Category Archives: Project M

Where Sarah and Doug analyze, critique, break down, and celebrate each others’ movie collections from perspectives entirely of their own choosing. Hopefully, with mildly entertaining results.

Project M– High Fidelity

One of the nice things about living in the kinda, sorta, quasi, close to the real thing city type metro area of Raleigh is that we do have enough independent theaters in which we get to see some fun stuff roll through. And when I saw that High Fidelity (one of my wife’s and Sarah’s favorite movies and a movie I’ve never seen), was playing on the big screen as part of a “music in movies” series at a local joint, I had to jump on it. So, we’re making High Fidelity the next installment of Project M.

As much fun as it is to watch a great movie on DVD with friends at home, is there anything more fun than getting to go to a theater to watch an old, favorite film with a bunch of others who love it, too? I had never seen High Fidelity and the move in the theater, both before and during the movie, was one of excited anticipation. People were laughing extra heartily, with a sense of familiarity and comfort, at their favorite parts. It was like being at any other event where people are really, really into something and allowing yourself to roll with the vibe even if you’re not in on things yet. I love that kind of stuff.

Most people who are into movies are at least somewhat familiar with what I’ll call The Power of Cusack. It’s that undefinable charm, quirkiness, and every man-ness that Sir Cusack possesses that can charm the pants off (mostly women) just about anybody. High Fidelity benefits from bucketfuls of the Power of Cusack. Honestly, the whole movie depends on it, because other than Cusack’s Rob Gordon character, the truth is that there’s not really another even remotely three dimensional character to be found. But it ends up not mattering, because the usually pretentious and distracting plot device of having the main character speak directly to the audience and the camera, in the hands of The Power of Cusack, works like a charm.

The basic plot (based on the Nick Hornby book), of course, is the old standby young hipster not completely sure where he wants to go in life loses girl, which kicks off a series of encounters with exes that makes him realize that his “ideas” of the perfect woman are just that, ideas, and not based in reality. It all works out in the end, but it’s the process of getting there that is the core of the movie. Oh, and by the way, the Rob Gordon character owns a record store and he spends his days hanging out with Jack Black (in one of Black’s first breakthrough roles) and a mousy guy talking about arcane music trivia. These sections of the movie, I thought, were handled brilliantly. There was a little something for everyone during these conversations (for my wife, it was the Silos reference; for me, Stereolab).

One of the things Rob does is track down several of his exes. Every single one of these exes turns out to be over the top character sketches that provide some wink, wink “we’ve all been there” chuckles. Rob explains it all directly to the audience as he goes along, employing The Power of Cusack to distract you from how ridiculous almost all of the women in the film are made to look, even while providing some of those chuckles along the way. Even Rob’s girlfriend, Laura, in choosing her “rebound guy”, chooses a cartoon character. Of course, it’s the funniest cartoon character in the film, a new age, pony tail wearing Tim Robbins. Cusack loathes Robbins and tortures himself with nightmares of Robbins sexing up his woman. There’s another awesome dream moment involving Bruce Springsteen where the Boss gives Cusack some quick life lessons while gently strumming his guitar.

One of the fun things about watching High Fidelity for the first time is all the “oh, I don’t know she (or he) was in this” moments. Besides Jack Black and Robbins, there’s Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lisa Bonet, Lili Taylor, Joan Cusack, Natasha Gregson Wagner, and Sarah Gilbert, among others. And Iben Hjejle as Cusack’s girlfriend, Laura, is fine. Again, though, it’s Cusack’s movie. Albeit an odd movie in some ways. It’s actually pretty mean and dismissive toward women in sections. It’s kind of hard to ignore the abortion plot twist, which is handled in what could be interpreted as either a refreshingly matter of fact way, or as actually pretty flippant and callous. As Cusack meets up with his exes, they’re all so over the top that they’re not really very believable. And the main reason Laura leaves Rob is that she thinks he has no direction. But, sure Rob hangs out in a record store all day, but he owns the place. And the “direction” he finds is staying in the business he’s already in and producing a record by some teenage skate punks.

So, it’s the thinnest of plots, it doesn’t really feel all that real in a lot of places, and it’s kind of cartoonish. But you still walk out feeling like there’s something kind of perceptive, and definitely endearing, about it. It’s funny in a kind of comforting way. And the best thing is that it’s a chick flick laced with a ton of guy conversations and moments. Don’t think about it too much, and The Power of Cusack will pull you in like a Death Star tracking laser (in a good way).





Project M: Feeling the Heat

That’s right, Doug assigned me yet another boy movie; Michael Mann’s 1995 cops and robbers epic Heat.  Frankly, “boy movie” doesn’t even aptly cover this testosterone driven three-hour ode to L.A. – not to mention the mugging by Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino.  Doug, perhaps divining that Heat would not be an entirely enjoyable three-hour adventure for me without some patented Doug commentary, joined me for the viewing.  I therefore learned a number of interesting tidbits.  First, I learned that Doug apparently memorized and could perform the one-man off-off-Broadway rendition of Heat (coming soon!).  Second, I learned that the Michael Mann movie I really should be watching is The Keep.  (How do you say no to an alien hunting Nazis?  To quote another great movie, “Nazis.  I hate those guys.”  Check out the awesomeness!)  Last, I learned that Doug saw the Martin Scorsese ode to gratuitous assault on a telephone, more mugging by DeNiro, and gambling that is Casino and Heat on the same weekend back in 1995.  Doug claims that after seeing Heat , he thought he ought to call up Scorsese and tell him it was time to pass the mantle on to the young Mr. Mann.  And there is the rub; the mantle of what???  There’s only one possible answer; the mantle of gratuitous, testosterone fueled crime dramas.

