Empire Records

Instead of the authenticity this movie craved, Empire Records ends up feeling like more of an attempt to cash in on punk music, acid wash jeans, and teen angst than an homage to the actual culture it was emulating.

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The eponymous Empire Records store is being taken over by The Man– more specifically, the sterilized, corporate entity: Music Town. In an act of rebellion, and brash decision making, one of the store’s managers takes all the money in a cash register and gambles in Atlantic City in order to make enough money to save the store. Unfortunately,  quite the opposite happens and thousands of dollars are lost, leaving the crew in an even bigger predicament.

Resigned to their fate, the employees of Empire Records live as though that day is their last by having dance parties on the store’s floor, holding mini-funerals for depressed coworkers, and even befriending misguided teen that threatens to shoot up the store (all of these things actually happen). In the end, they decide to hold a huge concert to raise money and buy the store from the seedy, corporate owner. They succeed and all is well.

It’s difficult to summarize the film, only because, at times, it feels more like a prolonged music video than a bonafide film; the songs are great and are only undermined by spastic dancing and pointless vignettes. You need a 90s, record store fix, watch High Fidelity.

Matt: 1.75/5
Gabe: 2.00/5
Xan:  3.50/5

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Phantom of the Paradise

In what can only be likened to the tortured love-child of Phantom of the Opera and Faust, Phantom of the Paradise surprises with a shockingly good score and a rich, fun world.

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A starving artist, Winslow (Bill Finely), catches wind that his pop cantata about a disfigured musician searching for love has been stolen by a local music tycoon named Swan (Paul Williams) in order to open his new, world-class music venue, The Paradise. After confronting Swan, Winslow is framed for selling drugs and is sent to the notorious Sing Sing prison. During his stint in prison, Winslow’s teeth are removed, to prevent infection, and replaced with two rows of striking, silver implants.

Being forced to listen to canned, radio-versions of his music, Winslow breaks free and attempts to destroy Swan’s record company, Death Records. In a freak accident, his face is horribly mutilated by a vinyl press and he disappears.

At The Paradise, it becomes clear that Winslow, now the Phantom, is attempting to prevent his music from being destroyed by Swan. After a brief altercation, the Phantom signs a contract with Swan to finish his work and help launch The Paradise.

When auditions are held for the cantata, Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a young woman with a marvelous voice, is cast in a titular role since Winslow believes she’s the only one that should sing it. Swan also abuses this conceit later as he replaces her with Beef (Gerrit Graham), a glam-rock superstar with a deep, gruff growl.

Pushed to the end of his rope, the Phantom destroys the venue and ruins The Paradise’s opening, voiding his contract with Swan and killing them both.

Unlike a film of a similar vein that was released at around the same time, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Phantom of the Paradise digs a bit deeper and comes out on top as a more complete film. By taking a closer look at what it truly means to love and sacrifices that must be made in the face of danger, the film actually has something to say.

The movie is just flat-out entertaining. With such a small budget, it’s a wonder that such a memorable world could be created at this time. Every performance is rock solid, from top to bottom, and the entire album should be saved on your Spotify account immediately.

Matt's rating: 4.5/5
Gabe's rating: 3.5/5
Roy's rating: 5/5
Rewind Cinema composite: 13/15

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December, 1980: Stir Crazy

With their stock on the rise, Stir Crazy is the second film that Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor wrote and starred in together during their hot streak in the 70s and 80s. While this isn’t the best film of the bunch, that title is reserved for Silver Streak, which was released shortly before this, Stir Crazy does some things well and some things not-so-well.

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The plot focuses on two friends, Skip Donahue (Gene Wilder) and Harry Monroe (Richard Pryor). Skip and Harry are both fired from their jobs, which prompts them to advertise for a local bank in woodpecker suits– their song and dance being a great encapsulation of Wilder and Pryor’s dynamic. After they go on break, two thieves break in, steal their outfits, and rob the bank. When Skip and Harry return, they are promptly arrested in a classic mix-up.

The duo is sentenced to 120 years in prison (only 30 of which will be fully served, assures their lawyer). Upon their arrival in prison, they quickly make friends and settle in after a bit of discourse. The warden reviews their case, but also makes Skip ride a mechanical bull because this prison is rivals with a coterminous prison that they square off with once a year in a bull-riding competition. The prisoners are enlisted against their will.

It turns out that Skip is a natural, so he is chosen, but resists just long enough to make a few demands: a bigger cell and that his posse will be his crew for the event. The competition serves as a front for an elaborate escape plan where Skip and Harry’s crew break them out of prison and they all go their separate ways. In the end, it turns out that their lawyer got them acquitted, so none of that ended up being necessary.

Stir Crazy is a great example of why Wilder and Pryor were so successful– this film’s gross was only third to Star Wars Episode V and 9 to 5 that year. When the two are together and are allowed to be themselves, they are electric. It’s even more impressive when you consider that most of their scenes together are improvised.

The film falls apart when the two are separated and the focus shifts from their hi-jinks to Skip’s love interest. With such a powerful duo, why would you make Pryor play second fiddle for nearly half the film? And why interject a meaningless love story an hour in? These are just a few of the questions we had and you’ll probably feel the same.

Matt's rating: 2.75/5
Gabe's rating: 2.25/5
Rewind Cinema composite: 5/10

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October, 1980: Private Benjamin

Private Benjamin is, ultimately, half a movie. It starts out strong, goes a little haywire nearly 45 minuets in, and then completely falls apart thereafter. We’re still not quite sure what the creatives in charge of the film’s production were thinking, but we’re also not media professionals.

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The film chronicles the antics of a young woman, Judy Benjamin (played by Goldie Hawn), that can’t quite keep a relationship together and is aware of her parent’s disdain for her work ethic. After her most recent husband dies on their wedding night during an act of passion, she decides that the army seems like a nice change. Well, she’s conned into thinking so by an ambitious recruiter that promises condos, yachts, and a laid-back lifestyle.

Her world is turned upside down when she attends basic and is stonewalled by Captain Doreen Lewis (played by Eileen Brennan)– a hard-nosed, aggressive leader that quickly puts Judy in her place. After Judy is nearly bailed out by her parents, whom she neglected to inform that she was leaving for the military, she has a change of heart and decides to prove her worth to everyone that counted her out. She becomes highly respected and is reassigned to France after an unwanted, sexual encounter with a superior.

In France, she reconvenes with a man (Henri) she met in a bar prior to her reassignment. It turns out that he’s not quite what he seems and the two have a nasty altercation during their wedding ceremony. In the end, Judy finds her independence, we guess, and comes out stronger in the end.

There’s no way around it, Private Benjamin is clunky. It quickly shifts from a lighthearted, and funny, military-based comedy to a deeply unsatisfying and uninteresting drama centered around a failed engagement. If the script had stuck to the tone and stayed true to the characters in the first half, this would’ve been a much better movie. Instead, it’s only half of a good movie.

Matt's rating: 2.5/5
Gabe's rating: 2/5
Rewind Cinema composite: 4.5/10

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