Not-So-Quick Movie Review: 54 (1998)

54 movie poster They say that pop culture has a tendency to roll back over on itself every 20 years or so. What’s old becomes new again not only because the people who were kids 20 years prior have now grown up, earned money and got nostalgic, but also because those same people have worked their way into the various creative worlds. It’s the reason why I’m seeing so many shows with references to movies I loved as a kid as well as reboots of the same, but also the reason we saw such a big uptick in 70s-based projects in the late 90s, specifically ones centered on disco and the world that grew up and died around it.

I would have been 15 when 54 came out, so I don’t have any personal connection to the heyday of disco in the late 70s. Hell, it was dead and buried by the time I was born in 1983. And yet, I have a strange second hand nostalgia for that era because of the disco era’s resurrection and examination in the late 90s. I became a huge fan of That 70s Show, which is one of the all-time best coming of age sitcoms around in my book. But there were also films like 54, The Last Days Of Disco and even The Summer of Sam that all came out around 1998 and 1999. At that same time there were a ton of TV specials about what really went on behind the velvet ropes of Studio 54, a legendary nightclub in Manhattan run by a guy named Steve Rubell who was an incredibly shrewd club owner, but not very good at hiding his less-than-honest business practices. Studio 54 was the place to do just about anything and everything, assuming you could get in.

That’s the backdrop for the 1998 film by Mark Christopher that focuses on young Shane O’Shea (Ryan Phillippe), a Jersey kid who pines to be in the big city where he just knows he’ll become rich and famous like his hero Julie Black (Neve Campbell), a fellow New Jersian who stars on a soap opera. Eventually he makes his way to Studio 54 where he literally has to leave his old life behind (they don’t let his friends in) and winds up getting a job. From there he makes a whole new group of friends including coat check girl/wannabe singer Anita (Salma Hayek) and her busboy husband Greg (Breckin Meyer) and does his best to enjoy his new social status when it doesn’t go against a moral code with roots back to his home life in Jersey.

At the end of the day, 54’s story isn’t all that mind-blowing. It’s your basic “lower-middle class kid gets a look at the world of the rich and famous and discovers its not as genuine as he though” story. But, the gilding of the time period is very engrossing if that’s something you’re interested in. All the actors really dove into the characters and seemed to dig deep into some emotional places that all get left on the screen like so many empty bottles after a big party. I wasn’t overly familiar with Phillippe outside of his standard horror appearances in the 90s, but I thought he did a quality job of actually going through the emotions instead of just the motions.I especially enjoyed his various interactions with Ellen Albertini Dow’s Disco Dottie. And, man, Mike Meyers did a killer job of bringing the off-kilter Rubell to life on the big screen.

I read that Chistopher’s intended cut of the film had about 30-40 extra minutes and a variety of extra subplots that were completely cut by Miramax, something that wasn’t uncommon back then. He got his hands on the extra footage and put together a longer version that I would like to see some day, if possible.

Dance Movie Review: Step Up Revolution (2012)

Step Up RevolutionI love a good dance movie and as far as I’m concerned Step Up Revolution is a pretty great one. Don’t get me wrong, the story is all kinds of silly, boring and trope-filled, but the dancing in this movie is BONKERS. I actually considered doing a kind of dueling review thing where I wrote positively about the film in one font and negatively in another, but that sounded like a lot of work, so I’m just going to address the points as I go.

The plot of the movie revolves around a Miami dance crew called The Mob who plan elaborate flash mob dance routines which they also record in an attempt to win a contest on YouTube. At least at first. As the story progresses, a Big Mean Businessman wants to buy up their neighborhood and tear it down to build a hotel. As it also happens, the main guy from the dance crew has just fallen for BMB’s daughter WHO CAN ALSO DANCE AND JOINS THEIR CREW!!! If you’ve seen more than a dozen movies in your time, I bet you can pretty much figure out the plot of this movie. Main guy hides girl’s identity, but when his friends find out they get MAD. Basically, people in this movie are incredibly one-sided, flat and don’t do anything that normal, multifaceted people do.

There’s also all kinds of practical problems with the reality of the movie itself. How do they get such awesome costumes in such huge numbers? How do they record dance numbers that take place in several rooms at the same time? How do you get the timing down of an escalator dance number without access to one? Why does no one ever try to interfere with their performances?