But there’s a difference to Mr. Mann’s Heat from any Scorsese – or the more recent comparison that I kept drawing to Ben Affleck’s The Town – because while the plot points may be similar, and hell, some of the actors are the same, Mann makes epics.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a movie about whistleblowers or gangster; it’s about the big picture.  Scorsese prefers a sort of compulsive attention to detail while Mann’s movies are glossy and staged, like the Better Homes & Gardens for bank robbers.  Not to suggest Scorsese’s movies aren’t glitzy, but you get the sense throughout Heat, that Mr. Mann staged several scenes just so he could get that panoramic shot of the nighttime Los Angeles skyline over the actor’s shoulders.  The city is another – more likeable – character in the movie.

And speaking of likeability, it seems to be a feature of Michael Mann’s films that his characters are about as likeable as a dead fish found on the front porch on a fine morning.  That is to say, not a one of them is pleasant or honorable.  Generally, I’m not going to really enjoy a movie if I like not a single character in it, but action flicks can get away with it sometimes and Heat falls into this category.  DeNiro plays Neil McCauley a thief with all the charisma of, let’s say, a buttermilk biscuit.  The film takes its name from a line oft-repeated by McCauley, “don’t have anything in your life that you wouldn’t be willing to walk away from in 30 seconds if you feel the heat around the corner.”  It’s a difficult motto to live by and McCauley falls down on the job, showing some uncharacteristic loyalty to his crew when things go wrong.  As Doug announced as the movie concluded, “that’s the discipline, you can’t lose the discipline!”  Pacino is the workaholic Lieutenant Vincent Hanna.  He plays the character with a sort of fervor that makes the character seem pretty much maniacal, but for no good reason.  But that’s where Mr. Mann so often falls down – the inter-personal relationships and, if he were going to try to make this a two and half hour epic instead of three, it’s the personal relationships between Hanna and his family that could go, that and any scenes with Amy Brenneman.  I don’t know her and I don’t want to get mean so I’ll just say, editing her scenes down might have helped.

All in all, Heat is a pretty enjoyable cops and robbers drama, but as I pointed out to Doug, Ben Affleck pulled off the thief falling in love better in The Town and, generally, I’d rather see Jeremy Renner chew scenery than Val Kilmer with a terrible ’90s pony tail.  Maybe it’s like Doug has said about another story, it’s always better when you first discover these stories or flicks for yourself so it’s probably not surprising that I’d rather watch Affleck’s version, even if it is pretty transparently inspired by Heat.  That being said, you can’t beat DeNiro’s pulled frown in a gangster role and the obvious winking at the audience when Pacino’s Hanna and DeNiro’s McCauley sit down for coffee to express their mutual respect.  I can understand why Doug might have been pumping his fists in the air when this celebration of testosterone ended and certainly hearing Doug recite the lines right before Pacino delivered them did make the movie even better.  Now, if only Affleck could have gotten DeNiro in The Town too, what a picture that would have been!

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Posted by on August 21, 2012 in Project M, Reviews


Marley Delivers

Kevin McDonald’s documentary on reggae legend Bob Marley, descriptively entitled Marley, does nothing if not remind us how magnetic a figure the head Wailer really was, on stages both small and large. Much like last year’s sensational doc Senna, the Marley film soars every time its subject is on screen. To be sure, McDonald is going for a full blown biopic, tracing Marley’s birth and early life in the hills of Jamaica to his musical beginnings in Kingston’s infamous Trenchtown and the birth of his band the Wailers, all the way through Marley’s rise to superstardom before his way too young death at the hands of cancer in 1981 at the age of 36.

There are no gimmicks in the construction or pacing of the film, as McDonald gives Marley a straight ahead, chronological, respectful treatment reflecting the esteem with which McDonald and almost everyone who loves music hold Marley. This by the numbers approach comes across as refreshing and actually sort of elevating in a media world that has become increasingly self- consciously ironic and, in many cases, phonily edgy. Bob Marley didn’t need a schtick and McDonald is basically telling us that neither does a documentary on him. For the Marley aficionados and experts, there may not be a ton new or eye opening in this film. There is so much available on Marley’s life in the public domain already. On the other hand, it is so well put together that it will stand nicely as a definitive look at Marley’s life.

The film relies heavily on interviews with several key surviving people from Marley’s life, including Wailers co-founder Bunny Wailer (Livingston), Marley’s widow Rita Marley and Island Records and Marley producer Chris Blackwell. The interviews frame Marley’s life, particularly his early life growing up in Jamaica, dealing with growing up without a father and as a child of mixed race parents, how his early career in music began, how spirituality and Rastafarianism came to define his life and music, as well as how he wasn’t necessarily the most faithful husband or greatest father. To be sure, there are small details that are glossed over too quickly. One that sticks out the most is the diminishing of the role of reggae superstar and Wailer co-founder Peter Tosh in not just Marley’s early career but in the rise and honing of the reggae sound in general. The film treats Tosh as little more than an early co-writer with Marley who just left the Wailers and was gone. In many ways, though, Tosh was the yin to Marley’s yang in the world of reggae and the film lost a chance to explore the Marley-Tosh relationship and dynamic in more depth.

