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.

Halloween Scene: Scream 4 (2011)

Let’s see, I’ve blogged about my history with the Scream franchise a bit when revisiting the first and third installments recently, so you can head over there for a little more backstory. Basically, much like the Mission: Impossible franchise, this one was huge when I was growing up and really getting to understand and love movies. You couldn’t be a teenager and avoid them and I was cool with that because they were right in my horror wheelhouse. When I heard that Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson were re-teaming for another sequel, I was curious but not intensely so. I tend not to get as excited about these things as I used to.

That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them, though. I actually had a great time watching this movie even if I had to break into three parts and only watch when the kid was sleeping. Craven and Williamson did a great job of using elements from the first film, commenting on them in this one and switching things up. In other words, it’s not a beat for beat remake along the lines of Hangover 2, but instead done in the same spirit and universe as the original.

This time around, the walking catnip for nutjobs Sidney Prescott returns home on a book tour only to find that a new person(s) running around killing people as Ghost Face. In this reality the Stab movies are almost up to double digit sequels and so people are very well versed in horror both real and fictional. Dewey and Gale, now married, are also involved though there’s trouble in their domestic paradise.

Things move along at a good clip with SPOILER a series of false openings starring pairs of stars talking about horror movies, usually before one kills the other. The kills were on par with what I wanted to see in something like this and I thought the cast, including all the younger kids brought in for the new generation, were really fun to watch. I like the kid that was supposed to be the new Randy, Emma Roberts did well and a friend and I both agree that Hayden Panettiere is mesmerizing. I was most surprised by how brutal some of the pre-kill fight scenes were. I didn’t watch a movie for Friday Fisticuffs last week, but I think this movie has plenty of good ones. I’d check and see if one in particular towards the end was on YouTube, but it’s a huge spoiler, so I’ll skip it.

I did have one problem with the film, but it’s not really the movie’s fault. I think I’m losing my taste for fiction that involves people going nuts for stupid reasons. I know it happens, but with the proliferation of procedurals, horror movies and real life news stories, it can be a little difficult to take so many reasons to kill. I had a hard time buying Stu’s motives in the original film and had equally hard time accepting that the killer this time was doing it just to be famous. Again, this stuff happens, people can be broken and damaged and do incredibly awful things to one another for no good reason, but seeing so many of these explanations gets a little tiring. The straw that really broke the camel’s back for me was an episode of Bones I caught recently where the killer did her thing because someone messed with her bushes. Seriously? While these things might make sense in their own little worlds, being a consumer of pop culture and being inundated with them can be a bit taxing.

However, I still liked this film and possibly more than the original. Scream is held up as this huge milestone in horror, the movie that not only made the genre’s films more self aware (whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen and lies in the eye of the beholder) but also gave my generation a horror movie that had a big budget and was also just plain good. On the other hand, I’m not sure how good it is on repeated viewings. I’m the type of person who definitely holds things in esteem because I was familiar with them when I was younger. So, I almost feel a little bad for not liking parts of Scream, but don’t have that connection with the newest one. That sounds like a bad thing, but it’s not. It’s an easier watch, it’s got a cast that’s equal to or better than the original and I think the creators really found a sweet spot in both of their crafts.

Revisiting Scream 3 (2000) & Iron Man 2 (2010)

Sequels are funny things. Like a lot of people who think about movies way too much, I tend to judge them pretty harshly. Do they hold up to the original? Are they better? Does this story make sense? Is it necessary? The real question should simply be, is it any good? Was it entertaining? Did I like it? Upon re-watching a pair of sequels recently, I feel like I’m either becoming a nicer viewer or (hopefully) less judgmental. I think there’s also something to be said for experience with a story making it easier to digest even if there are elements that you find bothersome. You know they’re they, you see them coming and you adjust your viewing as necessary.

That actually wasn’t the case with Scream 3, which I watched towards the end of last week. The first and only other time I saw this movie was in the theaters when it came out in 2000. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Scream series (you can read my review of the first one here), but they were gigantic to the horror community that I was just getting into as they came out. I remember liking the third installment, thinking that the filmmakers were really playing with the genre and having fun with it. I mean, it’s not a flat out comedy by any means, but I remember feeling a sense of winking towards the audience, especially in the scene where the killer throws a knife at Dewey and the handle smacks him in the head. That bit still made me laugh.

