Break On Through: The Runaways


A great rock n’ roll movie is the one that gets the blood coursing in your veins. After watching The Runaways, which released this week, the first thing I wanted to do when I left the theater was jam at full volume.

For those of you too young to remember (or never heard about at all), The Runaways were an all-girl teenage rock band that formed in California in 1975. At a time when rock n’ roll was shifting towards faster tempos and amateurish ease, boys in leather jackets and dirty jeans were learning how easy it was to form a band. Meanwhile, their eager counterparts were encouraged to stay put in a hypocritical paradigm. Like Joan Jett’s guitar teacher (Damone!) explained so bluntly in the movie:  “Girls don’t play electric guitar.”

The hell they don’t. Gender bending was already a staple of rock n’ roll. But if guys like David Bowie and the New York Dolls could prance around onstage in women’s clothes, why couldn’t a bunch of sweaty, angry, bad ass girls plug in and go crazy in front of a stack of amps?

And so the defiant Runaways formed in Hollywood when drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve’s part in the movie) and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), having each toyed with the idea of starting an all-girl band, were introduced by Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), the sleazy record producer who eventually became the band’s sleazy manager. Fowley was a lot like Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (who died of cancer last week) in that The Runaways was a concept band, and the other members — lead guitarist Lita Ford, lead singer Cheri Currie, and a rotating lineup of bassists (due to legal issues, the fictional Robin Robinson represented Jamie Fox) — were recruited more for attitude than ability to play instruments or sing. Although historically labeled “teenage jailbait,” Kim Fowley clarified in the documentary Edgeplay that The Runaways weren’t T & A. These were girls who  just didn’t give a shit (and had no reason to), and they modeled themselves on their rock idols which, aside from Suzie Quatro, were guys.  Bowie, Keith Richards, Gene Simmons, Jeff Beck, and others. And even when Cheri Currie strutted on stage in Japan in a Betty Page corset, she looked ready to dominate, not be dominated.  (Baby-faced Dakota Fanning made it seem more innocent when reenacting this in the film).

And so The Runaways were born. The movie is obviously a limited biopic, which is a shame considering the renewed interest in the band that its likely to generate, especially among young audiences since it’s basically been marketed as That Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning Movie. Because it’s based on Cheri Currie’s memoir, Neon Angel, the focus is primarily on the relationship between she, Joan Jett, and Kim Fowley. But Currie’s career really fizzled out after she left the band, and aside from Joan Jett, guitarist Lita Ford, who teamed up with Sharon and Ozzie Osbourne, achieved some access as a solo artist after The Runaways disbanded.

The Runaways ran the risk of limited release teeny bopper mediocrity, although it surprisingly proved otherwise (and a lot of credit is owed to its leading actors). It’s tricky pulling off a story about a handful of angst-ridden teenage girls in way that doesn’t come off as utterly trite (see Catherine Hardwick’s Thirteen), or drowned in gender politics as it did in say, Lou Adler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (which is probably the closest cinematic kin to The Runaways). While in reality, rock n’ roll was still very much a man’s world in the 70s, The Runaways is just the opposite. Most of the men in the film are either ineffectual (like Steve, the road manager), or utterly vile, like the Currie sisters’ alcoholic father and the band’s manager, Kim Fowley. (Though that’s not to say that even the women in the film can’t disappoint – Currie’s mother was a real flake).

Because it’s a movie based on an American band that formed before the benign (and incredibly boring) Age of Extreme Political Correctness, the movie revisits the grime that’s been lost to recent cultural gentrification. Albeit, it’s a grime of West Coast flavor (rather than say, abysmal New York City in the mid 70s). The Runaways is chock full of dirty clubs, dismal prospects, ambitious sleazebags, absentee parents, booze, drugs, leather, cigarettes, and sex. And to have a handful of angsty teenage girls at the center of this chaotic playground makes it all the more naughty.

The Runaways oozes in ferocious rebellion and blissful sexuality, the very essence of rock n’ roll. Canadian artist/director Floria Sigismondi had the right sensibilities for this kind of material, having come from a background in fashion photography and later, directing music videos for bands like The White Stripes, Interpol, and David Bowie. More than just a band’s tale unfolding in a pristine reconstruction of the 1970s, Sigismondi injects periodic “artsy” display like the ebb and flow of an orchestra – the rich reds and blacks at the height of their decadent fame, stop-and-go action during the big performance scene, the dreamy sequences of excess, and the bleached aftermath. Suddenly the abstract of music has texture, and what better way to reveal rock n’ roll than through a band like The Runaways?