It is in Marley’s role in the birth and explosion of reggae, the role of his Rastafarian religion and spirituality, and his powerful involvements in the political struggles of not just Jamaica, but Africa, and the increasing universality in the messages of his music that the film focuses on the most. The film also talks about Marley’s love of soccer, generosity with friends (and hangers on), how his children saw him, and his reputation as a ladies’ man. McDonald’s research is well done and there are little bits that are excitingly fresh and new, such as Marley’s frustration that his audience in the United States was mostly white and how he planned to deal with it. The informative bits are all keys to the overall effectiveness of the movie. But it is in the archival musical material that the film truly takes off, carried on the absolute magnetism of Marley’s  delivery. In many, many cases, reality doesn’t live up to the legend. But in Marley’s case, it absolutely does. His live music could hardly be described as a performance. It was a total immersion, an absolute spiritual journey that he was taking himself and his audience on. And all of that comes through every time Marley is on the screen. Eyes closed, twirling around, bouncing, swaying, pulling the audience along with him, Marley’s live show was less a performance as a delivery of a gift.

One thing that struck me watching Marley and recalling Senna from last year is what the documentary biopic might become in the Youtube and video generation. Particularly when it comes to our musicians, sports stars, artists, etc, everything they do is documented, most of it on video. I think back to, for example, the Ken Burns Baseball films. Burns’ research is always meticulous and well done. But what you basically had was the narrator telling us about those 4,000 home runs Babe Ruth hit and then maybe four seconds of Ruth silently waving at a camera. Those days are gone. Now, if you want to tell me about the legend of, say, Michael Jordan, I can just show you all of his games on video. The video evidence of his greatness is 10,000 times more powerful than what somebody can tell me in words. Having all of this video could make it easier, I imagine, for documentarians in that there is so much more rich material to choose from. But it arguably makes it more difficult for them to control the editorial message they are trying to get across. As great as Marley was as a film, as I mentioned the best parts were when Marley was on screen performing. So after leaving the theater, I went home and looked up “Marley live” on Youtube and there was a ton more material available to me than McDonald could have ever put in his film, most of it riveting. Marley was a very, very well done doc, one I would recommend any Marley or music fan in general go see. The music and the performances are even larger than life on the big screen and well worth seeing that way. But having so much at our fingertips begs the question of how many people really want to spend money seeing something they can mostly see for free.    


Mallrats, A Kevin Smith Joint

Mr. Kevin Smith. Take a gander across the masthead of this fine example of internetistic jibber jabber and you’ll find a quote from the auteur of the common man (or at least the auteur of the common man who’s a teenager from Jersey). The quote across the top on this page is but one example of the high regard with which Sarah holds our Mr. Smith. Another example was brought to my attention recently when we decided it would be a good idea for a Sarah Presents Kevin Smith movie night with a viewing of the seminal 1995 film Mallrats. Not just any copy of Mallrats, mind you, because Sarah broke out an autographed by the man himself copy of Mallrats. Impressive. And since I own a boomerang autographed by Tony Orlando (go ahead and give yourself a second to read that again), I decided not to ask for a certificate of authenticity legitimizing this cultural tschotske.

Mallrats isn’t necessarily a movie that I want to give the full review treatment. It’s Kevin Smith, the good kind of Kevin Smith, mindless and juvenile. If you want a few laughs mixed in with some sketchy performances, Smith is usually your man. Honestly, if you want to see Mallrats and you feel the need to know the critical reception given to it, or a full breakdown of the plot, Wikipedia is always available. Suffice it to say that it’s a Kevin Smith movie that features a couple of bros chilling at the mall, trying to figure out how to get their ladies back while simultaneously getting love advice from Stan Lee, ogling Terri from Three’s Company and her eye opening anatomy, and getting varying levels of logistical help from Jay and Silent Bob. One of the bros engages in a knockdown, drag out rivalry for Shannon Doherty’s affection with a brilliantly mouth breathing Ben Affleck (who works at a place in the mall called The Fashionable Male), which culminates in the airing of a sex tape featuring Affleck demanding his underage partner to refer to him as a particular member of The Backstreet Boys.

Truthfully, when you type it all out like that it’s some pretty funny stuff. Kevin Smith, for me, is always hit or miss for pretty much the same reason. He hits because of the I’m just a dude from Jersey who’s blissfully stuck in adolescence (in a good way), making and writing the kind of stuff that I would have found funny when I was in high school, and doing it all with Hollywood’s money the way I want to do it. There’s always some genuinely funny stuff in his movies and, beyond all that, his movies usually give off the type of positive vibe you hope would come through when a guy feels like he’s playing with house money. On the other side of the same coin, most of the time what he finds funny actually is funny, but sometimes it’s not. It’s not very often, but you end up cringing at certain scenes that aren’t funny in the same way you cringe at the drunk guy at the party who thinks he’s funny but isn’t. And you sort of wish Smith would let just a little editing creep in. Plus, there are always those one or two scenes where you realize a lot of the “actors” are really just Kevin Smith’s boys that are in all his movies.

