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.

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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 Opposite Sex

December 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

One of the 1950s’ cinematic quirks was taking straight movies from the 1930s and ’40s, and making mediocre musicals out of them. It’s how we got High Society (The Philadelphia Story), Silk Stockings (Ninotchka), and She’s Working Her Way Through College (The Male Animal), just to start. It’s also how we got The Opposite Sex, derived from the 1939 classic The Women, about a Susie Homemaker type whose husband leaves her for a showgirl, and the group of friends who surrounds her in his wake. The Opposite Sex takes about 70 percent of The Women’s wit and charm, and replaces them with a bizarre mish-mash of musical numbers. “Dere’s Yellow Gold on the Trees”? What is this? And why is it mixed in with a singing cowboy number and a couple of smoky ballads?

The movie might still have worked, though, with a more charismatic lead. This was the only real failing of The Women, too–it was hard to root for Norma Shearer, and grows harder by the year as the views espoused in the film grow more and more outdated–but The Women had a lot to fall back on. The Opposite Sex needed a heroine we could root for, and June Allyson was not it. Or maybe it’s just me–Allyson’s “perfect little wifey” persona has always bugged the hell out of me, and her whiskey-&-cigars voice just frustrates me, hinting at a darker, more interesting side that never comes. While watching The Opposite Sex, I found myself hoping that her showgirl rival, played by Joan Collins, would win out. Probably not what the filmmakers were going for . . .

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.

How to Be Very, Very Popular

December 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

How to Be Very, Very Popular is a bizarre little comedy from 1955. When I say bizarre, I mean bizarre. The premise isn’t too off-the-wall for a mid-century comedy: two strippers witness a murder, and in order to keep from getting killed themselves, they go undercover, hiding out in the fraternity hall at Bristol College. (Substitute “convent” for “college,” and now you know where Sister Act got its plot.) Apparently the novel this film was based on involved the two of them dressing up as men as part of their disguise, but why pay all that money for Betty Grable and Sheree North if you’re not going to keep them on permanent display? Thus they wear their spangled leotards throughout the entire movie, hiding them under jackets and graduation gowns when the plot calls for it.

So yes, the premise seems similar to a number of other college-based 1950s films. The execution, however, is just . . . strange. I can’t pinpoint exactly what was off about it. Sometimes, watching old movies like this, I wonder if the weirdness is due to the age gap–sometimes I just don’t get the jokes or the slang or the name-dropping or the references to then-current events. Especially with comedies, I always have to wonder if the style of humor just hasn’t aged well or whether or not it was just as unfunny then as it is now. With this movie, I’m going with the latter. For example: One of the strippers, Curly, spends the vast majority of the film in a hypnotic trance, a gag that might have been funny for about ten minutes in a better film, but isn’t even funny for five minutes here. And most of the minor characters exist solely to incite bafflement. Why does the fraternity house mother have such a salami fixation (not a euphemism) and speak only in poetry fragments? Why is a litter of kittens living in the fraternity house basement? Why does one of the policemen wear a brown toupee over his gray hair? None of this is ever explained.

But perhaps the greatest mystery of all is why Fox thought we’d buy a bunch of 30-something-year-old actors as college students. Heroine Stormy, who’s supposed to be roughly the same age in the film as 23-year-old Sheree North, was actually played by a 39-year-old Betty Grable. Neither do any of the middle-aged male leads look like college students. By the time we get to the movie’s climactic commencement scene, where a hypnotized Curly whips off her graduation gown and performs a frenetic striptease to “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”–a scene that’s energetic enough, it would have charmed me in a film that had done more to earn it–I’m ready to quit.

This film was originally designed to reunite Grable with Marilyn Monroe after the success of 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire. But Monroe, who was in the prime of her career and hungry for better parts, steered clear. Fox, who had been grooming Sheree North as Marilyn doppelganger that they could pay less and boss around more easily, stuck North in the role instead. Perhaps Monroe could have introduced a little more charm into the lightweight role of Curly than North did. But then again, probably not. She is hypnotized for most of the movie’s running time, after all.

Anne of Green Gables (1934)

November 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

Jaded by too many early Hollywood book-to-movie adaptations where the film had nothing in common with its source beyond the title, I had low expectations for R.K.O.’s Anne of Green Gables. I figured they’d get the orphan part right, but she’d probably be played by a ringleted blonde rather than a pigtailed redhead, and no doubt the plot would be invented out of whole cloth . . . Imagine my eyes when Anne showed up looking just how I’d always imagined her, blathering about how awful it was to have red hair and asking to be called Cordelia and proclaiming things the White Way of Delight and the Lake of Shining Waters. The plot itself was a mish-mash of some anecdotes from the book and some made up ones (there’s a little Romeo & Juliet storyline inserted to keep Anne and Gilbert apart until the movie’s end), but they got Anne so right, I couldn’t even be mad, not even when they changed the plot to allow Matthew to live at the end. (Okay, that might have more to do with the fact that I love Matthew even more than I love Gilbert Blythe.)

I’ve always found it kind of strange that there’s never been a really great, really committed Anne of Green Gables movie made. The first three books of the series are tailor-made for it: pretty settings, period dresses, heartwarming drama, short episodic plots for children with short attention spans. The conservatives can approve of the family values; the liberals can approve of the fact that the “family” in question is non-traditional. The story is Canadian, and the Japanese inexplicably love it, so it’d do okay in the global market. The third book even has a love triangle that beats the pants off of Twilight‘s. It seems like a no-brainer.

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