. As the saying goes, this movie puts Charlize Theron on the map. Spader as a bespectacled, icy, heartless killer? Seeing is believing. Great summer viewing pleasure.

1997  The Ice Storm

I think this is probably my favorite Ang Lee movies, so far.  The Ice Storm, a story about the dysfunctional relationships within two families in 1973 suburban Conneticut, was Ang Lee’s attempt to prove his versatility after making the 19th Century Austen classic Sense and Sensibility. He has painted a sensitive and poignant portrait of suburban living, or anywhere living, of people struggling to deal with the ennui of superficial existence. Adults exchange spouses as a game, the young seek sexual experiences, or experiment with drugs. Like a fly hitting the window again and again as it frantically tries to escape, the characters in this movie spin deeper and deeper into a meaningless blackhole. That is, until the Ice Storm cometh. It takes the elements, something greater than themselves, to shake them up and have them face the futility of their actions, leading them to a stark awakening. Such is the redemptive power of the Ice Storm, a metaphor for divine intervention, marking the turning point in the lives of these characters. A great cast including Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, and Elijah Wood makes this film an enjoyable treat, despite the serious subject matter.

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