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Archive for April, 2011

The world of media has been full of flash, bang, and pizzazz ever since color TV, slick editing, and digital music started finding its way into the hands of filmmakers with a penchant for flamboyance. Sometimes, as an observer of film, I find myself automatically putting myself on guard when I watch big budget flicks. Maybe it’s because I’m one of those peculiar “Sundance” creepers who values simplicity and efficiency over pyrotechnics and car chases. That’s possibly a reason why James Bond films don’t really entertain me much. I find the idea of a globetrotting, invincible, hyper-masculine super spy to be a little too farfetched to engage seriously. You Only Live Twice was yet another Bond movie that tried to make a story out of the prominent issues that were shaping the social landscape of the mid 60’s. Unfortunately, the movie favored high speeds, slick thingamajigs, submissive and sparsely clad Japanese spy girls, and a smattering of improbable pyrotechnic scenarios over giving more prominence to dainty details like an INTERESTING PLOT.

You Only Live Twice was a movie that was made and released during a time where the global arena of politics was experiencing historic ripples that would later make it to the textbooks of our times. The world was experiencing the frantic excitement of two superpowers in the world vying to explore the vast unknown of space that had eluded mankind for millennia. The war on Vietnam was being fought over in the tropics of Southeast Asia and the world had new problems to face while having no new answers to solve them with. I feel that the James Bond franchise would have been the ideal medication for moviegoers who wanted entertainment that could give them an action packed ride full of thrills, lust, and testosterone while being played out in a reality where the issues of the real world were diluted and made easier to digest.

In the movie, James Bond, played by that maverick of the silver screen Sean Connery, is dispatched to crack down on the mysterious disappearances of American spacecraft orbiting the earth. Confusion and puzzlement follow as Soviet spacecraft start disappearing, and neither the Soviets nor Americans claim any responsibility for the vanishing space shuttles. As Bond cracks down on the mystery, a much more sinister plan by a much more ominous source is revealed. The SPECTRE organization, a secret superpower with greater technological sophistication than the Americans or Russians, led by its diabolical leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld, is revealed to be the shuttle-nappers. Without any rational reason, SPECTRE plans to create complete chaos between the super powers, and it seemed like Ernst Stavro Blofeld had his popcorn and kitty delights ready to enjoy the pandemonium that ensued. But that was only until 007 had something to say about it.

This is what evil looks like.

Predictably, the movie ends with Sean Connery vanquishing all the evil in the world and proceeding to reward himself by indulging in the carnal pleasures only known to those who have enjoyed the personal company of beautiful female Japanese super spies. Roger Ebert got it spot on when he said the movie was “top-heavy with gadgets but weak on plotting and getting everything to work at the same time.” Something that surely didn’t work with You Only Live Twice might have been the fact that they probably failed to tickle the funnybones of modern day feminists. The overt sexism in the movie goes to show how 40 years can make things of the past seem extremely out of place today. Not only do the Bond women have to look, act, talk, and breathe sex, lust, and seduction, they also have to do typical female things like overcome the tough volcanic terrains of coastal Japan wearing nothing but a bikini. While Bond and the rest of the ballsy boys of his ninja team would thrash around Blofeld’s volcanic hideaway in hardy bodysuits, the traditional sacramental female offering to James Bond would avoid bullets and other harmful projectiles by the divine grace of her smooth skin and skimpy two-piece swimsuit.

The contrast in the portrayal of women today, compared to the days of Sean Connery’s adventures, should make us feel fortunate that we live in a time of greater sophistication and humanity. The filmmaker displaced the real world conflict between the cold war superpowers and shifted it to an unusual looking psychopath in a Nehru suit and an undisclosed Asian country that could only be personified by China. While I felt that issues such as the complicated political climate of the time should have given more prominence in the storyline, the experience and expertise of the filmmaker clearly told him that juicy cleavage shots, together with a bunch of space age gadgetry making things go “bang!” would get the audience into a frenzy of action packed delight faster than you could say “stirred, not shaken.” Unfortunately, that’s what James Bond was and still is; a celluloid dreamworld where reality is thrust to the background while sex, guns, and masculinity blows you away.

He should be used for an Axe ad!

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Hairspray (2007)

Despite my aversion to musicals, I would be lying if I said that the new Hairspray was completely awful. Even though it included teeny bop sensation Zac Effron and many cheesy, feel good songs that would make a misanthropic cynic such as yours truly retch his insides out, the new Hairspray was unexpectedly bearable for a teen musical. The new version was almost identical to its predecessor, although I personally felt that it was less “campier”, had more moments of seriousness, and briefly diverted its course to address a few more issues than John Waters’ 1988 original.

“Pleasantly plump” Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonski) is a dreamer in a time where America needed much dreaming as Martin Luther King famously asserted on the hallowed steps of the Lincoln Memorial, not too far from the time of Tracy’s melodic escapades. Chubby though she may be, her unassuming mobility and nimbleness when in dance mode lands her on the popular Baltimore dance program, the “Corny Collins Show” hosted by the show’s namesake, and peculiarly named Corny Collins, played by James Mardsen. The cats on the dance floor of the Corny Collins show are a bunch of white teenagers attired in the gaudy garbs of 60’s, churning out twists, turns, and fancy shuffles to the tunes of 60’s pop music. Tracy’s weight and her radical idea of integrating the all white show with the monthly Corny Collins “Negro Day” make her instantly unpopular with the show’s racist producer Velma von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her bratty daughter Amber, who happens to be the reigning queen of the show’s annual Miss Teenage Hairspray contest. Tracy’s popularity in the show leads her, her friends, and family through a series of events that would ultimately end up in the glorious unification of black and white on the TV’s of Baltimore for the first time in history. The story has a happy ending, as anyone would predict by looking at the poster of the film or the cover of the DVD, and Tracy manages to score with the Corny Collins Show’s teenage heartthrob Link Larkin (Zac Effron), while getting her bashful mom (played by John Travolta in a fat suit) to burn up the dance floor in an epic display of gloriously portly boogieing.

