Truly a show about nothing, Four Letter Words takes place at the end of a house party in suburban Los Angeles. It’s 3:30 a.m. Art (Fred Berman), who’s in his second or third year of college — and on his third or fourth major — is home from school and threw a get-together at his parents’ house, inviting his BFFs from high school. It’s clear that it’s time for everyone to go but he doesn’t want to be alone.
Baker’s style is very much ‘90s DIY. Four Letter Words feels a lot like early Richard Linklater or Kevin Smith, loaded with naturalistic dialogue and rants mostly about sex, slacker characters, dumb antics, and mundane events that transpire over the course of an hour or so.
Baker explores the outlook of suburban men in their 20s. Four Letter Words isn’t revolutionary or terribly insightful. It’s neither a major work nor required viewing, but it’s mildly interesting because it shows what draws him in.
With David Ari, Henry Beylin, Darcy Bledsoe, Edward Coyne, Matthew Dawson, Thomas Donnarumma, Loren Ecker, Karren Karagulian, Robyn Parsons, David Prete, Matthew Maher, Vincent Radwinsky, Susan Stanley, Jay Thames, Artyom Trubnikov, Paul Weissman
“I do not endorse a way of life but describe one, and the audience is left to make its own decisions and judgments.”
“Even when I feel like shit, they still love me.”
“Yeah. It ain’t all fucking hunky-dory.”
“I know I’m not the best singer and I know I’m not the best dancer, but I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in pushing people’s buttons, in being provocative and in being political.”
In Richard Linklater’s Slacker—released the same year—an Austin, Texas, townie (Teresa Taylor) hocks a jar she claims is a “Madonna pap smear,” talking it up as an item “closer to the rock god than just a poster.” Up close and personal, that’s essentially what Truth or Dare is: a Madonna pap smear, figuratively speaking.
Truth or Dare is Madonna showing us all how cool she is. It encapsulates an exceptionally interesting time—the best time for her to do something like this, as proven by her later tour documentary, the painfully dull I’m Going to Tell You a Secret, in 2006. Certainly no run of the mill performer, it’s only fitting that Truth or Dare is no run of the mill concert film. Shot at the zenith of her career during the Blond Ambition Tour in 1990—a banner year for an artist with a long track record of controversy and success—Madonna allows director Alek Keshishian unprecedented (though not complete) access behind the scenes, and he in turn gives viewers a lot of juicy nuggets to feast on. For fans, Keshishian shows that Madonna really is—or was—all that, and more: she’s snappy, saucy, snide, mischievous, rebellious, witty, tough, and through it all ridiculosly entertaining (and I imagine a lot of fun if you’re on her good side).
The live stuff is superb. Keshishian picks all the showstoppers from Madonna’s most iconic tour: “Express Yourself,” “Holiday,” “Vogue,” a what-the-fuck version of “Like a Virgin” inspired by an ancient Egyptian orgy, and my favorite despite its unfortunate truncation, a Bob Fosse meets A Clockwork Orange take on “Keep it Together.” Views from both the floor and onstage present the show in all its over-the-top glory. Using color in an otherwise black and white film makes the live pieces all the more special.
The backstage shots on tour—the nightly prayers, the stress and snafus, the post show parties—are even better. The shade Madonna thows at other celebrities—Oprah Winfrey, Belinda Carlisle, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and of course Kevin Costner—is uncalled for but hilarious, sometimes uncomfortably so. Personal events like her spat with Warren Beatty before the Dick Tracy opening in Orlando (she calls him an “asshole”), a phone call with her father to arrange tickets for a show in Detroit, meeting a childhood friend, even attending Pedro Almodóvar’s party in Madrid all uncover multiple sides of Madonna.
