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Shelf Life: “54”

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By the time I graduated from college in 1997, I had become fully obsessed with the 1970s. Certainly film was the primary conduit for my interest, but the music and fashion of that decade began to play an increasingly important part in all aspects of my life. Released in October of ’97, “Boogie Nights” became sort of the embodiment of everything that inspired me, and I ended up seeing it probably ten or more times just while it was in theaters. And when Miramax announced that they were releasing “54” in 1998, it seemed like my cinematic celebration of ‘70s hedonism would have a second chapter.

Superficially speaking, it possessed as many or more of the 1970s pop-culture hallmarks than Paul Thomas Anderson’s film did – music, clothes, and a story about the decade’s imploding decadence that was actually true. But it ultimately kind of came and went without much fanfare, not the least of which because notorious meddlers Bob and Harvey Weinstein decided to chop out some 45 minutes of original footage and then add 25 more that changed details from the plot and otherwise altered it from writer-director Marc Christopher’s original vision.

This week, Lionsgate released the film on Blu-ray in a director’s edition which doesn’t restore the original cut Christopher produced, but at least gets a little closer to what he intended. (It’s the same as previous DVD versions, but with cleaned-up picture and sound.) Does the film deserve to go down as heir apparent to “Boogie Nights” and an overlooked gem that chronicles ‘70s culture? This week’s “Shelf Life” investigates to find out.


The Facts

Released August 28, 1998, “54” was Christopher’s first feature-length film, and as indicated above, the Weinsteins took it away from him and put together a 98-minute cut that was less controversial and (intended to be) more commercial, excising details that the main character Shane (Ryan Philippe) was bisexual, and that he, Greg (Breckin Meyer) and Anita (Salma Hayek) apparently reached a happy ending all together. In any form, however, audiences responded halfheartedly, and it opened at number Four at the box office before generating a total theatrical revenue that was just shy of $18 million.

Although it was nominated for two ALMA awards, one for Salma Hayek and one for the three performers of “If You Could Read My Mind,” it also received two Razzie nominations, for Worst Actor (Ryan Philippe) and Worst Supporting Actress (Ellen Albertini Dow, who played Disco Dottie). The film currently hovers at 13 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.


What Still Works

Sadly, not a whole lot. Having never seen Christopher’s original cut, which is sort of legendary but all but unavailable, it’s impossible to attest to what might have been. But this version is brisk and superficial, showcasing three actors who were coming into their own at that time without giving them enough to do, while simultaneously offering comedian Mike Myers a chance to expand his repertoire in a more serious role. Myers is actually pretty great at Steve Rubell, the proprietor of Studio 54, but the film scarcely allows him to give Rubell (as a character or actual person) much real substance; he’s a charmer and a hedonist, but he’s also a sociopathic manipulator and mercurial drug addict.

The best part of the film unquestionably is the soundtrack, which was released in two volumes and features few of the obvious staples of the era, instead choosing deep-cut disco tracks that are more authentic to the New York scene, such as Gary’s Gang’s “Keep On Dancin’.” So at the very least, if you’re uninterested in the performances or storyline, there’s still something to enjoy throughout most of the movie.


What Doesn’t Work

“54” is a backstage drama where what’s interesting is on stage. While seeing 54 through the eyes of a young bartender is a promising idea, the theatrical version of this film does almost nothing interesting with it. If Christopher had gone full-out focusing on the hedonistic abandon of the club, or shown its descent via the legal troubles Rubell faced, then there might be something worth holding onto throughout its 100-minute running time. But Shane is a vapid, uninteresting, superficially-ambitious protagonist who does nothing except experience the same big-city revelations any other smalltown rube might if he threw himself into a world of celebrity, drugs and glamor.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Greg and Anita is not just cliched, but poorly-developed: during the first half of the film, they’re adorably lovey-dovey, always telling one another they love the other and talking about the success they’re going to have once she gets her singing career underway. But inexplicably, halfway through the film, Anita becomes inescapably attracted to Shane, and then her attraction to him becomes a larger issue in which she “needs her freedom” and inspires violent jealousy from Greg. But even then, that jealousy is only explored dramatically in one scene in the entire movie, and after that nothing ever becomes of Shane and Anita’s attraction; in fact, it’s literally never even mentioned again.

Finally, there’s a subplot involving Shane and an actress on “All My Children” played by Neve Campbell. It didn’t occur to me until this time that she is absent from almost all but the last 30 minutes of the film, when Shane teaches her a lesson about whoring herself out for work – which is exactly what he’s done for almost literally the entire running time but the film seems to consider that “ambition” or otherwise excuse it. In fact, most of the gender dynamics in the film are pretty despicable; in the guise of empowerment, women characters are mostly sexual predators, but in the case of Anita or Campbell’s character, they’re well-meaning sluts whose philandering is judged much more harshly than the hookups of their male counterparts. But in terms of Campbell’s character, she’s supposed to be instrumental in Shane’s evolution as a person and a character, and she is in the film so infrequently that she leaves almost no impact at all, although to Christopher’s credit, he just makes them friends at the end rather than having them become lovers. But that doesn’t feel satisfying either.


The Verdict

“54” is a pretty terrible movie. There’s so much interesting stuff to explore about Studio 54 that this feels like a catastrophic failure, which I, like many others, gave a pass at the time of its release because it felt like the morning-after follow-up to “Boogie Nights.” That said, I would absolutely give Christopher’s original cut another shot, since apparently it includes more details about Shane’s bisexuality and offers a more substantial exploration of the world. But ultimately its “peripheral character commenting on a larger context” approach just feels all wrong, because there’s simply too much of real interest – the music, the culture, the celebrities, and time period – to waste so much screen time on a himbo and a doofus married couple, especially when you have Myers there playing Steve Rubell, whose life, experiences, obliviousness, and ultimate downfall would have – and quite frankly still could – make for an amazing film.

Does “54” still hold up for you? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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