For sure you want to be in the mood for something mindless if you want to break out Mallrats. But if you’re ready for some laughs on a juvenile, let the good times roll level, this is just one of many movies of its type that will work for you. Because just as that drunk guy at the party sometimes makes you cringe, sometimes the booze talking actually does make him kind of funny. I’m going to leave it to Sarah to flesh out in a future post where the true genius of Kevin Smith lies. But watching Mallrats after not having seen a Smith movie in a good long time reminded me that the guy is good for some laughs. And watching it with a true Smith fan was a treat. Sarah tipped me off to the “good parts”, nodding in appreciation even though it was probably the 20th time she was seeing the movie. Mallrats will make you laugh and supply some mindless entertainment on a rainy Saturday afternoon, but it’s even better if you watch it with a friend or a group and you can all laugh together, like the characters in the movie. Do it, Doug!!!


Buffy and Wayne’s World–The Conversation

As a part of Project M, where Sarah and Doug cajole each other into watching movies of each others’ choice, we’ll be following up the viewings with conversational breakdowns of the various experiences. Here’s our discussion of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Wayne’s World.

Doug: Buffy!!!

Sarah: Well, you developed a man crush on Luke Perry.

Doug (laughing): Let’s make sure everyone understands those are your words. Luke Perry was awesome in Buffy for his non awesomeness. Or maybe he was awesome for just appearing to think he was awesome. He sold it hard in the whole movie.

Sarah: Don’t you think the moody, motorcycle punk with the heart of gold was just him being what he was told to be, though? I think he was just playing what they told him to play.

Doug: Oh, I don’t criticize the guy. Luke Perry found his thing, he made it work.

Sarah: And probably still living off it to this day.

Doug: And he was one of the most popular guys in entertainment, period, for a good five years there. Around Buffy and 90210 time. Although watching Buffy it dawned on me that this was an example of the last period where a movie that was sort of this bad, with horrible writing, etc, but could still be this big as an entertainment. It seems like from what I’ve seen of the Buffy TV show, that the TV show was miles better than the movie.

Sarah: But I wouldn’t say the movie sucked or anything.

Doug: It was entertaining, but the writing seemed right around sitcom level. I chuckled a few times, but maybe as much at it as with it.

Sarah: But they figured out a way to make this kind of stuff back then. Like Back To The Future or, as you’ve pointed out, Teen Wolf. Even to this day, people love movies like these. Back To The Future came out when I was about four (Doug winces). And I still love those movies.

Doug: Definitely. They’re like marshmallows, basically. You eat them, and you enjoy them, and then they’re gone.

Sarah: But when you happen upon them, like on TV, you latch right back onto them. If I come across Back To The Future, I’m not turning the channel.

Doug: And I feel a little bad with Buffy, because I know how much you like it, that maybe I don’t like it for the best of reasons. I enjoyed it, but in a pretty cheesily campy way.

Sarah: I think it was meant to be campy, don’t you?

Doug: Well, yes. But I think we’re talking about slightly different things. Is there such a thing as good camp and bad camp? I think it was meant to be more spoofy at the time than campy.

Sarah: Yeah. It obviously wasn’t meaning to take itself or anything real seriously. I love the TV show, but the times I don’t like it a lot are the times when it goes too far in taking itself too seriously.

Doug: And we’re coming at it from different perspectives. You saw it at the time at an age when it was probably perfect for you to see. And I never saw it until now, and I’m coming at it from, “Oh, look, it’s Rutger Hauer. That’s great. Ben Affleck. That’s the guy that hosted that dating show Studs!”

Sarah: Pee Wee Herman, who took 20 minutes to die at the end of the movie. Hillary Swank, who is like a real actress, is in it.

Doug: Hillary Swank. And she’s…

Sarah: Bad!!!

Doug (laughing): Really bad. In a way, the funny thing for me watching it 20 years later is that with all these people in it, Kristy Swanson was really good in it. I mean, David Arquette just sort of looked like he had to use the rest room the whole time.

Sarah: That’s his perplexed look. Although one of my favorite scenes is when Arquette shows up outside the window of Luke Perry’s hotel room. And Perry is, like, “You’re floating in the air, man, I’m not going to let you in.”

Doug: OK, that was a good scene. Because Perry wasn’t freaked out by it. It was more like, alright, if you’re going to start doing this sort of deal I’m not going to hang out with you anymore.

Sarah: You mean the floating in the air bit?

Doug: Yeah, Perry was all, “I tolerated you as my wingman when I was going in to the underage clubs all drunk as the young adult motorcycle tough with the heart of gold, trying to pick up 16 year old girls. But now that you’re a vampire…”

Sarah (laughing): “You’re of no use to me anymore.”

Doug: But we have to get to the scene at the end. Perry with the puffy shirt, the oversized puffy shirt, the vest, the big puffy jacket.

Sarah: Ah, 90s style, but before we get to that, I have to say I did love Donald Sutherland as well.

Doug: Good stuff from Sutherland. Just enough slime. When he said, “I train young girls (pause for effect)… to be Slayers.” Solid work.