But, I wasn’t seeing or noticing the humor as much this time around. Yes, I was working and it was kind of on in the background while I was doing other things, but it just wasn’t as prevalent. I still liked the movie and think it’s pretty good, but there were two aspects that got on my nerves. First off, and I know I liked this at the time, but the Jay and Silent Bob cameos are just super weird and kind of pointless. I’m saying this as someone who loves those characters, those movies and Smith in general, but they really took me out of the movie. But, they weren’t nearly as bad as that ridiculous voice modulator thing that so much of the movie depends on. Does that kind of thing even exist? I feel like if it did, there would be an app. Anyway, I get the idea that it makes everyone you’re not seeing directly in front of you suspect, but it gets to the point where you as a viewer can’t trust anyone and just become more and more disconnected. It also made me far more aware of off-screen dialog which took me out of the store even more. Without that aspect, the movie would actually be pretty damn solid. I don’t even mind the retconning stuff because I think it fits in pretty well and all makes sense. Plus, it’s another not to old horror movies, though this one far more unsettling. With that, I’ve watched the first and third movies in the past few years and just need to rewatch 2 and see 4 for the first time. I’ve heard good things.

After writing up a piece about Iron Man 3 for Spinoff, I remembered that 2 was on Netflix Instant and gave it another watch. I honestly didn’t remember many of my opinions about the movie from the first time I saw it other than a deep desire to punch Justin Hammer in the face. After going back and re-reading my original review of the film, it turns out that that same elements spoke to me both times. I liked it, it’s a big fun action movie. The performances are great. I didn’t like Sam Jackson that time around, but none of that stuff bothered me this time. And, while I still despise Justin Hammer as a character and think he came off kind of cartoony, I don’t think Sam Rockwell’s portrayal of him is all that far from people like him in the real world.

It’s actually kind of funny that I remembered most of the scenes of the movie, but couldn’t remember how I felt about them. There were bits I forgot, like Tony Stark’s dad as a kind of Walt Disney character. I’m actually listening to a book about Pixar right now that got into some of the “I’ve got these ideas, but haven’t developed the technology just yet, maybe they will n the future” ideas that were directly stated in this film. It’s interesting how the things you’re reading/watching/listening to can inadvertently segue into one another.

Anyway, I’ve found that repeated viewings of the first Iron Man tend to leave me a little flat. I still like all the character stuff they did and Robert Downey Jr. makes an awesome Tony Stark, but the ending definitely has diminishing returns. I understand that they wanted to show that Tony Stark could perservere over a larger, more powerful oponent, but that battle is just boring the third or fourth time around. Similarly, the one between Iron Man, War Machine and Mickey Rourke at the end of this one’s a bit lame. You get that awesome sequence with them taking on the drones and then you finish up with Tony and Rhodey aiming blasters at the Ruskie and he explodes? Eh. These things are great the first time around, but don’t always make for the best repeated viewings which is what I want from my movies. Still, it’s a movie packed with fun and shows just one small aspect of how cool an Avengers movie can and hopefully will be.

Halloween Scene: The Craft (1996)

I’m kind of shocked it took me 14 years to finally get around to watching The Craft. Not only is it a horror movie, but it’s got Robin Tunney who was in my beloved Empire Records, Mary Jane from Half Baked, Neve Campbell who’s pretty much a non-entity in this movie and the ridiculously crazy looking Fairuza Balk who looks a lot like Tunney’s Empire Records costar Debi Mazar. And, hey, maybe if I had watched this back when it came out I would have liked it, but The Craft is a snoozefest. Ten minutes in, I knew the plot: new girl joins coven, she’s got real power, they start using it, things start getting out of control, the new girl tries to get them to stop, the other girls turn on her and she wins in the end. And hey, I was right. Plus, it was over-long. I’m a big believer that horror movies should be at a tight 90 minutes and this is 101, all of those extra minutes could have and should been cut.

I did like a few things. The actresses were all pretty. That was nice to see. But seriously, it’s always fun to see familiar actors in different roles, though I wish they wouldn’t have been so one-note. Skeet Ulrich was also in this, which is interesting because he was also in the other big 1996 horror movie, Scream, which I reviewed recently. Oh, Brekcin Meyer’s in it too and he was actually really funny. The weirdest appearance for me was Christine Taylor as the racist girl who picks on Mary Jane and actually calls her a neogroid. I think my jaw was on the floor for a full on minute and THEN I realized that it was one of my all time crushes (and one of the funniest actresses around) saying it. So weird and not okay.

Oh, hey, also, I went to a private Catholic high school and there’s no way you can get away with all of the uniform violations these kids do. Shirts hanging out, some people wearing ties, others not, short skirts. We’d get a demerit for that kind of stuff (well, not the skirt thing, it was an all guy school). The volume also jumps up and down in really annoying places, which makes it hard for me to watch this while the missus is sleeping. Uncool. All in all, if you somehow missed out on The Craft the first time around, don’t bother.

Halloween Scene: Scream (1996) & House Of Wax (1953)

Even amongst all this Christmas craziness, I still find some time to check out the occasional horror movie (though not as much as I would like). I made a double feature out of the mostly unrelated Scream and House of Wax on the NetBox the other night and had a good time with both.

