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.

It’s a Bikini World

January 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m kind of a sucker for beach party movies. I always have been, even before I started watching old movies in earnest. I should probably clarify, though, that when I say “beach party movies” I don’t actually mean Beach Party movies, the classic AIP series–you know, Frankie and Annette fighting about whether or not they’ll get married via song, while Eric Von Zipper engages in Kooky Capers in the background. The emphasis on Kooky Capers and Wild Hijinks is, actually, what kills that series for me; I can put up with them in small doses, but the AIP series has no sense of restraint. What I really love are the precursors (Where the Boys Are, the Gidget series), the shameless and usually terrible rip-offs (It’s a Bikini World, Girls on the Beach), the imitators who were at least original enough to shift the action elsewhere while still ripping off the plots (Palm Springs Weekend, Get Yourself a College Girl). Some of these blended the frothy bikini-laden plots with drama, some of them simply melded the plot with a sense of humor that dialed back the wackiness just ten percent or so–and either way, for me the result is 90 minutes of pure guilty pleasure.

While watching It’s a Bikini World, I realized exactly why I’ve always loved this genre so much: a beach party movie is essentially an extended episode of Saved by the Bell. Like most kids who came of age in the early ’90s, I literally grew up with Saved by the Bell–two or three hours of episodes were on every day when I came home from school, from age 8 on up. There are episodes I’ve seen–literally–20 or 30, maybe even 40 times. Even now, fifteen years after I’ve watched the show with any regularity, I could still turn on an episode and tell you how the entire plot will unfold after watching about ten seconds. Saved by the Bell has pretty much fused itself to my DNA, predisposing me to like anything that shares enough similarities to it. And the similarities between a beach party movie and a Saved by the Bell episode are many: attractive California teenagers in bikinis, broadly drawn personality “types,” the token nerd friend who’s infiltrated the clan of popular kids, goofy plots often centered around battles of the sexes or elaborate deceptions, a cool hangout where the whole gang congregates, a general lack of parents, maybe one authority figure that makes sporadic appearances, gags that are run into the ground, the occasional musical interlude. Zack Morris even stole Frankie’s gambit of talking directly to the camera! Peter Engel must’ve been a hell of a fan of Muscle Beach Party.

The movie that prompted me to connect the two was It’s a Bikini World. In it, independent Delilah (Deborah Walley) spurns cocky surfer Mike (Tommy Kirk), so he invents a shy, dorky twin brother named Herbert in order to win her affections. (That’s a Saved by the Bell plot if I’ve ever heard one, complete with the only difference between Mike and Herbert being a pair of thick-rimmed glasses.) Delilah spends the rest of the film’s running time competing with Mike in various competitions–skateboarding, boat racing–and wondering why Herbert never comes to support her. Of course, she ultimately figures out that they’re the same person, and Mike must properly atone before they can get together for real. The plot is punctuated with appearances by the Animals singing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (they also appeared in Get Yourself a College Girl), the Gentrys (best known for “Keep On Dancing,” although they don’t sing it here), the Castaways, and girl group the Toys. My favorite part was the monster mouth-shaped stage the bands performed on, making them look as if they’re about to get swallowed alive, Jonah-style.

The movie’s wikipedia page describes it as a pro-feminist film, probably because of its battle-of-the-sexes plot . . . but “girls consistently losing to boys and ultimately only beating them because they lost on purpose” doesn’t strike me as particularly feminist, even for the ’60s. Maybe the most feminist part of the movie is that it was directed by a woman, Stephanie Rothman, in a time where female directors were almost freakishly rare. Rothman, the first female director to gain entrance to the Directors’ Guild of America, eventually became associated with her later exploitation flicks, although she insists that she did them not because she wanted to but because no other paths were open to her as a female director.

I should probably clarify that when I say I prefer movies like this to the real Beach Party flicks, it’s not because they’re better movies. They are, in fact, significantly worse in pretty much all ways that count–the production values are lower, the story is a blatant rip-off, Tommy Kirk is very Disney Teen Star as the leading man. But somehow–at least for me–all that actually works in their favor. The slick packaging of the AIP series always leads me to expect more than they deliver. But in a movie like It’s a Bikini World, I can enjoy the last wacky race sequences as a little bit of goofy fun rather than getting exasperated they’re not dishing out something better, the way I always do with the Beach Party movies. Small blessings, I guess.

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

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?

Christmas in Connecticut

December 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

The set-up for this movie is utterly ridiculous, but the pay-off is so adorable I can forgive it. The first time I watched Christmas in Connecticut, I texted my best friend, “I’m watching this bizarre movie where soldiers pretend to propose marriage to nurses, solely to get home-cooked meals out of them.” And that’s half the premise for this movie: sailor Jefferson Jones, rescued from a raft after his ship was sunk by a u-boat, flirts with his nurse so that she’ll hook him up with better food. He eludes her suggestions of marriage, though, which she ascribes to his “never having had a real home” growing up–so she arranges for him to spend the holidays at the home of Smart Housekeeping columnist Elizabeth Lane, a home front Martha Stewart type. And here’s the other half of the movie’s premise: while Mrs. Lane depicts herself in the magazine pages as a model housewife, complete with doting husband, bouncing baby, and Connecticut farmhouse . . . in reality she’s an unmarried New Yorker, dependent on take-out and putting off marriage offers from a long-term boyfriend. After her publisher forces her into the bring-a-soldier-home-for-the-holidays publicity scheme, she’s forced to cobble together something resembling domestic perfection on the fly. Screwball antics ensue, but Elizabeth doesn’t find it quite so funny when she starts falling for Mr. Jones . . .

