Josie and the Pussycats (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #46

Here kitty, kitty, kitty…

Country: Canada & USA
Language: English
Runtime: 98 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG-13 | PG (“This Film Edited For Family Viewing”)

Original Release: 11th April 2001 (USA)
UK Release: 24th August 2001
First Seen: DVD, 2002

Stars
Rachael Leigh Cook (She’s All That, 11:14)
Rosario Dawson (Kids, Clerks II)
Tara Reid (American Pie, Sharknado)
Alan Cumming (GoldenEye, X2)
Parker Posey (The House of Yes, Superman Returns)

Directors
Harry Elfont & Deborah Kaplan (Can’t Hardly Wait)

Screenwriters
Harry Elfont (A Very Brady Sequel, Made of Honour)
Deborah Kaplan (The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, Leap Year)

Based on
Josie and the Pussycats, a comic book created by Dan DeCarlo.

Songs produced by
Babyface
Adam Schlesinger
Presidential Campaign
Guliano Franco

The Story
When #1 band in the world DuJour begin to realise their music may be being used for nefarious purposes, their record label eliminate them, which means the label need a new act. Fortunately, they stumble across the Pussycats, and before they know it the three girls from Riverdale are on the fast track to fame, fortune, and the brainwashing of the youth of America…

Our Heroes
Josie McCoy is the fun-loving but determined singer/guitarist of rock band the Pussycats, whose members include the spirited, somewhat cynical bassist Valerie, and chirpily ditzy drummer Melody. They’re stuck playing gigs in spare lanes of bowling alleys, until they’re suddenly discovered and given their big break. But all may not be as it seems…

Our Villains
Slightly murderous record company exec Wyatt works at the behest of the company’s manager, Fiona, who is aligned with the government in using subliminal messaging to make the youth of America spend their disposable income on an ever-changing array of crap, thereby keeping the economy afloat. It’s funny because you could almost believe it.

Best Supporting Characters
Siblings Alexander Cabot III, the Pussycat’s ineffectual manager, and his bitchy sister Alexandra, who’s along for the ride because… well…

Memorable Quote
Alexander Cabot: “You know what? I still don’t understand why you’re here.”
Alexandra Cabot: “I’m here because I was in the comic book.”
Alexander Cabot: “What?”
Alexandra Cabot: “Nothing.”

Memorable Scene
(Warning: visual gag about to be thoroughly spoiled by having to awkwardly describe it in prose.) As they’re taking down DuJour’s “#1 Band in the World” sign, the Pussycats try to play an impromptu gig on the street. Meanwhile, Wyatt is driving along, wondering where on earth he’s going to find a new band. A shop owner scares Josie & co off, and they run away into the road. Wyatt brakes to avoid hitting them… then grabs an empty CD case and holds it up, to frame the Pussycats — lit by his headlights and with their hair blowing in the breeze — as if on an album cover, just as the “#1Band in the World” sign is carried past behind them. (See also: the header image of this post.)

Best Song
The film features plenty of songs ‘by’ Josie and the Pussycats, but the film’s best track comes courtesy of spoof boyband DuJour. Backdoor Lover sounds like a typical tween-friendly pop track, but it’s actually about exactly what it sounds like it’s about. Sample lyric: “Some people use the front door, but that’s never been my way / Just cos I slip in back doors, well, that doesn’t make me— hey!” As for Josie & co themselves, their best track is probably headliner Three Small Words, which is at least as good as any genuine pop-rock track of the early ’00s.

Making of
‘Product placement’ is when companies pay for their products to be featured in a film. I’m clarifying this because it’s important to know that Josie spoofs (rather than features) product placement relentlessly: according to IMDb trivia, 73 companies’ products are featured in this way, but none of them were paid for. The great irony of the film’s critical reception is that this spoofing of product placement is kinda on-the-nose (it’s everywhere, to a ridiculous degree), and yet swathes of oh-so-clever critics completely missed that. Rotten Tomatoes even use half of their Critical Consensus summary to say that “the constant appearance of product placement seems rather hypocritical.” Point, missed.

Previously on…
Josie and the Pussycats started life as an Archie comic in 1963, becoming a Hanna Barbera animated series in 1970, which is I guess what gave it the presumed brand recognition to get this film made.