But, those are all logic questions and who really cares, right? Dance movies are a lot like action movies in that you’re really just watching for one kind of scene and the rest is padding. In either case, as long as I get a killer dance movie/fight scene every 10 minutes or so, I’m a happy camper. I didn’t count or anything, but I’d say that SUR comes pretty close to that number. And these numbers are insanely awesome. I should mentioned I watched the movie on Blu-ray at home and it was a wonderful experience. The movie’s as ridiculous as it is gorgeous.

It kicks off with an epic one with The Mob stopping traffic on a Miami street and doing an extended number. There’s another where they’re all dressed in suits at a big office building and another smaller one in a fancy restaurant. I’m also pretty partial to the one at the art studio and, of course, the finale is insanity topped on insanity featuring some of the cast members from the previous Step Up installments like the ridiculously talented Adam Sevani from the first one. The only one that didn’t quite work for me was the one towards the end aimed at the BMB that went so over the edge you expected everyone participating to get arrested or shot.

Again, even though that particular scene didn’t make much sense, it was still quite visually pleasing. And that’s what this movie is all about: being a visual treat. I’d go so far as to say this movie is the reason we have Blu-ray, to show off spectacularly shot, colorful scenes with attractive people doing amazing things. But, it’s not like I’d tell everyone to go out and see Step Up Revolution. If you can’t stand these kinds of movies, stay away because it’s as much of “that kind of movie” as you can get. But, if you’re like me and get a kick out of such things, do yourself a favor and watch this one.

The Chronological Spielberg: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)

Another reason I got behind on my viewing of Steven Spielberg’s movies, aside from being so familiar with Jaws, was that I’d seen Close Encounters twice in recent memory, once for the first time all the way through when I rented it from Netflix and again on TV while visiting the inlaws a few months back. Still, I loved the movie, so when I decided to do this project I looked around for a DVD copy and found out there’s a multiple disc pack that includes the theatrical release, a director’s cut and a special edition each of which are different. The only other set I have like this is for my beloved Dawn of the Dead. I honestly can’t remember the differences in that set and haven’t really dug into this one yet, but will let you know when I do. For the purposes of this post, I simply watched the original theatrical version.

I’m realizing after watching Spielberg’s initial offerings that he succeeds the most when working with a story that hadn’t been done before that has an epic quality to it that’s treated as such. Duel‘s murderous truck is scary and familiar, but more from real life than film; no one had seen a shark like the one in Jaws; the aliens in Close Encounters aren’t necessarily scary themselves, but what they do to people is. Meanwhile, Sugarland Express and 1941 (which I’ll review shortly) lack that epicness and newness.

What makes Close Encounters so epic? Well, just about everything. Richard Dreyfuss heads out to help during a black out unknowingly caused by visiting aliens only to find himself directly in their path. After that, he becomes increasingly obsessed with a mountainous shape he can’t quite fully remember that will not leave him alone. It gets so bad that his family leave him and he winds up driving towards an area that’s said to be the center of a chemical spill. He eventually finds a place where a group of scientists have set up a lab to communicate with the aliens by way of musical tones. We also follow a few of those scientists who discover some WWII planes that look brand new and eventually come to understand that they’re dealing with aliens and a woman whose son gets abducted himself who joins forces with Dreyfuss.

As if I already wasn’t from Jaws, this movie made me an even bigger Richard Dreyfuss fan. The subtle ways he plays his character in this film are just amazing. He takes zoning out and growing obsession to a new level without ever going over the top or getting too scary. That’s not to say that his wife and kids don’t get scared. There’s actually a great balance between the kids freaking out because he’s acting weird (the mashed potato dinner scene) and them getting excited about dad’s weirdness (throwing dirt in the house). This might seem like uneven characterization, but I think it’s a wonderful use of children and how they see the world. They want dad to be the dad and take care of them, but there’s something cool about him acting like a big kid and trashing the house in such a strange way.

Another aspect of the film I fell in love with was Spielberg’s treatment of the aliens from a director and storytelling perspective as well as within the logic of the story. Instead of having a group of military dudes waiting with guns drawn to “talk” to the aliens like in just about every other movie with extra terrestrials (including ET now that I think about it), it’s a group of scientists there trying to make contact. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate seeing awe and excitement on the faces of the crowds instead of grim determination or fear. Heck, even the people who were on the ship don’t seem harmed, just a little confused. Great stuff.

