Embracing the Melodrama Part II #95: 54 (dir by Mark Christopher)


“A guy named Steve Rubell had a dream: To throw the best damned party the world had ever seen and to make it last forever. He built a world where fantasy was put up as reality and where an 80-year-old disco queen could dance till dawn. Where models mingled with mechanics, plumbers danced with princes. It was a place where all labels were left behind. A place where there were no rules.”

— Shane O’Shea (Ryan Phillippe) in 54 (1998)

So, did you actually read that quote at the beginning of the review?  I don’t blame if you didn’t because not only is it ludicrous overwritten but it just goes on and on.  It’s one of those quotes that you read in a script and you think to yourself, “They better get absolutely the best actor in the world to deliver these lines,” and then you realize Ryan Phillippe has been cast in the role.

Except, of course, I doubt that any of those lines were found in the original script for 54.  54 is one of those films where, as you watch it, you can literally imagine the chaos that must have been going on during the editing process.  Subplots are raised and then dropped and the mysteriously pop up again.  Characters change both their personalities and their motives in between scenes.  Huge dramatic moment happen almost at random but don’t seem to actually have anything to do with anything else happening in the film.

In short, 54 is a mess but it’s a mess that’s held together by incredibly clunky narration.  Shane O’Shea, who spent the waning days of the 1970s working at Studio 54, narrates the film.  And, despite the fact that Shane is presented as being kinda dumb (think of Saturday Night Fever‘s Tony Manero, without the sexy dance moves), his narration is extremely verbose and reflective. It’s almost as if the narration was written at the last-minute by someone desperately trying to save a collapsing film.

I watched 54 on cable because I saw that it was about the 70s and I figured it would feature a lot of outrageous costumes, danceable music, and cocaine-fueled melodrama.  And it turns out that I was right about the cocaine-fueled melodrama but still, 54 is no Boogie Nights.  It’s not even Bright Lights, Big City.

54 does have an interesting cast, which makes it all the more unfortunate that nobody really gets to do anything interesting.  Poor Ryan Phillippe looks totally lost and, in the film’s worst scene, he actually has to stand in the middle of a dance floor and, after the death of elderly Disco Dottie (that’s the character’s name!), yell at all the decadent club goers.  Breckin Meyer is cute as Phillippe’s co-worker and Salma Hayek gets to sing.  Neve Campbell plays a soap opera actress who Phillippe has a crush on and…oh, who cares?  Seriously, writing about this film is almost as annoying as watching it.

Mike Myers — yes, that Mike Myers — plays the owner of the club, Steve Rubell.  The role means that Myers gets to snort cocaine, hit on Breckin Meyer, and vomit on the silk sheets of his bed.  I think that Myers gives a good performance but I’m not really sure.  It could have just been the shock of seeing Mike Myers snorting cocaine, hitting on Breckin Meyer, and vomiting on the silk sheets of his bed.

If you want to enjoy some 70s decadence, avoid 54 and rewatch either Boogie Nights or American Hustle.

Embracing the Melodrama #46: Wild Things (dir by John McNaughton)

The 1998 film Wild Things starts out like a standard B-movie.  It take place in Florida so, of course, we get a lot of shots of the sun setting on the bayous and crocodiles staring at the camera as if to ask, “What are you looking for?”  Boats skim the water.  High school guidance counselor Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) walks across campus while all of the toned and tanned students stop to admire him.  Local rich girl Kelly Von Ryan (Denise Richards) smirks and says something snarky.  Detective Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) shows up in the background and stares at the world from behind dark glasses and a serious expression.  Meanwhile, local poor girl Suzie (Neve Campbell) goes back to her home, which happens to be located right behind an alligator farm.

Judging from the first few minutes, Wild Things could just as easily be an episode of CSI Miami.

But then Bill Murray shows up as Kenneth Bowden, a hilariously sleazy attorney who spends most of the movie wearing a neck brace, just in case the insurance company is watching him.

And then Theresa Russell shows up Kelly’s mother, standing on a balcony in a gold bikini and hitting on every passing man like the world’s most hyperactive cougar.

And then Carrie Snodgress shows up as Suzie’s mother, complete with an over-the-top white trash accent.

By the time that Robert Wagner shows up and literally growls at Matt Dillon: “You’re finished, Lombardo!  Finished!,” you realize that Wild Things is probably the most self-aware B-movie ever made and it’s all the better for it.

As for the plot — well, let’s see if I can keep track.  Suzie and Kelly both accuse Sam of rape.  Sam claims to be innocent but nobody in town believes him.  Sam is forced to hire the disreputable Kenneth Bowden to defend him.  During the trial, Kenneth is able to prove that Kelly blamed Sam for the suicide of her father while Suzie is angry that Sam once refused to bail her out of jail on a drug charge.  To get revenge, Kelly and Suzie decided to frame Sam.  Sam is acquitted and, again with Bowden’s help, is able to negotiate an 8 million dollar settlement for defamation.  True, Sam does lose his job but at least he’s a rich man now…

But wait a minute.

