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.

The Music Box: Lotusflow3r & Tambourine

prince-lotusflower3-mplsound-elixer1 Prince is an artist I’ve never been overly interested in. I missed out on the Purple Rain-era (I knew the Milhouse line “So this is what it’s like when doves cry,” long before I knew the song) and by the time I was paying attention to pop music, he was in the middle of changing his name to a symbol and other silly activities I didn’t care about. A few years back, I found Purple Rain for a few bucks at a mall record store and decided to give it a shot. It’s been a while, but I wasn’t impressed. My memory is that the singles were as solid as they’ve always been, but the other tracks were pretty unimpressive.

So, when my pal Jesse sent me 2009’s three disc set of Lotusflow3r, MPLSound and Bria Valente Elixr for my birthday I wasn’t sure what to think. Then, I hit a point last week where I wasn’t feeling podcasts and figured I’d give it a shot, especially after seeing the artist’s recent appearance on New Girl. Holy crap, these are great records!

My problem with Purple Rain — again, if memory serves, which it only does about half the time — was that the non-hit songs felt stale, antiseptic and maybe too produced or electronic. I’ll give it another listen and see if those thoughts still hold up, but that’s what I went into these two records thinking. Instead, I was treated to an awesomely funky, guitar-filled pair of discs packed with songs I can see myself listening to over and over again. From the opening guitar calisthenics of the first track “From The Lotus” to the killer “Crimson & Clover” cover and beyond, I was sold right away and kept getting surprised by how much I loved these two records.

Originally, I skipped over Elixer, but after listening to these albums for a second time and writing most of this post, I figured I should give the third part of this trilogy a listen. Bria Valente has one of those classic female R&B voices that those of us who came up in the late 80s and early 90s remember as being super prominent. Those records weren’t my thing back then, but I found myself enjoying these tracks for their mix of quality vocals and diverse backing tracks that go from slow jams to funkadelic and back again. As far as I’m concerned, the funkier this record goes the better everyone sounds. I’m not sure how often I’ll be jonesing for this kind of listening experience, but I like keeping it around just in case.

tift merritt tamourine After intentionally listening to the Prince discs, I figured it would be a good time to reach into The Music Box and go the random route again. This time I pulled out Tift Merritt’s 2004 album Tambourine. As with many of the Music Box discs, I knew nothing about this going in, popped it on and gave it a listen.

Merritt’s sound reminded me a lot of Sheryl Crow. I’m not sure if that’s altogether fair but they’re both women singing country-tinged songs about their life experiences, so that’s where my head was at. With that comparison in mind — and the fact that they do sound sonically similar at times — I had trouble really getting into these songs. I think the person-playing-guitar-and-singing-quietly thing just isn’t all that interesting to me in the first place. I love that people do it, but it’s not always something I want to listen to unless the songs are super original, hit me in a truly emotional place or do something really interesting with the backing tracks.

When Merritt and company pick things up on tracks like “Wait It Out” and the title track, I’m in, but those wound up being a bit too far and few between for me to keep this one in the collection. Hopefully someone at the library will find it and dig the heck out of it though!

Casting Internets

Pretty sure my buddy Sean T. Collins perfectly encapsulated what made me love He-Man as a kid and look at it sideways as an adult over on Vorpalizer.

I think I plugged Alex Kropinak’s excellent new blog already, but I’ve actually had time to read it. Dig his posts about What The?!, Twisted ToyFare Theater and his love of Marvel Legends.

 

I can’t accurately describe how freaking excited and nostalgic I was when I saw this trailer for Capcom’s upcoming DuckTales Remastered. I adored that game as a kid — it’s easily in my all time top ten — and have had a blast playing it here and there as an adult too. Adding to the excitement is that fact that my daughter is an in-the-works DuckTales fan!

That Patton Oswalt has a lot of interesting stuff to say, as he did in this Esquire interview with Scott Raab.

Not a fan of his movies, but I love that Rob Zombie plays and headlines giant music festivals just to hang out with his musician friends. That’s why I go to NYCC. Well, that and the freelance. (via Rolling Stone)

I still have no idea what Dub Step is supposed to be, but I was a big fan of Fatboy Slim/Norman Cook/Pizza Man back in the day, so it’s cool to see him getting some recognition for being at the forefront of electronic dance music by way of this Rolling Stone interview. I’m glad they stopped calling it electronica, but all the other names are dumb too.

Recalling 1993 sounds like a really interesting project. Head to any pay phone in NYC, dial 1-855-FOR-1993 and hear someone specific to that area telling you about the place you’re standing back in 1993.

Here’s hoping they can get Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo back for the new Vacation movie. They don’t need to have huge roles, but it would be nice to see them together in something other than a commercial for pants. (via THR)

Pitch Perfect Is Pretty Great

pitch perfect posterPitch Perfect might be far from perfect, but I still thought it was a seriously enjoyable film. The only thing I knew about this movie going in was that it was about a group of female singers and that’s pretty much it. I had no idea it was set in college — most of the women in the film are nearing or over 30, though that doesn’t really bother me — or that Anna Kendrick was the main character or any of that. Yet, I still really enjoyed this movie.