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No More Teachers, No More Books: Rock N’ Roll High School


There’s a rumor that, like damn near everything coming out of Hollywood these days, the 1979 comedy, Rock n’ Roll High School, is unfortunately slated for a remake. So far, the details are scant. IMDB has sealed the information to public — at least those that don’t have Pro subscriptions — but, Wiki contributors reported that Alex Winter (of Bill & Ted fame) was tapped to write the screenplay for Howard Stern’s production company. The original film was initially conceptualized as a vehicle for Todd Rundgren, and later Cheap Trick, but ultimately came to hail the halcyonic ethos of slovenly, leather-clad rockers, The Ramones. You know, that teachers and principals suck, that classes are a waste of time, and they’d rather be cruising for chicks in muscles cars, as the lyrics to their title song go.  (Dee Dee Ramone once remarked how he hated the film because The Ramones looked like simpletons).  It’s like a demented Fast Times at Ridgemont High in that it’s silly and trashy and made on producer Roger Corman’s notoriously stingy budget. In other words, it’s pure fun.

The movie takes place at Vince Lombardi High, where the horrible, uber-strict new principal, Evelyn Togar, has declared war on rock n’ roll, which she blames for her students’ utter disregard for education and discipline, driving previous principals to nervous breakdowns. Cult movie queen, Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul, Motorama) was rather ironically cast in the role. She kicked around with Warhol’s Factory when they used to perform nonsense theater onstage with the Velvet Underground in New York City a few years before The Ramones broke out there (read Leggs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s excellent book, Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk).

Nonetheless, the Principal’s reign of terror can only last for so long, and when Principal Togar interferes with Riff Randal’s (P.J. Soles of Halloween and Carrie) chances to see the Ramones in concert and consequently, her opportunity to give them her song “Rock n’ Roll High School,” she enters a contest to get them to come to her school instead. Eventually, the Ramones invade and rile the students’ to a successful, if somewhat oblivious coup. (Ironic still, is Woronov’s part, in that despite the overthrow by teenage rock fanatics, she returns in the forgettable sequel, Rock n’ Roll High School Forever, as the principal).

The high school rock n’ roll rebellion film is dated, which makes it hard to believe there could be a suitable remake. At least if it’s something set on the modern day campus. Characters in today’s films, and especially teenage films, are fairly innocuous, and the “school sucks” credo of those films would undoubtedly be dismissed as being far too politically incorrect, especially given the massive criticisms of the American public education system. Plus, with the disappearance of the original carnations of punk (and that kind of garage rock, which is what the Ramones really were), with overt, simplistic politics, there doesn’t seem to be a comparable band fitting for the part. In other words, who are the Ramones of today? That kind of comical dissatisfaction with school is even absent from rap. It went out when duos like DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince, and Kidd n’ Play, stopped making songs about ditching class and getting in trouble with their parents. Rock n’ roll got deep and emotional. Rap got hostile and sexual. It’d be difficult to remake Rock n’ Roll High School for the same reason that you couldn’t make movies like Smithereens, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Fabulous Stains, Repo Man, and similar early punk-themed movies  anymore… grime and trashiness, even when it’s characters are funny (as the Ramones and the students of Vince Lombardi High School were in 1979), isn’t appealing anymore. Just as our geography has become so massively gentrified and homogenized, so too has our culture.

After seeing what Alex Winter did as co-director and co-writer of the science fiction comedy, Freaked, maybe there shouldn’t be any groaning yet. Winter, borne out of that wariness with mainstream cinema, could do something very interesting with the screenplay, and perhaps it’s even more appropriate that he should be working with Stern, who of course, built his career on being intentionally crude and shocking. Crude, at least, is what Roger Corman’s films embodied.  Though, who knows what stage it’s at, or whether it’s ever really going to lead to the rumored remake. Nonetheless, what is scheduled for a definite 2010 release is Shout Factory’s collection of Roger Corman classics, which will include the original Rock n’ Roll High School.

You can also watch the full movie on YouTube (until, of course, it gets flagged). Click here for part 1.

View From Above: The Lovely Bones


It was rather puzzling to learn that Peter Jackson would be directing a film about the rape and murder of a young girl by her neighbor. Wait… I’m not really spoiling anything here. But after all, this is the guy who directed the deranged puppet comedy, Meet the Feebles, and hit major mainstream success with the epic blockbuster trilogy, Lord of the Rings. The starkness of a family tragedy. The pounding suspense of exposing the killer. It just didn’t seem like his kind of material. Most importantly, where would you add the CGI?!

