Sunday, November 21, 2010

Movie Buff: Chick Flicks & Testosterone

All right. Here it is at long last, because someone actually demanded it: the Movie Buff feature. (And yes, I'm surprised as anyone that someone actually made a tangible, audible request. I know you're out there, lurkers. I can see your IP addresses.) Three of the following movies were viewed as part of the primary material for the class on Cosmetics and Aesthetics that I'm auditing, and one was for my own amusement. Try to determine which one; I'm sure you'll be pleasantly surprised.

. The first time I ever saw Ben Stiller was his guest appearance on Friends, waaaay back in 1997, season 3, episode 22, "The One With the Screamer." He played a crazy boyfriend of Rachel, who acted insane only when Ross was the only person in the room. And when your job is to make Ross seem like the preferable, sane alternative, you know your character is a little beyond the pale. Anyway, I don't know if it was the character he was playing, or just the association with Friends in general, but ever since, he's been a very hit and miss actor for me. In There's Something About Mary, he proved that a woman's choice is between either crazy men or bland, in Night at the Museum, he proved you don't have to be funny to carry a film, and in the Meet the Fockers series he proved that the funniest thing about a movie can be its title. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed his performances in Tropic Thunder, Arrested Development, and the Royal Tenenbaums.

In Zoolander, he plays a fashion model brainwashed to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia, whose non-child labor policies threaten the fashion industry. Also on hand are Owen Wilson, as a model/frenemy; Christine Taylor as the straight man (or woman, as the case may be); Jerry Stiller as the agent; and Will Farrell as the fashion mogul. The movie does a pretty good job of satirizing its target, portraying the models as airheads, the fashion executives as predatory animals dressed in clothes, and the fashion world at large as glitzy and ridiculous. That part's done well enough, but mocking the fashion world is like shooting at fish in a barrel, after you've removed all the water and replaced it with more fish. Essentially, how funny you'll find this movie is directly proportional to how much tolerance you have for Ben Stiller playing a role wherein he talks with an odd baby voice and Owen Wilson playing a role wherein he plays the same damn character he plays in every movie. It's light, fluff entertainment, which I guess is what it's meant to be.

Red. Also known as "that other action movie with all those old people in it." Red stars Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) as an ex-black ops agent trying to live out retirement when the same agency that employed him puts out a hit for him, and Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) as the innocent love-interest swept along for the ride. Also featuring John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, and Morgan Freeman as the team that he puts together to help him get to the bottom of it all. And for the record, let me add that Mary-Louise Parker looks amazing for a 46 year old woman. Or for a woman of any age. Or for the mammalia class. ...Probably didn't need that last bit. The movie itself is a series of amusing quips and death-defying stunts. And while I don't usually find the action genre very entertaining, here, it really works. I understand the movie was based on a graphic novel by Warren Ellis, which I think I've read. I say "I think" because I'm not 100% sure; one of Ellis' favorite subjects is the grizzled agent brought in for one last mission, and they all tend to blend together after a while. On those terms, Red is one of those rare adaptations that surpasses the original. While it'll stick in my head for its great cast of quality actors as much as for the comedic action sequences, it still left a far greater impact on me than the original.

My Fair Lady. BEST THREE HOURS I'VE EVER SPENT ON A MOVIE. You can take your Harry Potters, your Titanics, and your Lord of the Rings, and you can stuff them in a sack, mister. THIS is what truly qualifies as epic cinema. The plot is fairly well trod, even by the film's original 1964 debut: it's based on the 1938 movie Pygmalion, and the 1950s musical, which in turn were based on the original 1912 play by George Bernard Shaw. Philologist Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) makes a bet with Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) that he can turn flower-girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn, with Marni Nixon singing) into a proper English lady. Eliza's father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Stanley Holloway) tries to cash in on the situation, and succeeds better than his greatest dreams, and nightmares.

I had no idea just how many classic songs are in the movie: "The Rain in Spain," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "On the Street Where You Live," "Get Me To The Church On Time," "Accustomed to Her Face"--it's a broadway karoaker's dream. (Not that I'm saying it's MY dream, because---yeah, let's just move on.) Suffice to say, I can't wait to these all get stolen by Glee, and put into a mash-up with Jennifer Lopez's "My Love Don't Cost a Thing."

