I like seeing movies late on Sunday. There's almost no one in the theater. You can get that perfect seat dead center in the middle of the auditorium and feel like you are the only one in the room. There's just something more conducive to absorbing a film without the limitless distractions that arise when seeing a flick with a crowd that apparently can't read the big words on the screen that say, "Shut Up and Turn off Your Cell." I'm just waiting for some inconsiderate, upwardly mobile schmuck to break out with an iPad one day. It'll happen.
But in a near empty theater, I can feel like the last man on Earth, watching stories of the forgotten human race and remembering how cool they could sometimes be. Remembering where I was in history with The Runaways, it was the year 1975.
The Runaways feels like a '70s movie, in the way its characters are depicted with a shabby realism -- the opening scene finds Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) pragmatically dealing with the onset of her first period as she's on her way to meet a too-old-for-her boyfriend -- while it tells the story of the formation of seminal and groundbreaking all-girl rock band namesake.
Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart, here defying expectation) approaches Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), a moderately successful songwriter and producer, outside of L.A.'s Rainbow Room and pitches him the idea of an all-girl rock band. The highly eccentric Fowley instantly sees great things in the scrappy guitarist's future.
So he puts Jett together with a drummer, Sandy West (Stella Maeve), but Fowley can feel something's missing -- something to balance Jett's tough-girl, tom boy image. When he meets the 15-year old Cherie Currie, he realizes he's found his Bridget Bardot, and the essential ingredient that he believes could make The Runaways as big as The Beatles. Jail bait.
The Runaways tells a fairly conventional musical tale -- rise and fall, drugs and sex -- but it does so with great style; a sort of effortless fugue that makes up for a lack of strong plotting. From the beginnings of Jett and Currie's friendship to their quixotic rise to fame during the peak of the hedonistic '70s, there is a quasi-dreamlike feel that is accented by writer/director Floria Sigismondi artful, intimate compositions.
Sigismondi has crafted a damn fine first feature with The Runaways. The former music video director has always exhibited talent in creating her unique visual palette with her work on Marilyn Manson's The Beautiful People and Tourniquet. Here she proves not only to be a wonderful visual stylist but also a solid writer and feature director, excelling particularly at eliciting uniformly compelling performances from her vibrant cast, while imbuing the film's themes of female empowerment with a tangible historical context. The Runaways has a strong pulse.
It lives and breathes with a sweaty sexuality that is the hallmark of any great rock movie, and Fanning seems more than willing to shed her child-star image in a performance that is fully realized and might be considered controversial. It's no secret that Jett and Currie were a little more than friends and while their sex scene is nowhere near as explicit as Amanda Seyfried and Julianne Moore's in Chloe, it's still two underage girls getting it on. I imagine some genius out there would be outraged.
Nevertheless, Fanning is marvelous as Currie, embracing the sexuality of the character (and the era) and also Currie's roller coaster emotional arc as the hard partying, the road and the fame take their toll. Fanning has a bright future if she keeps picking roles this meaty.
Kristen Stewart is uncanny as Joan Jett, from the wardrobe to the look to her performance (the actors that comprise the band practiced for a month and recorded all their own material for the film). The real Joan Jett -- who also helped produce The Runaways -- was so taken by Stewart's vocals that she apparently thought she was hearing her own performance. Stewart delivers.
At first, I thought she might be underplaying it with her typical poutiness, but she was definitely channeling Jett, particularly during the great live sequences -- where Sigismondi's music video background makes itself thrillingly apparent.
As Kim Fowley, Michael Shannon owns every scene he's in. Fowley is a sort of legendary character (the film takes the disputed tact that Fowley wrote The Runaways biggest hit, "Cherry Bomb"), a strange, maniacal vagabond, rock and roll P.T. Barnum, whose emotional abuse of his band seemed to be justified by their mounting success. Shannon brings a reckless abandon to the role, and in a film loaded with excellent performances, his was the most memorable.
The Runaways is a raw, raunchy, enigmatic love letter not entirely dissimilar, thematically, from Cameron Crowe's testament to youth and music in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It's a similarity not lost on Sigismondi apparently, who cast Robert Romanus -- Mike Damone -- as Jett's folk-song loving guitar teacher.
