Blue Hawaii

January 27, 2012 § 5 Comments

An incomplete list of Elvis movie cliches:

  • Beautiful, romantic setting (bonus points for beaches, as they allow for more skin–see below)
  • The setting or a local custom is worked into at least one song on the soundtrack
  • Elvis drives an awesome car
  • Elvis sings in his awesome car, usually serenading a girl or three
  • Elvis is or was in the military
  • Elvis plays some sort of outsider/rebel/vagabond
  • Related: Elvis wants to break free from his family or expectations and become his own man
  • Elvis has some kind of unconventional job–if he doesn’t work as a singer, it’ll be along the lines of race car driver/boat captain/water-ski instructor–no 9-to-5 stability for our Elvis (but bonus points if he works as a singer and a race car driver/boat pilot/water-ski instructor)
  • Two or more women fight over Elvis
  • Girls in bikinis, duh
  • A girl loses her bikini top
  • No woman over the age of 14 can resist Elvis’s charms
  • Elvis punches another man in the face (bonus points if he’s defending a woman or the fight is over a woman)
  • Elvis beats a rival in a competition (boat race, cliff diving competition)
  • Elvis spends the night in jail
  • Car chase or race
  • Small, adorable child sings/dances/hams it up with Elvis (bonus points if they’re never seen again after their one turn in the spotlight)
  • Unfortunate racial stereotypes (although this is somewhat tempered by the fact that the movies went out of their way to include multiracial cast members in a time period where that wasn’t usually a given-hell, it’s still not)

Blue Hawaii is alternately loved and hated as the movie that solidified all of these cliches into The Elvis Formula that governed most of his mid-career films. A few of his earlier films contain examples of these tropes–something I touched on in my review of Jailhouse Rock–but it wasn’t until Blue Hawaii became a hit that Elvis’s handlers truly paid attention to what the public was responding to and then, unfortunately, made an effort to include every single one of those components in every single film he did. The result was that Elvis’s film career can largely be imagined just by watching this one movie, as most of its follow-ups can essentially be summed up as Blue Mexico, Blue Europe, or Blue Florida.

There’s this idea floating around among the uninitiated that all Elvis Formula films are bad. They aren’t! I hate to disillusion anybody whose sole exposure to Elvis as an actor was Tickle Me, but some of the formula films are actually pretty enjoyable. For most critics, Blue Hawaii falls somewhere near the middle of the pile–not quite as good as Viva Las Vegas or Girl Happy, not quite as bad as Harum Scarum or Spinout.  I’d put it a little closer to the top end of the spectrum, which has more to do with its showcase of Hawaii’s beauty than the script itself. The plot is pretty simple: just out of the army, Elvis returns to his Hawaiian home, but has no interest in returning to his place at the family pineapple manufacturing plant. Taking up a job as a tour guide instead, he balances the expectations of his family, his girlfriend, his job–and one particularly unruly client.

Maybe the fact that it’s the dead of winter and I live in Wisconsin, but the movie has enough charms in scenery alone to make up for the fact that the script basically falls to shambles towards the second half. Unlike some of Elvis’s later films, Blue Hawaii was actually shot on location, and those location shots are just the thing to get me through the bitterly cold nights we’ve been having lately. For anybody who is, like me, interested in the historical developments of tourism (I know, there must be thousands of you, right?), Blue Hawaii is a neat look back at Hawaiian vacationing at the dawn of its statehood (and the height of Hawaii mania), including several scenes taking place at the Coco Palms Resort.

The soundtrack, too, is much better than his average movie fare, including “Blue Hawaii” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You”–maybe that explains why it became the second best-selling pop album of the entire decade. (It does, however, include the abysmal “Ito Eats,” a song that should turn up on every list of the top ten worst songs Elvis ever sang.) And I’ve always liked Joan Blackman as Elvis’s love interest in this film. She does more with the character than most of her successors would, and the fact that we get half the movie with her before her rival shows up means that we’re a little more invested in her relationship with Elvis than we would be with most of his subsequent movie girlfriends. Mostly, though, it’s the scenery. If I can pretend I’m on a sun-drenched beach overlooking my own private bay, rather than in my apartment with the heat cranked up, a hoodie on and a glass of hot chocolate in hand–well, I’ll take that, even if it’s just for a moment.

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?

The Reluctant Debutante

January 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Reluctant Debutante stars Sandra Dee as a sweet but stubborn California teenager in the midst of a London season and, as such, is essentially just Gidget Goes to the UK. Inspired by the last round of court presentations for the Queen in 1958, the film chronicles the trials of Jane (Dee), who goes to visit her British father and his new wife, and is (reluctantly, of course) thrust into the social whirl of debutante season. Through the gauntlet of balls and parties, Jane falls for one man–who her stepmother considers below her station and whom both her parents worry might be a date rapist in disguise–but is also pursued by a parent-approved but nauseatingly boring one. Of course everything is sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction by the end, helped along by a few last-minute cinematic plot contrivances.