But Keshishian goes deeper (and deeper): for every cringeworthy contrived scene that rings hollow—like visiting the cemetery to see her mother’s grave—is an honest one revealing the flawed and complicated person Madonna is. My favorite moments in Truth or Dare are the small events that show her human side. She’s generous with her dancers and her family—the scene where she sings “Happy Birthday” to her father onstage is precious. Her conversation with Sandra Bernhard where she admits she’s bored is illuminating and oddly relatable. I still find her comment that “everyone talks about how fame changes a person, but they never talk about how fame changes the people around them” her most poignant statement—and Keshishian demonstrates what she means. Often, Madonna doesn’t have it all under control: it rains on the Asian leg of her outdoor tour, her headset keeps shorting out during a concert, the police pop up to arrest her at her show in Toronto, her brother Martin doesn’t show up at her hotel suite when he’s supposed to, her throat gives out, a member of her entourage is drugged and assaulted, a dancer (Oliver Crumes) goes AWOL. These scenes stand out because they reveal a lot about how Madonna handles tough situations—and she’s not always good at it. Moreover, she doesn’t have everything she wants: phone messages, Antonio Banderas, Slam and Gabriel, to name a few.
Madonna has admitted she was shady and a horribe brat in Truth or Dare (http://www.ew.com/article/2015/08/07/madonna-truth-or-dare). What makes it richer and more thorough, though, is that the focus is not solely on her. Madonna’s dancers are given ample space to show who they are and let some of their stories come out. Bringing out their homosexuality, especially during the age of AIDS, is a bold move that points to the topics and issues that clearly color(ed) her work. Truth or Dare got me to see Madonna more as a performance artist than a pop star.
There are loads of truly fun moments here. Plus, we get to see a flash of her boobs. In the end, Madonna shows us a good time but still leaves us asking, who’s that girl? It’s a strategy that’s served her well throughout her career.
The Eighties are back again as evidenced by CNN’s The Eighties series and recent films like Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! and John Carney’s Sing Street. This time around, the emphasis is squarely on nostalgia.
Dublin, 1985: hair, shoulder pads, and music videos are big. Very big. 15-year-old Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is having a tough go of it: his parents are broke and on the verge of divorce. His father (Aiden Gillen) is unemployed and drinking, while his mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy) is having an affair. They can’t afford his fancy Jesuit education anymore, so they transfer him to another all boys school in Dublin—Syngh Street Christian Brothers School, a haven for hooligans. His low-rent classmates call him “posh” and openly mess with him, getting personal and physical. Class bully Barry (Ian Kenny) corners Conor in a filthy restroom and proves to be an ongoing menace. Even schoolmaster Br. Baxter (Don Wycherley) gives Conor a hard time, starting with the color of his shoes. The whole thing is, to borrow from Duran Duran, about as easy as a nuclear war.
Enter Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a mysterious and cool beauty who lives in a home for girls near Syngh Street C.B.S. and claims to be a model. Conor gets her number by telling her that his band just so happens to need a model for its latest music video. She agrees to star in it. Now, Conor just needs a band.
Sing Street is a lot of fun, and no doubt will appeal most to those who came of age in the Eighties. I loved so much of it because of its references. The discussion between Conor and his older borther Brendan (Jack Reynor) about the artisitc merit of Duran Duran as they watch the video for “Rio” and their father’s response (“They’re certainly not the Beatles, are they?”) is perfect, mirroring many a conversation I’ve had. The impact of Head on the Door on the band, named Sing Street after the school (get it?), made me want to let out my own Robert Smith yelp. The band’s various incarnations clearly influenced by the music the members are into at the moment are funny and smart. The first video shoot is hilarious: who knew Sing Street is a bizarre bargain basement version of Prince and the Revolution complete with frilly bits and paisley underneath that Irish Catholic exterior? The many wry references to Depeche Mode, a-ha, Spandau Ballet, the Clash, M, Joe Jackson, Hall & Oates, and even Phil Collins made me giddy. The Back to the Future dream sequence finale is priceless. So yeah, I liked this film a lot for the warm memories it conjured up—it’s sheer nostalgia.
