After Sean Penn’s solid supporting performance in Taps (as the sensitive guy, opposite Tom Cruise’s hothead), his now legendary scene stealing turn as stoner Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and then his work as Chicago juvenile delinquent Mick O’Brien in Bad Boys, Rolling Stone Magazine put him on the cover at the age of 23 and called him, “the next James Dean.” Since Dean only starred in three features, it's his cultural impact and dying young status that still make him a household name today. Dean also showed himself to be a gifted actor and it’s fascinating to imagine what his career would have been like had he not died so young. Penn has lived past those three early films (to some people’s surprise). He has had a long and eclectic filmography, with moments of pure acting brilliance (Carlito’s Way, Dead Man Walking, Sweet and Lowdown), while some critics have accused him of sometimes being a hammy overactor (I Am Sam, All The King’s Men, Mystic River). Either way the guy is easily a first-ballet hall-of-famer.
In addition to being a good jumping off point for any study of the truth and beauty in Penn’s acting, director Rick Rosenthal's Bad Boys is, for my money, the best American juvenile detention center flick. (Internationally you would have to add the British film Scum and Brazil's Pixote.) By 1983 Hollywood had only a spotty record grappling with teen crime flicks (the best at this point was Over The Edge) and Bad Boys sometimes feels a little overwrought with its occasional After School Special moments. On the other-hand it’s shockingly bleak and the violence is pretty brutal. Both teen prisons and the mean streets of Chicago are places full of predators - kill or be killed. Though Bad Boys doesn’t hit the exploitation highs of Class of 1984, it’s certainty much harder hitting and believable than most of the other teen dramas of its era.Continue Reading
Class of 1984
As a remake of Blackboard Jungle, with a lot of A Clockwork Orange thrown in, the ’82 punk rock revenge flick Class of 1984 is still a surprisingly effective piece of exploitation pulp. With a theme song called “I Am the Future” sung by Alice Cooper (shockingly written by long time film and TV composer Lalo Schifrin!) prophetically announcing its intentions— this is a new youth nightmare. Entering the school through metal detectors (now a standard in many urban schools) the hero/teacher in this story, Andrew Norris (Perry King), is shocked at the conditions at his new school, and the kids are much more aggressive and nasty. Blackboard Jungle’s Glenn Ford had it easy compared to this guy. Yes, these aren’t your father’s punk kids anymore.
Shot in Toronto, but sitting in as any mixed-race urban jungle USA, Mr. Norris just wants to teach the good kids music (including a nerdy young Michael J. Fox). But the school seems to be dominated by a punk rock gang led by its genius psychopathic pretty boy, Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten), who instantly takes a dislike to Norris for having the gall to want to teach while other teachers like Mr. Corrigan (Roddy McDowall) have just given up. Norris wants to put together a classical music school band and though Stegman can play the piano like that dude in Shine, Norris denies him a spot because of his bad attitude. This begins a deadly showdown between the two.
Unlike the antics of most tough youths in older films, Stegman and his crew are not laughably dated. Their “punk” outfits may look clowni...
Fast Times At Ridgemont High
Fast Times At Ridgemont High is The Godfather or the Gone With The Wind of '80s teenage sex comedies. It's bigger and better than its lesser peers including My Tutor, The Last American Virgin, Porky's, Losing It, and a list that goes on and on. Inspired by the success of the wonderful National Lampoon's Animal House as well as the ensemble attitude of American Graffiti, based on a book by Cameron Crowe, with an exceptional cast of then unknowns (including two of their generation's best, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sean Penn), Fast Times At Ridgemont High is an epic study of Southern California teen suburban culture of the early 1980s.
The film really is more than just a teen sex comedy (which doesn't usually mean that sex is actually happening - it is generally more just being wished for - as well as preening and peeking for potential nudity). Besides being very funny there is some dramatic weight to the film and to many of the characters, mostly concerning an abortion. Other than a few teachers at Ridgemont High not many adults (parents) factor into the story (not including the 26-year old stereo salesman who seduces a teenager). This is a teen fantasy of laughs and sex all in a sunny, year-round location. It's the lighter side of the "burning the school down" fantasy of Over The Edge.Continue Reading
Before the success of Fast Times At Ridgemont HIgh and John Hughes’ condescending acne epics, the teen movie genre barely existed. In the late 1970s, the early teen years were usually either scary (Over The Edge) or whimsical (A Little Romance). The terrific film, My Bodyguard, manages to combine both and then split the difference. Journeyman actor Tony Bill made a very effective directing debut with My Bodyguard, it’s now considered a minor classic of the teen genre. He would follow it up with the awful Dudley Moore/Mary Tyler Moore weeper, Six Weeks, but then redeem himself with the interesting cult flick, Five Corners. Since then he has become a reliable TV director.
Clifford Peache is a typical teen movie nerd - shy, sensitive, and unpretentious (played by Chris Makepeace who did an even wimpier version of this character a year earlier in Meatballs). Clifford’s father manages a fancy Chicago hotel where he lives with his kooky Grandma (played by Martin Mull and Ruth Gordon, their eccentricities are a little sitcomy and are the least memorable parts of the film). The good stuff happens at school where Clifford, the new kid, gets off to a rocky start with the resident bully, Moody (Matt Dillon), who continues to sadistically harass Clifford and the other school nerds. One kid at school has even the bullies spooked, Ricky Linderman (Adam Baldwin), a hulking outcast who was said to have killed his brother. After Clifford learns from a teacher that his brother died by accident, he begins to stalk Ricky, eventually employing him as his bodyguard against Moody. The two end up bonding and help each other become better people and all that.Continue Reading
Over The Edge
It's exciting knowing that once upon a time the music of Cheap Trick inspired chaos and teen violence. With the Vietnam War over and lost, Nixon out of the White House and Disco past its apex, what was left to rebel against? In the case of these pot smokin' rock'n & rollin juvenal delinquents it's the closing of the local rec center that gets their panties in a wad. Over The Edge is an amazing relic from 1979, like its East-Coast cousin from the same year, The Warriors, it perfectly captures its period and its only-in-America geography. Instead of the ethnically diverse landscape of the street gang classic this one is an all-white, pre-Spielberg suburban West Coast sprawl, when kids were either jocks or burnouts, but all could agree that school sucked, parents are hypocrites, and cops are fascists. I bet the designers of Dazed And Confused took a look at this film's style. Also it's been said that it inspired Kurt Cobain's teen rebellion opus "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
It also mark the debut for Matt Dillon who would reign over filmdom as the king of mumbling teen rebellion for the next decade. What a run he would have. He followed Over The Edge with the summer camp virginity-losing caper, Little Darlings (still not available on DVD and out of print on VHS). He then would play Moody, the ultimate high school bully, in My Bodyguard. And then he would win the James Dean wannabe sweepstakes in the SE Hinton misunderstood teen trifecta of Tex, The Outsiders, and Rumble Fish (the later two would mark the end of Francis Ford Coppola as an important filmmaker). Of course in recent years Dillon can be found mugging his way through such dribble as Herbie Fully Loaded (oh, how lucky James Dean was to die young).Continue Reading