This film is simply a trifle, but it’s an extremely enjoyable one. Real-life couple Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall star as Jane’s father and stepmother, and they’re so funny that the story ends up being more theirs than hers. (This being pre-Dee stardom, they get top billing, too.) Angela Lansbury has a fun turn as Kendall’s meddling friend. Since the movie was based off a play, the script has a farcical, madcap flavor to it at which Kendall and especially Harrison excel, culminating in a drawn-out but hilarious living room scene where the two attempt to spy on their daughter. Director Vincente Minnelli keeps the pace flowing at a clip, and of course, Minnelli being Minnelli, everything is beautifully set and staged. The plot is a little dated–the idea of Jane dating a man who forces himself on her is treated with boys-will-be-boys heedlessness rather than any real cause for alarm–but the whole thing is just so fun that that’s easy to overlook.

Further reading:

  • Let’s Get Physical“: a PopMatters column on Kendall’s physical acting in this film and Les Girls

The Heathen’s Guide to Christian Film: Soul Surfer

January 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Soul Surfer is a unique entry in the quickly expanding catalogue of Christian films. Unlike most films of its genre, it’s clear that this film intended to tap the secular teen/tween market first, and the Christian market only afterwards. But unlike most mass audience films with bonus Christian pandering, the faith-based plot in Soul Surfer isn’t an afterthought. It’s fully, blatantly integrated into the plot in a way that most mainstream directors wouldn’t have dared allow. And while it was a choice that was basically irrelevant to nonbelievers like me, I have a feeling that in ten years or so, Soul Surfer will be seen as revolutionary in the growing Christian market, for being one of the first Christian films to truly bridge the evangelical-versus-secular divide.

Soul Surfer is essentially a textbook sports comeback story: an up-and-coming athlete suffers a setback that causes her to lose faith and quit the sport–but of course she ultimately returns to it a few inspirational, sweaty training montages later, culminating in some sort of Big Competition that she either wins or gracefully loses (complete with life lessons learned, “I’m a better person for having been here,” and so on, future success implied). In this case, the up-and-coming athlete is Bethany Hamilton, a teenage surfer growing up in Hawaii with a loving family and an aspiring surfer of a best friend. The setback is the loss of her arm in a shark attack, but she doesn’t let that stop her. After becoming inspired by the simple joy she sees in Thai children playing in the water on a mission trip, she returns to surfing, just in time for the big girls’ surfing competition on the island.

The Hawaii scenery was, of course, beautiful, and the story was adequately entertaining, albeit conventional. But the film suffered from a number of the same problems more blatantly Christian films usually struggle with. The most blatant to me, and one that I haven’t seen a single Christian movie manage to sidestep, is its outdated attitudes to race. Not to say that mainstream Hollywood doesn’t have issues with this–it does–but Christian filmmakers usually seem to be a decade or two behind them, cheerfully employing tropes like the Magical Negro or setting up white man’s burden-style plots with an enthusiasm that would make savvier secular filmmakers (or at least their backers) cringe. Its the latter that’s in play here, when in the wake of Bethany’s quitting surfing, she goes to Thailand on a mission trip after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami. The Thai people are shown only to further Bethany’s journey; seeing them devastated convinces her that her own problems are small. There’s even a scene where she’s depicted as singlehandedly convincing a village of terrified Thai folks to go back into the ocean for the first time after the tsunami. Good thing she was there to save them! Otherwise they might never have made it back into the water, and then what?

The other problem with Soul Surfer–and one that pops up again and again in Christian films–is that it’s just not willing to go rough on its characters. Granted, this is based on a true story, and the real Bethany Hamilton claims that the movie already depicts her as more down-and-out than she actually was. In real life, she claims, she didn’t spend her time in the hospital worrying about whether she’d ever surf again or if boys would date a girl with one arm, she was visiting with church friends and playing practical jokes on the nurses. Unfortunately, church friends and practical jokes don’t make for a good movie. The film’s conflict was repeatedly underplayed–at one point I turned to my movie-watching companion and wondered if we were going to get any at all, since even the stuff that would sideline a normal person didn’t phase Movie Bethany for more than a minute or two. It was like the writers were scared to let any of their characters experience any real suffering–unfortunate, since it’s much easier to empathize with a character who suffers than one who reacts to misery with a Christ-like patience and understanding.

Daniel Radosh touched on this in his review of Fireproof: “Committed to promoting an unambiguous message that God solves all problems, Fireproof never portrays Christians doing anything untoward, or even experiencing any sorrow. . . In the perfect world of Fireproof, good Christians do not have bad marriages, any more than they drink, gamble or swear.” And in the perfect world of Soul Surfer, good Christians don’t have unhappy families or romantic problems. Everyone is beautiful, the skies are always blue and the water’s always fine. As Bethany claims as the film draws to a close, losing an arm didn’t just not change her life–it made it better. Had this not been based on a true story, the scriptwriters probably would have had Jesus come down from heaven to regrow Bethany’s arm personally. Who wants to watch that? In Christian films, the suspense is eliminated. A happy–nay, perfect–ending is guaranteed. The Garden of Eden restored, at last.