This might be a little random, but I also liked how real the houses and settings felt. I’m particularly partial to authentic looking scenes set inside the bedrooms of children and I think that was nailed in the beginning of this movie. I even liked seeing the McDonlads a little later in the film. I know some people consider these instances of product placement annoying or cheap, but that’s real life. I had some of the toys in that room and I absolutely went to McDs that looked exactly like that. It’s an easy way to bring me into a film and I have no problem when directors use it.

I really don’t have a single complaint about the film. Everyone played their parts perfectly and worked together to create a movie that perfectly balances how this kind of invasion changes a particular person while also showing the larger process of how the government deals with it. That scene with the military guy and his crew trying to figure out what kind of story to sell the American people to get them away from the landing zone is quick and spot on. The flick also looks just fantastic. Every time I watch a Spielberg movie from the 70s I can’t help but think how crappy a lot of the CGI looks these days. People need to step up their game.

80s Odyssey: Private Lessons (1981) & My Tutor (1983)

Of all the 80s movies I’ve watched, Private Lessons has to be the strangest and most awkward. The premise starts off as you might think for this kind of thing: a rich guy goes on a business trip and leaves his son Phillip in the care of his sexy(ish) French nanny Nicole (played by Sylvia Kristel) and chauffeur Lester (WKRP In Cincinnati and That 70s Show‘s Howard Hesseman). While dad’s gone, Phillip falls for Nicole and a romance blossoms. Here’s the creepy thing though. Phillip is played by a kid who actually looks 15 instead of the usual 20-year-old-playing-high-school thing we’re used to. So, when it comes to the sex scene, it’s a little weird.

To make matters worse–and to damage this kid even more–SPOILER Nicole and Lester are in on a plot to steal a bunch of money from pops. To go about getting it, Nicole fakes her death while boning Phillip. Phillip freaks out, gets Lester and they bury her in the yard (but not really). Lester then fakes a blackmail note to get the money. Eventually, Nicole reveals herself to Phillip and they enlist a tennis instructor (played by a young Ed Bagley Jr.) to act as a cop and scare Lester.

Usually, with these kinds of movies, the director will cut away as the real down and dirty stuff approaches, but this time around they stay in the room and you get to see all the gory details. It’s the kind of thing I would have probably been blown away by had I seen it in my younger days, but it creeps me out now. Then, to make matters worse, she fakes her death. This poor kid is going to be scarred for a lifetime. Sure, he finds out it’s all a scam, but still. A lack of wacky music during some of the scenes makes everything seem a lot more real and creepy too. Sure, there’s a lot of music by pretty big deal artists like Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart, but they don’t do that usual movie trick of using music to tell us how to feel. Without it, you just feel however you feel and I felt a little creeped out.


My Tutor didn’t make any of the mistakes that Private Lessons did. They got a t00-old-for-high-school actor to play a recently graduated senior, they use music to tell us this is all in good fun and things never veer into creepy territory. This time around, Bobby has failed French, so his rich dad hires Terry a hot young thing who likes to go skinny dipping at night who also happens to be a French expert after studying there to tutor Bobby in the language so he can go to Yale or one of those other Ivy League schools. Meanwhile, Bobby doesn’t want to go there and has a real jones for astronomy. Oh, and his friends are obsessed with having sex, but Bobby’s not too worried about it (though he does go with them to a whore house). One of the great treats of this movie is watching Cripsin Glover as Jack, Bobby’s horny yet supremely weird and geeky friend. He threw in so many quirks to the performance that really elevated what would normally be a basic role.

Anyway, like I said, as far as tutor student fantasies go, this one’s got the goods, but I’m sure didn’t make any “best of” lists for the decade. There were some fun moments and aspects that I want to mention. That whole music thing I was talking about above? There’s a scene where Bobby chases off Terry’s ex with a gun and fires it in the air. Instead of letting what could be a fairly tense scene lie there like the Private Lessons folks would, they throw in some old timey piano rag to lighten the mood. This isn’t Heat, we need to keep things light, you know? Also, even though Bobby looks older, his voice comes off way younger than it should which is kind of funny. Finally, I got kind of a young Amy Poehler vibe from Terry in some of her looks and even her voice.

Aside from the obvious, there were some interesting similarities between the movies. For one thing, people could easily tell after the young men had had sex and it was mentioned that they looked older or different or what not. There were also lines in both movies about the boy offering the older woman a great reference for future tutoring jobs. I bet. Anyway, these are movies aimed at dudes, so my recommendation to the dudes out there is to skip Private Lessons and go for My Tutor, but if you’re intersted in both, I think they’re both still available on Netflix Instant.

