4 Film Reviews: Bridge To Silence, The Chocolate War, Kiss The Bride, Wedding Daze

Last week, I watched six films on This TV.

Which TV?  No, This TV!  It’s one of my favorite channels.  It’s not just that they show a lot of movies.  It’s also that they frequently show movies that are new to me.  For instance, last week, This TV introduced me to both Prison Planet and Cherry 2000.

Here are four other films, two good and two not so good, that This TV introduced to me last week.

First up, we have 1989’s Bridge to Silence.

Directed by Karen Arthur, Bridge To Silence was a made-for-TV movie.  Lee Remick plays Marge Duffield, who has a strained relationship with her deaf daughter, Peggy (Marlee Matlin).  After Peggy’s husband is killed in a traffic accident, Peggy has a nervous breakdown.  Marge and her husband, Al (Josef Sommer) take care of Peggy’s daughter, Lisa, while Peggy is recovering.  However, even as Peggy gets better, Marge still doesn’t feel that she can raise her daughter so Marge files a lawsuit to be named Lisa’s legal guardian.  While all of this is going on, Peggy is starring in a college production of The Glass Menagerie and pursuing a tentative romance with the play’s director (Michael O’Keefe).

Bridge to Silence is one of those overwritten but heartfelt melodramas that just doesn’t work.  With the exception of Marlee Matlin, the cast struggles with the overwrought script.  (Michael O’Keefe, in particular, appears to be miserable.)  The film’s biggest mistake is that it relies too much on that production of The Glass Menagerie, which is Tennessee Williams’s worst play and tends to be annoying even when it’s merely used as a plot device.  There’s only so many times that you can hear the play’s director refer to Peggy as being “Blue Roses” before you just want rip your hair out.

Far more enjoyable was 1988’s The Chocolate War.

Directed by Keith Gordon, The Chocolate War is a satirical look at conformity, popularity, rebellion, and chocolate at a Catholic boys school.  After the manipulative Brother Leon accidentally purchases too much chocolate for the school’s annual sale, he appeals to one of his students, Archie Costello (Wallace Langham), to help him make the money back.  Archie, who is just as manipulative as Leon, is the leader of a secret society known as the Vigils.  However, Archie and Leon’s attempt to manipulate the students runs into a roadblack when a new student, Jerry Renault (Illan Mitchell-Smith) refuses to sell any chocolates at all.  From there, things get progressively more complicated as Archie tries to break Jerry, Jerry continues to stand up for his freedom, and Leon … well, who knows what Leon is thinking?

The Chocolate War was an enjoyable and stylish film, one that featured a great soundtrack and a subtext about rebellion and conformity that still feels relevant.  John Glover and Wallace Langham both gave great performances as two master manipulators.

I also enjoyed the 2002 film, Kiss The Bride.

Kiss The Bride tells the story of a big Italian family, four sisters, and a wedding.  Everyone brings their own personal drama to the big day but ultimately, what matters is that family sticks together.  Directed by Vanessa Parise, Kiss The Bride featured believable and naturalistic performances from Amanda Detmer, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Brooke Langton, Monet Mazur, and Parise herself.

I have to admit that one reason why I liked this film is because it was about a big Italian family and it featured four sisters.  I’m the youngest of four sisters and, watching the film, I was reminded of my own big Irish-Italian family.  The movie just got everything right.

And then finally, there was 2006’s Wedding Daze.

Wedding Daze is a romantic “comedy.”  Anderson (Jason Biggs) asks his girlfriend to marry him, just to have her drop dead from shock.  Anderson’s best friend is afraid that Anderson will never get over his dead girlfriend and begs Anderson to not give up on love.  Anderson attempts to humor his friend by asking a complete stranger, a waitress named Katie (Isla Fisher), to marry him.  To everyone’s shock, Katie says yes.

From the get go, there are some obvious problems with this film’s problem.  Even if you accept that idea that Katie would say yes to Anderson, you also have to be willing to accept the idea that Anderson wouldn’t just say, “No, I was just joking.”  That said, the idea does have some comic potential.  You could imagine an actor like Cary Grant doing wonders with this premise in the 30s.  Unfortunately, Jason Biggs is no Cary Grant and the film’s director, comedian Michael Ian Black, is no Leo McCarey.  In the end, the entire film is such a misjudged failure that you can’t help but feel that Anderson’s ex was lucky to die before getting too involved in any of it.