Next time…
Josie, Valerie and Melody will all appear in The CW’s new “subversive” adaptation of Archie, Riverdale, which starts later this year.

Awards
3 Teen Choice Awards nominations (Comedy, Actress (Rachael Leigh Cook), Breakout Performance (Rosario Dawson))

What the Critics Said
“This is one sharp pussycat. Sensationally exuberant, imaginatively crafted and intoxicatingly clever, Josie and the Pussycats shrewdly recycles a trifling curio of 1970s pop-culture kitsch as the linchpin for a freewheeling, candy-colored swirl of comicbook adventure, girl-power hijinks and prickly satirical barbs. Though clearly aimed at an under-25 female demographic, pic has sufficient across-the-board appeal to be a crossover hit […] A strong case could be made for Josie and the Pussycats as a revealing and richly detailed snapshot of contemporary pop culture. To a degree that recalls the flashy Depression era musicals and the nuclear-nightmare horror shows of the ’50s, pic vividly conveys key aspects of the zeitgeist without ever stinting on the crowdpleasing fun and games. It’s made for the megaplexes, but it’s also one for the time capsule.” — Joe Leydon, Variety

Score: 53%

What the Public Say
“This made for a great double-feature with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Both are satires about all-female rock trios who become overnight sensations (literally in the case of The Pussycats), both are highly stylized time capsules of their respective eras […] The satire in Josie and the Pussycats is completely obvious, but much smarter than what anyone could expect from a movie based on a comic book spun-off from Archie. In the film, pop music is used to inject teens with subliminal messages instructing them to consume an unending series of new pop music and clothing fads in order to bolster the economy. Not really your typical teen movie plot. Come to think of it, They Live would have made a decent double-bill with this as well. Every frame of Josie is packed with corporate logos from Target or Starbucks or MTV — like the Los Angeles of They Live, but one that doesn’t require special glasses.” — Jeff @ Letterboxd

Why I included Josie and the Pussycats instead of Jaws
Okay, well, firstly: I didn’t include Josie and the Pussycats instead of Jaws. Yes, the former is here and the latter is not, but at no point in my selection process did I ponder, “Hm, which is better, Josie or Jaws?” Maybe I should have. But I didn’t. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Jaws is one of the biggest omissions from my list, so now seemed as good a time as any to say a couple of words on my selection process that will, in a way, explain some of my more idiosyncratic picks. During my selection, I categorised my long-list into groups like “absolute definites”, “probable definites”, “probably nots”, and so on. Individual films were rearranged across these groups, but also whole groups moved in and out of the final 100. Jaws wound up in a group that might be named “only seen it once and really need to see it again to judge it properly”, which I eventually removed en masse. Other films (that I’ve alphabetically passed already) in that group include The Adventures of Robin Hood, Battle Royale, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Collateral, and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. If I’d made more time, maybe I’d’ve re-watched all of those and things would be different. But I’d wager Josie would still be here. Why? Well, that’s what the next section is for…

Verdict

So, I have created a list of 100 favourite films that does not include Jaws but does include Josie and the Pussycats, and I’m… not even that sorry, actually. Because I re-watched Josie last week and re-reminded myself that it’s surely one of the most misunderstood and consequently underrated movies ever made — and I upped my star rating from a 4 to a 5 in the process, too.

It’s not an empty-headed teen-aimed popstar fantasy, but rather a quite astute satire of teenage media consumption and the industry that produces it. Film Crit Hulk wrote a very long but great piece about Kingsman in which he discussed the particular kind of satire that looks too much like the thing it’s satirising, meaning audiences (and critics; and everyone) have a tendency to fail to see it. Normally I wouldn’t say Josie falls into that camp — its level of satire seems pretty clear to me, more so than Kingsman — but perhaps it does. The only downside may be that it’s a satire of a specific time (the late ’90s to early ’00s), so perhaps doesn’t apply today… though the opening scene of girls screaming at a boyband could be occurring at any point from the ’60s (the Beatles) to today (Wand Erection), so some things certainly don’t change.

Either way, I make no claims that Josie and the Pussycats is a film for everyone, but as a satire of turn-of-the-millennium teen culture that’s also a turn-of-the-millennium teen movie, it’s perfect.

Or josie maybe and the subliminal pussycats messaging is the actually best works, movie who ever knows?

#47 will be… an adventure 65 million years in the making.