A Few Thoughts On Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

I took a break from my consumption of Prison Break to go through a few movies my Instant Netflix Queue told me were expiring soon and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was on the top of the list because it was expiring soonest, was directed by Howard Hawks, stars Marilyn Monroe and, most importantly, it’s pretty short. I didn’t intend for this to be a full-on review, but it kind of morphed into one as I thought more and more about the movie. So, let’s jump in.

I’m always forget the artificiality involved with romantic comedies from the 1950s. In this case, Monroe’s character has a thing for men with money because she wants to be taken care of while her dancing partner played by Jane Russell likes the handsome fellas. Neither deviate from this path, nor do they seem to fully understand the other’s position. Everything ends exactly how you think it will, but it really is the journey that’s important and this journey involves a cruise liner, the US Olympic team and Paris, so at least there’s something to look at aside from the ladies and the dance numbers. On the other hand, there’s a kind of brutal honesty involved in this story and the portrayal of the characters. Sure, things wind up well for them, but there’s something to be said about people staying steadfast to their desires. Those things don’t just change overnight or thanks to an imagined betrayal of trust. People have a hard time changing and this movie goes along those lines from beginning to end, you just keep looking until someone fills the cut-out you’re looking for. Sometimes that’s forever sometimes it’s for now. Relationships are tricky. Okay enough philosophy. Jane Russell was totally barking up the wrong tree if she thought these dudes would be into her:

They ain’t there for love with you honey, but I bet they have a grand old time together. Speaking of which, George Winslow would have been about 6 or 7 if my math is correct when he played Mr. Henry Spofford III and got to sit between Russell and Monroe. If he wasn’t king of his world by that point, I don’t know what it must take to impress Hollywood kids. He also steals scenes from his counterparts like a master pickpocket picking off tourists in Times Square.

Killing it. Anyway, the most famous part of this movie is Marylin performing “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” which I’ve seen before in various clip shows and copied/parodied/homaged a million times. The number itself was pretty much what I expected. This movie isn’t really jam packed with epic dance numbers. I read that the filmmakers had to teach Monroe to dance less sexy and Russell to spice it up a bit. That really comes through in the performances. Russell’s stiff and seems like she should be playing more straight ahead comedic roles without dancing or striking dark ladies in mystery flicks. I know nothing about her, but she does get to show her comedic and sexy sides, I’m just not sure if the dancing fits. Her impersonating Monroe at the end of the film and doing this number on her own is pretty  fantastic. I wish I could dance my way out of my next parking ticket.

Halloween Scene: Walking Dead

I started writing this review last night, but between not liking the show very much, the Steelers losing and having a cold, I decided to hold off on finishing my review until I had a clearer head, which is good because I think I’ve got a better handle on why it didn’t work for me. Okay, let’s jump in.

Man, I really wanted to like AMC’s The Walking Dead. It’s got zombies and it’s based on a comic I mostly like. I was skeptical going in, but for reasons other than what ultimately bothered me about this first episode. First off, I was worried that the elements the comic shared with 28 Days Later (namely, the main character waking up in a hospital, not knowing what’s going on with the zombie plague and learning it as they run into fellow survivors) would put potential viewers off. Note, I’m not saying that one ripped the other off (Later came out in 2002, WD premiered in 2003, but who knows when the ideas popped up in the writers’ minds), but it’s the kind of things people notice and assume. When the trailer came out, some of my non-comics reading friends commented on the similarities. That could have possibly been changed to avoid that comparison.

Like most other zombie fans, I was worried that the zombies would look corny and that the zombie attacks would suck. This is TV afterall. That turned out to not be a problem, as the zombies looked good and they went places with the violence that surprised me (shooting the zombie girl in the head, eating the horse guts). What didn’t look good was the show in general. By that I mean, it seemed to lack style. The images just seemed put on screen. Maybe the mental comparisons I’m doing between the show and the comic aren’t fair to television (Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard are rad artists), but it just seemed really flat and, if not boring, unengaging to me.

The last thing that worried me going into the show was that it would just be a straight-up recreation of the comics, but on television. Sometimes I like that, but I’m usually more interested in seeing how other writers will interpret the original material. I’ve said before that my problem with comic writer and WD creator Robert Kirkman’s writing in the comic is that he’s very into telling and not showing. Characters have these huge, overly wordy blocks of text with characters explaining every little aspect of their thought process when the use of a flashback would work just well. He also doesn’t seem to trust his artist to get things across because he makes his characters say things that are obvious thanks to the art. It’s not as bad as Superman thinking everything he’s going to do to stop Toyman in a Silver Age comic, but it can feel like that at times. So, while I was hoping writer/director/showrunner Frank Darabont would springboard off the comics and create some cool synthesis of the two.

