Films #99-100: Crossroads (2002) & Burlesque (2010)

film 99 crossroads

Ratings: Crossroads, 2/5; Burlesque, 3/5

“All we have is now, and right now we have each other.”
“I will not be upstaged by some slut with mutant lungs!”

One hundred films watched, finally – and what better way to hit the milestone than to celebrate with a 90s-pop-star-to-movie-star-showdown? Yes, it’s Britney Spears in Crossroads versus Christina Aguilera in Burlesque, with a dash of Cher thrown in for good measure. It goes without saying these are cheesy movies but, despite the suggestively low-to-average ratings, they’re both great fun (if you’re that way inclined, I suppose).

First up: Crossroads. Britney is Lucy, virginal do-gooder and all-round nice girl with some abandonment issues thanks to her mother leaving her as a young child. She and her two childhood friends had buried a time capsule many years ago, but as the years passed, these three best friends have grown up, and grown apart. Lucy’s a smokin’ hot dork, Kit (Zoe Saldana, long before carving a name for herself in some of the biggest movie franchises around) is a rich bitch with mummy issues, and Mimi (Taryn Manning) is pregnant by some loser. But it’s finally their high school prom, and the three temporarily put aside their differences to open the box and remember their hopes and dreams. This, naturally, leads to the three embarking on a road trip to LA in a classic convertible with a handsome older man, Ben (Anson Mount) who may or may not have just been released from jail for murder. It’s a coming of age roadtrip movie – they’re all at the crossroads of their lives, you see?

The film is shoddy, to say the least. The plot makes little or no sense, and the characters react in ways that never consider the big picture: the girls find out that Ben may have killed someone while on their road trip, yet continue to antagonise him at every given moment. They may be freaking out in the motel bathroom that they’re going to be murdered and buried in the desert, but two minutes later they’ve apparently forgotten the entire thing. Mimi is planning on going to LA to compete in a recording contest, but develops stage fright the first second she has to sing in public, and almost instantaneously hands over the mike to Lucy and forgets her dream. Kit oddly switches between stereotypical black girl (saying things like “y’all” and getting shouty when drunk) and prim white rich girl. Lucy is a wallflower, but the second she puts on a denim mini-skirt she suddenly becomes a raunchy, pole-dancing showgirl. Ben has no personality whatsoever, but is generally pleasing to the eye so gets away with throwing tantrums in the desert. He also listens exclusively to heavy metal, but writes the music to one of the soppiest pop songs ever (Britney’s mediocre soulful hit, I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman). This does at least, lead to one of the most cringeworthy moments in the whole movie, when he plays the song to Lucy on a white grand piano, as she does that classic 90s, breathy “na na na na” singalong. Yes, there are plenty of moments to groan through and laugh at.

There’s very little actually good about Crossroads – the acting is perfunctory at best (as the biggest name after Britney, Dan Aykroyd sleepwalks through his role as her dad), the narrative incoherent, and one important scene is marred by the constant disappearance and reappearance of a toothbrush in Mimi’s hair. The biggest problem, however, is that the girls are supposed to be eighteen – and therefore adults – yet look and act like they’re about thirteen. Meanwhile Ben is, admittedly, older, but looks a good ten years older than these teens, making the whole thing more than a little uncomfortable. It’s also a surprisingly dark movie – although the overarching themes are ultra-cheesy (friendship, family, finding yourself, growing up) the individual characters’ stories include parental abandonment, cheating, potential murder and rape, with pregnant Mimi in particular suffering a number of harrowing blows. It adds another layer of awkwardness to the movie, which seems to be confused as to who its target audience is: the tweens who love Britney as a pop star, or the young adults who are her actual age. Consequently, it fails to really appeal to either – but as a nostalgic throwback to a time when double denim was the height of fashion, it’s camp, stupid, unintentionally hilarious, and very entertaining. I’m Not a Girl is still a terrible song though.