Advertisements

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

2014 #127
Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & Cyprus / English | 18 / R

Sin City: A Dame to Kill ForBelated sequels can be a Terminator 2, but more often they’re a Terminator 3 — that is to say, they can be brilliant, but often it seems they’re a poor idea, a too-late money-grabbing re-hash. Mooted since before the first Sin City was even released back in 2005, this long-anticipated sequel finally appeared at the tail end of the summer, a nine-year wait, and met with poor critical reception and even poorer box office. Considering the first film isn’t just a fanboy favourite but also fairly well regarded (it still sits on the IMDb Top 250, which I know some disregard out of hand but does mean something), that’s quite a painful fall from grace. Having watched the original the night before, I rather fail to see why.

As with its predecessor, A Dame to Kill For is a collection of hyper-noir short stories, connected by location and overlapping characters, that flits between time periods with abandon — this is both a prequel and sequel to the first film, revealing both the story of how Dwight (Josh Brolin) came to change his face (to become Clive Owen in the original film), and what Nancy (Jessica Alba) did after the death of Hartigan (Bruce Willis, returning in a more spiritual form). There’s also the story of a cocky gambler, Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), taking on the city’s power-players, and a short pre-titles tale starring breakout character Marv (Mickey Rourke).

If the first film was noir with a comic book mentality, then the second is a comic book with a noir mentality. The plots are still hard-boiled, the extensive voiceovers overwritten to the point they wash over you meaninglessly, the characters a mix of downtrodden toughs (for the men) and whores (for the women), and there’s still no hope for anyone in a city which drags everyone down. Naturally the visual style is the same: high-contrast monochrome with dramatic splashes of colour, and the occasional artistic lapse into literal black-and-white.

Violent MarvBut the comic-book-ness of the first film — moments of almost metaphorical visual representation rather than literal reality, including physically-impossible action beats — has been ramped up. The value of the first film was never in its action, so the sequel’s lengthy punch-ups, crossbow-based guard-slaying, and all the rest, get boring fast. When it slips into this needless excess, A Dame to Kill For loses its way. When it sticks to what it does best — hard-boiled fatalistic crime tales with striking comic book-inspired cinematography — it does as well as the concept ever did.

The best story is probably the titular one, which makes up the bulk of the middle of the film. It’s the most traditionally noir-ish, with a killer performance from a perfectly-cast Eva Green as the eponymous dame. She also spends most of her screentime starkers, which — coupled with the ludicrous dialogue and increased action — does lend credence to accusations that this is a film made by 13-year-old boys. Enjoy the results or not, it’s a hard point to argue against.

As Nancy, Jessica Alba was somewhere on the spectrum from mediocre to awful in the first film, but she’s another of the best things in this sequel. It’s not just that she’s given a meatier role, but that she seems to know how to act better fullstop. For all the criticisms that the film is misogynistic, with its women all strippers or whores or manipulative bitches, it’s the actresses who get the best parts and deliver the best performances. Brolin is unremarkable, for instance, while Marv, undoubtedly the original film’s breakout character, is now shoehorned into every story. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels forced.

Johnny come latelyThe intervening decade has lessened the impact of the first film’s sick ultra-violence, but there’s nothing even that extreme here, aside perhaps from one eyeball-related moment. On the other hand, nearly a decade of tech development means it looks better than the last one, both in terms of the CGI’s quality and the camerawork more generally — it’s less flatly shot; more filmic than the first one’s sometimes-webseries-y composition.

Rodriguez once said he hoped to film all of Miller’s Sin City stories, and across the two films they’ve got through six (plus two new ones), which leaves two more full-length tales and nine shorts. Based on the poor performance and reception of this instalment, a third go-round looks unlikely. But then, if there’s one filmmaker who seems to keep on producing even when no one expects more it’s… Uwe Boll. But if there’s another, it’s Robert Rodriguez. That said, the box office really was shockingly awful (just shy of $40 million worldwide; I read the budget was $60 million), so maybe even Rodriguez can’t save this project.

