Forget “Westside Story”: “Tuff Turf”

Ah, the 1980’s. A time when leg warmers were chic; spontaneous, synchronized dances among total strangers were common; and James Spader was sexy and young.

(And, okay, he’s still sexy. He’s just no longer young.)

Aside from a twenty-something Spader looking damn fine in a black leather jacket, and Kim Richards’ rather colorful outfit and provocative pose, the box of Fritz Kiersch’s 1984 high school drama Tuff Turf doesn’t look like anything special. In fact, the tagline—“Where enemies are made, reputations are earned and love is the most risky affair of all.”—makes it seem as though the film is going to be a trashy ‘80’s movie with lots of teenage angst and gangland wars. Think Sixteen Candles meets The Lost Boys, minus the whole vampire thing, of course. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that it was not only a smoldering Spader I could enjoy, but the movie itself.

The movie begins with Nick Hauser, played by the pretty, but tough-looking Paul Mones, and his gang of miscreants hanging out late at night at a local newsstand in downtown Los Angeles. At first, it seems strange that they’re there; they’re not even pilfering the dozing vendor’s money. But the reason quickly becomes obvious when the camera cuts across the street. The colorfully-dressed, very attractive Frankie Croyden (Richards) leans against the wall of a building, while a lone man in a rather nice-looking grey suit stands at a bus stop. Frankie, carrying various school accoutrements—papers, notebooks, etc.—walks up to the man, who, as any breathing heterosexual male would do in the situation gives her the once-over. She “innocently” asks for change for a fiver; and when the man inquires as to why she is out so late alone, she turns on the flirtation—and turns his attention off to anything but her. It’s pretty easy to guess what happens next: Nick comes up behind the man, pulls a switchblade on him, and demands his money. But, suddenly, a blonde youth on a bike speeds through, singing Be-Bop-A-Lula and making snappy comments at the same time he pours beer over the gang members, thus rescuing the innocent (if skeevy) older man. Cue Frankie looking a bit surprised, but admiringly, in the direction in which he disappears.

This mysterious hero is, of course, our very own Spader, playing Morgan Hiller, an intelligent, but troublesome high school senior, recently arrived from Connecticut. After Mr. Hiller’s business went under, the family moved to Los Angeles. Mrs. Hiller is still having trouble adjusting to her sudden drop in social class and lifestyle. Morgan’s deviant behavior isn’t making her any happier, either, and she lets him know it—every time they speak. And to top it off, Morgan’s appallingly yuppie, rising lawyer of a brother, Brian, is the family-dubbed “golden boy,” who can’t resist emphasizing the fact that he is the family favorite when he comes to visit.

Needless to say, Morgan is pretty sick of his family, and deliberately goes looking for trouble. Fortunately (?) for him, he doesn’t have to look very far: Nick is still pretty pissed about Morgan’s bike stunt; but he gets even angrier when Morgan pursues Nick’s “property”—Frankie. One ruined bike and two fantastic dance sequences later—‘80’s movies are famous for ‘em!—Morgan is hip-deep in trouble—and love. Even after enduring a brutal locker room beating at the hands of Nick and his gang, Morgan is undeterred. Rather than backing off, Morgan pays Frankie an unexpected visit, and insists they give it “a shot”. “You know,” says Frankie, “it’s not going to change anything.” To which Morgan responds, “It could. It could, and a chance is worth everything.”

(At which point I swooned. I also may or may not have played that sequence over again.)

Of course, I can’t tell you how the movie ends. I can’t tell you about the sensual love scene towards the end; and I certainly can’t tell you about the extremely well-done, if a little over-the-top, “final battle”. That would be cheating. You’re just going to have to see said scenes yourself.

I will, however, tell you a little about the actors’ performances. As you may have guessed, I am a big Spader fan, and it’s not just his looks (promise!). Even as a greenhorn actor with only a few movies under his belt, the young Spader was already forming his own style in this movie. He plays the role of the intelligent prodigal son very, very well. Though Spader’s lines are somewhat trite at times, he manages to make them sound interesting and important; and even though the funnier lines actually belong to his geeky sidekick Jimmy Parker, played by a very young Robert Downey, Jr., it is actually Spader’s lines that stick in your mind. Spader’s facial expressions are to die for, especially since they’re essentially the same ones he uses today. I personally did a little joy-wriggle in my seat when I saw him turn on what I like to call his “courtroom Boston Legal” face.
Though Richards does the pretty-girl-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks well, it is a little hard to believe her transformation from bad girl to relatively less bad girl. This is not a fault of her acting; it is more a fault of the character she is playing—basically white trash whose highest aspiration is to get married. Unfortunately, save for a brief exchange between Frankie and Morgan, the script never suggests Frankie changes her mind about what she wants out of life during the course of the film. Not to give anything away, but this leaves you wondering what happened to the “just get married” plan at the end of the movie.
None of the other actors’ performances are really worth remarking on, mostly because they are archetypal teen drama stereotypes. It’s not that their acting is bad by any means; it just isn’t noteworthy, since you could watch any other film in the same vein, and get the gist.

Tuff Turf combines the best aspects of ‘80’s teen drama without the dreck. No, it’s not Oscar material, but it’s damn good, and far more worth the watch than a relative equivalent, like Pretty in Pink. After all, Spader went somewhere.

