The Trouble with Angels

April 19, 2012 § 2 Comments

It’s movies like this that make me regret the fact that I have no desire to have kids. My childhood was shaped by my dad’s taste in pop culture: The Princess Bride and the Indiana Jones series made frequent appearances; on the other hand, I didn’t see a Star Wars movie until I was 19–despite seeing Spaceballs at a fairly young and impressionable age, and no, I did not get the jokes. So naturally I have the same desire to torture my future, nonexistent children by ensuring that they’re the only ones in their kindergarten class raised on a steady diet of Esther Williams and Hayley Mills flicks in which they, too, fail to get the jokes.

What I love about this movie–which I will stop and watch any time I catch it on TCM–is that it has layers, alternating sweet and bitter. First you get the overarching plot: two girls get a Catholic boarding school education. Throw in the fact that it stars Hayley Mills, and immediately you think: God, it’s one of those movies. Cloyingly sweet and sentimental, a Catholic Pollyanna. But then you start watching, and you realize that Hayley Mills’ character is . . . well, kind of a bitch. Some of the things she does are mostly just naughty by 1950s standards–smoking cigarettes and mouthing off to an older woman in the opening scene, for example–but some of them are a little startling even by modern standards, like her response to the Mother Superior about the takeaway message from the heartbreaking Christmastime visit of a bunch of lonely grandmothers from a nearby nursing home: it’s that she hopes she dies “young . . . and very wealthy.” And then, just when you think that you’ve got the movie figured out, that it’s just about two girls rebelling and getting into and out of a bunch of wacky scrapes–then the movie’s ending gets all sentimental on you again. But the movie earns it, because slowly, over the course of all those wacky scrapes, you realize that the film has sneaked in little bits of background information that made you care about the characters on a deeper level, and that–although you didn’t realize it–you were witnessing Hayley Mills’ growth as a character the whole time. It’s really well done, but it’s one of those things that’s so well-done that it makes it look much easier than it is.

Bonus: it’s a coming-of-age story that has nothing to do with men. It takes place at an all-girls’ school, with an entirely female staff. Every relationship contained in it has to do with women: their friendships, their rivalries, their role models and teachers. Okay, there might be a hint at some latent daddy issues, but that’s it. Try finding that in a modern movie.

Girls Just Want to Have Fun

January 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

“I’ve got to get on that dance TV show” was the plot–or subplot–of a number of films leading up to Girls Just Want to Have Fun‘s release in 1985. The movie version of Grease used it; Bye Bye Birdie had a variation on it. A few years after Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Hairspray would dedicate a full film to this trope. But while most of those examples were undeniably retro, Girls Just Want to Have Fun updated it for the ’80s. The dance TV show in question–inventively titled Dance TV–isn’t an American Bandstand rip-off; it appears to be something closer to a whiter Soul Train, or maybe a precursor to Club MTV/The Grind. Janey Glenn, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, is obsessed with the show, so when she learns that they’re holding tryouts for new dancers, she has to go. Even after Janey’s father puts the kibosh on that plan, her more adventurous friend, Lynne, drags her along–and of course Janey makes the first cut, winning a cute new dance partner as she goes. The rest of the film is a mish-mash of Flashdance-inspired dance rehearsal scenes, Sixteen Candles-inspired take-down-the-rich-bitch hijinks, and the required romantic spark between Janey and her dance partner. As Janey puts it, “Things are going too well. I mean, besides DTV, I have a best friend, and I mean, I’d never dreamed in a million years that I would have a boyfriend!”: all the elements for the perfect ’80s sleepover film in place.

Watching this movie is a weird experience from an adult perspective: both of its stars–Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Hunt–went on to find greater stardom as adults than they did as teens, in television roles that they’ve each more or less become synonymous with.  It’s weird to watch Sarah Jessica Parker mooning over her first boyfriend when you’re used to her being world-weary and jaded with men, weirder still to watch Helen Hunt play the boisterous, boy-crazy half of the pair when her Mad About You character was so neurotic and high-strung. But as jarring as their playing-against-type was, I still enjoyed it. Not that I’m saying it’s a good movie. But it was an enjoyable movie while still being a terrible one.

Eighties filmmakers did the best high school movies, didn’t they?  They were usually still decent into the ’90s, but towards the end of that decade they began their slow, inexorable slide into the mediocrity of the ’00s. The genre has never recovered. As I watched Girls Just Want to Have Fun, I wondered why that was–how the movie could be so bad and yet so simultaneously watchable–and then I realized exactly what it was: rich kids. In the 80s, the rich kids were always the enemy. And filmmakers knew exactly what to do with them–as Rushmore summed up half a generation later, “Take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the crosshairs and take them down. Just remember, they can buy anything but they can’t buy backbone. Don’t let them forget it.” A decade of teen films is encapsulated in that quote. And it always worked! Even if you didn’t personally have any animosity towards rich kids in your own life, you couldn’t have any qualms about rooting against the entitled brats in the movies. It brought the audience together in a way that hasn’t been recreated since–and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the most successful of the last decade’s teen movies, like Mean Girls and Rocket Science, are updated rehashes of the high school class war.

