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.

Weekend Roundup

2008-11-10
5:12:26 pm

Wow, what a weekend. It was kind of busy with a wedding and both my football teams losing, but I was also able to squeeze in far more movies than I should have.

On Friday, Em went to bed early, so I ran up to Blockbuster and did a trade in for a double feature of Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi (1992) and Desperado (1995). I’d seen Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico before, but had never seen the original piece of the Mexico Trilogy, plus I’m a sucked for a 2-for1 and traded it in. I did not know that Mariachi is completely in Spanish and it seems as though the version I had rented didn’t have an English dub, but it did have an awesome commentary by Rodriguez. So I listened to that and put subtitles on and enjoyed the heck out of myself. Turns out he made the movie for $7,000 and most of that cost went towards film. He worked with mostly no crew and local people who’d never acted before. And while I can’t understand what they’re saying on screen, they really seemed natural. Rodriguez gives a play by play of how he did everything on screen which is super informative and then, in the special features, offers up a segment called “10 Minute Film School” showcasing how he did some of the more complex stunts and basic stuff like shooting scenes with editing in mind. I’ve never been to film school, but I feel like I got a heck of an education from just listening to the commentary. It was worth the rental for the feeling of “heck, I can do this too.” Who wants to make a movie with me?

So, I was pretty hyped up after Mariachi and put Desperado on immediately after. It definitely looks and feels like a different animal with it’s slicker look, bigger actors and crazier action sequences, but Rodriguez maintains the feel of the original which is impressive. This time Antonio Banderas plays El Mariachi and Salma Hayek plays his love interest. You’ve also got Quentin Tarantino, Cheech Marin, Steve Buscemi and Danny Trejo (my personal favorite interviewee so far). What stuck in my head from my previous viewing of Desperado was how bad ass it was. And that still holds up as Banderas leaps around shooting dudes from all kinds of awesome camera angles. I also love how cool the guitar case full of weapons is. It’s like Rodney Dangerfield’s golf bag from Caddyshack 2! Anyway, I also really dug the final scene where Mariachi calls in his boys who also have guitar cases concealing weapons (machine guns and a rocket launcher!). It’s an awesome revenge story with tons of action and plenty of bad ass characters walking around looking bad ass, but none as bad ass as Mariachi. BAM!

After that I was pretty exhausted (it was 3AM), so I went to bed. The next day Em took a nap in the afternoon and I started tinkering with my VCR and actually got the dumb thing to start working again which meant I could watch some of the tapes I’ve picked up at work and garage sales lately. So I popped Don’t Answer the Phone (1980) on. It wasn’t very good. The story follows a serial killer as he calls in to a radio psychologist and taunts her. The video tape quality added to the atmosphere of the film, but it was overall just kind of uncomfortable and I didn’t even both finishing it. What I did find interesting was the fact that we as the audience spent a good deal of time with the killer even when he wasn’t killing. We see him walking along the street and calling into the radio show. I’ve often thought it would be interesting to see a slasher movie done like this, where you really get to see things from the killer’s perspective. If Don’t Answer the Phone is any indicator, maybe it’s not such a good idea.

After giving up on that flick, I still had a little more time, so I popped in F/X2 (1991), which is a tape I grabbed from Em’s parents when they were cleaning out all the tapes. They used to own a video store back in the day, so I can only assume it’s a leftover from those days (how I wish I was around when they were getting rid of their boxes and boxes of movies!). I actually thought F/X2 was a horror movie, so I was confused when I couldn’t find it in my Creature Features book. It turns out that it’s more of an action thriller than a horror movie, though. Bryan Brown (Cocktail!) stars as a Hollywood effects man who gave up the game after the events of the first movie (which I haven’t seen). This time, the woman he’s dating’s ex husband asks him to help out with a case (making him look like a woman), but it turns out that the ex gets killed and Bryan stumbles upon a much bigger plot involving cops killing cops, mobsters and the Vatican. Bryan calls in his buddy from the previous flick Brian Dennehy and now they’re on the case. It’s a fairly standard plot from here, but what I really liked about the movie is how Brown uses his crazy special effects talents to go after the bad guys. At one point, a dude breaks into his house to kill him, but Brown’s able to slip into this motion control suit that coincides with a robot clown, so anything Brown does, the clown does. Then there’s this amazingly hilarious fight scene with Brown and the clown vs. the assassin. There’s also all kinds of craziness at the end. Definitely worth checking out if you want to see the kind of movie that will never get made nowadays, one with a sense of humor about itself, but also takes itself seriously.

The aforementioned wedding interrupted my movie watching (it’s okay, I forgive them). On Sunday, I caught part of Bad Boys II (2003) on TV and you know what? That movie’s awesome. I think Michael Bay gets a bad rap. I don’t know much about the guy aside from what he puts on the screen, but I definitely appreciate his love of big crazy movies with lots of action and explosions. Some people call him a hack for that, but I don’t buy it. I’ve liked Armageddon, The Rock, Bad Boys I and II (though definitely II better) and Transformers. I haven’t seen The Island yet and I didn’t really like Pearl Harbor at the time, but would definitely give it another shot. I didn’t get to see the entirety of BBII (I’ve seen it before though) and man, there are some awesome scenes in there. The 360 degree scene of Will Smith on one side of a room and dudes with machine guns on the other. The chase scene where the bad guys throw cars at them. You can’t beat that kind of stuff. And, I didn’t get to see it this time, but the absolute disregard for human life while driving through Cuban homes! This is what movies used to be like back in the 70s and 80s and it’s awesome to see that again. (NOTE: I in no way support the ACTUAL disregard of human life in Cuba, just in the movies!) Also, I forgot how cool Will Smith can be when he wants to (and when the camera angels make him look so). There were a lot of fun similarities between how Rodriguez shot Banderas and how Bay shot Smith. Fun stuff.

