WHEN HARRY MET SALLY…

By Marc S. Sanders

Two years after my family and I moved from New Jersey to Florida, I was age 16 and still felt lonely. Very lonely.  I was not prepared for the culture shock of leaving a primarily Jewish community and transitioning into a mixed bag of different cultures and mentalities.  I couldn’t adjust and the only people I could understand in 1989 were Batman, Indiana Jones and Harry & Sally.

The script written for When Harry Met Sally… focuses on the title characters adjusting to life in the decade following college graduation, where their paths cross periodically and they debate the aftermath of Casablanca, as well as what it means to sleep with someone or not.  More importantly, they are often returning their attention to whether a man and a woman can be friends without any temptation for love or intimacy, no matter how attractive they find each other to be.  Boy oh boy, that’s a loaded observation, isn’t it?  It is so consuming that as close as Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) become with one another as best friends, no matter how many people they date, they still couldn’t be any lonelier.  At the time, I could understand their dilemma.  I had a terrible crush on a girl at school. We were close friends who could laugh with each other.  Yet, I never took it to the next step.  I should have asked her to the homecoming dance in our sophomore year.  I really should have.  The risk, though, is the change in the comfortable dynamic we had.  I didn’t want to lose that.  Harry and Sally are attractive to one another.  Rob Reiner includes great close ups of the two actors looking at each other, wondering who is going to make the first move.  Will they bring this relationship to a new level?  It may never happen.  It didn’t for the girl I thought I could fall in love with.  At least Harry and Sally had each other’s shoulders to cry on. I adore this film, directed by Rob Reiner, because I yearned for what they had in friendship first, and as a relationship second.

Sally and Harry couldn’t be any different.  He is of the mindset that any woman he encounters is destined to be slept with, or more simply put, men and women could never be friends because at the bare minimum, men are thinking about sleeping with every woman they come across.  Sally can’t understand that, but when Harry shares his philosophy with her the first time they meet, while on an 18-hour drive from the University of Chicago to New York City, she can’t help but suspect that it just might be possible.

The two depart from one another to start their new lives in the big city, and come across each other five years after that on a flight they inadvertantly share, and then another five years later when they are given an opportunity to catch up on their relationship status.  In present day, 1988, Sally has just broken up with her longtime boyfriend.  Harry has gotten a divorce.  Ephron has written these characters to ultimately need one another.

When Harry Met Sally… is certainly a comedy, but more than likely it’s because Billy Crystal’s quick wit and delivery comes off familiar from his other career accomplishments.  Meg Ryan works beautifully as a scene partner that debates Harry’s cynical view of people with Sally’s natural positivity.  Their mentalities go in opposite directions, but the film continues to imply that these two couldn’t be more perfect for one another.  Chalk that up to Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal’s chemistry.  They are one of the all-time great on-screen couples.  These two actors are my friends.  I want it to work out for them.  When I saw the film three times in the theatres, I wanted to experience what they experienced.  Their story has bumps in the road.  They get mad and upset with each other.  They debate with one another, but they amuse one another too, and what a romantic adventure they share together.

A terrific novelty of Reiner’s film is when he cuts away to elderly couples with rich histories of how they met and stay together for decades after.  We weren’t there to see these wonderful people kindle their relationships, but we’ll see how Harry and Sally come together.  I remember long ago, that my father told me that when you get married, make sure you are marrying your best friend.  He said love is important, but you have to like each other first.  I did marry my best friend and I like her.  I love her too.  We drive each other crazy.  We have very different interests.  We even live in our home differently, that we share with our daughter and dog, but we want to be with each other and no one else.  No one else factors.  When you watch When Harry Met Sally… you see why two people continue to be with each other, first as friends, and maybe as lovers later.  When you have a best friend in your life there’s no one else you want to laugh with or cry with more often than that person.  There’s no other hand you want to hold.

