The dog days of an insufferable summer are barking hoarsely to an end, the cartoons and aliens are on their way to the video stores, the kids are safely back where they belong in classroom bondage, and the fall promises headier stuff. Armed with notebooks, ballpoint pens, and a fresh supply of No-Doz and Murine, I’m off to my annual out-of-body experience at the Toronto International Film Festival. In my absence, the marquees will change. Here are a few new movies to watch for.
Considering the deplorable way things are going at the movies in general, and the dearth of roles for mature women in particular, a boy like moi is lucky to catch even one of his favorite actresses above the title of anything on the screen today. Imagine my joy to find two of them together at the same time! Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon are an inspired dream team in a riot called The Banger Sisters . They are riper, looser and dreamier than ever.
To lure these A-list glitter-moths back to the cinematic flame, you’d need a challenging and totally original idea, and Vancouver writer-director Bob Dolman has come up with a honey. In the days of rock ‘n’ roll groupies, a pair of crazy, carefree gal pals named Suzette (Ms. Hawn) and Vinnie (Ms. Sarandon) were the queens of the good-time girls-two stage-door sluts who screwed every stoned freak with an electric guitar between his legs, a marathon of sexual endurance which inspired Frank Zappa to nickname them “the Banger sisters.”
The label made them legends. But times change, like music, values and lives. It’s been more than 20 years since they’ve seen or even corresponded with each other. Vinnie is now Lavinia, a respectable suburban matron in pearls and perfect pastels, a pillar of the community living like Martha Stewart in a swanky house in Scottsdale, Ariz., with a golden retriever, two teenage daughters and a rich lawyer husband running for political office. Lavinia has successfully deleted all traces of Vinnie from her data base and would like to forget the past, while Suzette still knocks herself cross-eyed trying to relive it.
Suzette is an over-the-hill hippie with tattoos, brio, hair spray and Talking Heads records-a flamboyant farrago of outdated fuchsia. Suzette still digs big hair, Country Joe and the Fish, and cocktails with bamboo umbrellas sticking out of pineapple slices. Her proudest claim to fame is the night Jim Morrison passed out underneath her while “in the act.” But if Suzette is kind of desperate and sad, Vinnie is even more delusional. Far removed from the long-ago wild and crazy life, one broad needs a bit less of the past to put the future in its proper perspective, while the other one needs a little more of it to put some fun into the present. It’s time for a reunion.
Broke and unemployed, the dishy Suzette piles into the blue jalopy she calls “the Shitbox” and heads for Arizona to borrow a few thousand from her old sidekick. On the road to enlightenment, she picks up a nervous, anal-retentive nerd on his way to Phoenix to murder his father. This third cog in the wheel is brilliantly played in the Peter Sellers tradition by a hilarious Geoffrey Rush. The culture clash is instantaneous: When Goldie Hawn, in her tiger-skin pedal pushers and purple tank tops, invades the suburban world of ritzy white columns and spacious green lawns, freaking out Susan Sarandon in her tailored Barbara Bush ensembles the color of a Greyhound bus station, the laughs are guaranteed.
But The Banger Sisters is also poignant and thoughtful, with real dialogue and character development. In her frazzled, tacky way, Suzette is the one who turns out to have the logic and the integrity. In her own symmetrically dysfunctional way, Vinnie is the one whose perfect life turns out to be a mess, whose husband takes her for granted and whose daughters have serious problems of their own. Poor Geoffrey Rush just needs some Viagra. Before it’s over, Suzette liberates them all. She crashes Vinnie out of her beige cocoon, and they stage one last mutiny as middle-aged disco dollies-only to discover that, at their age, things are definitely not the same. Vinnie appears to have it all, but she’s lost herself along the way. Suzette hasn’t got two quarters to rub together, but despite her breast implants and a wardrobe even Tina Turner wouldn’t be caught dead in, she can still teach a few old dogs some new tricks. By the end, everyone learns that it doesn’t matter how you live your life; it’s how true you are to yourself that counts. Suzette probably can’t count to 10, but like Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday , she knows the value of freedom to the human heart.
The film’s three Oscar-winning stars shine like Christmas ornaments. Mr. Rush is a major comic discovery as a doofus who turns his own life around after one night in Goldie’s hotel sheets. Ms. Hawn’s hoarse giggle, twitching lips and big gumdrop eyes make Suzette a tomato to die for. (It makes me sick to think of the vivid, vivacious roles Hollywood never asked her to play; what rapture it would have been to see her tackle Born Yesterday , Sweet Charity or Chicago .) Ms. Sarandon is a crisp counterpart to Goldie’s bona fide dingaling charm, balancing their duet with pragmatism, polish and moo-cow eyes. They’re two sides of the same coin, fresh from Fort Knox and ready to spin. (Opens Sept. 20.)