Sarah: “I train young girls” was a good line.

Doug: But what about the ripoff factor? You had a lot of Teen Wolf rip-offery in Buffy. The other worldly teenager. The emphasis on basketball and the fact that paranormal beings would naturally be spectacular basketball players. The coach is an oddball in both movies. And Buffy  had the incredible Karate Kid training sequence.

Sarah: Oh, yeah!!!

Doug: At one point, Donald Sutherland was doing karate moves and even swept the leg on Kristy Swanson to teach her a lesson. And there were a couple of shots… I mean, most of the time you could tell Kristy Swanson had the obvious stunt double. But a couple of times, they didn’t cut away and she would rock a backflip or a double cartwheel. Cool stuff.

Sarah: And, of course, Joss Whedon wrote Buffy, now out with The Avengers.

Doug: Fill me in a little. From what I read, Whedon wrote the screenplay but maybe they made the movie more campy than he would have liked it?

Sarah: Probably. Obviously, if you go by what he did in the TV show, which he seemed much more involved in, definitely being the series writer, it seems like he was interested in using the vampire as a stronger metaphor for the monsters in teen life. But I also see him as the kind of guy who could have been consciously referencing a movie like Teen Wolf when he wrote the original Buffy. I could see him wanting to reference something I think he would have enjoyed. Joss Whedon strikes me as a fanboy type and it could have been that even back then he was sort of fanboy-ing Teen Wolf.

Doug: Or he could have just been, consciously or unconsciously at the time, copying something that was successful and hot at the moment. That would be a good question for Mr. Whedon.

Sarah: Or maybe Joss Whedon had the basic framework of the story and somebody else put in a lot of the stuff that was Teen Wolf-ish.

Doug: Awesome, fun movie to watch in the end. Even with what I would “criticize” them for, and kind of thinking these aren’t necessarily the types of movies I would always go out of my way to watch these days, and moving on to thinking about Wayne’s World, what’s not to like about the just having fun factor that these two movies have. To me, what makes Wayne’s World work is almost 100% that when I’m watching it, it’s not even any of these actors playing characters. I’m thinking the entire time about the actual people and they’re just constantly having so much fun and winking at the camera, etc, how can you not just roll along with it?

Sarah: Breaking down the third wall, or the fourth wall, or whatever wall it is between the actors and the audience. They’re busting down all the walls.

Doug: And for me, even if they didn’t do the looking right at the audience thing, which was super effective, you could still feel how much fun Dana Carvey and Mike Meyers were having. A lot of the movie isn’t even all that funny on its own, but everyone is having so much fun with it, you have to laugh along.

Sarah: Well, for me, especially watching it now, I can see that you’re watching them just as Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey but you know Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey, especially Dana Carvey, is Garth. I don’t think of Dana Carvey as much else. When I think of him, I just think of him in the blonde wig and big glasses and the satire of the 90s grunge look. That’s not how he normally looks, I’m sure. It’s certainly not how he looks now. And so I don’t know if you’re really thinking of Mike Meyers as Mike Meyers. It’s that he is Wayne. And Dana Carvey is Garth. There’s no distinguishing them.

Doug: And, in a way, I don’t know if you would call this a downside, but for a lot of those that came from Saturday Night Live, a lot of times you don’t think of them as being themselves, you just think of them as their characters.

Sarah: They didn’t seem to have a lot that was fleshed out for the Wayne’s World movie, so some of my favorite scenes were the ones that seemed to be improvised and just sort of, “Yeah, Garth would probably do that or Wayne would probably do this.” Like Garth stabbing the jelly donut and “making it bleed”. It’s like, ok, he’s bored sitting in the donut shop, that’s probably what he would do.

Doug: And I wonder if you could do a movie these days that could be so child-like goofy like they were in Wayne’s World. The humor was so harmless. Could you even put out a movie that, almost innocent, now? The humor you have to do now…

Sarah: Like , you’d have to rape a pie?

Doug (laughing): Nice one. Yeah, American Pie. Good comparison. And I’m not saying that’s not funny. It is funny.

Sarah: A very funny movie. But the great thing for me about Wayne’s World  is that no matter how many times I see it, when I watch it again, it’s still fun.

Doug: As opposed to Buffy, which I had never seen, to be able to see Wayne’s World again, for the umpteenth time, well, like you say it’s just fun.

Sarah: And like you say, Wayne’s World is not always laugh out loud funny, but it also never seems to get old, like you don’t want to watch it. It’s always fun to watch.  And they were living the dream, doing a show that they loved in their basement and living for Saturday night, like another guy in a movie we will get to another time…


Project M: The Comeback King

Well, if you guessed that the title reference was to John Travolta, you win the bonus round here at TMT and your prize is a hearty congratulations.  It turns out that Doug is a huge Travolta fan – I mean, who isn’t?  But Doug apparently harbors a deep and abiding love for John Travolta and announced, as he handed me Pulp Fiction, that he had seen that movie several times in the theater just because he was so excited that Travolta was back.  So it became evident that I was in for some quality time with John Travolta.  After some humming and hahing, Doug ultimately assigned me one example of Travolta at his peak, Saturday Night Fever, and, of course, his big comeback film, Pulp Fiction.  I had already watched and liked Pulp Fiction so it was a safe bet, but I had never seen Saturday Night Fever.  There was, of course, a reason for that.  A movie about disco and a guy who really likes to dance to disco?  The men’s fashions alone are enough to turn my stomach.  It’s like somebody actually set out to design a Sarah repellent.  But Doug loves it and has often claimed it “defines the decade” so I decided to give it a chance.