Shattered Politics #65: Election (dir by Alexander Payne)

Election_1999filmLast year, when I did my series of Back to School reviews, it somehow slipped my mind to review Alexander Payne’s 1999 comedy, Election.  Don’t ask me how I managed to do that.  Election, after all, is one of the greatest high school films ever made.  Not only does it feature Reese Witherspoon’s best performance (or, at least, it was her best performance up until the release of Wild) but it also features Ferris Bueller himself, Matthew Broderick, as the type of teacher who regularly inspired Ferris to skip school.  Trust me — when I realized that I had managed to review Cavegirl while somehow ignoring Election, I was mortified.

But then, a few months later, I decided to do Shattered Politics and review 94 films about politics and politicians.  And it occurred to me that Election may have been a high school film but it was also a political satire.  Add to that, it’s totally plausible that Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick will someday end up running for President.

That certainly seems to be the concern of Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) in Election.  When he learns that Tracy is planning on running for student body president, Jim is concerned.  Tracy is an overachiever.  Tracy is the type of student who always raises her hand in class and who always has the right answer.  Tracy is the type of student that tends to drive other students crazy.  As Jim puts it, if Tracy is elected Student Body President, who knows where it will end?

Of course. Jim has other reasons for disliking Tracy.  Earlier in the year, for instance, Tracy was seduced by Jim’s fellow teacher and best friend, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik).  When Tracy’s mother (played by Colleen Camp) discovered the affair, Dave was forced to retire and was subsequently divorced.  When Tracy mentions that if she’s elected President, that means she and Jim will be working closely together, Jim panics.  Jim thinks that Tracy will try to seduce him and he knows that he would be too weak to resist.  Instead, Jim would rather have an affair Dave’s ex-wife (Delaney Driscoll) while trying unsuccessfully to get his own wife (Molly Hagan) pregnant.

So, of course, Jim decides to recruit Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her.  Paul is a simple-minded but sweet-natured jock who, as the result of breaking his leg while skiing, has become something of a school martyr.  As soon as Paul announces that he’s running, his cynical little sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) also announces that she’s running, despite the fact that she hates school and thinks that idea of student government is a joke.  Tammy’s main motivation is that her ex-girlfriend, Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia) has announced that she was just “experimenting” and is now dating Paul and managing his campaign.

Got all that?

As the campaign plays out, Jim is panicked to discover that, while Paul may be popular, he’s also amazingly inarticulate and really doesn’t seem to care whether he wins or not.  Meanwhile, Tammy announces that her first action as president will be to destroy the student government.  However, Jim then has reason to believe that Tracy destroyed some campaign signs (mostly because Tracy did) and he comes up with a plan to get her disqualified from the ballot.

Except, of course, it’s not that easy to get rid of Tracy Flick…

One of the things that always amuses me about TV shows set in high school is that they almost always feature an absurdly powerful student council.  Remember that episode of Boy Meets World where Topanga is elected president because she gives a speech about how somebody has to do something about the mold in the cafeteria?  That’s the fantasy view of the student council.  The reality is that, when I was in high school, the student council was something that, whenever we remembered that it actually existed, we all laughed about.

(One of the great things about Degrassi is that it’s one of the few teen shows to acknowledge that the student council has no power.  Considering that the current President of the Degrassi Student Council is Drew Torres, that’s probably for the best.)

But here’s the thing — we all knew someone like Tracy Flick.  We all knew someone who took things like the student council very seriously and who would always get very angry whenever the rest of us showed less reverence for school institutions.  And, in retrospect, you almost have to feel sorry for her because what she never understood was that devotion to the rules and hard work really don’t mean much in either high school or college.  The genius of Reese Witherspoon’s performance is that she brings to life a character that we all know and then, at the same time, makes her a unique human being.  In the role of Tracy, Witherspoon allows us to understand what motivated the girls who always used to get on our nerves.

