Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Hairspray, or: Climb the Whole Tree

I don’t know about you, but I could certainly use something cotton candy light and sweet at the moment. In messages with my darling blog wife, we lamented that, as winter is long past, it’s no longer socially acceptable to blame all of our woes on symptoms of SAD. I choose to now blame a lack of empowering films in my life…to be remedied shortly by this week’s pick.

The Film:

Hairspray (2007)

The Premise:

A fat teen in 1960s Baltimore dreams only of dancing on a local TV show…until she becomes involved in the fight for integration.

The Ramble:

Tracy Turnblad is an energetic, upbeat teen in 1960s Baltimore who loves nothing more than dancing. Her classmates and even her mother put Tracy down for her weight, but she is unfazed; she embraces her fatness and describes herself as “big, blonde, and beautiful.”

With her bff Penny, Tracy watches the Corny Collins Show, the local cable dance show, religiously. Tracy dreams of the day she will be noticed by the show and by heartthrob lead dancer Link Larkin.

Tracy’s mother Edna means well but struggles with her body image and hopes above all to shield her daughter from heartbreak. When Tracy gets the opportunity to audition for her favorite show, Edna is less than supportive–good thing papa Wilbur and Penny have got her back.

No surprises here: Tracy makes it onto the show and is an immediate success. Fans of the show love Tracy’s energy and sweet dance moves. Not so much a fan? Undisputed queen of the show Amber, whose mother works for the network and makes sure her daughter gets more than her share of airtime. Amber and her mother’s panic cranks up to full-on emergency when Tracy seems to be a real contender for the title of Miss Teen Hairspray.

In school, Amber does everything she can to send Tracy to detention. Boyfriend Link does not approve of Amber’s mean-spiritedness but worries about putting his place on the show in jeopardy. Good thing Tracy’s banishment to detention means an introduction to Seaweed and his little sister. The children of legendary Motormouth Maybelle, the two show Tracy how to leave white girl dancing behind and embrace black dance moves. Unfortunately, black dancers can only strut their stuff one day a week as the network’s execs far from progressive.

Meanwhile, sparks fly at Seaweed and Penny’s first meeting, much to the dismay of Penny’s conservative (i.e. racist, religious, repressed) mother. As Tracy and Penny spend more time with Maybelle, they become more aware of the racial injustice all around them in Baltimore. When the show’s producers eliminate “Negro Day,” the one day when black dancers are allowed to perform on the show, Tracy joins the local civil rights movement and marches for integration. Link’s hesitation divides the couple and further complications develop when Tracy goes on the run after being accused of assaulting a police officer.

Will Tracy, Seaweed, and their friends ever dance on the show again?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

The 1988 film was basically a dance revue with a loose plot tying things together, so it translates to a Broadway musical (and film) quite naturally. You could not dream of a better cast (though this is largely true of the 1988 version too). Queen Latifah and Christopher Walken are my personal faves here, but Nikki Blonsky really steps up to the lead role despite not being a household name. It makes me sad I haven’t seen her in a whole lot of roles since. My only complaint is that I really wish Edna had been played by an actual drag queen or anyone even remotely connected to the LGBT community, though John Travolta does make for a surprisingly good Edna.

Because our film clocks in at close to 2 hours, it does have the opportunity to explore some of the original film’s themes more fully. Edna has a lot more depth here, and seeing her on a journey with body positivity is quite lovely. The relationship between Edna and Wilbur is wonderful, and I adore their duet.

We get a better picture of 1960s segregation and the emotional toll it takes on the characters of color too. Queen Latifah’s number “I Know Where I’ve Been” is moving and seemingly made for her voice (and is there a greater moment in cinema history than her singing about different kinds of pie in “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful”?). I also really appreciate the film’s wisdom about the importance of integration on TV; though dismissed as light entertainment, TV reached so many audiences and had the potential to send a powerful message about civil rights by integrating.

Would my blog wife dance all night with this one or step on its toes? Find out in her review here!