(Sorry, Molly. You weren’t really that good an actress, anyway.)

Yours with love,

Film Bitch


Not Your Typical Dance Flick: “Footloose”

Tragedy struck at the library yesterday. Not only did they not have 9 ½ Weeks, but they didn’t have The Full Monty, either. So, I am sad to report, there will be no stripteases in this post, sexy or otherwise. But there will be dancing.

Footloose, based loosely on actual events in Elmore, OK, is one of those classic ‘80’s movies that almost everyone knows, or has, at least, heard of—after all, it is one of the youthful Kevin Bacon’s most famous roles.
(But, sadly, while he was cute in 1984, he hasn’t aged all that well.)

Bacon’s Ren McCormack is, as I described via text to a friend the other day, “a youthful city upstart” from Chicago who has recently moved to the sleepy, parochial country town of Bomont, where the most exciting activity the kids engage in is a thrilling game of Chicken, using tractors. Ren is first spotted by town belle and firecracker Ariel Moore, played by the rail-thin Lori Singer, and her group of giggly girlfriends in church. Though Ariel feigns disinterest, she is secretly intrigued by this handsome young stranger who has come to town—and who can blame her? As a preacher’s daughter, Ariel is expected to be the model child; so, of course, she rebels in all sorts of ways, which doesn’t go over too well with her father, Reverend Shaw Moore, played by John Lithgow—especially when she *gasp* listens to rock and roll music, which is, in the opinion of the town’s middle-aged and up members, the greatest sin one can commit, as it promotes “easy sexuality and relaxed morality.”

So imagine how pleased Revered Shaw is when Ariel starts hanging out with Ren, who, in everyone’s estimation, is practically the next Anti-Christ: Not only does he listen to rock ‘n roll, but he dances, and reads “blasphemous” books like The Slaughterhouse Five. Ren is not unaware of the town’s prejudice, but tries not to let it get to him. And though it’s a bit hard to ignore just about everyone, save your buddy Willard, throwing dirty, you’re-a-heathen glances your way, Ren takes out his frustrations by—you guessed it—dancing.

(Or, more accurately, pretending to be Spiderman in an abandoned barn while a hidden Ariel watches.)

Of course, it’s not long before Ren has almost every kid in town interested in this mythical thing called, “dancing.” So when Ren gets up in front of the town council—Bible in hand, literally—to preach the goodness of dancing, practically the entire eighteen and under crowd comes to show support. Problem is, the practice has been outlawed for such a long time, that no one really knows how to do it, unless they’re “rebels” like Ariel and her posse. Eh. Details. Ren makes sinners out of all of ‘em in no time.

Footloose is by no means a “good” movie, in the sense that it’s deep and meaningful. But it is “good” in the sense that it’s silly and fun, and pretty much epitomizes the dance craze that briefly swept the movie industry in the ‘80’s. Moreover, it reveals the (unfortunate) stigmas that many progressive or different ideas encounter in the face of—to put it bluntly—religion. For example, about three-fourths of the way through the movie, the more religious members of the community actually hold a book burning outside the public library. If you’re anything like me, and associate book burning with Nazis, and then realize that that shit still happens, then you’re going to feel a little freaked out. So, like I said: The movie’s not especially deep and meaningful. But the way it manages to show the uglier side of reactionary ideology, while at the same time remaining a light-hearted ‘80’s dance flick is worthy of respect.

And, strangely enough, this is not your typical some-actors-are-good, some-actors-are-awful movie. Everyone fits his or her role more or less perfectly. Singer is really good at being the token rebellious, somewhat bratty bitch of a girl (which leads me to wonder what she’s like in real life…), and her dancing isn’t too shabby, either. Bacon, of course, is good at getting in your face, and acting the tough guy. But I’d have to say, of all the actors in the movie, my favorite is (believe it or not) Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays Rusty, Ariel’s best friend. This is the Sarah Jessica Parker waaaaay before she became famous, for anything, Hocus Pocus included. Parker is anything but sexy; instead, she’s an adorable little ball of happiness and sass, which is incredibly endearing and then some. Given Rusty’s character and some of her lines, Parker certainly didn’t have to be as chipper and upbeat as she is in the film. But the fact that she is makes me think that Parker may have infused some of her real self into the character, which makes Rusty all the more realistic. And while many of the other characters were either a bit too awkward for my liking—see Chris Penn’s Willard; though, with a name like “Willard,” I’d be awkward, too—or too archetypal (see Singer), Parker comes off as a genuine high school student, and is, in fact, the most believable character in the entire film.

Now, this movie is no Dirty Dancing, which is probably the most famous dance film of the ‘80’s. But that’s really only because, aside from the stunt double’s gymnastic feats in the I’m-a-frustrated-teenager barn scene, the movie doesn’t actually focus on dancing as much as one would expect, especially given the (wonderful) opening credit sequence. However, this does not mean it should not be labeled a “dance movie,” as the main conflict actually does revolve around dance—just in a slightly different way than you might think.

All my lovin’,

Film Bitch

P.S. I have figured out how to fix the links, so the picture of Kevin Bacon works! Success!