I wonder, though, if you might have to be predisposed to this kind of flick to enjoy it. It shares more than a passing resemblance to Bring It On. In fact, I’d put those two movies in the same sub-genre with Fired Up and Stick It and that’s a group of films that I enjoy. I guess it’s basically just a sports movie featuring women and sports I’m not familiar with handled with a solid sense of humor. I’m not sure what this sub-genre should be called, but someone should coin a killer term.

Anyway, Kendrick’s a college freshman who wants to move to LA and start paying her dues in the record industry so she can eventually become a producer. Her dad’s a professor who wants her to get an education. For a while she has no interest until he makes her a deal saying that if she joins some kind of campus group and still doesn’t like it, he’ll help her move out and follow her dream. She winds up joining the school’s all female a cappella group, the Barden Bellas, and things move on from there. They have a rivalry with the all-male group (The Treblemakers) that gets interesting when Kendrick’s love interest joins that group. There’s also the Glee-style structure of hitting regionals and semi-finals and whatever.

You can tell from watching this movie, that the director’s cut was probably about four hours long. It feels robust and full, but also like some bits might be missing. We never quite find out why Kendrick is so mad at her dad (though it is better explained in an extended version of a scene on the Blu-ray). There were also scenes with the sexy English or Australian upperclassman DJ at the school radio station and a few other dangling plot points, but even with all that, I still found this to me an incredibly entertaining and fun movie. I’m also okay with not having every single possible detail about a person’s life even though I’m watching only a 2 hour segment of it. That’s how life is and I feel talked-down-to when every small detail is laid out for me.

I have a confession to make that might also contribute to my liking of this film: I was a pretty big fan of my college’s a cappella group the Owtsiders (we went to Ohio Wesleyan University, which was often shortened to OWU, get it?). Just about any time they had a concert I’d go. They always seemed to be having such a good time, it made me wish I could sing. I think the filmmakers did a good job of capturing not only that onstage presence, but also the kind of weird fandom a group like this can engender (seeing the smallest hint of myself in Benji was a little creepy). The sense of fun I got from the Owtsiders was on screen both in the performance scenes and the one where Kendrick breaks and reveals that she, like me, knows the words to Miley Cyrus’ “Party In The USA.”

More than being clever and funny, the movie makes me want to care about Kendrick’s character. I can relate to people with walls up who don’t want to let anyone in for fear of being hurt. I can relate to trying to be so self reliant that you actively shy away from interacting with people. I get her as a character to the core, of course it helps to understand her when all her favorite songs are about being bulletproof.

There was one funny thing I noticed about the cast of this film. While the women are all doing their things and doing it awesomely (Anna Camp, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Ester Dean, Alexis Knapp and Hana Mae Lee kill it), the dudes all reminded me of more established actors. Adam DeVine is doing Jack Black in his performance as Bumper. There wasn’t a moment he was on screen that I wasn’t thinking about Barry from High Fidelity, but douchier. The bigger guy that plays McLovin’s sidekick (I’m still not clear what either of them had to do with the clubs as neither of them was actually in one of the groups) was doing his best Eric Stonestreet from Modern Family impression. Even our two sympathetic mail leads at least seemed like existing characters. Jesse (Skylar Astin) looks like Dane Cook and Shia LaBeouf’s love child and Ben Platt has a minor Napoleon Dynamite thing going on as Benji. I’m not saying these guys all tried to be like other performers, but these things popped out to me while watching the movie. Lastly, Utkarsh Ambudkar looks exactly like my friend Kevin which is a little creepy.

So, no, Pitch Perfect is not a perfect movie. It’s not completely original, the cast is way older than it probably should be and some scenes were probably kept in in service of song and dance numbers instead of story, but as a whole I think it really works. If you’ve been burned by the unevenness or downright silliness of Glee, don’t let it keep you away from this movie. If you love Glee, well, you’ll probably dig this movie too. Also, if you like fun, you should dig Pitch Perfect. After writing this, I actually kinda want to watch the movie again…

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.

My 12 Favorite New-To-Me Records Of 2011

Okay, as promised, I’m finally getting around to writing about my favorite new-to-me records of 2011, just like I did last year. Of course, I’m not counting new old record by my favorite bands of the year, because that would just be redundant. As it happened there were a clean dozen records that really sparked my imagination and pleased my ears in various ways this year. I’m going to try and keep these short and sweet, but you never know when it comes to me. As you probably know, I can get a bit wordy. If you want to see all those words, hit the jump. Continue reading My 12 Favorite New-To-Me Records Of 2011

My Favorite Bands Of 2011

As I mentioned when I ran down my favorite new records of 2011, there were a handful of bands that I got into more so than just picking up an album of theirs this year. These are bands who I was either already diving into when a new record came out this year or just finally got around to listening to after years of neglect and ignorance on my part.

First off, I spent the beginning and much of the rest of 2011 listening to The White Stripes. I got most of the records I didn’t already have for Christmas 2010 and rocked out to them for a good part of the year. That band rocks my face off in such different and awesome ways, but I already wrote about Jack White extensively towards the end of 2010, so I’m just going to link to that post as it still sums up my thoughts. I also really got into the Foo Fighters this year picking up their records either digitally or at yard sales on the cheap, but I wrote about them already too. So, now on to the new stuff! Continue reading My Favorite Bands Of 2011