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a teenage girl raises pom poms in the air while surrounded by her cheer squad in a parking lot
Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Don’t Talk to Irene, or: Failure in Drag

As much as I miss Horror Month on the blog, I love months when anything goes.  This explains how we shift gears completely from last week’s dark exploration of human nature to this week’s film about befriending maggots, cheerleading, and Geena Davis.

The Film:

Don’t Talk to Irene

The Premise:

In spite of her mother’s disapproval and bullying from her peers, teenager Irene dreams of being a cheerleader and gains an unexpected squad in the form of a group of retirement home residents.

The Ramble:

The ‘burbs of Toronto:  so close to the city yet so far.  Irene is a relentlessly positive teen living in the ‘burbs, determined to join the cheerleading squad.  So what if she wears plus size clothing, adopts maggots as pets, and holds conversations with the poster of Geena Davis above her bed?

a young woman standing in her room smiles, wearing a handsewn cheerleading costume

According to Irene’s mother, there’s a lot wrong with this picture.  Mom (who I don’t think is ever named?), a cheerleader until becoming a teen mom in high school, worries that Irene will be bullied or scorned by her peers.  Too late to worry on that front as Irene is well aware she’s considered a loser but seems to give zero fucks.

On the first day of school, Irene creates a DIY cheerleader outfit to try out for the team.  This doesn’t go unnoticed by new student Tesh, a fabulous dresser and the self-described Switzerland of gender.  They are completely on board with Irene challenging the status quo.

a young woman and a genderfluid person with a floppy hat stand in a record store

One person decidedly not on board with this is Sarah, a classmate who decides to humiliate Irene for the hell of it.  Convincing Irene and a few other naive girls that they must lick the shower of the boys’ locker room to make the squad, Sarah films the gross prank and posts it on social media.  Obviously when this goes public, the school principal is not amused and suspends Irene, Sarah, and her boyfriend.  During their time away from school, they will complete mandatory community service at the local retirement home.

Determined to make the best of things, Irene befriends several of the residents:  the sweet but forgetful Millie, curmudgeonly Charles, and suggestive Ruth.  When Irene hears about a reality show contest, she schemes to put together a cheer routine with a squad of her own making:  the residents and staff of the retirement home.  Initially Irene’s pet project, the residents quickly buy into the plan and look forward to learning their new moves.  And of course Sarah is there at every turn to sabotage Irene.

a teenage girl instructs a group of four dancers

As Irene faces setbacks, Geena Davis and her new friends teach her to be resilient.  Charles shows Irene how to respond to bullies and to throw a perfect punch.  Tesh, in on the plan too, utters perhaps my favorite line in cinema: “Success is just failure in drag.”

Closer to being part of the contest than ever, Sarah pulls out all the stops to prevent Irene from accomplishing her goals.  With the retirement home manager, Irene’s mother, and a flat tire to contend with, the squad has a lot to overcome.  Does this mark the end of Irene’s dream to defy the odds and become a cheerleader?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Let’s just say there are no shocking twists to this story–it’s a genuine, feel-good film that is precisely what I needed.  Irene is such a sweet character who doesn’t even seem to notice when others try to put her down.  I would really like to borrow some of Irene’s optimism and absolute indifference to horrible douchebags.

Some criticism:  Irene’s mom is a bit disappointing, and her inevitable change of heart feels a bit too little too late.  Though she claims everything she does is to protect Irene, she constantly fat shames her daughter and discourages her for most of the film.  Sarah’s antics get irritating as well; she’s often frustratingly one-dimensional.  I do admit I wish Irene had taken things a step further with some of her choices, but the entire point of her character is about staying positive and not holding onto insecurities.

However, so many of the other characters are so sweet I’d put them in my coffee (if coffee weren’t vile). For once all of the ’80s and ’90s nostalgia here seems authentic instead of hipster ironic.  I love that Geena Davis was part of this film.  And Milli Vanilli helps teach us a valuable lesson about being true to yourself.  What’s not to like?

Did my blog wife cheer this one on or consider it success in drag?  Find out by reading her review here!