I’ll say this for Fever, it wasn’t what I expected.  I had somehow managed to go my entire life without finding out that the movie had an actual plot and wasn’t just John Travolta dancing his way through a decade.  There’s overarching racial stereotyping, substance abuse, date rape, and unintentional death to enjoy as well. I want to give the movie the benefit of the doubt and so I reference racial stereotyping when, in fact, the movie features flat-out racism, but I’ll chalk that up to the development of the message that Fever made concrete through Tony’s epiphany towards the end of the flick that everyone just wants to find somebody else to “dump on” and a stupid superficial reason is as good as any other to do so.  For those of you who, like me, managed to make it your entire life without discovering Saturday Night Fever’s plot, the movie follows Tony, played beautifully by Travolta, as a 19-year-old boy living with his parents, grandmother, and little sister, and working in a hardware store, but he lives for the weekend when he gets to go to the club and dance his heart out.  His local club is hosting a dance competition and the prize is $500.  Initially, Tony is practicing with a young woman, Annette, who is completely infatuated with him, but soon discovers a better partner, Stephanie, played by Karen Lynn Gorney.  He dumps Annette and starts practicing with Stephanie, on whom he has more than a little crush.  As I said, there’s a lot of drug use, some territorial feuding, sexual assault, and the movie culminates in the death of one of Tony’s friends, but that basically covers the plot.

The dance practice scenes were priceless.  Think Girls Just Want to Have Fun or even Dirty Dancing.  But, whereas I liked many of the characters in Dirty Dancing, I didn’t actually like any of the characters in Fever except Tony’s older brother, Frank Jr., a Catholic priest who has quit the priesthood.  The best scene in the movie is when Tony brings Frank to the club and shows off some of his moves.  The look on Frank’s face is proud and happy; the look of a big brother who sees his little brother doing something he absolutely loves and he makes Tony promise he’s going to do something with his dancing.  That scene perfectly illustrates Tony and Frank’s greatest fear; that they’ll never get away, they’ll get stuck in the same life that their parents and neighbors and everyone they know is leading.  Fever tries hard to comment on pretty much every social issue that might have faced a young person in the 70s from drug abuse to unintentionally knocking up one’s girlfriend and packs it all into a movie about dancing.  It’s ambitious and makes for a pretty grueling movie-watching experience that had me thinking if Saturday Night Fever defines the 70s, I’m glad I wasn’t born until the 80s.

As I said, I had already seen Pulp Fiction, but, and I never thought I’d write this phrase, Pulp Fiction served as a nice reprieve after the grim unfun that was Saturday Night Fever.  The title is pretty much self-explanatory and the film is pretty much pure fun, with a few “oh God!” moments.  The one moment in the film that had stuck with me during the 15 years since I first watched Pulp Fiction was when John Travolta has to stab the giant needle into Uma Thurman’s heart and I had definitely built that up in my head.  Now, at my ripe old age, it was not nearly as disturbing, but I remember watching Pulp Fiction the first time in my friend’s basement and being absolutely traumatized by that scene.  You cannot find fault with a single actor in the entire film, they all perform perfectly.  The plot, while difficult to explain succinctly so I’m not gonna bother, is not difficult to follow, and the quick non-linear vignettes make for a fast paced and engaging popcorn flick.  Since this post is focused on Doug’s man-crush, John Travolta, I will say this, he was outstanding as Vincent Vega, muscle for an L.A. mobster.  (SPOILERS!!!)  I had totally forgotten how Vincent dies in the movie and I was oddly sad to see the end of the character that accidentally shot a guy in the face, causing all kinds of trouble earlier in the movie.  My only consolation was that, due to the non-linear storytelling that Quentin Tarantino employs, Vincent was not gone from the movie.  Travolta’s scenes with Uma Thurman’s Mia were outstanding and we get to see Travolta break it down on the dance floor almost twenty years after his turn in Fever to great effect.  I’ll have to thank Doug for getting me to watch Pulp Fiction once again.  With 15 or so additional years of perspective, I think I enjoyed re-watching it even more than my first viewing and keeping a special eye out for Vincent Vega made the film all the more enjoyable.


Project M 1992–It Might Say Wayne’s World But It’s Really Buffy’s

Project M 1992–It Might Say Wayne’s World But It’s Really Buffy’s

We’re going to take our first shot at Project M, and to do so we take a trip through the Sarah movie collection, for two movies straight out of 1992. Twenty years ago was a pretty interesting transitional year for movies. Eastwood signed off on the Western with Unforgiven, Tarantino hit the scene with Reservoir Dogs, Altman skewered Hollywood with The Player, and Jordan gave us one of the all-time screen surprises with The Crying Game. Add in Glengarry Glen Ross, The Last of the Mohicans, and Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth and now you’re talking about a year that borders on classic status.