The movie still has a little over an hour to go.

Could it be that there’s more to this story?

Well, of course, there is.  It turns out that Sam, Kelly, and Suzie have been working together all the time.  The accusations, the trial, the defamation suit — it was all a part of a grand scheme to get the money.  Sam, Kelly, and Suzie celebrate their success with champagne and a threesome.

While everyone else in town seems to be ready to move on from the entire scandal, Detective Ray Duquette is telling anyone who will listen that he thinks that Sam, Kelly, and Suzie were all in on it together.  Even when Ray is ordered by his superiors to back off, Ray continues to investigate the case.

And why?

Because Ray Duquette is a cop who gets results!

Well, maybe.

Actually, it doesn’t take long to realize that there’s something off about Ray.  For one thing, his obsession with Sam really does seem to be a personal thing.  On top of that, Ray has a past connection with Suzie…

Wild Things has everything that you could hope for from a good exploitation film: a script that is full of double and triple crosses, unapologetically pulpy dialogue, over-the-top performances, and lots of sex.  Yesterday, I reviewed Normal Life and praised John McNaughton’s decision to play up the banality of the film’s characters and locations.  With Wild Things, McNaughton takes the exact opposite approach, playing up every sordid and tawdry detail to such an extent that the film itself eventually transcends such mundane concepts as good and bad.

Wild Things is a lot of fun and it’s also one of the best films of the 1990s.

Wild Things

Documentary Review: Seduced and Abandoned (dir by James Toback)

I recently watched James Toback’s 2013 Seduced and Abandoned on HBO.  This documentary failed to seduce me but it certainly left me feeling abandoned.

Seduced and Abandoned follows James Toback and Alec Baldwin as they wander around the Cannes Film Festival, interviewing filmmakers and attempting to raise money for Toback’s latest film.  That film, incidentally, is a remake of  Last Tango In Paris.  Though neither Toback nor Baldwin goes into too much detail about the film (and I’m not exactly convinced that they’re all that serious about it to begin with), we do learn that this remake would be set in Iraq.  Alec Baldwin would play a right-wing CIA agent while Neve Campbell  would play a leftist journalist.  We watch as Baldwin and Toback pitch this film to a countless number of potential producers and ask for twenty million dollars.  Without fail, every producer replies that he loves Alec Baldwin but he’s not willing to spend that type of money on him because Baldwin is not a bankable star.  As Baldwin and Toback frequently lament, nobody seems to care what the film is about.  Instead, they’re only interested in making money.

And this brings us to this documentary’s main problem.  It would be easier to agree with them about businessmen sacrificing art for greed if not for the fact that the movie that Toback and Baldwin are talking about making sounds like perhaps the worst fucking film ever pitched.  A remake of Last Tango in Paris starring Alec Baldwin, directed by James Toback, and taking place in Iraq?  Are you freaking kidding me?  I would never pay money to see a movie that sounded that pretentious.  I would never ask anyone else to buy me a ticket for this movie.  If I saw this movie on HBO, I would cancel my cable subscription.  Seriously, no way.

And yes, I do understand Baldwin and Toback’s point.  They’re arguing that a politically-themed, Iraq-set remake of Last Tango In Paris could not be made today because the system has been set up to silence the voice of artists. The industry is more concerned with making money than making an artistic statement.  I happen to agree 100% but that still doesn’t change the fact that Toback and Baldwin’s film sounds terrible.

Toback and Baldwin interview everyone from Ryan Gosling to Jessica Chastain to Martin Scorsese to Francis Ford Coppola and the one thing that every interview has in common is the sound of Toback’s braying laughter.  It’s a very forced and calculating laugh, one that seems almost as fake as Toback’s pseudo-intellectual persona.  And that’s the other big problem with Seduced and Abandoned.  Toback and Baldwin never really come across as being the rebels that they obviously believe themselves to be.  Even when Toback is talking to the financiers that he and Baldwin appear to blame for ruining the movies, it’s obvious that Toback wants us to impressed by the fact that he knows so many fabulously wealthy people.  In the end, the film feels self-congratulatory in the most undeserving of ways.

And yet, there are occasional moments where the film, almost despite itself, manages to escape from the suffocating egos of James Toback and Alec Baldwin.  The section of the film that deals with the history of Cannes Film Festival is fascinating and Martin Scorsese is such a lively and sincere artist that it’s impossible not to enjoy his interview.  (In many ways, Scorsese seems to be the anti-Toback.)  For a few seconds, Alec Baldwin stops being insufferable long enough to do a reasonably humorous impersonation of Woody Allen.  If you’re a student of Italian cinema, you’ll be happy to see a brief appearance from Mark Damon, a former actor turned producer who appears in several Italian spaghetti westerns in the late 60s.  Damon is the first producer to have to sit through Toback’s pitch and its fascinating to watch just how indifferent he is to idea of remaking Last Tango In Paris with Alec Baldwin and James Toback.