A Preppy’s Lost Illusions
Igby Goes Down , a dark, quirky and relentlessly fascinating first feature by the promising director Burr Steers, takes a fresh, insightful look at an old familiar movie staple: dysfunctional WASP’s and their tortured, overeducated and precociously rebellious offspring. From John Frankenheimer’s All Fall Down to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People , right down to more recent entries like The Royal Tenenbaums and Tadpole , the movies have an enduring obsession with telling stories about the angst-ridden preppie teens of dysfunctional families, but no one has told one better than Mr. Steers, and it’s been a long time since the screen has produced a more charmingly muddled or more consistently interesting kid than 17-year-old Jason (Igby) Slocumb. Smartly and sarcastically played by Kieran Culkin, Igby is Holden Caulfield on Special K.
The old adage that money and privilege can’t buy happiness is an outmoded and simplistic supposition that is often easily disproved. But in Igby’s case, a lifetime of rejection has produced battle wounds. The ennui and insecurity derived from a cold Connecticut childhood and family experiences that are anything but unconventional have left him understandably nervous, distracted and high-strung. Dad (Bill Pullman) showed early signs of schizophrenia by appearing nude at the family dinner table and has now been locked away in a rest home for distinguished breakdowns that is draining the family of its old inherited money. Mom (Susan Sarandon) is a pill-popping hypochondriac who is slowly dying of breast cancer. Handsome older brother Oliver (Ryan Phillippe) is a materialistic conservative majoring in economics at Columbia who regards his younger sibling as a cruel trick of biological fate and a royal pain in the ass. (“If Gandhi had spent any prolonged amount of time with you, he would have kicked the living shit out of you!”)
Everyone is so self-absorbed they’ve ignored Igby all of his life. Kicked out of prep schools, a military academy and a drug-rehab clinic for majoring in attitude, Igby finally stages his own declaration of independence and goes on the lam in Manhattan with his mother’s credit card. A rich kid out of control in the bohemian underworld quickly finds a lot of fast company, including a cynical Bennington girl with a semester off (Claire Danes) and a wealthy godfather (Jeff Goldblum) with a house in the Hamptons, a wife Igby describes as “no longer the sharpest tool in the shed,” and a drug-dealing mistress (Amanda Peet) who betrays them all.
Igby is the camera that records their quirks and their barbs, while bopping his way through fields of drugs, false values, insanity, one mercy fuck and, eventually, even a mercy killing. Inevitably, Igby must go down, smashing into a brick wall of disillusionment and the death of idealism, and when it happens, it’s heartbreaking.
I won’t reveal the details or share the specifics. I don’t want to risk dissuading prospective ticket-buyers from the perceptive and engaging experience that awaits them. I can tell you the magnetic cast is uniformly thrilling, and the sometimes-disturbing events that shape Igby’s lost illusions are always leavened by Burr Steers’ meticulous direction and witty writing. He’s a director worth keeping an eye on. He can touch you deeply, then make you think and laugh at the same time. (Ms. Danes, upon meeting Mr. Phillippe, a beautiful lockjawed snob, for the first time: “So you’re the fascist brother.” Igby: “He prefers ‘Young Republican.’”) The lines just keep on coming, adding ballast and humor to Igby’s sad plight. The audience roared with surprise when someone laments the fate of a drag queen whose show has just flopped: “I told her Lorna Luft is just too obscure-people will think you’re just doing a bad Liza!”
I really loved this movie. If a kid this sensitive, appealing and deserving of attention goes down, I want to go down with him. (Opens Sept. 13.)
An Untold Holocaust Chapter
Shanghai Ghetto is a don’t-miss documentary about a hidden chapter in the history of shame, one that has never been told before. Produced and directed by Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann, and narrated by Martin Landau, it tells what happened in 1939 to thousands of Jews who fled Nazi Germany after all exit visas were denied and the doors of embassies everywhere (including America) were closed. As one survivor says: “The world didn’t give a damn.”
The only port that welcomed refugees without papers was Shanghai. The Chinese were in worse shape under Japanese rule than the Jews, so there was no anti-Semitism, no criticism and no questions asked. There was also no drinkable water, no toilets and no employment. Conditions were overcrowded, unsanitary and politically corrupt. But in the struggle to find temporary hospitals and communal kitchens, two different cultures merged with music, medicine and mutual respect, and out of nothing the resourceful Jewish outcasts created poetry, cabaret, boxing and soccer teams, and makeshift ways to earn money.
Things got worse when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and Japan and Germany became allies, and the occupation government began imprisoning both the Jews and the British who had helped them survive. Shanghai became a tug of war between two enemy nations and a military target for American bombers.
It is wrenching to see grown men and women revisit the ghetto where they lived as children piled 10 to a room, counting to see who could find the most bugs in their food. From family photos, interviews and action footage of the burning synagogues of Kristallnacht , up to the modern-day Shanghai where the Jewish ghetto remains unchanged, the Amins have constructed a wrenching dossier of mortgaged lives and surrendered dreams that cannot fail to render you speechless. Like all great films about a life you never knew existed, it offers much to absorb and even more to think about after the final frame. Arriving on the anniversary of 9/11, Shanghai Ghetto is a powerful, disturbing and eye-opening film about aggression and its aftermath that makes you doubly glad to be alive. (Opens Sept. 27.)