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?

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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 . . .

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.

Teenage Rebel

May 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

The movie is called Teenage Rebel, and here’s one of its promo posters:


(I also dig this Italian one.)

But far from the visions of black leather and liquor flasks that this marketing campaign conjures up, the most rebellious thing that anyone does in this movie is to leave her mother’s house without asking in order to hit up the malt shop. Literally. The malt shop.

The film is frothier than a root beer float, and while the producers were clearly trying to capitalize on the success of Rebel without a Cause the year before, it’s hard to see how they thought they were going to get away with it. It’s got Ginger Rogers in it, for pete’s sake!* And malt shops! But while their promotions department was ripping off Rebel without a Cause, somebody who would eventually contribute to the 1961 film The Parent Trap must have had their eye on this movie . . .

While Deanna Durbin’s Three Smart Girls is generally regarded as the forerunner for The Parent Trap, and Lotte and Lisa is the acknowledged source material, I’d hazard a guess that somebody at Disney liked this Ginger Rogers vehicle an awful lot, too. Teenage Rebel has no twins, but there’s an awful lot of other plot recycling going on. Let’s recap: Its protagonist is a child of divorced parents who live on opposite coasts, one in California and one in the Northeast. The California parent is cool and relaxed–the “I’m not your dad, I’m your friend” kind of parent–while the east coast parent is uptight and high-strung. Their respective houses, too, reflect their personalities, with the California house warm and sunny and the east coast house stuffy and imposing. The plot revolves around the father getting remarried to someone the daughter perceives as a gold digger. Also, there’s a Big Dance where Everything Changes.

Granted, these are pretty standard movie tropes–and The Parent Trap uses them in much more enjoyable and effective ways than Teenage Rebel tries to. I’m not alleging plagiarism, just inspiration. Still, it’s odd that so many of the same stereotypes would be employed in exactly the same ways from film to film . . . and I’ll touch on the whys and wherefores of that in an upcoming post, “Best Coast: Teen Movies and the California Dream.”

* This film is worth watching if solely to see how good Ginger looks at 44. But that’s pretty much the only reason.

White Folks in the Tropics: a Cinematic Celebration

April 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

I’ve discovered a new mid-century film subgenre! For the time being, let’s call it Jungle Love. (No, not that kind of jungle love. Given that the title of this blog includes the word “sex,” though, I have plenty of kinky Google searches leading to it. Might as well add to it!) This subgenre I’ve discovered combines elements of the romance, adventure, and melodrama genres into one entirely new fusion. Here are the essential elements:

  • Pretty white people. Often, a 25-year-old actress paired with a 50-year-old leading man.
  • An exotic, tropical setting largely populated by brown people. Often a plantation. India or Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) is the most common, but the rest of Asia, Africa, or even the Caribbean can substitute in a pinch. (For some reason South America is vastly underused for this purpose–maybe because the Brits never owned it.)
  • Romantic Complications. Usually this takes the form of a love triangle, but it can also consist of double love triangles (whoa!), love quadrangles, or simply one of those classic I-love-you-I-hate-you, back-and-forth pairings.
  • The interference of nature: generally a natural disaster, a plague, or a wild animal attack. Some ambitious films (I’m looking at you, Rains of Ranchipur) manage to cram in all three. This interference is generally meant to up the emotional stakes for the romantic leads (and maybe even kill off the unchosen party of a love triangle), but to a post-colonial viewer, just highlights the extreme self-centeredness of the protagonists, who keep blathering about their love lives even as thousands of “natives” die off in the background shots.

Bonus points awarded for:

  • Minor royalty.
  • Prostitutes/”good time girls”/”companions” (if we’re in the Hays Code era).
  • Blackface. Or yellowface . . . in most cases, literally orangeface, as the 1950s Hollywood attempt at making white characters look Indian was to spray them with a particularly garish, neon shade of self-tanner.

Need examples? Keep reading.

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Last Summer

February 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

For girls, there is this weird phase in your teenage years where, after emerging from a long, awkward spell of glasses, braces and terrible skin, you emerge into a world where you are suddenly considered a sex object. All of a sudden, men catcall you from across the street and honk at you from their cars. All of a sudden, all your guy friends want to date you. All of a sudden, men twice your age start to ogle you when you’re out running in shorts and a sports bra. This can be especially jarring since, in a lot of cases, it’s only been a year or two since you were wearing a training bra and your parents wouldn’t let you stay home by yourself at night. Girls respond to this developmental whiplash in different ways: being (understandably) grossed out, being flattered, or scared–but there is a certain type of girl who loves the power that this new-found attention so much that she purposely puts herself in situations where she can use her body to manipulate and coerce others into doing whatever she wants, oblivious to how much it hurts other people.

That girl is Sandy in Last Summer.

Last Summer was adapted from a novel of the same title, wherein (allegedly) Sandy is essentially Lady Hitler, and designed to stand in as a symbol of the evils of fascism. The two boys, her followers, are the Nazis that blindly do her bidding and thus are equally as guilty. (I haven’t read the novel so I don’t know if this was the author’s actual intention. I just read it on IMDB, so . . . take this interpretation with a grain of salt.) The movie makes two of the characters–Sandy, the beautiful leader, and Peter, the kinder of her two followers–less brutal and thus more nuanced than they are in the book, and I think this does a favor to the plot. Sandy, rather than evil personified, becomes a girl who is just beginning to grasp the power that her looks and body have over men. As a control freak who demands to hold sway over everyone in her immediate circle, she’s willing to take that control to sadistic–yet realistic–ends. She establishes her power over the boys early in the film, when she seduces them into getting drunk and telling her their secrets. Her desire to mold the world around her to her exact specifications is foretold in the opening scene, where she nurses an injured seagull back to health–and later on, despite spending hours making it a harness and training it to fly, smashes its head open against a rock after it rebels and bites her. This process will be mirrored in the trio’s adoption and subsequent rape of Rhoda, a conscientious but socially awkward young girl whose loneliness pushes her to seek out their friendship. The three of them teach her to swim, dress her up in bikinis, and in Peter’s case, even woo her–only for Sandy to order her destruction and humiliation when Rhoda refuses to worship Sandy’s beauty in the way the boys do. (The line Rhoda utters that finally sets Sandy off: “Sandy, put your top back on.”)