But we’ll leave the breakdown of that list to the people who really know what they’re doing. For Project M, we go down another road and take a look at Wayne’s World and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Full disclosure as we get started. Wayne’s World I’d seen a few times, but with Buffy I come in completely fresh. And because I’d seen Wayne’s World enough times, my reaction to it ended up being pretty muted compared to how I reacted to Buffy.

What Wayne’s World will always have going for it is just how much fun you can tell everybody had with making it. The movie ended up making straight cash in the long run, of course, but you could tell that Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey knew they were playing with house money being allowed to make an entire movie out of their Saturday Night Live characters. The gags weren’t really funny just because they were overly clever in and of themselves. They were funny because Meyers and Carvey told you with the wink of their eye that they were supposed to be funny. And Rob Lowe in one of his first roles sort of skewering his own persona was just as wink, wink in the relish he put into playing the ridiculous “bad guy”. Watching the movie again, it’s a little surprising how few laugh out loud moments there are. But despite that, the overall tone of the movie is just so feel good that you can’t help coming away with a smile. The now iconic car ride Bohemian Rhapsody lip synch is worth the price of admission alone.

It’s sort of hard to imagine a movie like Wayne’s World getting green lit these days, which is really too bad. Teenagers of today would likely laugh at it, but not so much with it. In the age of sarcasm and snark that we live in, it’s hard to see a movie with a cast just having fun for fun’s sake like in Wayne’s World getting over.  But it’s worth another look, if for no other reason than to remind yourself of the comfort food that passed for entertainment 20 years ago.

As for Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I come to the party 20 years late. But seeing Buffy for the first time two decades after it came out, this was a delicious watch on so many different levels. I really don’t know where to start with the breakdown, but let’s begin with the cast. There are a metric ton of “That guy was in this movie?” moments. Ben Affleck, Seth Green and even the great Ricki Lake appear uncredited in bit roles. Hillary Swank and Natasha Gregson Wagner are on the scene as a couple of Buffy’s friends. I’m sure everyone remembers the short lived but brilliant Fox dating show Studs? Come on, you know you watched it. Well, you’ll be happy to know that the show’s host, the affable Mark DeCarlo, plays the basketball coach in Buffy. By the way, check out DeCarlo’s true talents here… Even The Punisher himself, Thomas Jane (the guy from Hung for the ladies) has a small role as Luke Perry’s mechanic boss. We haven’t even gotten to the main cast, but you can already see that Buffy was an early petri dish for the growth of many of Hollywood’s greatest thespians.

For my money, though, the best part about the cast comes at the top of the bill. Kristy Swanson. Luke Perry. Rutger Hauer. Donald Sutherland. Paul Reubens. David Arquette. Imagine with me for a moment that in the intervening 20 years since Buffy came out there was no Buffy TV show mania, no Angel as a sequel to Buffy. All we have to remember Buffy by is the classic film from 1992. Naturally, to mark the 20th anniversary of said film the SyFy Network would be putting together a made for TV remake to mark the occasion. It would air on a Saturday night right after one of their giant snake movies. Who do you get, though, to star in such a venture? Take a look at the names above one more time. Who better to get to reprise the work of Kristy Swanson, Luke Perry, Rutger Hauer, Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens and David Arquette in a campy SyFy remake of Buffy The Vampire Slayer than Kristy Swanson, Luke Perry, Rutger Hauer, Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens and David Arquette? Each and every one of their respective careers is positioned perfectly at this point for this stroke of genius to come to fruition. Somebody get them on the horn immediately. Conference call for a first script read through and we are ready to roll.

Buffy’s screenwriting credit went to hero to fan boys and girls everywhere, Joss Whedon. Whedon was not completely happy with the way the film went, apparently, and went on to do the Buffy  TV series and Angel follow up, as well as Firefly and the Firefly movie Serenity. What I really would love to know is how much of Whedon’s original script appeared in the movie. Because Buffy, in many ways, is a straight knockoff of Teen Wolf. Before we go any further, let me make it clear that when it comes to light, late 80s to early 90s teen fare that lets you eat your popcorn in peace and uses being a paranormal being as a parallel for the difficulty of fitting in in high school, you couldn’t pick a better movie to copy than Teen Wolf. So, let’s take a look at the similarities.

A main character (one a female vampire slayer and one a male teen wolf) that isn’t completely comfortable with his or her powers at first but slowly learns to embrace them and use them for good? Check. The main character being involved in a love triangle where the person they think they want turns out to not be right for them, even though they are blind to it for a while and it takes a while for them to realize who really is true to them and accepts them for who they are? Check. Basketball as a central plot device, complete with those with the powers of the supernatural (wolf or vampire) in each film being spectacular at basketball? Check. A key scene taking place at a high school dance where the main character comes to ultimate terms with his or her true self? Check. The romance working out in the end? Check. Heck, even a van surfing scene in both movies? Check. I could go on, but I think you get the drift. Joss Whedon went on to an awesome career, but in the beginning with Buffy it appears he took not just a little from Teen Wolf.