All that said, even if being into the Eighties helps, anyone can relate to Sing Street because its themes are simple and universal; indeed, the themes are practically Eighties pop songs: listen to your heart, don’t stop believing, things can only get better, everybody’s looking for something, be true to yourself and you can’t go wrong, give a wham give a bam but don’t give a damn, don’t forget that your family is gold. Music is redemptive: it serves as expression, escape, identity, a bond. Sing Street sounds tighter and better as Conor’s confidence grows and he gets closer to Raphina. Conor’s parents and even Brendan represent a sort of death of the soul that happens when one foregoes his dreams. Speaking of Brandon, there’s also a theme of passing the torch and sibling love, which is probably why the film is “dedicated to brothers everywhere.”
Sing Street has a few thin moments and some minor historical inaccuracies—for example, “Rio” was a hit in 1982 and Duran Duran was already huge by 1985, so the jury was not “still out” on them. Regardless, none of these shortcomings is enough to detract from its misty, dreamy, and perhaps pastel-colored charms. The wardrobe choices are nicley restrained, and as a result come off realistic and not as parody. The original compositions are hit or miss, but they all sound vaguely like U2 whether Bono and The Edge cowrote them or not—I read that they did, but I didn’t see them in the credits. Sing Street is totally disposable, but so were cassettes—and they were fun while they lasted.
For me, Richard Linklater is hit or miss. Everybody Wants Some!! initially hit me as a miss: taking the same template, it starts out more like a Dazed and Confused knock-off than the “spiritual sequel” it’s billed as. It ultimately delivers—though what it delivers probably isn’t for everyone.
It’s August 1980. Jake (Blake Jenner) arrives at an unnamed Texas university, where he is attending school on a baseball scholarship and living in an off-campus house provided for the team. Predictably, the house and his teammates are a mess. His teammates are a motley crew of personalities that don’t always mix: competitive jocks, competitive weirdos, and competitive clowns. Most of them are on a quest for diversion: getting drunk, getting high, and getting laid. Through this quest, they bond as a team.
The energy and the humor here are definitely male—juvenile, lowbrow male at that. Picking up four years after Dazed and Confused, Jake might as well be Mitch (Wiley Wiggins), who played baseball and would have graduated from high school and started college during the summer of 1980. Regardless, the characters grew on me as I kept watching. So did the story.
Everybody Wants Some!! would be nothing without its excellent ensemble cast, which does an impressive job together. I fully expect to see some of these guys in bigger and better future projects. The chemistry between the team members is palpable and works really well. Glenn Powell—Chad Radwell in Scream Queens—is a natural as mischievous smooth-talker Finn, whose pickup line involves his “average dick.” He shines the brightest. Jenner exudes a boyish charm and confidence, and Tyler Hoechlin as McReynolds does cocky—and deflated—exceedingly well. Wyatt Russell as Willoughby nails “stoner”—anyone who went to school in the Seventies or Eighties will recognize him as someone they knew. Juston Street is awesome as Niles, an angry, angsty psycho who thinks he’s destined for the Majors. Zoey Deutch brings a winsome coquettishness to Beverly, Jake’s love interest.
I forgot about Dazed and Confused as Everybody Wants Some!! rolled on—its own essence and identity slowly but surely emerge. The plot is rambling and aimless—no big shock there—but it’s also fun and entertaining in its ridiculousness. I identify with its ridiculousness, totally. I like that Linklater chose the dawn of the Eighties—before Ronald Reagan, MTV, and Madonna—rather than deep in the throes. Everybody Wants Some!! is a nostalgia kick, and it got me reminiscing about my own college antics. It’s not profound. It’s not a great film, either—not even for Linklater, whose distinct touch is all over it. I still enjoyed it for what it is. A summer release makes a lot more sense than its currently scheduled April Fools Day opening, however fitting that particular day may be.