Peter, on the other hand, is made out to be the film’s moral center (which he is certainly not in the book), and the viewer certainly can identify, to a point, with his vacillations between the charismatic but vicious Sandy and the thoughtful but gawky Rhoda. But our identification with him only makes the film’s final scenes all the more chilling. While the movie supposedly portrays him as slightly less cold than the novel, it’s only slightly: he still takes place in the final rape, although in the film it’s “merely” to hold her down rather than to actually take his turn with her the way he does in the book. While the trio hikes out of the woods after the assault, he has a hard time keeping up with Sandy and Dan, and pauses atop a sand dune. While the camera pans over his distressed face before it pulls away to take in the dunes, the beach, the entire island and eventually the sunset gleaming on the water, we can tell that he’s extremely disturbed by what he’s not only allowed to happen but enabled. But strikingly, we don’t get the impression that he’s so appalled that he’d never allow himself to fall under Sandy’s spell or commit random acts of violence at her bequest ever again. He’ll toss and turn that night, but tomorrow Sandy will take her bikini top off again and bring him another beer, and so it’ll go, until the summer ends.

Where the Boys Are (1960)

December 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Mild spoilers.

Few movies manage to visually capture a Midwest winter quite like the opening moments of Where the Boys Are. Our heroines converge outside of their college lecture hall, sneezing and sniffling, slipping on the ice. Snow piles up around them; snowflakes the size of quarters whip around their hooded heads. Merritt isn’t sure that she’ll be able to go on their spring break trip–she has too much schoolwork and is on the verge of failing out of school, despite an IQ of 138–but finally takes a look around her and declares, “If I see one more inch of snow, just one more flake, I’m going to absolutely barf!” And thus our group is on the road to Fort Lauderdale.

Storytelling wisdom holds that if you have a quartet of girls or women as your main characters, they must fall into the following stereotypes:

  • the naive sweetheart (or, taking this to its extreme, the bimbo/goofball)
  • the sexpot/the flirt
  • the ball-buster/the tomboy
  • the smart, normal one that we’re supposed to relate to

See: Little Women, Sex and the City, Golden Girls, the original Baby-Sitters Club, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Living Single, Now and Then. Where the Boys Are is no exception to this four-woman pack of stereotypes, and here we get:

  • Paula Prentiss as the goofy Tuggle, who wants nothing more than to become “a walking, talking baby factory”
  • Yvette Mimieux as beautiful Melanie, who’s desperate to hook up with an Ivy Leaguer
  • Connie Francis as “captain of the girls’ hockey team” Angie, who has no luck with men
  • Dorores Hart as Merritt, our practical narrator, who’s trying to find a balance between love and sex

The four of them descend upon Florida with one collective goal: to be where the boys are. Tuggle immediately meets a goofy Michigan State student who introduces himself as T.V., and the two of them spend most of the film tug-of-warring over their conflicting desires: sex (his) versus marriage (hers). Angie struggles to attract any boys whatsoever, eventually settling for a bespectacled jazz musician who’s the only one to express interest. Melanie finds the Ivy Leaguer of her heart, but quickly gets in over her head with him. And Merritt, least interested in sex of them all, stumbles upon her dream date without even trying.

To modern eyes, Where the Boys Are can’t seem to make up its mind: it comes in as a sex comedy, flounders in the middle, and goes out like a sexual morality tale. This film was actually a forerunner to the entire genre of teen sex comedies–the parallels to later films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or American Pie are obvious in the way the girls joke about sex in jaded tones. But as Merritt points out later, it’s “all talk.” All of the girls are virgins going in, and the only one who no longer is at the film’s close ends up regretting it. For all its debate about sex in its opening scenes, where Merritt argues with her professor that telling girls to stay virgins until marriage is unrealistic, Where the Boys Are serves up a moral that’s ultimately sexually conservative. Melanie is severely punished for losing her virginity: a rumor goes around that she’s easy, and she is subsequently raped, the trauma from which leaves her mentally disturbed, wandering through traffic in a daze. After not sleeping with the men they’re dating, the other girls are rewarded with boyfriends (albeit some of questionable merit), and Merritt, in particular, wins out: her man, Ryder, turns out to be an unbelievably wealthy, intelligent Ivy Leaguer who wants to continue dating her after they leave Florida.

Although it reflects the values of the early ’60s–its depiction of the Fort Lauderdale spring break culture of that era is practically an anthropological study–the film has aged remarkably well. Its debates about “hook-up culture,” when to sleep together, and whether abstinence-only education is realistic seem surprisingly modern, and help to raise it above the average ’60s beach party flick. Still, a more nuanced ending might have helped. Instead, we get this takeaway: put out and you will get raped and go insane, stay pure and you’ll be rewarded with all your wildest dreams come true.

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