Ok, Fine, I Watched It: “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Drive”

Despite my better efforts, there are some huge gaps in my film-watching repertoire. Gaps which, since 90% of my friends are just as film-nerdy as I, I am constantly given sh*t for. Which I super deserve. So, with summer in full swing, I’ve decided to get to work on catching up on these gaps.

This week, I check out the 1982-iest film of all time, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, and 2011’s I-swear-to-god-If-you-ask-me-to-review-this-movie-one-more-time-I-f*cking-won’t, “Drive”.

FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH

Most films I watch, I can figure out pretty early on what kind of review score it’s going to get. “American Beauty” started out as a five star movie and ended as a five star movie. “Last Vegas” started as a two star movie and ended much the same. But, I have to say, I wasn’t quite sure what I thought of “Fast Times” until a good few minutes after the credits rolled. It flickered back and forth between goodness and greatness depending on the moment.

The film, based on the 1981 book of the same name by Cameron Crowe, was written by Crowe himself and directed by Amy Heckerling. I wanted to read the book before writing this review, but it’s apparently not available digitally, so screw that idea. Whatever, I’m not bitter. Anyway, the film follows an ensemble cast of teenagers and teachers including Sean Penn (Jeff Spicoli), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Stacy), Judge Reinhold (Brad), Robert Romanus (Mike), Brian Backer (Mark), Ray Walston (Mr. Hand), and just a whole bunch of other people. Seriously, If i were to print the entire cast list, it would fill out the word count I allot for these things. I am not even going to try to  summarize the plot in one sentence for this one, because this is basically “Stuff Happens to People: The Movie”. And yet, somehow, it doesn’t feel disjointed or splintered.

Let’s knock these plots out one by one, ‘kay? Brad is a high school senior contemplating dumping his longtime girlfriend. Over a short period of time, he loses his job and girlfriend and finds himself struggling to hold on to work. This plot line, while the least substantial of the film’s subplots, is mostly carried by Judge Reinhold, who sells his part with charm and likeability. Next we have stoner Jeff Spicoli and his anarchic battle with history teacher Mr. Hand. Ok, full disclosure, Mr. Hand, played by Ray Walston, is far and away my favorite character in the film. Yeah, I know, the favorite is supposed to be Spicoli, and don’t get me wrong, Penn absolutely nails his part as the human version of every Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and is impeccably memorable. But the subtlety to Walston’s performance, and the degree to which he is clearly sick of Penn’s sh*t was endlessly hilarious to me. And we’re supposed to dislike him because he’s a stickler for being on time and gives tests every week? Boo hoo, I had at least TWO classes like that in my junior year of high school alone. The last plot is also what I guess I’d call the main plot, following Stacy and Mark as they eventually get together after a year of struggle and awkward teenage confusion. I have to say, as much as I liked Stacy and Mark, I wasn’t as invested in their story as I probably should have been. And, even though large portions of this plot do focus on Mark, it really feels like Stacy’s story through and through. Which is probably for the best, as she’s the more interesting of the two.

I already talked about most of the important characters, but there are still a few more to run through. Mike Damone fills his role as “that a**hole you hung out with for some reason back in high school” perfectly, even if he does come off as extremely unlikeable. Also, I’m pretty sure all of his lines in the first three scenes are ADR’d, which bugged the hell out of me. Phoebe Cates plays Stacy’s more experienced friend Linda, who serves as a major plot-mover and key figure in arguably the film’s most iconic scene. Also, Vincent Schiavelli as science teacher Mr. Vargas is pretty great.

Speaking of the aforementioned Phoebe Cates scene, this film does not shy away from sex and nudity, allowing it to get across the story it wanted to tell far better than if it were a PG-13 modern teen comedy.  (And yes, I know the PG-13 rating wouldn’t exist for another two years after this film’s release, don’t be a Nitpicky Nancy). Allowing it that R rating gives this film the space and freedom to tackle high school life in an adult manor. The film itself, despite keeping incredibly upbeat and light throughout, does broach some serious subjects, but never feels like it’s trivializing them.