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 Inn at Lake Devine

December 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Some people read A Christmas Carol every December. For other people, it’s Little Women. Others might page through The Polar Express or How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Or maybe you’ve got your own personal little favorite–I’ve still got an irrational attachment to a cute little copy of The Twelve Days of Christmas featuring bear protagonists from my childhood. But the one book I find myself returning to over and over again at holiday time is Elinor Lipman’s The Inn at Lake Devine.

This might strike most people as an odd choice. A bare-bones plot of The Inn at Lake Devine goes something like this: Natalie, a recent culinary school graduate, runs into an old friend from camp. Her camp friend, Robin, invites Natalie to her upcoming wedding, only to be tragically killed in a car accident on her way to the inn where the wedding will be held. Natalie is thrust into the position of caretaker for Robin’s family and her would-be in-laws, developing a friendship with Robin’s fiance and his younger brother. In what is probably the peskiest detail to take into account when trying to consider this a “Christmastime novel,” Natalie is Jewish. There’s a framing device to the novel, where Robin’s future mother-in-law is an anti-Semite who once turned Natalie’s family away from their hotel on the basis of their religion–and this has dramatic pay-off later in the novel as both of her sons become romantically involved with Jewish women (one Orthodox, one Reform). The entire novel’s thesis statement, so to speak, involves the Jewish experience in America. How does it make good Christmas reading, then? Natalie captures the feeling I’ve felt so much as a lifelong agnostic–loving the trappings of Christmas, finding it beautiful, but feeling like an outsider nevertheless.

The other problem with considering this a holiday novel is that only a small portion of the action takes at Christmastime, and it’s the most tragic part of the plot! Those who are looking for cheery Christmas morning scenes of families singing carols and drinking eggnog in front of the fire should look elsewhere. But still, the book just feels so Christmassy, so lighthearted and warm, full of food and romance and family, that it fits in perfectly during the holiday season. In fact, I think I’m going to pull out my copy right now . . .

Hugo

December 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

When people talk about “the magic of the movies,” they always talk about film’s ability to take you away from your life and transport you somewhere else for a few hours. To live in another world, to see it through someone else’s eyes. This is always the go-to argument for why movies’ popularity peaked during World War II–people just needed to be distracted from their problems, preferably with a cheesy Technicolor musical starring Betty Grable. And although I love the movies, that’s something I’ve rarely ever experienced. Even with movies I like, I almost never feel swept away, transported somewhere else, not wanting the experience to end. Even with movies I like, I still check my watch.

But Hugo did it for me. I bookmarked the movie this summer, when I saw a preview for it and was immediately enchanted. You know how I feel about Cute Kids in movies? The way I feel about Anguished Kids is just about the exact opposite. So take one Anguished Child, put him in a romantic historical setting, have him create a new family from scratch (one of my favorite plotlines, especially when it involves previously Anguished children) . . . throw in some beautiful clocks, shots of a snow-encrusted Paris, and a puppy or two, and I’m yours. And when you take into account that Hugo revolves around the art of storytelling–mostly in the form of movies, but also with a book or two–of course I was going to fall in love. I had to.

Hugo, based on a novel called The Invention of Hugo Cabret, follows a young orphan who’s in charge of winding the clocks at a 1930s Paris train station. The one reminder he has of his father is a broken-down automaton rescued from a museum. Hugo makes friends with a girl named Isabelle, the two of them sneaking into the movies and tricking the train’s boorish inspector. But when they realize that she holds the key that unlocks his automaton, the two of them are entangled in a curious mystery that involves a toymaker, Hugo’s father, and the early history of cinema . . .

Unfortunately, the film’s marketing is pretty much killing it. While its previews depicted a high-energy children’s film, this isn’t really a film that caters to children’s tastes. It takes a while to get going, and even once it does, it’s still never particularly zippy. The slow pacing, combined with a historical focus and a lack of one-liners, means that some children will have trouble sitting through this one. Hell, so will some adults. The fact that a film has a child protagonist and no swear words does not necessarily mean it’s a children’s film, and that’s true of Hugo.

As of now, Hugo has only made $33 million at the box office, about a fifth of its very generous budget. Of course, the critics are loving it. They have a tendency to adore anything that celebrates the magic of film, as Hugo does in spades. And if it can pick up some steam through awards season, enough buzz may build to keep it going into January. The chances of it recouping its costs, though, look slim, and that’s unfortunate, because this is a wonderful movie–one during which I didn’t check my watch even once.

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