Girls Just Want to Have Fun doesn’t plumb the rich-kid conflict to quite the depths of The Outsiders or, say, John Hughes in every teen movie he ever made. But watching our designated villainess get her comeuppance–not once, but over and over again–is still satisfying. And the movie does us the favor of making her so over-the-top that her repeated humiliations feel less like bullying and a lot more like karma. Yeah, the ’80s knew how to do it. Shouldn’t there be a Pretty in Pink remake coming out one of these days?

Love Actually

December 22, 2011 § 2 Comments

I have an ex-boyfriend who hates this movie. It’s unrealistic, he claims, and cheesy. We get so little time with each character that we have no reason to invest in any of them, which doesn’t matter because everyone is a thinly drawn cutout anyway. Other complaints I’ve heard, from other people, include but aren’t limited to the following: Karl (the dude Laura Linney is interested in) is a first-class asshole for bailing on her after their failed hook-up, Keira Knightley is a first-class asshole for kissing her husband’s best friend when she’s supposed to be a  blissful newlywed, the 9/11-referencing opening is manipulative, nobody can learn to play the drums or speak Portuguese in a month.

Well, duh. A romantic comedy that’s overly sentimental, manipulative, and cheesy, with occasionally unlikeable characters and unrealistic plotlines? What is the world coming to?

I put this film on every holiday season, largely because it’s one of the few that accurately captures the anticipatory buzz of the holiday season for me. Jacqueline recently wrote that one of the reasons classic movies get Christmas so much more right than modern ones is that they put Christmas in the background rather than the foreground, wallpaper decoration for the movie rather than the point of the movie itself. Love Actually is one of the few modern movies I can think of that follows the classic holiday film formula instead of the modern one–the only plot that actually centers around Christmas itself is Bill Nighy’s Billy Mack storyline, where he’s aiming for the Christmas number one single slot. Everything else in the movie could have  happened at Easter, on Veteran’s Day, on a random Thursday in July. And that’s why, despite its seemingly modern conceits (porn star stand-ins! interracial marriages! going to America to get laid!), this is the only holiday movie created in the last fifty years that’s perennially on my playlist.

And despite my ex-boyfriend’s claims, the movie also gets love right–or at least righter than most romantic comedies. (Let’s be fair: that’s not setting a terribly high bar.) While certain scenes are straight fairy tale, no chaser (Colin Firth’s proposal, Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon’s backstage kiss), generally the movie presents a much more realistic and complex portrait of love, in its infinite variations, than many of its rom-com brethren. In this movie, love doesn’t end at the wedding. The Alan Rickman/Emma Thompson and Keira Knightley/Chiwetel Ejiofor relationships both depict love within marriage (as does, tangentially, Liam Neeson’s storyline). Romantic love isn’t elevated well beyond every other type–various plot lines running throughout the film give just much weight to love between family members, friends, and even between employer and employee (note: I’m talking about Bill Nighy here, not Alan Rickman). Love is presented as infinitely more complex than in most romantic comedies: Keira Knightley can kiss her husband’s best friend for reasons other than wanting to have an affair with him, Alan Rickman can cheat on his wife for reasons other than not loving her, and Laura Linney can love her brother while also wanting to kill him sometimes.  And while every plot line gets some sort of conclusion, not every one is a happy one. We get just enough fairy tale endings to keep the film upbeat, but just enough that aren’t to confirm that love is not an effervescent glittery rush all the time. Let’s go and get the shit kicked out of us by love, indeed.

There’s one thing I can’t forgive the film for, though–and no, it’s not that nobody can learn to speak Portuguese in four weeks. It’s the fact that Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve never would have existed without Love Actually, which inevitably would have been titled Christmas Eve had it not been created before the days where plot descriptions sufficed for titles. Still, that’s a small price to pay in exchange for the only modern Christmas movie on my list. Or is it? Is it?

The Little Mermaid

November 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Disney had gotten widespread complaints that their princesses weren’t feminist enough since the 1970s, and by the mid-1980s, the fairy tale films that were Disney’s bread-and-butter for many years now seemed archaic. Disney switched to animal-based films instead–cute kitties and puppies are always solid sellers, and animal protagonists allowed Disney to sidestep potential pitfalls regarding gender and race in a world where popular views on what was appropriate seemed to change monthly. But after a string of sub-par animal-based flicks, and the en masse retirement of a number of animators from Disney’s “classic” era, the company was anxious to move in a different direction with a new group of artists. Disney, of course, knew that they had made their name on princess stories, and Walt Disney himself had planned a production of The Little Mermaid as one of the company’s first projects, although it was shelved when he couldn’t find a way to make the storyline work. But the persistent concerns about the princesses’ passivity lingered.