Old comedies can be touchy–to modern eyes, the humor can be too hokey, too dated, too wacky. But the humor really worked for me here; it was enjoyable without going to too far over the top. And while I liked the two leads together, the film did, unfortunately, strike one of my old movie nerves in regards to its love triangle.  In 1930s and ’40s movies, and occasionally even into some later ones, a woman is generally considered “single” until she’s married, with the unattached partner in a love triangle free to guiltlessly pursue her until the moment she actually says her vows–and even then it’s no serious moral failing to keep pushing her to stray, as Jefferson Jones does here. (Of course, if they do actually stray, then by Hays Code injunction, they must be Severely Punished to Discourage Copycat Offenders. But here it’s okay because even though he thinks she’s married, she’s not! Nothing wrong with that!) To a modern viewer, this comes off as mighty cold–modern rom-coms generally require a little more compunction for chasing after a taken woman. I should be used to it by now, fan of golden-era musicals (in all their partner-swapping glory) that I am, but it still always throws me for a loop, as it did here. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to shake my preference for the men who stand politely on the sidelines until their number’s called, so to speak.

To make up for it, though, we have all that glorious food. I love to cook, butone of my niche obsessions is cooking history–the trends and dishes associated with a particular era–and for that, Christmas in Connecticut is a goldmine. A few years back, Raquelle put together a menu based on the movie: Chicken Maryland! Plum pudding! Strawberries Chantilly! They don’t make food like that anymore . . . which, in some cases, is probably for the best.

The Man Who Came to Dinner

December 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

The Man Who Came to Dinner is, hands down, my favorite Christmas movie. In it, radio personality Sheridan Whiteside is invited to dine at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley of Mesalia, Ohio, just before Christmastime. On his way up their icy front steps, he slips and falls, breaking his hip. Confined to their house for the entire holiday season, he entertains himself by making himself at home: receiving dinner guests of his own, terrorizing his nurse and monopolizing the domestics, meddling in the family’s affairs . . . and don’t forget receiving elaborate Christmas presents, like the crate of penguins from Antarctic explorer Admiral Byrd, which he allows free reign of the Stanleys’ library.

Monty Woolley is hilarious as unwanted house guest Sheridan Whiteside, and Bette Davis is just Bette Davis enough to play off his barbs in her role as his assistant. With the two of them spending the entire movie sparring and scheming, the entire film has enough bite to cut through the usual holiday comedy treacle. I prefer my holiday films with a little bit of acid mixed in with the sugar–of which The Man Who Came to Dinner doesn’t neglect, with a love-at-first-sight affair between Bette Davis and the local newspaperman.

Not everybody prefers that acidity, though. Popular opinion on this film is highly divided between those who find Whiteside’s reign of terror hilarious and those who find it sadistic and uncomfortable to watch. And while I usually fall into the latter camp while watching movies and TV–I get mad at Leslie on Parks & Rec when she’s mean to Jerry!–Sheridan Whiteside is so over the top, so downright absurd, that I can’t help laughing. And it definitely helps if you’re able to get the jokes. The first time I saw this, my freshman year of college, I found it amusing, but there were so many then-current pop culture references that I didn’t understand, so a lot of the film flew over my head. Now, with three solid years of classic movie-watching (and a little history-reading) under my belt, I actually know who Deanna Durbin and ZaSu Pitts are, who the characters of Beverly Carlton and Banjo are supposed to reference. That makes the whole thing a hell of a lot funnier. While Bette Davis gets much more praise for her dramatic acting than for her skills in comedy, I genuinely do enjoy her funnier films. Her intelligence has a way of elevating any film she’s in, regardless of the script, and I always appreciate her comedic turns just as much as I do the dramatic ones. And when she’s blessed with a clever script like this one . . .

As a final bonus, there’s Monty Woolley’s amazing mustache. I mean . . . come on.

Holiday Affair

December 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

This is a cute little confection of a holiday movie, although–in my admittedly biased opinion–it suffers from the same problem as a lot of holiday movies, which is that it’s overly reliant on a Cute Kid to tug at our heartstrings and move the plot forward. I’m biased against Cute Kids. I want them out of my movies. As children go, I suppose this one isn’t that bad, though, and the lightweight little love triangle works for me. Janet Leigh tries to decide between just-fired toy salesman Robert Mitchum and steady boyfriend/lawyer Wendell Corey–although, as Mitchum points out late in the film, it’s really not just a triangle since Janet’s dead husband is still just as alive to her as any of the men courting her. Throw in a little bit of Christmas shopping, some roasted chestnuts, and a picturesque snowfall or two, and you’ve got a solid movie to watch while you curl up with a mug of hot cocoa and a blanket or two.

And this is how you do a love triangle, folks. No making the original partner an obviously weaker option than the secondary partner. No making the original partner a jerk, leaving the audience to wonder what the protagonist saw in them in the first place. No last-second personality whiplash on the original partner’s part, justifying the protagonist leaving them. No killing off one party or forcing him to cheat or moving him halfway across the country. You just have two equally “worthy” candidates and you let the protagonist choose the one she likes best. The one who loses bows out gracefully–or, in this case, bows out gracefully in anticipation of a loss. This is a love triangle for grown-ups.

Of course, the risk you run with a grown-up love triangle is that it doesn’t successfully convince your audience that your protagonist made the right choice. I like to call this Sleepless in Seattle Syndrome. “But Bill Pullman was such a nice guy!” they say. “Why would she leave somebody she’s stable and comfortable with? He didn’t cheat on her, he treated her well, he supported her. She’s going to regret that.” The answer, being, of course, that sometimes people fall in love with people for no logical reason whatsoever. That’s love. It’s what it does.

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