Just one of many nice touches in The Runaways.
One Bad Date
One of the reasons I was looking forward to Date Night was because it would mean that I wouldn't have to see the trailer for it again. It's been running for months, it seems. I don't remember how funny lines like, "It's a kill shot! Kill shot!" were the first time I heard them, but 87 trailer views later, I was ready to hate them.
They'd play it in front of every movie, too. Often trailers are picked depending on the genre of film you are seeing. Action movies get trailers for The A-Team and such, while romances are preceded by trailers for Sex and the City 2, etc. I'm pretty sure they played the trailer for Date Night in front of every movie I've seen in the past six months. I wouldn't have been surprised if they played it in front of Date Night.
So I wasn't really looking forward to Date Night for the right reasons. While I like Steve Carell and Tina Fey just fine -- in fact, they almost save Date Night from being a tepid puddle of a film -- its director, Shawn Levy, whose blandly horrid Steve Martin comedies begat the blockbuster (and unseen by me) Night at the Museum franchise is a hack of Brett Ratner-esque proportion. And after 87 times, that trailer snuffed any hopes that Date Night would hold some kind of unexpected surprises for me.
And what Levy delivers is, in fact, a remarkably unoriginal entry into the well-worn genre of the inadvertent crazy night in the city movie. For better examples of this concept in execution see Into the Night or After Hours. Either one of those films is a hundred times nuttier and more inspired.
Phil and Claire Foster (Carell and Fey) are a comfortable, moderately well-off, married New Jersey couple. They both have good but dull jobs and life with the kids has settled into a gilded routine.
On weekly date nights at their favorite restaurant, they take turns making up stories about the other diners. At their book club, they find out their best friends, Brad and Haley (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig) are getting a divorce because they feel like "excellent roommates."
So Phil endeavors to make the next date night something special -- dinner in Manhattan at a hot restaurant. They unwisely wing it without reservations and are promptly brushed aside, but when they hear a call for a table that goes unanswered, they take a chance and pass themselves off as the "Tripplehorns."
Turns out the Tripplehorns are wrapped up in an extortion plot with a local mobster, Joe Miletto (Ray Liotta). When a couple of tough guys escort them from their table out into the alley to politely ask, at gunpoint, for the flash drive they stole, Phil and Claire find their ruse leading them on a wacky, action-packed, fish-out-of-water adventure.
I hope the sarcasm of that last sentence came through.
Date Night isn't a completely horrible comedy (Kevin Smith can sleep soundly there), but that's strictly due to the great chemistry between Carell and Fey.
Levy's direction is competent but lacking in any real style. He can shoot action fairly well -- a car chase sequence near the end was pretty well done -- but for the most part he coasts on the charms of his two leads, wisely I suppose, since the hackneyed script was doing no one any favors.
Once again, the main culprit is the lack of any consistent, forceful laughs, combined with a formula so formulaic you could look up formula in Webster's and find a picture of this film's screenplay next to the definition. Even with its brief 88-minute runtime, the film seemed to drag as the inevitability of the end loomed. I knew exactly what was going to happen about halfway through.
There were a few giggles in there, mostly coaxed by the delivery of Carell and Fey ("Kill shot!" notwithstanding). They really are the reason this Date Night wasn't a test of will, so much so I suspect readers might think I'm being hard on the flick. But just as often as Carell and Fey shine, the script sinks them into some maudlin relationship stock-taking -- or the truly cringe worthy "dance" sequence -- that are only tolerable due to the goodwill Carell and Fey earn.
There were some cool cameos from the likes of Ruffalo, Wiig, Micheal Moriarity (The Stuff!), James Franco and Mila Kunis, but the film is so ersatz and weightless, it's actually difficult to describe exactly how unremarkable it really is, despite it's somewhat remarkable cast.
Of course, its relentless marketing and broadest possible appeal conception made Date Night the No. 1 film of the weekend. Sometimes this job makes me feel very ineffectual.
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