A brilliant midway scene in the film occurs when Harry and Sally have the misguided idea of setting up their other best friends with each other.  Harry’s buddy Jess (Bruno Kirby) may be a good fit for Sally.  They are both writers, after all.  Sally’s girlfriend Marie (Carrie Fisher) has a keen interest in conquering married men, not far off from how Harry routinely proceeds with one relationship after another by sleeping with the women he dates.  He’s not in love with them, but of course he’ll sleep with them.  The irony comes when both Harry and Sally could never fathom that Jess and Marie find each other attractive, not the ones they were originally intended for.

There’s much heightened romanticism to When Harry Met Sally… I won’t claim it to be very realistic with how life works out for many of us.  Look at the famous deli scene where Meg Ryan demonstrates for Crystal’s character that a woman can convincingly fake an orgasm.  It’s a hilarious scene.  One for the ages.  However, a scene like that wouldn’t happen.  If a scene like that did occur in real life, the woman would be asked to leave the premises immediately.  It’s not the point though. 

Love and happiness should consist of elevating ourselves to a delightful fantasy of joy, affection and laughter.  Love should also guide us to carry our best friends through sadness and frustration.  We can’t survive this challenge, we call life, alone.  I realized that first hand when my innocent, naïve and unsure teenage self watched the movie for the first time all those years ago at the Mission Bell movie theatre in Tampa. 

People need someone to grow with.  We need someone to continue to teach us while we teach them in return.  Most importantly, as it becomes a running theme in When Harry Met Sally…, we need someone to kiss at midnight every New Year’s Eve. 

TOP GUN

By Marc S. Sanders

For a movie that focuses a lot on showers, men’s locker rooms and bare chested sweaty and chiseled volleyball players, it’s a wonder that it is called Top Gun.  Maybe the title has another indirect meaning to it, other than a moniker for a Navy fighter pilot school of the elite.  Maybe these guys are elite for a different reason.

The Tony Scott film that is supposedly about the top one percent, the best of the best, American fighter pilots in the Navy is arguably the most important film in Tom Cruise’s career.  It launched the actor into a superstar sensation that has hardly faltered since the movie’s release all the way back in 1986.  But is it a good movie?  Well, yes and no.

I’ve always loved Tony Scott’s filmmaking technique.  Sure, his sun-soaked film shots are constantly repeated.  He always relishes in enhancing the beaded glow of sweat drenching his actor’s faces, arms and chests.  It’s seen in nearly every moment of Top Gun, as well as other celebrated pictures like Crimson Tide, Beverly Hills Cop II and True Romance.  Orange sunlight blankets palm trees and beach lined streets.  Bar saloons and military headquarters are lit in sexy blues and greens.  It may lack originality after seeing a few of his films, but it just makes the movie all the more sexy. 

Tony Scott is also a well-versed director in action sequences.  He’ll get your pulse racing and Top Gun is the best example.  The fighter jet sequences in this film are masterful in editing, sound and speed.  It’s fantastic to see how the planes will twirl around and then shoot themselves straight up into a vertical trajectory in the sky and finally cut in on actors Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer for a “WOO!” moment in the cockpit.  This stuff still holds up.

Yet, unlike other modern-day films that focus on cadets or students in our armed forces, Top Gun doesn’t concern itself with the discipline of what it takes to serve in the Navy.  This is the informal, class clown version of An Officer And A Gentleman.  You only need look as far as Tom Cruise’s character’s pilot call name, Maverick.  The name itself is a one-word thematic description of what you are watching.  So, the kid who learned to say “what the fuck” in Risky Business, went on to do daredevil flybys while disobeying orders.

Maverick’s real name is Pete Mitchell.  He has no family except that of his co-pilot, Goose (Anthony Edwards).  The disappearance of his Navy pilot father remains a mystery…because it is sexy and cool to have a mystery for your handsome hero in a film like this.  Call it DRAMATIC HEFT!!!! 