Finally, I ended my weekend movie watching with the original When A Stranger Calls (1979). I’ve got a bit of a history with the remake. My first year here in New York, before I got married, I didn’t really have a lot going on, so on my birthday Rickey, Ben and I (sorry if I forgot anyone else, my memory’s fuzzy at best) I thought it would be awesome to go see a horror movie (Em was still in New Hampshire). WASC had just come out and Rickey and I had just seen the main girl, Camilla Belle, in Chumscrubber and had school boy crushes on her so it seemed like a great idea. It was not and I still get reminded of how bad of a movie it was. Soon after, I looked the original up in Creature Features to find out that the original actually split it’s time between the babysitter getting terrorized story and then a seven years later story when the killer breaks out of an asylum. No wonder it felt like it was way too drawn out.

So, last night I finally watched the original and was even more surprised to find out that the babysitter portion only takes up about 15 minutes of screen time! Oh remake people, you’re so crazy. Anyway, it’s a pretty effective movie, the babysitter stuff in the beginning is definitely creepy and spawned the line “The call is coming from inside the house.” You’ve also got a pretty creepy killer, he killed the kids she was babysitting in their bedrooms with his bare hands while she was downstairs. After the 7 year jump we end up splitting our time between the escaped killer as he wanders around New York trying to hit on (or kill?) some woman and the private detective who’s on his trail. Here’s another movie where we get to see things from the killer’s perspective for a significant part of the movie. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to feel sorry for him or what, which adds to my not loving this movie, but eventually he finds the babysitter, who now has two kids and a husband and starts screwing with her again. There are some creepy moments and the killer definitely walks the line between total creep and somewhat not-hateable. It’s not a great movie, but definitely not as bad as the remake, though this kind of makes me want to watch it again. Somebody stop me…

Faculty Advisory

2008-07-10
3:32:44 am

Robert Rodriguez is one of those director’s who’s always impressed me. Sin City, From Dusk Till Dawn, Planet Terror and his Mexico Trilogy were all great in my mind. So, when we got our online Blockbuster account I added just about all of his movies, especially looking forward to The Faculty because 15-year-old TJ wasn’t allowed to see it and later TJs never got around to it. Well, the wait was a pretty long one and then, what do you know, we included it in ToyFare’s Best Alien Invasions (see ToyFare #133 on sale today to find out what place it took and who snagged the #1 spot). So, with that, I borrowed the flick and watched it last night.

The Faculty (1998)

Written by Kevin Williamson, David Wechter and Bruce Kimmel

Directed by Robert Rodriguez

Starring Elijah Wood, Jordana Brewster, Clea DuVall, Usher, Josh Hartnett, Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Patrick, Jon Stewart and many more

Well, you can add this one to the list of Rodriguez movies that I dug. Part of it was a sense of nostalgia I got while watching it. It kind of reminded me of Can’t Hardly Wait. Not thematically, but when it comes to star power. There are SO MANY familiar faces in this movie. Just check out the list above. Freakin’ Jon Stewart plays a science teacher who gets possessed by an alien parasite and stabbed in the eye with some kind of caffeine drug. Great stuff.

Oh, I guess I should explain the plot. A small town in Ohio gets invaded by alien parasites who burrow their way into bodies, taking over control of the inhabitant. Elija Wood’s character finds one of the parasites on the football field and later finds himself in a closet with the hot girl as they see the football coach (T-1000 himself Robert Patrick) and another teacher drop a parasite in the hot nurse (Salma Hayek). From there a mismatched group of high schoolers (think basically The Breakfast Club. Don’t know what that is? Go away) bands together and figures out that the drugs that Josh Hartnett’s been peddling around the school can kill them and do their best to stop the invasion.

I really like how they don’t muck about when it comes to the story on this flick. You’re into the story pretty early on with Elija Wood finding the parasite. They don’t mess around with “is this really happening” BS too much that comes with these kinds of movies. You get your set group of characters pretty early on and you strap in for the ride with them. I also like that Matt Parkman’s partner from Heroes (Clea DuVall) actually compares what’s going on to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and all that. She tells Elija Wood about this and he wonders if all the movies and whatnot about aliens is actually a way for them to get people complacent so they don’t think an alien invasion is possible. It’s a great bit of business that feels really natural in “our world.”

Speaking of the cast again, it’s a lot of fun to see some pretty huge actors (along with some not-so-huge and completely unknown actors) in these roles. But they’re also really really convincing in their roles. Elija Wood looks like a huge geek and acts like one too. Josh Hartnett’s loser Zeke is pretty much a genius who just doesn’t like school and deals drugs on campus. They all handle the Thing-like suspense of “who’s an alien and who’s not?” so convincingly that I really couldn’t figure out who was and who wasn’t.

I also liked how the special FX (do they still spell it like that? Probably not, oh well) looked. Especially in the scene where the parasite-controlled Jon Stewart attacks the kids in a classroom. Zeke rips the blade off of a paper cutter and chops Stewart’s fingers off. But they don’t just lie there, the snake themselves towards the kids. But that’s not all, whisps of blood snake out from his fingers until he’s stabbed in the eye, foams and the parasites under his skin die. Crazy stuff.

All in all, this is a fun little romp that shows off Rodriguez’s directing chops along with the acting talent of the cast that has gone on to prove itself just as well as the adults who play the teachers. Oh and Bebe Nuerth looks hot as the principal. Yeah, I said it.