But that’s not to say that Buffy doesn’t stand on its own as an individual entertainment, because it most certainly does. You’ve got the perfect mix of intentional camp with some of the actors trying a lot harder than the material really called for, resulting in more fun in the form of unintentional camp. Kristy Swanson as Buffy, I thought, was brilliant. She was camp in exactly the places she needed to be camp, straight when she needed to be straight, and even brought a pretty authentic physicality to the character. In the intentional camp camp (see what I did there?), you’ve got Rutger Hauer, Paul Reubens and Donald Sutherland, who are clearly having a ball with the one off roles they’re given. Rutger Hauer, in particular in the closing scenes, appears to be high on the material, or possibly something more. Sutherland has the best line of the movie when he says “I train girls” (slimy pause) “to be slayers.” Sutherland also channels his inner Mr. Miyagi and shows off his surprising athletic ability when he puts Buffy through her paces in an inspired Karate Kid like extended training sequence. Sutherland even sweeps Buffy’s leg at one point, teaching Buffy a valuable lesson in preparedness and self-defense. I’m sure this scene got under the skins of both Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita, but Buffy is nothing if not shamelessly derivative.

In the comically taking things too seriously camp are Luke Perry and David Arquette. Arquette was basically harmless in his role, but his constant squinting and posing to try to mimic the Luke Perry method acting techniques made it appear that the former WCW world champion was always one step away from needing to use the facilities. Perry, though, holds the key to Buffy rising from harmless chuckle territory to high camp classic 20 years later. This guy was selling it hard every second of this movie. While Hauer, Reubens, Sutherland and, honestly, even Kristy Swanson seemed to recognize the light fare they were dealing with and were probably all getting high together out behind craft services, I am picturing Perry taking daily meetings with the writers and director in order to perfect his character, which he seemed to never come out of. It’s really hard to determine whether Perry just acted like that 24/7 during the entirety of his life during the 90s or was simply in some sort of perpetual character mode, but his squinting, whispering, soul patch sporting and posing throughout Buffy was iconic in its representation of his personal brand of 90s cool.

My favorite scene in Buffy (well, except for the scene where they had Kristy Swanson randomly holding a huge chunk of ice while wearing a paper thin t shirt for reasons that quickly became apparent) was all Luke Perry swagger. It takes place during the climactic fight scene when Buffy cleans house of all the remaining vampires in town, including Hauer as the mack daddy captain vampire. The scene takes place at a high school dance. Buffy has once and for all been dumped by her dimwitted jock boyfriend because the boyfriend has been waiting long enough for Buffy to put out but Buffy has her standards. And, on top of that, she is facing a pressure packed showdown with Hauer and his vampire cronies. Perry has been on the edge of landing Buffy for most of the movie, parlaying his rebellious, on the knife edge persona of mechanic by day, getting drunk by night and hanging out at under 18 clubs trying to score high school girls with a touching sensitivity to Buffy’s being “different” that belies his hard edged exterior and is completely endearing to Buffy. As the vampires overrun the dance and Buffy prepares for battle, Perry shows up to woo her and his look is one of the greatest in film history.

In order to uphold his biker cred, Perry naturally comes in wearing a biker jacket (but no helmet, because what kind of a pansy wears a helmet). Except this is no ordinary jacket. I’m not real good at describing men’s fashion, but this was pure couture, a combination leather biker jacket with a Members’ Only flair. It featured strategic quilting, assorted snaps and a gigantic collar. And it was kind of puffy, possibly even partially filled with down. A truly special wardrobe choice for what I’m sure Perry was planning to be a special evening. Anyway, it was cold outside and Perry had no real vampire fighting bona fides, so Perry’s contribution to the final vampire battle was to accidentally rip the bottom of Buffy’s skirt off and then offer her his jacket so she could stay warm when she went out to fight the vampires while Perry stayed inside, danced and fought a little. When Perry went to hand Buffy his jacket, though, we quickly realized that his fashion sense was not limited to outerwear. It’s still a little unclear to me why a tough guy biker from the wrong side of the tracks would be wearing what Perry was wearing underneath the jacket, but maybe he was being represented as such a bad boy that he could pull off anything. Regardless, he was rocking the poofy white shirt straight off the back of Jerry Seinfeld, overlaid by the most precious 90s polka dotted, quasi paisley-ish vest (complete with lapels) that I think I’ve ever seen. This was a man that came prepared to get the girl or, if that failed, to serve punch and hors d’oeuvres to the assembled teens.

And, in the end, after the girl single handedly vanquishes the vampires, Perry of course does get the girl. It all felt so good, and so right, as Buffy drove the stake through the heart of Rutger Hauer and then hopped onto the back of Luke Perry’s miniature motorbike and rode off into the sunrise. I can’t get across enough how much I enjoyed watching Buffy. I actually feel lucky that I never watched it up until now. It allowed me to enjoy it in full camp mode, without the perspective of seeing it when it first came out. It really felt like Buffy sort of represented the end of a fun, feel good era, sort of one of the last of the harmless popcorn comedies in the style of the mid to late 80s. But Buffy is also important as a bridge to the more serious minded, slightly more thoughtful (though not always less campy), better written vampire and paranormal material that emerged in the mid-90s and continues right up until today. Buffy is a forgotten classic and one that definitely deserves 85 minutes of your time on a rainy Saturday afternoon or evening, as well as its place as a forerunner to the slightly conflicted but still ass kicking, girl power heroines of the last 20 years.


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