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

I Don’t Wanna Be Friends: “Hotel Chevalier”

What can I say about Hotel Chevalier that it doesn’t already say for itself?

This short 2007 Wes Anderson film, meant to precede his longer, most recent flick, The Darjeeling Limited, can actually stand on its own. And not only can it stand on its own, but it is actually better than The Darjeeling Limited. Now, this is not to say The Darjeeling Limited was bad, but it certainly didn’t have the emotional depth or impact of Hotel Chevalier.

The film opens with Jason Schwartzman’s character, Jack Whitman, lying in a Paris hotel room in a yellow bathrobe. From the state of the room—very, very lived in, to say the least—it is instantly apparent that he has been there for a while. After calling down to the front desk for a grilled cheese, he receives an unexpected phone call that sets him on edge. The feminine, sultry, somewhat disinterested voice on the other end asks him what room he’s in, and, after he grudgingly gives its owner the number, the same voice tells him she’ll be over in thirty minutes.

Jack springs up from the bed, and starts frantically cleaning the room and himself. By the time the voice and its owner arrive, Jack is all spruced up in a sleek suit and looks as uncomfortable as can be.

As it turns out, the voice belongs to Jack’s ex-girlfriend, played by Natalie Portman. Interestingly, she is nameless in this particular film, and remains so throughout The Darjeeling Limited, too.

(For sanity’s sake, let’s call her JEG. ‘Kay?)

Jack and JEG don’t actually talk all that much. But what they do say is so hurtful, so painful to hear, that it is enough. It is clear Jack still loves JEG, but that she is just using him. For example, though he responds to her statements, she doesn’t acknowledge what he has just said. Instead, she talks at at him, mechanically, without emotion.

A bit predictably, they end up in bed together. Jack remarks on the bruises he finds on JEG’s body—and they are everywhere; she really does look brutalized—but she does not respond to his questions about them. And when he asks if she has been with anyone else, she pauses for a very long time before saying, “No.”

(A pretty obvious link to the bruises, but since I like the film so much, I’m willing to let it go. This time.)

They never have sex on screen—I can’t bring myself to say “make love”—and I was personally glad of it. Given the level of emotional pain their exchanges were meant to inflict, I can only imagine what sex would have been like.

(I’m not kidding:
JEG: “Whatever happens in the end, I don’t want to lose you as my friend.”
Jack: “I promise I will never be your friend. No matter what. Ever.”

Yeah.)

Moving back from the pain of the words for a moment, the dialogue itself was extremely substantive. From the few back-and-forths they have throughout the film, their story emerges. And that’s one of the marks of a very well-done short. Like a short story, a short film must build a plot in a relatively short period of time, and shorts that rely mainly on backstory are the hardest to build: They don’t get the luxury of flashbacks or time.

But it is not just the dialogue that helps to establish the situation and the story. It is also the actors’ body language. And this is where Portman and Schwartzman shine. However, this is not to say that either Schwartzman’s or Portman’s acting is stellar, or even spectacular. In an interesting reversal of the usual, it is the film that actually supports the actors and their styles.
Now, I’ve never really been a fan of Portman’s acting, but, in this case, her particular style is suited to the character. In my eyes, Portman has never really been able to convey the sense of “getting into” her characters, and this shallow acting works in that her character is not an especially deep person, and is clearly out for herself. So the “out of touch” feeling I usually get from Portman actually supports her role in this film, and makes the story stronger as a whole. Schwartzman, for his part, is a good actor. Not extraordinary, but good. And good is all this film needs. His somewhat restrained gestures and movements around Portman’s character at once convey a sense of dread and tired, hateful love, and are only enhanced by his small, somewhat monotone voice.

The first time I saw this film, I didn’t see The Darjeeling Limited afterwards. But it didn’t matter. As I said in the beginning, Hotel Chevalier can stand on its own. In fact, part of me wishes it hadn’t been a companion to The Darjeeling Limited, as it is a far superior film. Hotel Chevalier needs no follow-up. It is beautiful alone.

In solidarity,

Film Bitch