When Maverick and Goose get the opportunity to attend “Top Gun” – a fighter school specializing in training the best pilots in the world in aerial dog fighting – they are intent on getting their names on the plaque for the best of the best of THE BEST.  Competition comes in the other prettiest of the pretty boys with Iceman (Val Kilmer).  These are all great likable characters.  Yet, even when I saw this film at sleepaway camp at age 13, I couldn’t help but notice how distracted it gets with the abundance of erotic machoism on display here.  What would serve as dramatic dialogue in another film is presented in a steam room area allowing opportunity to see the male cast wrapped in towels around their waists with wet spiky blond and black hair.  It truly doesn’t matter what they are talking about in this scene.  When you are watching it, all that you are hearing is the sound of Charlie Brown’s unseen and indecipherable school teacher.  “Waa waa.  Waa waa waa waa!”

That’s not enough though.  The infamous volleyball scene keeps you awake.  I don’t care if you are hetero or homo or bi or pan or plus, the beach volleyball scene keeps you alert as one of Kenny Loggins’ many movie songs plays in accordance.  Tony Scott doesn’t just go for tossing the ball around.  Slow mo captions are offered of each guy just posing with their chiseled arms and chests.  You may not take your eyes off of it, but oh my…what does this have to do with the discipline of attending Navy fighter pilot school training?????

The romance is second to none.  Truly!  These days, people talk about Jack and Rose in Titanic or Ross and Rachel on Friends.  For me, it’s Maverick and Charlie (Kelly McGillis).  Cruise and McGillis really light up their scenes together.  It’s an absolute perfect pairing of sex appeal and it is really when Top Gun performs at its smartest level.  The dialogue is strongest during their scenes.  The romance isn’t rushed but nicely flirted with, and when tragedy strikes within the thin storyline of the overall film, the relationship goes in another supportive and appreciated direction.  When I was a kid, with hormones being discovered for the first time, my buddies and I would elbow each other during the midnight blue sex scene between McGillis and Cruise with the Oscar winning song “Take My Breath Away” from Berlin playing.  I look at this scene now and it is modern romance at a beautiful best.  A fantastic scene from Tony Scott. 

Charlie is the unexpected, well-versed contractor for the Navy giving counsel to the pilot students on how best to operate the jets.  In the 1980s, action blockbusters normally held the women as the barely dressed damsels to be rescued, and nothing more.  The female characters didn’t have brains and the only brawn to go around was saved for Princess Leia or Marion Ravenwood (Raiders).  Charlie is an exception though.  McGillis plays the character as someone who is aware that these testosterone-filled guys will regard her as a piece of meat, until they realize otherwise.  The irony of Top Gun is that the nearly all male cast, Cruise included, are the pieces of meat.  The one main female role is actually the brains of the whole operation.  McGillis was a marvelous actress back in the day.  Go look at Witness and The Accused to see what I mean.  With her help, Cruise elevates above the hokey dialogue of the Top Gun script. Kelly McGillis really could act well in almost anything.  I wish her career went further, honestly. 

Top Gun remains a mainstay in 1980s pop culture.  If the VH1 channel is doing a documentary on the decade of Madonna, Michael Jackson, parachute pants and neon pastels, Top Gun is also brought up in the mix with a close up of Tom Cruise’s toothy grin and his aviator sunglasses.  We were never watching Oscar winning material here, but somehow the film that introduced all of us to Tom Cruise still feels like a day at the beach with the twenty something boy toy in his tight jeans and leather bomber jacket riding his Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle at top speed or breaking the sound barrier in his fighter jet with his shiny navy-blue helmet on his head.  Top Gun and Tom Cruise demonstrated that it’s a party to serve in the Navy.  Why not?  Vietnam was behind us and the decade was not embroiled in war.  Join the Navy!!!!  It’s fun and you get to shower with the best-looking guys in the world.  You’ll even get to play volleyball with them and date your sexy flight instructor.