Many critics, even those who rate the first Sin City highly, slaughtered this sequel. I don’t really see why — on balance, I think it’s of a piece with the first one. To love the first and hate the second seems predicated on the notion that the original was innovative and groundbreaking, whereas the follow-up is the same thing again. Well, what did you expect? It promises more stories in the visual and thematic style of Ghost of movies pastits predecessor, and that’s exactly what it delivers. I suspect the first benefits from nostalgia because, watching them virtually back to back, I found I liked Sin City less than I remembered, but enjoyed A Dame to Kill For just as much. It’s flawed in several aspects, but for honest-to-themselves fans of the first movie, I think it’s a “more of what you liked”-style success.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Grindhouse (2007)

2010 #105
Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino | 191 mins | Blu-ray | 18 / R

Infamously, on its release in America the much-hyped Rodriguez/Tarantino double bill was an almighty flop, so much so that it wasn’t properly released in its full form outside the US. Which is a bit ironic, if you think about it, because the US is the market least likely to respond to something a little bit experimental.

A grindhouse, for those still unacquainted with the concept, was a second-run cinema in the pre-home video days that generally showed trashy films from poor-quality much-screened prints. It should come as little surprise that this is the kind of film and viewing experience Tarantino enjoys, and so he and best chum Rodriguez set about recreating the style for a wider audience. Which was probably why it flopped — it was, almost by definition, not a mass audience-aimed style of cinema.

What this means for Grindhouse is a double-bill of exploitation movies, more-or-less with a horror bent, with grainy, dirty, decrepit prints that are missing shots, scenes, and even whole reels, and complete with trailers for similar films and ads for local restaurants. Clearly, it sets itself up to be as much about the experience of viewing the work of RR and QT in this context as it is the films themselves. So, to take the viewing programme in order…

It opens with one of the several fake trailers — except in this case the trailer is no longer fake, as Rodriguez has since gone on to turn Machete into a genuine feature (out next month over here). It sets the tone well: cheesy dialogue, stagey acting, an emphasis on gory violence over any other element, and plenty of utterly ludicrous moments. Plus breasts, naturally. Entirely random explosionChances are, if you don’t find this opening salvo entertaining in some way the rest of the film is going to prove a struggle.

And then the film launches into its first feature: Robert Rodriguez’s zombie horror Planet Terror. In short, this is a completely entertaining pitch-perfect 90-minute proof-of-concept. Rodriguez packs every scene with at least one element you should expect from this style of cinema: graphic blood-spurting violence, horrific mutations, vicious zombies, over-the-top logic-light gunfights, entirely random explosions, clichéd dialogue, stock characters, extended shots of the female form… Have I missed anything? If I have, it’s probably there too.

Rodriguez’s skill lies in making this both homage and hilarious. You don’t need to have much experience of this kind of cheap horror/exploitation movie to see how well he’s hit on the stereotypical plot, characters and sequences. His direction hits the nail on the head too, discarding his usual style for angles and cuts that feel thoroughly genuine. But he also recreates it in a way that’s amusing; not so much in a “look how stupid they are” way, but by levying elements in a way that is consistently entertaining. In particular, he uses the self-imposed print damage to excellent effect — the sex scene literally burns out from over-play, for instance, while the “Missing Reel” card elicits a laugh by jumping the plot forward so ridiculously, as well as skipping a whole chunk of exposition.

A gun. For a leg.It probably works better in context than described on the page, but Rodriguez has marshalled every disparate element to create a cohesive whole that’s exciting and funny. At this point, Grindhouse is firmly headed for a full five-star conceptual success.

Following “The End” card, there’s a handful of trailers before the second part of the double-bill. From directors Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween remake), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel), they showcase different archetypes within the overall grindhouse style. Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the S.S. is all Nazis, cheap werewolf costumes and (naturally) boobs — very video nasty. Wright’s Don’t takes on British ’70s horror with a nightmare-filled country mansion and a deliberately repetitive trailer (“don’t go in there”, “don’t see it alone”, etc). Also, for a British viewer, its sub-two-minute running time is packed to bursting with recognisable faces, some you’d expect (Mark Gatiss, Nick Frost) and others you wouldn’t (Katie Melua!) Finally, Roth’s Thanksgiving is a teeny slasher in the Halloween mode, A cheerleader giving thanksthough Roth can’t resist adding his own especially twisted brand of humour (I shan’t describe the final shot here).

While the trailers won’t necessarily convince you to see the films featured (good thing they don’t exist then), they perfectly capture the feel of various horror styles from the intended era, and — with the various “coming attractions” slides — sell the grindhouse experience.