And then, of course, there’s Matthew Broderick.  Broderick starts out as a glibly self-confident character just to end the film as something of a twisted gargoyle, unshaven because he’s been sleeping in his car and, as the result of a bee sting, a frightfully swollen eye.  By the end of the film, Jim has essentially been destroyed by his fear and obsessive hatred of one student.  Broderick is not exactly playing a sympathetic character here but it’s still a compelling performance because it confirms everything that I always suspected about all of my teachers — i.e., that they specifically and targeted certain students and that most of them were motivated by jealousy.

Thank you, Election, for letting me know that I was right!

Back to School #62: Elephant (dir by Gus Van Sant)

Gus Van Sant’s dream-like 2003 film Elephant is not an easy film to review.  Working with a non-professional cast and avoiding any easy answers or traditional narrative tricks (and indeed, the film ends with the fates of most of the characters still unknown), Elephant is ultimately a disturbing and nightmarish film.  It’s also an important film, one that examines the violence that runs through our current culture.

I’m one of the lucky ones.  I managed to get through all 12 years of my public education without ever getting shot at.  There’s quite a few people my age who can’t make the same claim.  I’d be lying if I said that I spent a lot of time in school obsessing over whether or not someone was going to start shooting but now, when I look back, I sometimes wonder how close I may have come.  One of the scarier things about the typical profile of school shooter is that we’ve all known somebody who fits it.  Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder if I just got lucky.  Maybe the guy who was planning on shooting up my school couldn’t get his hands on a gun.  Maybe, at the last moment, he changed his mind and decided to leave his gun in his locker instead of taking it out before the start of second period.  We come into contact with thousands of people over the course of our lives and we can never for sure what any of them are truly thinking or planning.

According to Wikipedia, there were a dozen school shootings in the U.S. during the time I was in high school.  Thankfully, none of them happened at my high school but, as I looked over the list, I couldn’t help but wonder why my classmates and I were spared the trauma of random violence while the students at Rocori High School in Cold Springs, Missouri were not.  Were we somehow better or more deserving than the students at Rocori?  Had they done something wrong or had we done something right?  Why were they forced to deal with violence while I was spared?  It all just seems so random.

And that’s the terrifying thing about random violence — it is, in the end, all so random.  We always tend to look for explanations afterward.  We try to assign blame and we try to come up with a reason because we know that, if we can explain random violence, then we can do something about it.  But, far too often, there are no reasons.

Elephant perfectly captures this randomness.  The film’s ensemble of characters spend what for many of them will be their final hours randomly wandering through their high school and their lives. Three mean girls eat lunch and then duck into toilet stalls where all three of them proceed to throw up.  John (John Robinson) searches for his drunk father (Timothy Bottoms) who may be wandering around the campus.  Awkward Michelle (Kristen Hicks) goes from her gym class to the library, little aware that she will soon be the first to be confronted by the gunmen.  Once the shooting starts, silent jock Bennie (Bennie Dixon) walks through the body-strewn halls, a potential hero until he is randomly shot.  The film is full of flash forwards and flashbacks, in which we see Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Duelen) planning their rampage and we’re given clues as to their motives but we’re not given any answers.

Perhaps most memorable of all, at least to me, is the character of Eli (Elias McConnell), an aspiring photographer who gets one picture of Alex and Eric as they enter the library.  Up until that moment, the entire film has pretty much centered on Eli.  We’ve gotten to know him.  We’ve come to like him.  And yet, when Eli is shot, it happens almost as an afterthought.  One minute, he’s standing in the background and the next moment, he’s gone.  And we’re left to wonder if he survived or if it was even him who got shot.  Ultimately, what we realize is that, in that one split second, Eli ceased to be.  Even if he does survive being shot, he’ll never be the same person we saw earlier.  Even if he wasn’t shot, he’ll always be one of the students who went to that school.  In the end, we may have cared about Eli but none of that could stop the random violence.

Elephant is not an easy film to watch but then again, it shouldn’t be.  (If you want to read a bunch of comments from some people who just don’t get it, you can go read the simple-minded comments that some of them have posted over on the movie’s page at the imdb.) Elephant is a dark and troubling film, one that gave me nightmares after I saw it.  It’s a film so effective and powerful that one viewing is more than enough.

(Incidentally, one of Elephant‘s credited producers was JT Leroy, the pen name of Laura Albert whose books inspired a similarly difficult but powerful film, Asia Argento’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Else.)