film 100 burlesque

Next up: Britney’s rival, Christina, in Burlesque. Capitalising on the sudden resurgence of burlesque as a female-empowered, ultra-glamorous performance art, the film sees Ali (Aguilera) packing her things and leaving her small town for the lights and sights of LA – whereas Lucy’s journey ends at the City of Angels, Ali’s begins there. We learn nothing whatsoever about Ali’s homelife – she doesn’t appear to have any family or friends, for example. In LA she tries to make it as a singer-dancer, but isn’t having any luck until she happens upon the outwardly understated Burlesque club (that’s what it’s called, apparently) and instantly falls in love with the razzmatazz and spectacle of the whole thing. Luckily she walks in just as the club’s owner Tess (Cher) is singing a conveniently informative song all about burlesque and what it can offer you. Determined to make it, Ali becomes a waitress at the club, learns all the routines, befriends hunky (possibly gay) bartender/songwriter Jack (Cam Gigandet wearing some guyliner) and waits for her chance. Luckily the club’s lead dancer is an unreliable, spiteful alcoholic, and it’s not long before Ali is saving the day by singing live rather than lipsynching to songs.

Burlesque has one massive, glaring problem: it has almost no burlesque in it. The club is not a bump-and-grind venue, but a cabaret show – the girls don’t take their clothes off, because this is a 12A-rated movie; instead they perform vaguely risqué dance routines to famous songs, while wearing glamorous, moderately revealing showgirl outfits. It’s burlesque for the High School Musical generation – clean cut and harmless, inoffensive but slightly titillating. In many ways, Burlesque is most reminiscent of Coyote Ugly – it follows a very similar storyline and also makes the seedy reality of “making it in Hollywood” seem glamorous and empowering.

Where Burlesque works, however, is in its campness. It seems to embrace this wholeheartedly; it’s like Chicago, but cheesier, with Stanley Tucci stealing the show as Tess’s gay best friend/ right hand man, and Alan Cumming channelling Joel Grey’s compere character in Cabaret. Plus, it’s got gay icon Cher at the helm. She swans around in super high heels and high-cut leotards, sings heartfelt songs without moving a muscle in her face, and looks strangely younger than people twenty years her junior – it’s truly bizarre to think that she was sixty-four in real life! The shame of the movie is that she never gets to sing with Christina. Like her or not, Aguilera’s voice is incredible, and the second she opens her mouth to sing the star quality shines through – she puts Britney to shame, by the way. Meanwhile the songs are frequent – this is far more a musical than Crossroads – and energetic, with the whole movie taking on a far more light-hearted, upbeat tone than Britney’s soul-searching tour de force.

That’s not to say Burlesque is necessarily a good film – there’s plenty that doesn’t make sense. Like Crossroads the screenwriters seem to have a really strange grasp of time: events seem to take weeks, yet actually happen in an evening; others seem to take minutes but span months. Also like Crossroads, it involves the man-candy writing a song for the pop princesses, and like Crossroads the song sounds absolutely nothing like any of the other songs that man either listens to or plays. And, whereas Britney’s Lucy is saccharine sweet, Christina’s Ali is frequently a bit of a brat. But Burlesque works because it has more established actors who are clearly enjoying their roles and embracing the cheesiness, and generally the film feels less overwrought than Crossroads – it’s designed to be fun, and fun it is.

So, in the epic battle between these two former superstars, who comes out on top? Christina’s voice is better, Burlesque‘s narrative is marginally more coherent, the acting better simply because of its self-awareness, and the spectacle is definitely better. It also has one of the most outrageous seduction scenes. Yet Crossroads also has a ridiculous seduction scene, and it’s got Britney’s trademark cute-but-sexy thing working for it, and it’s so stupid and so incoherent, and the songs are pretty dreadful, and the characters equally rubbish… To be honest, it’s a tough call, but together they make for a truly epic double bill.

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Films #67 & 68: Marnie (1964) & Masters of the Universe (1987)

film 67 68 masters of the universe

Ratings: Marnie, n/a; Masters of the Universe, 2/5

“Stay where you are, He-Man! One more move and your friends will not live to see another day! I give you a choice. Return with me to Eternia as my slave and save their miserable lives, or perish with them on this primitive and tasteless planet. Surrender your sword!”