Mark Damon aside, Seduced and Abandoned is a documentary that fails to do the former and will probably inspire many viewers to do the latter.

Film Review: Scream 4 (dir. by Wes Craven)

Before I start, note that Scream 4 is also referred to as Scre4m. While this is true and cool in a hacking/cyberpunk sort of way, I refuse to call it that as it just erodes my writing ability (which is rough enough as it is). I keep that up by the end of the year, everything I write will have numbers in it.

Compared to some of his earlier attempts, Scream 4 is pretty much a triumph for Wes Craven. With Kevin Williamson’s help, they manage to take the fourth part of a story and turn it into something remarkably enjoyable and surprising. The audience at my showing loved the way it started and ended. Although it retreads some of the older themes of the series, it does so in a way that almost makes fun of itself and the genre it’s a part of. Since it’s not taking itself too seriously, the audience doesn’t have to either.

Scream 4 basically brings what’s left of the remaining cast back to the tale. The Arquette’s (Courtney Cox and David) have returned as Gail Weathers-Riley and Sheriff Dewey Riley, respectively. Neve Campbell returns to form after a long hiatus, and really, it’s almost as if none of them ever left. The film starts off in a way where it pays homage to the original Drew Barrymore opening while still managing to keep it fresh. Cameos by Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell help to move that along.

After the events of the last three films (ten years of time in the movie), Sidney Prescott (Campbell) has managed to put her life back together by writing a novel about being a survivor. Thanks to Gail’s book on the Woodsboro murders and the multiple “Stab” movies that were created for them, the town has become famous for something it really shouldn’t be. Ghostface masks are a dime a dozen now, yearly Stab marathons are all the rage and the town kind of looks at it all like Crystal Lake – people died there, sure, but it’s just so much to say “I was there!”.

Sidney’s fame did little for her niece, Jill (Emma Roberts) and her friends, Kirby (a short hairdo wearing Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe). Having to grow up as a relative to the most famous person in town means everyone has something to ask her about Sidney when she returns to Woodsboro on her book tour. The younger trio keep their distance from Sidney as they consider her trouble. After all, all these deaths seem to occur when she’s around or has something to do with her. However, when a new rash of murders start when Sidney arrives, everyone has something to worry about. What follows is a bloodbath in typical Scream fashion, and as always, just about everyone is a suspect.

The Positives:

– Conspiracy Theory

What worked for me in Scream 4 was the conspiracy aspect. Williamson paints a picture that basically says “Here’s your cast. Any one of them could be the killer. Can you figure out who?”. The misdirection isn’t on a Harry Potter like level, but it does serve a purpose here. By the time everything was brought out, I found myself nodding and smiling. It’s actually worth it to ride out the movie to get to the big reveal. Without giving anything away, both that reveal and the story behind it was damn near excellent.

-Sidney as Ripley

Another good thing about the film is that Sidney is pretty much a powerhouse here. She takes on the Ghostface without too much fear. So much so that it sometimes seems like she’s like a Jason Bourne type character. It’s nice that she’s able to hold her own, though after 3 films, you’d expect the character to probably do that.

– Remembering the Original

Another element that proved useful was the homages to the original Scream films. There are a few scenes that even if you only watched the Original Scream, you’ll recognize them instantly. Some serious recognition goes to Panettiere’s Kirby, who at one point spits out the name of nearly 30 horror films in the space of a minute. All in all, it might seem like rehashing, but the context they were set up in were enough to warrant a whispered “Wow” from me. Maybe I’m just easily impressed. Craven also managed to bring back Roger L. Jackson (Mojo Jojo from The Powerpuff Girls) as the voice of the Ghostface Killer. So much fun to hear his voice again after all these years. That was definitely a plus.

The Negatives:

Not a lot of Bodies Hitting the Floor.

If Scream 4 suffers from any problems, it’s that there really isn’t that much of a body count. Granted, I wasn’t expecting anything like Dead Alive or Dawn of the Dead, but as slasher films go, it’s pretty light on the numbers, and as always, most of the people who are dispatched are done well, but I left the theatre wondering if there weren’t just a few more people who could have been taken out. That, and outside of the main players, I didn’t really care about the rest of the cast. They were pretty much cannon fodder for Ghostface.

– The Rules have Changed, but aren’t Exactly Enforced

While the movie seemed to be big on changing what the rules for how horror movies go, they weren’t really mind-blowing. In some ways, it seemed it was useful, but perhaps it would have been better to simply say that there were no rules and leave it at that. The rules here didn’t seem as enforced as the first film. Anything kind of goes.

Overall, Scream 4 is a fun ride, and quite possibly the best entry in the series since the first Scream. It peppers original elements with a few new ideas. It’s not all perfect and there some moments that are over the top, but in the end, it’s refreshing when compared to the 2nd and 3rd parts of the series.