A lot of the dialogue and the storyline may sound like an adult, military interpretation of Saved By The Bell, but you can’t break away from the sexy allure of what Tony Scott with Cruise, Kilmer, McGillis and Edwards put on the screen.  It’s always been there and somehow a sequel was never made. 

Wait a second!  WHAT??????

KATE & LEOPOLD

By Marc S. Sanders

Fish out of water stories will always be told. Kate & Leopold directed by James Mangold reminded me of the New York City based romantic comedy Big, which was a better variation on that formula.

In Kate & Leopold, Hugh Jackman portrays the second title character also known as the Duke of Albany in the year 1876, and apparently the eventual inventor of the elevator. One night, he pursues a curious fellow who is attending an evening ball designed to find a bride for Leopold. The man runs and Leopold gives chase into the rain where they find themselves hanging from scaffolding of what will become the Brooklyn Bridge, designed by-you guessed it-Leopold. The moment of suspense ends with Leopold accompanying the fellow named Stuart (a very miscast Liev Schrieber) into present day New York; a New York unfamiliar to Leopold where manners of grace and elegance have gone out the window and you’re expected to pick up your dog’s poop following a walk.

Let’s get this out of the way, quick. Stuart has uncovered time travel. How does it work? Who cares? Move along.

Stuart’s ex-girlfriend and downstairs neighbor is played by the late 20th century staple resident of the Big Apple movies, Meg Ryan. She’s the Kate of the film’s title. Just like other romantic comedies of this nature, Kate is tense and stressed and trying to land a big account where she’s looking for the right spokesperson for a new butter spread commercial. You think Leopold, in his signature 19th century outfit, may fit the bill? I’m thinking you guessed correctly.

What else do you think happens? Yeah. You’re right. Kate and Leopold start to fall in love.

I grew tired of Kate & Leopold for a few reasons. There’s a side story meant for some slapstick kind of humor where Stuart, who is the “Doc Brown” of this picture, falls down an elevator shaft only to be relegated to a mental ward where he struggles to get in touch with the leads to explain what must be done from here. C’mon!!! A patient in a hospital should be able to make a lousy phone call.

Two, as Leopold romances Kate as well as coaches her brother (Breckin Meyer) in the ways of romance, how does he manage to find the financial resources for a violinist or the decor he uses to uphold his manners of refine? Reader, if I’m occupying myself with these trivial questions, then what do you think might be wrong here?

Chemistry!

Most importantly, the chemistry between Ryan and Jackman seems way off. I didn’t believe for a second these two were falling in love with one another. They speak two different variations of English and while Leopold is a man of great chivalry, I never found a moment in the film where he would be captivated by the modern-day Kate. What did Kate do anywhere in this picture that swept him off his feet? For Kate, when did she fall in love with Leopold? She’s hardly giving him the time of day and he’s really only a convenient opportunity to rescue her big account, but that’s not love for me. That’s not romance. That’s, at best, discovery. Like finding the next big talent or gimmick. If this is what love is, then who fell in love with Mr. Clean and how many years is the Jolly Green Giant married now? Did the Kool-Aid Man find his betrothed when he smashed through her kitchen wall?

In Big, director Penny Marshall found opportunities for the Elizabeth Perkins character to stop and look at the 12-year-old character version of Tom Hanks. Because she stopped and looked, she then still felt comfortable in her own skin. Hanks’ kid like character develops a first crush. A first crush may not be love, but to a 12-year-old, nothing is more confusing or self-occupying.

In Mangold’s film which he co-wrote with Steve Rogers, Leopold admits early on that he’s never been in love. Where’s the weight of his emotions here? I never uncovered those moments between the characters of Kate & Leopold, while a film like Big devoted a wealth of attention to it.

As well, like I said earlier, I could not take my mind off figuring out how Leopold is paying for this elegant rooftop dinner. Where did he get the money, in New York City, to pay for all this?

Know what Tom Hanks did in Big? He got a job!