Film, Writing

Film Retrospective: SAVE THE LAST DANCE (2001)

Anyone who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s understands the power MTV had on their lives in these formative years. Before the dawn of YouTube, hours could be spent immersed in the cable channels around MTV watching endless music videos from across the decades. This, for many of us, is where our knowledge and appreciation of the music we grew to embrace, in part, came from.

The success of MTV—which had forged the careers of numerous future cinematic auteurs including among others Michel Gondry and David Fincher—logically extended into the cinematic realm with the formation of MTV Productions in 1996 – their movie studio arm. While their reach has today declined, at the end of the ’90s, MTV Productions would develop pictures as diverse as Mike Judge’s juvenile Beavis & Butthead Do America, teen college drama Varsity Blues and Alexander Payne’s erudite, caustic Election, the latter both in the cinematic boom year of 1999. It is hard to square such a wildly different set of pictures from the same production house aside from one common denominator: they were all about, for or aimed at the teenage movie market.

Save the Last Dance is an example of how MTV Productions worked to bridge the gap between the independent movie which had emerged during the ‘90s as an antidote to the dominance of the tentpole blockbuster that came to bear from the late 1970s onwards, and the burgeoning concept of the cinematic franchise that by the end of the 2000s would bear fruit and burst into existence as the 2010s arrived.

It feels like a picture born of both worlds simultaneously.

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2000 in Film, Film, Reviews

DOWN TO YOU: A Millennial Romance (2000 in Film #3)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

To begin, released over the weekend of January 21st, Kris Isacsson’s romantic comedy Down to You

In many respects, Down to You must have seemed like a slam dunk of a proposition in 1999, with the hottest new production studio in Miramax front-lining two recognisable fresh faces from hit movies in a teen baiting romantic comedy. From our vantage point, produced as it is by the Weinstein brothers, it leaves a sourer taste in the mouth. 

It isn’t fair to blame writer/director Kris Isacsson, this being his only feature, or stars Freddie Prinze. Jr or Julia Stiles. Nor indeed is Down to You a horrendous movie through our modern, proportionally liberal-minded prism – indeed in many respects it’s quite a sweet natured picture with it’s heart in the right place. It is, however, cynical; attempting to both cash-in on the traditional romantic comedy genre and the revived interest in the teen movie, thanks heavily to 1999’s mega hit American Pie.

While Down to You is not a gross-out comedy from exactly the same ilk, by any means, it is impossible to divorce it from the trends of an era where Miramax were combining their indie sensibility with pop-culture hits and brewing them up with attractive, young stars of the day, principally for the purposes of profit.

Down to You was the biggest box office hit of the January weekend it was released but very quickly collapsed in on itself, not even making back its modest, if not entirely threadbare, budget. You can honestly see why.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×01 – ‘Truth Be Told’ (TV Review)

It is easy to forget, for all the subsequent success with the Mission Impossible, Star Trek and now Star Wars mega-franchises, that the pilot episode of ABC’s Alias remains one of the best things producing and show-running supremo J.J. Abrams has ever done. Truth Be Told is a blistering sixty five minute opening to a rare TV show – one which comes on the face of it fully packaged, fully formed, and with a confidence and spring in its step that belies its quiet, low-fi origins. There is more to this package, and how it was created however, than meets the eye.

Think back to 2001. Had anyone heard of Abrams at that point? He was established – a proven Hollywood screenwriter with credits such as Michael Bay’s Armageddon or Harrison Ford vehicle Regarding Henry, not to mention four seasons of teen drama Felicity as a show runner. Those movies were nonetheless famous for their stars and directors, not the glasses-wearing megamind of Abrams bashing away at the words, and Felicity was never particularly that big of a hit – I’m not sure it ever even aired in my native UK, and if it did it went largely unnoticed. Alias was the series which put Abrams, and most of his writing staff, on the map.

The first season of his spy drama races out the gate with fast-paced, stylish storytelling, which crucially never forgets to place character at the heart of every beat, every scene and every plot-twist. Truth Be Told is B-movie, pulp action with significant heart and soul.

That description could characterise Alias in general, in many ways. Abrams starts his story in media res, to quote the Latin; the narrative flashing-forward, introducing us to our protagonist Sydney Bristow, and our star Jennifer Garner, in a deadly situation – captured, speaking in Mandarin, already beaten up, and awaiting some kind of awful horror behind the door of the dingy room she is being held in.

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