But for me, the real winning element of the film is its tight equation of the British class system, presentation, and gender relations. Higgins' basic point, that phonetics and appearance are crucial determiners for rank, is made over and over again. The contrast is neither more evident in the horse race scene, featured below:

Any semiologist worth her salt could spend hours dissecting the scene, but let's consider a few of the most obvious points. First, the clothes. There's a sharp delineation between the male and female, not only in type, but in color, the drab gray suits contrasting with the ostentatious blacks and white dresses. The purpose of the event has been entirely repurposed: rather than come to gamble on horses, everyone we see is there precisely to be seen, to be part of the living tableau. The lyrics reinforce this point: "Ev'ry duke and earl and peer is here// Ev'ryone who should be here is here." "Here" is repeated over and over--the only purpose to the event is to be seen as present at the event. Eliza, when she's finally introduced at some point after the 5 minute mark, has been domesticated to the point where she visually fits right in--except, of course, for the red rose. The one who appears most out of place is actually Henry Higgins, a point of irony that the film makes a few times, but usually in a subtle manner: in many ways, Higgins doesn't fit into the upper society that he is trying to force Eliza into any better than she does. The end of clip, featuring Eliza's eternal embarrassment, comes about as a transgression on multiple levels. In addition to uttering vulgarity, she also brings attention to the materiality of the horse race, and attention away from the upper class's own self-focus. By highlighting the spectacle, she becomes the spectacle.

Besides the class issue, there's a persistent gender concern throughout the film, one that's tied to the class issue in complex ways. From the beginning, Eliza declares over and over again that she has as much right as anyone, that her money is as good as anyone's, and that Higgins has no right to treat her as lesser. (In fact, by the end of the film, everyone gives the impression that, as a person, she's probably a few notches above him.) Higgins, for his part, is constantly trying to define Eliza as his creation, as his investment, and as his achievement. After she has been fully transformed, Eliza quickly comes to assert her independence and self-worth, but given the context (which is admittedly muddled, as it's a 1960s Hollywood re-imagining of early 20th century London), she doesn't have a lot of options. She can stay with Higgins, and suffer through a lifetime of condescension. Or go with Freddy, and spend a lifetime supporting him. Or go back to the gutter and die, or go and teach and wither as a lonely spinster. For a good-natured comedy romp, it's fairly bleak stuff. I understand in the original, she married Freddy, but stayed close friends with Higgins; although I understand why Hollywood would go a different way, that's probably the best course. She gets the intellectual engagement of the one man, and the devotion of the other. (And yes, the best solution is the fish/bicycle option where she's happy alone, but we work with the tools provided.) And this option also gets around another of the film's subtexts, that perhaps Mr. Henry Higgins is... not quite a lady's man, but... more of a... man's man.
Exhibit A:
Exhibit B:

Your honor, the prosecution rests.

Oh, and as a final note, while My Fair Lady is a wonderful film that I fully recommend, make sure you have enough time to watch the entire thing before your roommmates come home, 'cause boys are jerks.

She's the Man. All right, as my above 1000 word mash-note on My Fair Lady demonstrates, and my ownership of My Best Friend's Wedding proves, I am not a man who is above the occasional chick flick/girly movie. But this... this was annoying, on so many levels. Plot: stolen entirely from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. To the show's credit, it at least admits this theft straight out. So: Viola (Amanda Bynes) takes over her brother Sebastian's (James Kirk--note awesome name) life when he ditches it to head to London to be a musician for two weeks. Her intent is to go to the private school he is enrolled in to teach her former school that girls can play soccer as well as boys. And the most obvious way to do that is by pretending to be a boy and joining the rival school's soccer team and beating the original school. Because simply finding enough girls to fill out the roster at her school--which was the reason the girls' soccer team was eliminated in the first place--is plainly ridiculous. And along the way, as per plot regulations, she falls in love with Duke (Channing Tatum) who is in love with Olivia (Laura Ramsey), who, embarrassingly, is in love with Viola as Sebastian. (And the movie goes through some truly impressive convolutions to make sure Olivia's eventual transference of affection to the real Sebastian isn't as insane as it appears.)
There is, on the surface, a lot in the movie that COULD be appealing. There's a gender role subversion current, of course. And there's some interesting reflections on the state of adolescent masculinity, that "Sebastian" becomes automatically cool after Viola rejects some hot girls, and that the boys refuse to talk about things like their gooey emotions. There's some good acting performances, although they mostly come from peripheral characters such as David Cross as the principal, Emily Perkins as the oddball girl, and Vinnie Jones as absolutely terrifying--I mean, as the coach for the new school's soccer team. And there's something interesting about the way that all adults in the film--except Jones--are portrayed as idiotic buffoons. So yeah, there's... all that.

The problem is that the whole thing is so... perfunctory. It goes through the original Shakespeare plot, it adds a few soccer scenes, and... there's the film. Viola makes so many guffaws in the name of comedy that it seems utterly implausible that anyone, anyone, would be fooled by her performance. It's not the utter train wreck of, say, White Girls, but it is only a few steps above Betty and Wilma donning mustaches to sneak into the Water Buffalos. And while there is some passing resemblance, there is absolutely no way anyone would confuse Viola-as-Sebastian and Sebastian as the same person, once you've seen both. Finally, during the intimate heart-to-heart between Duke and a revealed Viola, I was supposed to be feeling for the star-crossed couple, but all I felt was annoyance at the constant stream of "Like, you know, I like you. And stuff."

I don't know. Maybe I'm just too old for this one. Is Bend It Like Beckham any good?

Later Days.

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