Watching the show, though, I found myself wishing Darabont had just stuck to the comic instead of first starting with Rick shooting a little girl zombie and then participating in a conversation with Shane about how Shane’s wife is a bitch for not turning the light off. I’m no expert, but showing your hero shooting a child and talking smack about women (or at least not defending them too much my ear) isn’t the best way to go. In the comic, page one is Rick getting hurt, page two is him waking up in the hospital. It takes a good 15 minutes to get there in the show.

Overall, I think the show could have been a lot tighter from both an editing perspective and a visual one. I don’t think it needed the 90 minutes it took to tell this first story, 60 would have been fine and far more interesting in my opinion. Also, from a visual perspective, I was mostly bored. Though the zombies looked good, the digital gun shots and blood looked shitty. Don’t try to tell me they don’t have enough money for some squibs. George Romero and Tom Savini had better looking gunshot effects 30 years ago. I also thought some of the digital compositing didn’t look so good, especially the scenes in Atlanta (by the way, it’s 2010, I doubt there would be that many newspapers lying all over town, maybe iPads, but not newspapers) like the one in the poster above. I thought about giving it a pass because that couldn’t have been an easy scene to pull off, but when you center your ad campaign on an image that doesn’t look so hot in the finished product, maybe you’re barking up the wrong tree. There were also shots of Rick riding his horse through the city where the cars and army vehicles in the background didn’t look real. I’m not sure if that’s because they were added in digitally or because of the aged and dirty look they were given but it was distracting (and, for whatever it’s worth, I was watching the regular AMC channel and not a digital one, so I’m not sure if that would have made a difference).

I don’t want to be completely negative here. I did think the action with Rick on the horse in Atlanta was pretty damn good. The claustrophobia first of the zombie’s convening on Rick and the poor horse was great and then the ante was raised with him under the tank (though I did think it was a little strange that Rick and the audience didn’t see the hatch in the bottom of the tank sooner). I guess I’ll tune in next week to see what happens, though I’m not super excited about it (they also ruined the mystery of whether Rick’s family was okay, something that worked much better in the comic coming out of nowhere). Part of me wants to just be happy that I’m getting six episodes of a zombie show on basic cable, but the other part of me wants it to actually be interesting. Hopefully both parts will get what they want by the end of the six episodes, but I’m not holding my breath.

Quick Movie Review: Footloose (1984)

It’s very rare that the missus and I can decide on a movie from the instant queue to watch. It’s not that our general movie tastes are so wildly different, but that the queue is full of movies I chose, mostly horror and action movies. Well recently Footloose became available for instant watching and I added it because I had never seen it. As it turned out, neither had she, so we watched it last night while a perfectly good, brand new episode of SNL was on with Jon Hamm. Ah well, we both really enjoyed the movie, so it was worth it.

I’m sure everyone already knows the plot: Kevin Bacon moves into a small town where dancing has been outlawed thanks in part to Jon Lithgow’s Reverend Moore whose daughter is kind of a slutbag. As you might expect, Bacon falls for her and has to deal with small-minded country folk while also making some friends in the form of a young and thing Chris Penn. I was surprised with how emotionally invested I got in the movie. It’s clearly meant to play on every young person’s sense of helplessness at the hands of adult overlords, but then flips the script and gives them power to do something as simple as dancing. I’ve also got to give it to Lithgow for playing his role very evenly, not making his character too one-sided. You can understand why a man would try and outlaw the thing that contributed to the death of his son, but he at least listens to Bacon and reason and, of course, the movie ends with a dance (and a very cathartic fight right before that). The script by Dean Pitchford was written very well, leaving room where it was necessary to and creating some wonderful characters and director Herbet Ross directs the whole thing very masterfully, getting very real performances from a cast that could have easily veered into campiness. And, of course, you can’t talk about Footloose without talking about the awesome theme song played by Kenny Loggins, the master of 80s movie theme songs. I was actually dancing around the room after the movie finished, playing the song on my iTunes (I bought his greatest hits last year and it was worth every penny). The alcohol may have contributed to all that, but I’m pretty sure I’d be dancing even if hooch wasn’t involved.