G.I. Blues

August 16, 2012 § 1 Comment

All this time I was heaping the blame for the turn Elvis’s career took on Blue Hawaii, it turns out that G.I. Blues deserves at least half the blame. Intending to capitalize on Elvis’s leaving the army in 1960, it was filmed almost immediately upon his return to the states and released some six months later. With Elvis as a singer-serviceman stationed in Germany who pursues a nightclub dancer–initially because of a bet, later because he starts falling for her–the film establishes a number of what will later become conventions of the Elvis Film:

  • Exotic setting, although the beaches are conspicuously missing here
  • Elvis is in the military
  • Elvis plans to become his own man after leaving the army, by opening a nightclub in his hometown
  • Elvis holds a combination singer-_____ job
  • Women can’t resist him, naturally
  • The obligatory bar fight
  • Elvis beats his rival in a competition–although contrary to later examples, this isn’t a physical competition but a girl-getting competition, as he wins a bet by snagging the girl that’s hard to get

While Elvis would go on to more serious acting roles after G.I. Blues, like Flaming Star and Wild in the Country, the box office returns were lower than they’d been for G.I. Blues, which prompted a re-evaluation of what had made Blues so successful . . . and led to another Blue movie, this time set in Hawaii.

Note: Today being the anniversary of Elvis’s death, you can catch his films on TCM all day. The concert doc Elvis on Tour kicks off the headliners, followed by Jailhouse Rock and Viva Las Vegas, starting at 8 EST.

In the Woods

July 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

My love/hate affair with mystery novels goes something like this: if I figure out the mystery before the detective does, I feel cheated, and if I don’t figure out the mystery before the detective does, I feel cheated. It’s a letdown either way. If I manage to unravel everything before the narrator does–especially if the narrator is intended to be supernaturally smart, like in Special Topics in Calamity Physics, or unnaturally perceptive, or just if, you know, it’s their job to do this kind of thing a la Rob in In the Woods–then the entire suspension of disbelief that the author has worked so hard to build up just collapses. Take In the Woods as an example–a book where I managed to predict the murderer from their first appearance on the scene, and the motives, accomplices, circumstances, et cetera before the book was halfway over. Is it any way believable that a beer-swilling Midwestern waitress like me could figure this out so quickly while the narrator–a cold-blooded murder squad detective–would take 400 pages to figure it out? If so, how does he still have a job?

On the other hand, because I have a raging ego and I do manage to predict the criminal more often than not, if an author does manage to get one over on me, I usually assume they did it by some kind of dirty trick or unnecessarily evasive writing. It’s a rare author that manages to write a mystery I can’t solve but that I still find satisfying. So I end up enjoying the process of reading mystery novels–it’s just that when the inevitable denouement occurs, my enjoyment inevitably follows the same downward path.

One thing that they never tell you about becoming a writer is that it ruins reading, and watching movies, and going to the theater–any and all kinds of storytelling are over for you, at least in the way you’ve always experienced them. It’s like taking the face off the clock and watching the gears turning under the surface instead. You’ll end up analyzing everything you used to just feel, and all the authorial manipulations will suddenly become apparent. You’ll become attuned to the Chekhov’s guns in everything you watch or read–any character who gets more screen time than their part really deserves, any idea that’s lingered on just a touch too long will catch your attention immediately, and you’ll see what direction things are going long before the rest of the audience catches on. Other people in your life will look at it as some kind of superhuman talent, but no, it’s just the fact that you’re a writer, and you’re studying this book, this movie, like you study everything else in your life, and the patterns quickly coalesce and become clear.

Moonrise Kingdom

July 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Wes Anderson was the first director to really Speak To Me, to make me think of the role the director played in the movie at all. Before that, I paid attention to the actors, maybe the screenwriter . . . but the director, let alone all those other peons like the set designer and the lighting designer? Who cares? Then I saw The Royal Tenenbaums in the theater as an impressionable 18-year-old, and was lost forever. Rushmore, which I saw on my college campus a few months later, became my favorite movie for years. Suddenly I realized that all these things like “shot composition” and “props” were arranged as carefully as every line I wrote in the poems for my creative writing class-well, in a good movie, at least. Wes Anderson was my awakening.

Anderson is the only director I can think of whose films I’ve seen all of, whose career I’ve actually followed. And while I don’t connect to his movies emotionally the way I did when I was 18 and identified with Max, wanted to be Margot . . . I still make it a point to see his movies in the theater rather than waiting until DVD like I do with almost everything else. I was so attached to the earlier ones that I’m never sure if my lack of connection to the later ones is because they’re actually not as good or just because I’m not 18 anymore. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou didn’t grab me at all. The Darjeeling Limited was uneven and felt overly recycled from his earlier work, and let’s not even get into the problematic Mystical India Saves the Westerners trope. Fantastic Mr. Fox was good–a step in the right direction–but I thought it could have been great (or maybe my expectations were a little too high, since Fantastic Mr. Fox was one of my favorite books as a kiddo). But Moonrise Kingdom? Now we’re back. Reviews have been referring to it as the Wes Andersoniest of all Wes Anderson’s movies–both as an insult and a compliment–and it’s completely true. All the standard Wes Anderson tropes are there–the color schemes, the symmetrical shots, the dollhouse-like cutaways of houses, the outdated props. But more important is the way he treats his characters.