I saw Scream back when it came out. I don’t think it was in the theaters, more likely at a friend’s house. At some point, I bought it on VHS andkept it secret from my parents. I wasn’t very well versed in horror at the time, but I liked it a lot, especially Matthew Lillard and Jamie Kennedy (what 13-year-old didn’t?) even though I got almost none of the horror references. I watched it again a few years back with Sam and Megan along with Hostel before heading down to Wizard World Philly the next day. We were all pretty freaked out and  I remember thinking that Scream held up pretty well. After watching it again with even more horror movies under my belt, I’m not sure if I like it as much. It was still enjoyable, but I didn’t buy into it as much this time around. I was left with a lot of head scratching “that doesn’t make sense” moments. For instance, how does Rose McGowan not open the door back into the house from the garage one moment and the killer does the next? Also, what kind of garage doesn’t have a side door? Also, upon further viewing, I don’t really buy Skeet Ulrich and Lillard’s explanation at the end of the movie for why they did it. I know it’s a joke throughout the movie that you don’t really need a motive anymore to be a killer, but why the hell does Lillard’s character do it? I can buy Ulrich’s motive, but Lillard literally says he’s doing it because he’s seen to many movies. Really? You’ve decided to plunge knives into your classmates because you’re seen too many movies? I’ve seen a butt load of horror movies and I don’t feel the need to kill anyone (that’s what video games are for).Plus, it’s funny to hear about how expensive cell phones are, with the cop yelling at Ulrich something like “How can a KID afford one of these?!”Hehe.

Those minor problems aside, it’s still a really enjoyable movie and changed the game for horror. Up until that time, horror was in pretty dire straights after a late-80s slump. Scream brought some heft to the table with a fairly solid story, a fun premise,”master” horror director Wes Craven, a script by the Dawson’s Creek guy, a stable of great actors (I think they all kill in this movie, except for Ulrich who’s channeling Johnny Depp a bit too much for my tastes), plenty of nods to horror fans and, of course, presenting us with “the rules.” Sure, older horror fans knew that you never screw, smoke, do drugs or say “I’ll be right back,” but those of us who were more impressionable at the time hadn’t figured it all out. I will say that, while I didn’t remember many of the scenes and movies referenced in Scream, I always remembered those rules. Heck, I actually wanted a few more. Maybe Craven, Williamson and Kennedy can get together and write a book/make a few YouTube videos. They’re making a fourth Scream right? I smell a potential tie-in! For some reason (and I hate when they do this), only the first Scream movie is available for instant watch on the NetBox, which is a bummer because I want to watch 2 and 3 again. It’s been a while since I’ve seen 2 again and I’ve only seen 3 one time (gotta love the Jay and Silent Bob cameos).

Up next was the original House of Wax movie, starring Vincent Price. I had seen the 2005 remake which is most well known for murdering Paris Hilton (for what it’s worth, I think she actually did a good job in the movie), but the two movies are completely different. The original stars Price as a man who runs a wax museum. His business partner burns it to the ground and Price is assumed dead, only to return with a much more macabre-oriented museum with wax figures that look suspiciously like people from the neighborhood. The remake revolves around a bunch of kids whose car breaks down in a town seemingly overrun with wax figures. Anyway, I’m a fan of anything Vincent Price is in, I’m still making my way through the MGM Vincent Price DVD box set I was given when I was still a lowly researcher at Wizard. We’re also fraternity brothers in Alpha Sigma Phi, so there’s that. I even included the man in one of those “What three people would you like to have dinner with?” essays that helped me get into college (Jimi Hendrix and Chicago columnist Mike Royko were the other two, for what it’s worth).

House of Wax continues my huge levels of enjoyment whenever seeing Price on screen. He plays his usual awesome self, you know, the seemingly normal guy who’s going a little bit crazy. This time around SPOILER WARNING, Price uses his thugs-turned-artists (one of which is Charles Bronson) and his own skills to kill people so he can cover them in wax and put them up in his brand new chamber of horrors (he doesn’t have good use of his hands since the fire). He killed the guy who tried to burn the place down and goes after his girlfriend. That’s where things get troublesome, because that woman’s roommate recognizes her dead friend in the museum. Eventually the cops catch on and there’s a manhunt. While watching it, I was continually struck by how similar this movie is to Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1959), though the characters’ motivations for turning corpses into art are completely different.

You might have noticed from the poster that the movie was originally filmed in 3D and much like my viewing of the My Bloody Valentine remake, I watched it without the aid of the third dimension. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the movie because it would have too many “whoa, look what’s flying at the camera NOW” moments, but those are few and far between. I actually forgot the movie was even originally in 3D until the opening of the new wax museum where there’s a dude smacking those paddleballs around at the audience. I bet that was pretty cool in 3D, but you’re not really missing much (not like, say Friday The 13th 3D, which is a bummer when not in 3D). Also, just check out how rad that poster is? This one’s definitly worth a look and makes me want to open a movie theater like The Alamo Drafthouse in Austin or The New Beverly in LA so I could show movies like this as they were originally intended. Anyone looking to hook that up in Orange County NY? I’ll be your manager, no probs.