Like the previous Hairspray, the new installment goes against the established order and tries to defy popular stereotypes, even though those confrontations are accompanied by the cheesy sound of 60’s pop . Chubby Tracy Turnblad personifies the stab at the establishment by dancing her way to being a hero that the director would hope that all teenagers could take a cue from. She characterizes the new age of young Americans that were not afraid of taking on the misguided prejudices of the previous generation. The new Hairspray also gives more screen time to blacks compared to its predecessor, and gives a good share of the movie to Tracy’s escapades with the “notorious” bunch of Motormouth Maybelle’s (Queen Latifah) posse of “troublemakers.” The film also takes a stab at addressing contemporary issues such as adultery by having John “Fat Suit” Travolta walk in on (her?) Tracy’s joke shop proprietor dad (Christopher Walken) at the climax of Velma von Tussle’s out-and-out attempt to tempt him into poking his pogo stick into unlawful territories. It also seems like religion is not in the good graces of the filmmaker as Christianity takes a hit with the portrayal of Prudence Pingleton, Tracy’s best friend’s fundamentalist acolyte mother. Although these episodes occur inside the larger plot of Tracy’s radical boogie bop to moral triumph, they do not distract the viewer too much from the main story, and these diversions add more color to the film’s final outcome.

“How can you not like a movie in which John Travolta and Christopher Walken sing a love song to each other?” asks DVDTown.com’s John J. Puccio. Although I may personally digress from Puccio’s opinion because I didn’t entirely warm up to the film since its musical and campy character, I do agree that much of the film’s success was due to Travolta and Walken playing their parts well, and with great relish. The movie wasn’t horrible overall, and I was reasonably happy to have a musical get my feet tapping, although I usually don’t find myself doing that. Plus, I don’t see how Michelle Pfeiffer’s erotic nastiness wouldn’t rub off well on the men in the movie theater. Kinkiness would never be a bad thing, as long as it’s coming from Michelle Pfeiffer, Charlize Theron, Mila Kunis, or any Hollywood starlet for that matter. I’m sure the guys (and some girls of course) wouldn’t disagree. And let us chant to the tone and tempo of the undying rallying cry of the modern protester: Conservatism never! Kinkiness forever!

How can anyone say no to this?

 

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The word “camp” was given a redefinition after I read Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” last night. I really didn’t know what to expect before I read the article. For me, “camp” signified a place that was defined by a sense of adventure. An isolated haven; a retreat; which people could escape to. A camp was a place where you take a break to go and kill a few small animals, roast them over a spit and consume them. It was fun. Adventurous. But this NEW “camp” redefined the word to describe the feeling of “cheesiness”, or exaggeration created by watching an overacted, ostentatious movie for example. You know, that feeling when you get when you see an overly eager actor trying too hard? Imagine that; except everyone is doing it. In that sense, Hairspray (delightfully) earned my recognition as being the *campiest* movie I’ve seen. Although I didn’t enjoy the movie very much at the outset, I realized that Hairspray has more serious than it appeared to be when I started doing some background research on it.

The movie was directed by John Waters and was released in 1988. It tells the story of Tracy Turnbald, a plump young teenage dance sensation in 1960’s Baltimore and her showbiz stint that led to the desegregation of a popular teenage dance show. The movie is overly melodramatic and stylized, complete with outrageous hairstyles, deliberate exaggeration, and moments of complete outlandishness. But the story carried a greater significance; that of political and moral change, in its larger-than-life storyline. Inspired by real events and a time of radical change that was sparked by the civil rights movement, Hairspray joined the ranks of movies that sought to create a story that addressed issues such as racism and female empowerment. Personally, watching the movie was less appealing than reading more about its context and understanding the background of this movie.

The movie’s heroine, Tracy Turnbald, is a complete departure from the conventional movie heroine of the time. She is the kind of person who would appeal to those who lived by the adage “bigger is better” or “the bigger the cushion, the sweeter the pushin'” (thank you for that Spinal Tap. You are the masters of the universe).  Chubby though she was, Tracy personified the very essence of change that characterized the 60’s. She was a woman. She was chubby. And she wanted change. She was the antithesis to the standard movie hero and ordinary white Southerner that the 60’s and 70’s were used to seeing. Change was going to come. And Tracy Turnbald was going to dance her way to making that happen.

Tracy in all her glory.

Kim Newman of Empire Magazine says that Hairspray was “thoroughly deserving of its cult status”. I personally hate musicals, so I didn’t really enjoy watching the movie and its over-acted antics. But looking back on its context, I can see how the film would have made an impression on a lot of people. It was an underdog story. Here was a girl who everyone would hardly ever notice (except at the lunch counter), getting out there, giving the downtrodden some hope, and the unrealistic klutzes some sense. It was an adventure just like heading out to real a camp. Cheesy it might have been, but I don’t have any scruples with something with a timely and feel good message like that.

Or a hairstyle like that!

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