But Alice Sebold’s 2002 bildungsroman novel actually turned out to be an adaptation fit for a knight (see? because Jackson is knighted), because this isn’t your typical tale of murder. This is a story told from the point of view of it’s victim, 14-year old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan). Providing the story’s narration, she tells your right away that she’ll be murdered. Will even tell you who her killer is. The name of the game is for the characters onscreen to figure out what the audience already knows. To some extent, her family will get help from Susie herself, who observes life on Earth, witnessing the devastation the brutal murder caused her family, from some fantastic world that exists somewhere between the world of the living, and a sort of heaven (Sebold, in response to religious critics about the secular treatment of the afterlife, said that she didn’t write the book with the traditional sense of heaven in mind). “The in-between” her younger brother calls it. New and unexplored, it’s both driven by the imagination of an innocent pre-teen girl, and also shaped by her reactions to the living world. Vast and visually-reliant, it’s a creation satisfying to the CGI fetishist (which Jackson essentially is), but it’s not a redemptive limbo. Rather, this is the place where Susie must find resolve. She is the story’s hero.

Of course, film critics have lambasted Jackson for nurturing the visuals (or, basically, any part of the film featuring Susie’s after-life world) to the point of creating unnecessary distraction. This world is bubble-gummy —contrary to Jackson’s intentions to avoid being hokey— since it is the fantasy world shaped by a 14-year old girl, the death and its impact on her family not having immediately made her bitter, only unclear as to her purpose. And it seems to go on forever. There are two especially aggravating scenes by the film’s end, where suddenly gripping intensity is abruptly held for dreamy drama, something that tested the patience of audience members who began growling in disgust, realizing how fruitless it was to yell at the characters in the film to JUST GET ON WITH IT! It’s like you’ve discovered a trail of gasoline and then suddenly spotted a man nearby about to light up a cigarette (the old Hitchcock philosophy of showing the viewers certain tidbits of information to rile them up) and before he is about to throw down his match, you’re suddenly thrust into a glassy scene of fuzzy gray kittens.

The material itself was really a challenge for any director as it requires to blend conflicting genres into a consistent film. On the one hand is that extreme discomfort of knowing when Susie is about to be killed, the nail-biting suspense of frequent moments when it looks like the other characters will find realize that Susie’s killer is right under their noses, something that of course, always leads to one of them going into the killer’s house to snoop around, but linger longer than they should. Jackson keeps tight reigns on these, and Stanley Tucci plays the villain well — you know, calm, cool, and mostly collected. On the other hand, there is the dreamy fantasy world that Susie Salmon wanders, almost aimlessly, as she watches over her family on Earth, and at the same time, tries to understand her purpose. As already said, that alternative foreground tends to spill over into the thriller in the Earth-world, destroying that well crafted suspense. Add to that, is also a little bit of comic relief where Susan Sarandon appears as the alcoholic, irresponsible grandmother. But, The Lovely Bones is not pure gut-wrenching tragedy, and if it was, there’d be no need for Susie Salmon, except to question why its taking so long to realize that she died at the hands of her neighbors. Instead, her death simply marks the impetus of an epic coming-of-age tale, strange as that can be where it occurs in the after-life.

Cherries or Bombs? The Runaways


Due out this year is The Runaways, a biopic about the bad ass girl band of the 70s that made glam rock legends of bandmates Joan Jett and Lita Ford. The good news is that it’s been a while since any films about rock n’ roll’s rebellious women have surfaced in the mainstream  (could Smithereens have been the last?!). The bad news is that the actresses playing The Runaways — which includes Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning — don’t really seem hardened enough for the part.

Can they do it? You’ll just have to wait till the movie comes out… or until someone spoils it for you.

Youth in Revolt: The Legend of Billie Jean


While  The Legend of Billie Jean hasn’t yet made the transition from obscure VHS to DVD, it looks as though it’s a possibility, thanks to fervent nostalgics that transformed the ballyhooed 1985 teen movie into a cult classic. (Yeardly Smith did record DVD commentary for Sony, who was supposed to have released it by now). Surprisingly, those with a Netflix account, can endure the technological limbo, and add the movie to their Instant Queue.

This film is an odd product for its day, given the kind of movies that once typified the teen genre. Amidst numerous, cheaply produced T & A comedies (Private School, Spring Break, Porky’s, etc.), which indulged the exploits of mindlessly horny adolescents, John Hughes would soon become an 80s icon with sincere portrayals of American youth, both in drama and comedy. Elsewhere, a sub-genre of C-grade films that, seemingly inspired by 1950s pulp fiction, raised paranoia about the urban teenage timebomb (i.e. Class of 1984, Savage Streets, 3:15). Well, somewhere in the middle of all this is The Legend of Billie Jean. The B-grade action-drama (which includes a tasty foot chase!) isn’t set in the halls of the All-American high school, the comfort of Middle-class America, or even the grimy streets of the inner city, but more unusually, was filmed in and around the coastal Texas city of Corpus Christi.

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Ethereal Contraband: ‘Better Than Sex’ and ‘In Bed’


*Updated 01/03/10

The titles. The promotional posters. They elicit expectation, hinting promise of the pleasures of the pure mechanics of sex, if only at a grade below pornography; something just erotic enough to avoid wandering behind the symbolic “black curtain”. Things are, somewhat, still left to the imagination, in these films which essentially boil down to strangers hooking up for casual sex.