Lastly, let’s talk about the two things that pushed this movie over into greatness: the ending and the soundtrack. The ending, showing what happened to the entire cast in the several years following the events of the film is really funny and gives a great sense of closure. Something like that really is the only way to end a film with as large of a cast of characters as this one. And this film nails the landing with tact and humor. The other kernel of amazingness in this film is its soundtrack, which I bought immediately after the credits rolled. I have only done that for two movies before (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Guardians of the Galaxy). Hell, I’m still listening to the soundtrack right now as I write this. It’s 80’s-ness is infectious.  To be fair, that’s true of the whole movie.

Four out of five stars.

DRIVE

So, this one was a long time coming. Originally, I had planned to review the 1996 film “Drive” instead as a joke. At the last minute I decided against doing that, and instead had to shell out the three dollars to rent this thing off Google Play. And so, here I am, reviewing a film I never actually intended to review late at night the day before this posts. Let’s do this so I can go to sleep!

The film, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, was based on the book of the same name by James Sallis. Ahh, back to movies based on books this week, it feels like coming home. The film tells the story of a stunt driver turned getaway driver and his relationship with the woman living next door to him. The movie itself is super art house-y, alternating between slow personal drama and methodical violence. Seriously, if you’re looking for fast paced car porn like the Fast & Furious franchise, this isn’t it. Just warning you so you don’t try to sue the filmmakers over false advertising. That is not a joke. Someone did that. Guys, people are dumb.

So, the cast of this film is great enough that I wanted to talk about them first. Ryan Gosling plays “The Driver”, a very quiet, consummate professional who’s true feelings are kept tightly under wraps. Gosling does a good job of keeping the audience at arm’s reach, giving the film the sense of detachment it needs to flourish. In the film’s more violent scenes, he transforms into a mathematical killing machine in a way that is truly fascinating to behold. One thing though, can we be done with the whole “nameless main characters” thing? Ever since “Fight Club” it’s been oh so cool to leave your character’s name enshrouded in mystery, but it isn’t. It just makes people like me mad, because referring to Gosling as “The Driver” sounds super-dumb in this context. Give your characters names, dammit. Sorry. Next we have Bryan Cranston as Gosling’s boss and repair shop owner Shannon, a man who suffers from just the worst luck. Cranston is the bestest. Do I need to say more? It’s Bryan elfin’ Cranston, ’nuff said. Carey Mulligan plays Irene, Gosling’s next door neighbor. She does a good job with what she has to work with, but to be honest, her character isn’t super well developed. A lot of the time she’s just kinda there, and we never get a real insight into her character. Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks play the jewish mobsters Nino and Bernie, both terrifying in their own ways. Oh, and Oscar Isaac as Irene’s husband Standard is probably one of the most fleshed out characters in the film. He does a great job with the part, which should be no surprise to anyone who saw “Ex Machina”.

Since the film is ungodly light on dialogue, I figure I should focus on the story. But that’s really hard to do since a lot of the characters and plots don’t have throughlines. There’s some stuff about a stock car at one point that goes nowhere. Gosling and Mulligan don’t really have character arcs per se. The events are easy to follow and they hold weight, but this is definitely a “bunch of stuff happens to some people” kind of movie. Also, I really did want more of Gosling’s day/night jobs in the film. We get one scene of stunt driving and two scenes of getaway driving and the film could have easily accommodated more. And due to the very small amount of dialogue and ever-present soundtrack, the film is easily 30 percent music video.

This film is visually stunning. This goes on the “Pacific Rim” list of films I could be easily entertained by even on mute. And that’s not just because, as an LA resident, I get to play “hey, I know that street!”. The shot composition and direction is goddamn glorious. The shot towards the end of the film in which Gosling gazes through a window wearing a lifelike mask is haunting and foreboding in one stroke. The cinematography also goes a long way towards making this film worth viewing. Another major visual factor in this movie is the violence. This is one hundred percent not for the faint of heart. I mean, multiple skulls are obliterated within the running time. Christ, it’s like a piñata full of meat, ugh. Note that I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. In fact, the intense violence brutally punctuates the film. It’s slow, methodical, and oh so well done. Tough as hell to watch, but well done nonetheless.

Four out of five stars.

Next week, what am I going to review? “I don’t know”. I’d also quote something from “Drive” here, but I’m not sure how to phonetically type out the sound of a hammer breaking someone’s hand. ‘Til next time!

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