In order to make a princess story work for the new generation, Disney had to make three significant changes in their princess heroines:

1) Take her from dependent to independent. Disney’s Original Princess Trio (Snow White, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella) never learn to fend for themselves. When Snow White is ousted from her house, she’s taken in by a handful of dwarves to cook and clean before being passed on to her prince. Aurora gets similar treatment, but the dwarves are replaced by a trio of fairies. Despite Cinderella’s stepfamily’s cruel treatment, she only leaves them when she, too, is rescued by a prince. None of this was particularly suprising when the films were originally made–they’re films that were created pre-women’s lib, based on hundreds-year-old tales–but they wouldn’t work for an ’80s world of shoulder pads and Charlie perfume.

2) Take her from passive to active. Both Snow White and Aurora spend significant chunks of their storylines asleep, and when they are awake, they mostly sit in their cottages or wander through the woods, singing about how someday their princes will come. Cinderella, while awake, spends the bulk of her film on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floors, or waiting on her stepsisters. All of this waiting doesn’t make for a very exciting movie, nor for very strong characters. For a modern princess, you needed to make some of the plot dependent on her actions, rather than just making her an unfortunate victim of an ill-timed curse or a jealous stepmother. And if you could make her complicit in her own salvation, rather than allowing the man to do it for her, then all the better.

3) Give her a personality. Make it a good one. The early princesses seemed basically interchangeable, aside from hair color: patient, demure, naive. The takeaway message, then, was that their ultimate fate–the prince and the castle and the happily-ever-after–were a reward for their beauty, not their behavior, and certainly not for their intelligence or strength. For its updated princesses, Disney was going to have to transform them from princess archetypes into individuals with motivations and complexities. Hell, give them a few flaws, even. It’ll make for a better story.

Let’s call Ariel a midway point. A prototype, so to speak. Compared to what came before, she’s a vast improvement. As opposed to the complacent, docile Original Princess Trio, Ariel is fiercely independent. In fact, she’s headstrong to the point of recklessness, as the movie’s very first scene–wherein she almost gets herself eaten by a shark–makes clear. She refuses to bow to the will of male authority figures, whether that authority figure is her physically imposing father or the little red crab, Sebastian. While Ariel isn’t complicit in her own salvation during the final battle, the way later Disney heroines would be, she does manage a role reversal by saving Eric earlier in the film. Nor does she neatly fit the passive damsel-in-distress mode that earlier heroines had. Disney seemed to opt for the best/worst-of-both-worlds theory here; Ariel can more than take care of herself underwater (as that initial shark fight would demonstrate), but on land, she’s utterly dependent on others. Still, unlike the earlier princesses, she’s not merely an unlucky victim of chance; she actively takes a role in everything that happens to her. The loss of her voice, and ultimately of her underwater home, is her choice.

Perhaps the most improved aspect of the story over earlier princess tales is that Ariel actually has a defined personality. Her impetuousness is matched only by her enthusiasm, but her most prominent trait is her curiosity regarding all things human–forks and tobacco pipes and candlestick holders, which she stores in an underwater vault. Societally-stunted intellectual curiosity will become something of a trademark with the early Disney Renaissance princesses: Ariel just wants to see how people live on land, Belle just wants to read books, Jasmine just wants to see something outside of her palace walls. It’s a little overdone by its third iteration, but here at the beginning it’s still fresh and new, and, if we’re taking it allegorically, quite touching: her father, King Triton, is essentially a bigot who’s terrified of those barbaric humans, while Ariel opens her heart to everyone because she can see their essential goodness underneath.

And ultimately there’s something vaguely progressive about the fact that Eric falls in love with Ariel for her voice. With the old princesses, it was clear that their beauty was the major draw–but for Eric, though Ariel looks like the girl he thought he loved, and is clearly gorgeous, it was her voice that he fell in love with. Without it, he enjoys her company, finds her fun enough to be around–but he’d clearly like her more if she had something to say. Come on, people. It’s a metaphor!

Still, there are problems. Significant problems. Like the fact that the woman is ready to make a Faustian pact to give up her legs in exchange for a man–that would be a major problem. And although Ursula is one of the best Disney villains ever created, she was blatantly patterned after drag queen Divine, which creates some troubling subtext–Disney’s queer villain subtext is a post in itself. And Ariel’s excitability and recklessness at times are taken to such extremes that she comes off as a legitimate bimbo, when I think what they were going for was more along the lines of, you know, Zooey Deschanel. But when this is what we have to compare it to, I think Disney deserves a little more credit for busting up the damsel-in-distress mold than they’re usually given.

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