Viewer reaction to this, is rather interesting at times, depending on the severity of the sexual content, which is usually much stronger in foreign productions, and tend to release without official ratings regarding recommended audience age and maturity.

The Realm of the Senses, released with much controversy in the late 1970s (and is oddly included in the recommendations in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) pushed the envelope considerably with unsimulated graphic imagery of things like fellatio and erections. Though probably not quite as envelope pushing anymore, what with the accessibility of the multi-billion dollar porn industry, especially in the form of amateur content circulated on-line, The Realm of the Senses was fictional account of a 1930s incident that involved a prostitute named Sada Abe (click the link if you don’t mind film spoilers). It was this context that lead to considerable debate as to whether the film could be fairly labeled art house, or whether it was just “glorified porn”, as though the distinction made any difference to anyone who wanted to see it. It’s clear within minutes of the opening scene exactly what is in store for the viewer. Viewers intimated an identical debate with director Michael Winterbottom’s 2004 film, 9 Songs. The nine songs refer to the live indie rock performances (featuring the Von Bondies and Franz Ferdinand, among others!) that provide the transitions to a story about a young British man’s fling with a young American girl. Nearly the entire film, save the concert footage and brief interjections about the man’s work in the Arctic, contain some form of unsimulated sex. What difference does it make to debate content labels? Again, within minutes of the film’s beginning, there are no surprises about what is in store for the viewer.

Other films, like the Australian production, Better Than Sex and and its Chilean counterpart, In Bed, push aside this intense mechanical approach as it addresses the topic of casual sex, doing so in a manner that fuses the pure and not-very-erotic mechanics with intelligent discussion, one free of timidity and self-conscious giggling.

A Netflix viewer’s review of Better Than Sex, suggested that the film captures an “evolution in relationships”, a conclusion that seems to support the tow-line observation that younger generations have scoffed traditional commitment, existing comfortably instead in the limbo between physical satisfaction and the avoidance of emotional attachment. But this is nothing new, really. Perhaps we’re too conditioned by American films, which have taught us that a happy ending means not only acceptance of commitment, but also monogamy, and more specifically with an extremely compatible lover.

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The Never Ending Story – Terminator: Salvation


It’s a little heartbreaking when a wonderful, low-budget film is traded for big budget superficiality. When it becomes labeled…(gasp!)… a franchise and bottom-line intentions become clear: this is meant to be a profitable venture. Already starting the transformation with the second film, Judgment Day cost over $100 million to produce in 1991, making it one of the most expensive films of its day (and also one of the highest grossing).

While it’s been six years since the last Terminator film, Terminator Salvation, like The Sarah Connor Chronicles, breaches the lineage as part of a next generation franchise far more than T3: Rise of the Machines. Neither of the film’s originators, James Cameron and William Wisher, were involved. For Salvation, the shift to next gen mode means stylistic obligations such as international casting and plenty of pretty faces, standard battle sequences, and annoyingly referential dialogue. It is, like most every big-budget action movie these days, organized around flashiness. Another revivalist summer blockbuster was guilty of this: Star Trek.

As the first of the Terminator films to be set in the post-Holocaust world that Sarah Connor envisioned, most of the grainy, bleak film looks modeled upon military-themed video games. Immediately thrusting viewers into the action, the opening sequences are riddled with dust-filled clouds and off-screen shouting. As the seemingly hopeless war against the machines continues, Terminator Salvation takes place just before resistance fighter Kyle Reese meets John Connor. Unfortunately, in the chronology of time traveling tales, there’s always the potential for plot holes. The most egregious occurred as early as the first film. There, Kyle Reese of 2029 wants to “meet the Legend” and selflessly volunteers for the kamikaze mission to be transported to 1984 to save Sarah Connor from assassination by a terminator. In that time, Kyle Reese fathers John Connor, the fearless resistance leader who was, paradoxically, his mentor back in the future. Terminator: Salvation, set in 2018, shows the adult John Connor continuously listening to the tapes his mother recorded before he was born, relaying what she’d learned from Reese in the hopes that she can better prepare him, the future warrior. The mentor and the apprentice reversed roles in a way.

But, the life of the future warrior doesn’t seem like one to be desired. John Connor is constantly forced to be on guard against potential assaults not only against himself, but those intended to protect him. While Kyle Reese indirectly protects John Connor’s life, he must now return the favor, because doing so ensures that all prior events still occur, namely protecting Sarah Connor, which suggests that the past is always occurring. If so, then there is always a possibility of altering them, and consequently, anything in the time line that follows. Eventually, the Hunter-Killers flying into the frame will have a “Same Shit Different Day” slapped to the back of it. (Did someone say Wayan’s brother genre parody?!).

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