Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Heavenly Bodies (1984)

A lot of people are reticent to talk on the internet about the ideas they have for businesses, stories, products, and so on.  You can’t blame them.  If the public in general are opportunistic, self-serving backstabbers offline, just imagine what a bigger playground and a veil of anonymity grants them.  But since what I’m about to talk about involves characters I will never have the rights to use anyway, and I have absolutely zero interest in developing the concept with characters I made up myself, I’m just going to let the chips fall where they may.  That out of the way, this is my open letter/pitch to whomever at Marvel Studios or Twentieth Century Fox, or elsewhere who owns the rights to The New Mutants or just has a passing interest in reading this drivel.  

The year is 1984. “Professor” Charles Xavier's (hopeful casting would be Lucinda Dickey) Rec Center has been a hangout and haven for the kids of the community for years (likely Los Angeles, but I’m flexible. Aside from the usual activities the center sponsors, there is also a video arcade lovingly dubbed “The Danger Room.” A group of teens (Codenames/street names: Karma, Sunspot, Wolfsbane, Mirage, and Cannonball) who frequent the center also just happen to have a breakdancing team (guess what their name is). They take their skills to the streets to raise extra funds for the center as well as to find youths in trouble and rescue them. This is how they run across Illyana Rasputin and Doug Ramsey and bring these new recruits into the fold. Naturally, they're all superpowered mutants, as well (a nice, little analogy for teenaged awkwardness all by itself).  Often, the kids run afoul of the ultra-aggressive students of the Frost Academy, nicknamed the Hellions (also mutants, in case you needed to be told). Their mentor Ms. Emma Frost wants to expand her academy, and Professor X's Rec Center is the ideal location to do it.  The first film in the trilogy would focus on this conflict.  At the end, as all the kids are breaking and having a good time, Illyana is upstairs summoning up demons.  The second film would introduce Magma and be about both Illyana’s trip to Limbo/transformation into Magik as well as Mirage and the rest of the kids’ struggle with the Demon Bear.  The third film would bring alien techno-organism Warlock into the mix, develop his relationship with Doug/Cypher, and set the team against Warlock’s dad, The Magus.  That’s the basics.  Superpowered battles, teen angst, mesh half-shirts, and breakdancing, all in one franchise. Who could resist?  Pass the word along.

Samantha Blair (Cynthia Dale) is a wage slave in a steno pool (remember those?) for The Man, but she has a dream.  Along with friends KC (Patricia Idlette) and Patty (Pam Henry), she scrapes up enough bread to rent out a warehouse, renovate it, and start up her own aerobics studio (the titular one, no less).  As her client list expands due to her “unorthodox,” people-friendly approach, Sam sets her eyes on a second career as host of a morning exercise show.   But her success is ill-met by jerkweed Debbie (Laura Henry) and her boyfriend Jack (Walter George Alton, far better known as the eponymous Pumaman), who also owns Sam’s main competition.  Can a young dancer balance love with a football player (Steve, as essayed by Richard Rebiere), life with a child (Joel, as essayed by Stuart Stone), and aerobicizing all on her own?  The mind boggles.

Lawrence Dane’s Heavenly Bodies (incidentally co-produced by Playboy Enterprises) is much like any other of the various Chasing Your Dream films of the Eighties.  It centers on a young woman with a particular skill set.  She has had to (and still has to during the course of the film) struggle against forces both economic and sexist.  She has supportive, nonentity friends (seriously, why did KC want in on this business if she never does aerobics?), but she shines above even them because she has a special talent that just aches to be discovered.  What it does that’s interesting is twofold.  First, it makes Sam a single mother, and this shapes the core of her character.  While she does love her son (she even explains to him what orgies are), it’s clear that she had to put her life on hold for some time in order to earn the money to support the two of them, and her relationship with Joel’s father was formative in how Sam views new romantic prospects.  Second (and related to the first), is that her relationship with Steve is actually compelling and a little more realistic than we’re used to seeing in this sort of movie.  Their meet cute kicks off with the burly pigskinner (I’m just going to own that word) dressed in quasi-drag (replete with Daisy cup breasts and pig tails), mocking Sam and her job.  After earning his respect via the most erotic push-up contest in cinema history, she still rejects his advances.  Granted, it doesn’t take tons for her to relent, but the romance come from a place of mutual respect, and the fact that Steve quickly takes a shine to Joel strengthens the bond between Steve and Sam and the audience.  

The film also emphasizes watching and television (and television watching) as elements that shape Sam’s world.  She gets her own show, and though it feels mutually exclusive from her aerobics studio work in terms of popularity (we’re never really shown a direct correlation), it still makes her a media personality with a modicum of celebrity as well as providing an object of desire for some.  It also gives her the power to stand up for her cause that she wouldn’t have had otherwise.  Further, the finale of the film is a televised “workout marathon,” and whether or not Sam and her team win, that it is being broadcast to homes all over Canada (I’m assuming, since that’s where it was filmed) means that she will be judged by the public at large.  Not only does she stand to lose her business space, she stands to lose her entire livelihood, and if none of this was being filmed for an audience, there would likely never have even been a showdown.  Also of note is a scene where Sam acclimates herself to the set of her television program, and this scene harkens back to the “You Were Meant For Me” sequence in Singin’ In The Rain; from the prominent placement of a tall, white ladder, to the background color scheme, to the self-reflexive environment including lights, fans, and cameras, to the point that Sam names Gene Kelly as having a major impact on her life.  Of course, there’s also a sequence that directly apes this film’s biggest influence, Flashdance, but the first one feels just a hair more heartfelt, in my opinion.

Any film whose main point of interest involves sweaty female bodies can’t really be blamed for having the camera emphasize same, and this one certainly does its damnedest to raise shots of women’s crotches clad in tight, bright lycra to an artform.  However, I believe that this prioritization does the film a disservice in the long run, not because of what it wants to deliver to its audience but because of its overkill in doing so (I won’t get into the multitudinous plot holes in this thing because we’d be here all day).  This film is montage crazy (and these are obviously heavily influenced by the style of music videos, themselves montages in their disconnectedness from linear time and space), and it’s quite clear from only a few minutes in that this is the way things are going to be.  The opening title sequence encompasses the girls and their quest to kickstart Heavenly Bodies.  This is almost immediately followed by another montage as Sam’s client base expands.  Montages are often intended to cover a long period of time and move a story into its next phase, but this film is so smitten with them that the narrative is given no room to develop of its own accord (whether because its producers had no faith in it by itself or simply couldn’t care less about it, I’ll leave to you to decide).  I would wager that Heavenly Bodies is eighty-five percent aerobics montages and fifteen percent actual story.  And again, that’s all well and fine, if all you’re interested in is watching women exercise.  But if that’s the sum total of your desire in watching this movie, why not just watch any one of the profusion of aerobics shows that you can watch for free (and in less time) on television?       

MVT:  Cynthia Dale may not light the world on fire with her acting chops, but the woman has a plethora of heart, and it’s all on display here.

Make or Break:  The marathon at the end is what it’s all about (like the big tournament in almost every movie like this, including The Karate Kid, released the same year), and it works.  Nevertheless, the filmmakers emphasized so many similar scenes before it, that it robs the climax of a good deal of its power.  So, I guess that’s kind of damning with faint praise.

Score:  6.5/10

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