The thing that always drew me to Rushmore (and to a lesser extent, The Royal Tenenbaums) was the way Anderson managed to blend this sense of emotional distance from his characters with a tenderness that redeemed them. You were supposed to laugh at Max, and you were supposed to shake your head in dismay at Royal Tenenbaum, but the films presented them so affectionately that regardless of your laughter or dismay, you still wanted to root for them–even when you knew that what they were doing was wrong. That sense of tenderness diminished in The Life Aquatic and disappeared almost completely in The Darjeeling Limited, but I’m so happy it’s back in Moonrise Kingdom.

Love Me Tender

July 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

The most depressing thing about Elvis’s first movie is that it makes the wasted potential of the next thirty films very clear: Elvis could have been a solid actor. Sure, this is an amateur effort–but for the debut performance of a crossover star, it ain’t bad. If his films had stuck a little closer to this model than the Blue Hawaii one, he could have developed into a fine actor. Alas.

Confederate cavalrymen–three of the four Reno brothers–stage an elaborate attack on a Union train, and when it’s successful, they wind up with thousands of dollars in hand. They plan to take it to their leader, but unbeknownst to them, the war has already ended, their cause defeated. When they find out, they decide to keep the money for themselves rather than turn it over to the U.S. government. The eldest, Vance, uses a little bit of his portion to buy a wedding suit for his upcoming wedding to his fiancee, Cathy–but when he gets home, he discovers that his family had mistakenly been informed he was dead, and Cathy has married his youngest brother, Clint (Presley), instead. The rest of the film traces three conflicts: Cathy’s love for Vance despite her marriage to Clint, Clint’s all-consuming jealousy, and the government’s attempts to hunt down the Renos once they find out what happened to that money.

Setting a precedent for future films, Elvis takes a very 20th-century singing break in the middle of the action, which grinds the film to a halt. The songs–which include the smash hit “Love Me Tender”–are good, but entirely out of place. Elvis had once sworn that he never wanted to sing in his movies, but the enthusiasm of his fans–who attended premieres of the film in shrieking droves–made that all but impossible. Unfortunately for Elvis, that would set the model for years to come.

Jupiter’s Darling

July 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

One thing I’ll never get over when it comes to old movies: the endings that are totally morally egregious to anybody with a 21st-century conscience. While nothing can really beat those 1930s musicals where everybody happily swaps fiances at the end, Jupiter’s Darling gives them a run for their money. In it, Amytis–played by Esther Williams–just isn’t that into her Roman general of a fiance, Fabius, so she escapes to his enemy Hannibal’s camp, hoping to seduce him into not attacking Rome. At the end of the film–note that I don’t feel compelled to give a spoiler warning because, this being an Esther Williams aquamusical, it ends the only way an Esther Williams aquamusical possibly could–Hannibal comes to storm Rome, but Esther convinces him to take her as tribute instead, leaving the city alone. Fabius–who has been entirely clueless as to his fiancee’s escapades–initially won’t allow it, but Amytis convinces him, and she and Hannibal ride happily off into the sunset together. Great. Fantastic. Everyone lives happily ever after. Except for the fact that Fabius, her fiance of seven years, will never see her again and feel a lifelong sense of guilt that his guarding the city was so inept that he had to trade his fiance to a bloodthirsty barbarian for peace. Let’s be honest, he probably kills himself about twenty minutes after the movie ends, while Amytis and Hannibal are consummating their love in a war elephant’s howdah.

The entire movie seems designed to annoy modern sensibilities as much as possible, actually: there’s a happy-slave song in “If This Be Slavery [I don’t want to be free]” and the vaguely misogynist “Never Trust a Woman.” Oh, and how could I forget “The Life of an Elephant,” wherein Gower Champion expresses his wish to “train” his love interest, played by his real-life wife Marge, the same way he does his elephants? (With a bull hook?) The whole thing is pretty fun, though, if you can overlook the 1950s ridiculousness. Or maybe it’s just that I watched it on 40 minutes of sleep? At any rate, if you watch this movie on 40 minutes of sleep, you’ll definitely enjoy it. Maybe.

Sleepless in Seattle and other stories

June 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Everybody has a soft spot for the movies of their youth, for those few brief years where movies were the real thing, before you realized that the cinema didn’t reflect real life. A nostalgia for the trappings and conventions of them will follow you throughout your life. You might grow up to be a famous director, a pre-eminent film critic, or the president of the United States–but no matter how many movies you watch or how respectable your taste becomes, you’re always going to feel a tug for those adventure serials or campy exploitation flicks that you grew up watching.