This may seem like rather a strange double bill, and indeed it would have been, were it not for the fact that, as it turned out, the video case for Marnie was empty. So, for the first (and hopefully last) time, a film has been retired from Movie Lottery, on the basis that it has disappeared. It’s a shame, really, because Marnie, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is a nasty, though very interesting film; the same can not be said for Masters of the Universe, a camp, ridiculous, 80s kids film that I watched last night for the first time, with little to no knowledge of He-Man. Perhaps the film would mean something more had I the benefit of childhood nostalgia, though I must admit to have rather enjoyed it regardless.

I missed the first few minutes, due to being filled in on some of the history behind these ludicrous characters, but the general gist of the film is this: He-Man is good, and likes wearing nothing but a harness and pants. Skeletor is bad, and you can tell because he wants to control the universe, wears a lot of black, spouts a lot of rhetoric, and has a skull for a face. There’s a device called a Cosmic Key, built by an irritating goblin-dwarf creature, and even though he already has one of his own, Skeletor wants it. Unfortunately for him, his minions (who look exactly like Darth Vader) are pretty useless, and He-Man, two of his friends, and Gwildor (the goblin) escape with the Cosmic Key and land rather unceremoniously on Earth, where they join up with two teenagers and try to stop a galactic war from breaking out. Or something.

Although it seems like Masters of the Universe is a sequel – it throws you into the action immediately, and Skeletor has already taken over Castle Greyskull on the planet Eternia – but in fact it is the first and only film of what was most likely intended to become a franchise. Released in 1987, just following the peak of the toys’ and cartoon’s popularity, it was a flop on release, not even recouping its $22 million budget in the US. This is no real surprise – there are few (if any?) films inspired by toys that have been truly successful (yes, I realise Transformers has done rather well commercially, but critically? Well, I’m sure you know yourselves). Masters of the Universe is particularly shoddy; as a badfilm fan I appreciated its stupidity, but I wonder would even a child have been convinced by any of it?

The story itself is completely generic, and is marginally better once He-Man and his cohorts arrive on Earth, where they are disgusted by people’s meat-eating habits, quickly upgrade a car’s engine (because they care about the environment, obviously), and do not once consider wearing “human” clothes so they blend in a bit more. Luckily they arrive in America, and the native language on Eternia is English, so that’s one problem they don’t have to worry about. Even more fortunately, they meet orphan Julie (Courtney Cox) and her boyfriend Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill), who very quickly accept all the unbelievable stuff going on around them. Having mistaken the Cosmic Key for a newfangled synthesiser from Japan, Kevin and Julie become instrumental (ha!) in helping good defeat evil.

The fairly big core cast is necessary, because He-Man himself is quite possibly the dullest hero ever conceived. Even his name is dull: He-Man. Man-Man? That’s almost as bad as the literal translation of Manos: The Hands of Fate, or Ro-Man from Planet Ro-Man! Unlike Ro-Man, however, He-Man has absolutely no personality whatsoever – although, I should say, Dolph Lundgren does look exactly like an action figure. It’s truly uncanny. Luckily, there are plenty of other people (and creatures) to distract from our hero’s inanity. Frank Langella should particularly be commended for his role as Skeletor – despite being entirely covered by a cloak and mask, he chews the scenery in every scene, overemphasising everything and making the most evil of villains both pompously theatrical and, at times, even genuinely sinister (albeit in a camp kind of way.)

Despite the film being a fairly long (for a kid’s movie) 100 minutes, there’s non stop action to keep sugar-filled children entertained. Most, but not all, of this takes place in Julie’s hometown, where apparently every single other inhabitant goes to bed at 8pm and therefore remains happily oblivious to the aliens, portals, giant hovercrafts, and full-scale war going on in the streets. It doesn’t make any sense, of course, and the action is frequently poorly choreographed, overly dependent on psychedelic, epilepsy-inducing light shows, or pathetically harmless (the bad guys are particularly poor shots), but somehow Masters of the Universe is actually quite entertaining to watch. It races along, and when viewed today is on a par with Flash Gordon for dodgy effects and silly, overwrought concepts – but would I watch it again? Well… possibly.