For me, it’s that late ’80s/early ’90s brand of romantic/family comedies. The female lead is usually played by Meg Ryan, Goldie Hawn, Daryl Hannah or some other whimsically goofy blonde designed to resemble them as much as possible. If you don’t want a blonde for some reason, then Julia Roberts will suffice in a pinch. (Brunettes were verboten; to cast a brown-haired actress meant you were making a serious movie.) The male lead is always Tom Hanks, except when it’s Steve Martin. The characters are always from that sort of gracious old-money background that’s never called “rich,” but rather painted as middle-class: they live in a white-columned house in the suburbs of Chicago or San Francisco, their family Thanksgiving get-togethers involve 12 sets of matching china, real silver and elaborate floral centerpieces. They have family heirlooms and the kind of jobs that involve work cocktail parties complete with big bands. The plots center around elaborate romantic situations–usually love triangles, often involving amnesia, comas, or falling in love with prostitutes.

The funny thing is that none of these movies would work for me if they were made today. By the time You Got Mail rolled around in 1998, it already wasn’t working for me. We had done away with the romantic, vaguely historical, pre-cell phone era of my childhood and ushered in a new world filled with “the internet” and chain bookstores. And I know I’m preaching to the classic-movie fan choir here, but who wants that? Why do I have to live in a world where people prefer the version of Parfumerie where Hungarian perfume and love letters are replaced with AOL and the implicit approval of chain stores taking over mom & pops? The problem with modern movies trying to pull off these plots is that it stretches the boundaries of credibility, whereas with classic movies, you can always suspend your disbelief: maybe it was like that in the olden days. Maybe people really did fall in love with someone just by hearing them talk about their dead wife on the radio a few times. Or, as the characters in Sleepless in Seattle surmise about the movies of their youth, maybe people really were fated to be together in the end, back in the golden days. Now, of course, we know better. But the past–that’s different. The past is a country where anything could happen.

American Graffiti

May 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Smug self-aggrandizing baby boomer bullshit. Is that too harsh?

The funny thing is that if I’d seen this five or ten years ago, I probably would have loved it. It’s got nostalgia for a bygone era (complete with malt shops!), a coming-of-age story, and a mix of lighthearted plots paired with serious themes–all movie elements I’m drawn toward. But the spending the last five years reading lots of obnoxious, baby boomer-penned New York Times columns about the millenial generation’s inability to move out of their parents’ houses, buckle down and get a job, et cetera et cetera has built up a certain animosity towards the fuzzy-wuzzy, romantic conception of the good ol’ days.

Let me get more specific.

  1.  This movie is so damn George Lucas-y. I’ll cut its initial audiences some slack, since the Lucas gimmicks that we’ve all come to know and hate weren’t yet defined. But to a generation raised on Star Wars and Indiana Jones, they grate. The entire character of Terry–the nerd of the group–exists solely for comic relief, and the kind of Lucasian comic relief that isn’t particularly funny to anyone over the age of 6 (see also: Jar Jar Binks, Short Round). His inclusion in the film makes about as much sense as Screech’s in the Saved by the Bell gang.
  2. This is more of a personal gripe, but god, I hate movies where we’re supposed to see a character as adorable and amusing while he takes advantage of older or disenfranchised people who haven’t done anything to him. I hate it ten times more when that character is an insufferable snotty teenager. This happens multiple times in this film (Terry hitting another car with his and then driving off, ordering food at the drive-in and leaving before he pays for it). Yes, I get this is supposed to be the sort of teenage fantasy world where the kids can get the best of cops, principals and other authority figures without having to pay for it–but I guess I’m a little too removed from that time in my life to find that kind of narcissism appealing. Also, get off my lawn and stuff.
  3. Fine, okay, most of the things on this list could mostly be summed up as “I hate Terry.”
  4. The movie treats its female characters as simply underdeveloped extensions of the male protagonists. While this certainly isn’t unique in Hollywood, the fact that it’s so blatant about it–and so lazy about not providing what could have been easy fixes–makes it stand out from its peers. The most obvious example of this is one that Pauline Kael once called Lucas out for: the fact that he only provides character epilogues for the four male leads at the end of the film. Lucas’s excuse for leaving the women out? That it would have taken up another screen. I rest my case.
  5. The women-as-wish-fulfillment-for-nerds angle is taken to absurd extremes here. Terry –have I mentioned that I hate Terry?–manages to pick up a beautiful but spacey blonde, and then, despite mucking up everything he could possibly muck up–failing multiple times to procure liquor for her and eventually having to borrow money from her, getting his car stolen–still manages to land a second date. And women throw themselves at Ron Howard, of all people. Ron Howard! Meanwhile, the two guys who you’d think might actually have women fighting over them–the hot rod racers played by Paul Le Mat and Harrison Ford–end up alone. I think George Lucas may have been working out some of his nerd-revenge fantasies here.

I’m calling it now: this is one of those films whose legacy was based almost entirely on timing. As baby boomer critics are replaced with younger ones who don’t have a personal connection to the time period, its star is going to fall quickly. On the plus side . . . great soundtrack, though. But not great enough to make me forget how much I hate Terry.