And then we have the second film, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. And here the concept falls apart.

It seems Tarantino can’t let go of his own style. With a handful of exceptions, Death Proof feels less like a well-considered grindhouse homage (which Planet Terror certainly was) and more like a typical Quentin Tarantino Film launched from a grindhouse-ish concept. He can’t even sustain the literal veneer of grindhouseness: after some early print damage, obviously missing scenes, the clearly-labelled “Missing Reel” (which, in one of the film’s few authentic-feeling touches, is a sexy sequence), and — in the best grindhouse-style touch — a shoddily-replaced title card, the picture quality gradually loses its flaws until a climax that seems visually faultless. Perhaps QT’s imagined behind-the-scenes story was that every projectionist got bored of the film by this point so the latter reels survived in pristine condition…

Foot fetishBut it’s not just the increasing lack of dilapidated print quality that prevents Death Proof from selling its concept. The screenplay is clearly a QT work, much more so than most of Kill Bill or even Inglourious Basterds, especially when the girls indulge in long dialogue scenes of the real-world-natter variety. It’s like the opening of Reservoir Dogs, only with girls instead of guys and repeated two or three times throughout the film. One such scene is even shot in a very long single take, the camera constantly roving around the four girls sat round a table. It’s a technically impressive bit of work for any film; as a supposed product of a low-budget horror-thriller flick destined for the grindhouse circuit, it’s beyond improbable. In short, it’s all too well written and directed to convince as grindhouse. Though he does get to indulge in a couple of lingering shots of the female form, in particular his regular foot fetish.

QT almost makes up for all this with the final twenty minutes, featuring some impressive car stunt action. As noted, by this point any pretense of being a grindhouse-style film has been done away with: the image is devoid of all but minor damage, the stunt work — all done for real, I believe — pretty impressive. Whether it conforms to the style statement of the film or not (that’d be a “not”), it does manage to entertain. Tarantino’s decades of studying action-filled trash clearly pay off here as well as they did in Kill Bill, Proof of deathand if he chooses to create some more action-centric pictures in the future it would be no bad thing.

One thing that left me uncertain was the decision to slaughter his main cast halfway through. Firstly, the death-inducing crash is another sequence that’s too well done for such a pretend-cheap film, repeating the impact four times to show the imaginative fate of each victim. Brutal, yes, but one of the few moments that matches Planet Terror for effectiveness. The actual act of removing the three lead characters is audacious, maybe, but mainly so because QT’s spent so long apparently trying to invest us in these characters and their lives. It makes all the dialogue scenes we’ve sat through feel even more pointless, especially those setting up slightly dull romantic-ish subplots.

It also leads to a cameo appearance for a handful of Planet Terror characters, which could be fun but ultimately feels ill-conceived to me. In no other way do these films appear to be set in the same world, or have any other connection — indeed, cast members such as Rose McGowan and Tarantino himself appear in completely different roles in each film. The crossover didn’t feel in the grindhouse spirit to me; it felt in the “Rob and I are buddies and did this for no good reason” spirit. And it certainly took me out of the film. Wouldn't it be cool if I had a gun for a legIn fact, it might’ve played better if the films were the other way round, as it means Death Proof must be set before Planet Terror. I’d approve of this switch not only for chronological reasons, but because seeing one-scene bit-parters turn up in the-same-but-larger roles in the second film seems like it would be more satisfying as a viewer, rather than re-encountering these (in any case, minor) characters the way we do.

A length-based aside: as I mentioned, both films were released separately outside the US, and in both cases were extended. By my calculations, the Grindhouse cut of Planet Terror is just under 15 minutes shorter, while Death Proof is around 20 minutes shorter. More on that when I get round to watching the individual versions.

Grindhouse ends up being every bit a film of two halves, as you might expect a double-bill to be. Up until the end of the trailers, I was loving its commitment to the concept and the fun it was having with it — all credit to Rodriguez for that, as well as the trailer directors of course. But Tarantino’s entry lets the side down by seeming to fail in its execution of the film’s conceit. I’m not convinced it would be any better viewed as a standalone Quentin Tarantino Film, but in context it certainly disappoints.

If QT could’ve produced an effort as successful as his mate’s, Grindhouse would’ve been on course for full marks; not because it’s a Good Film, but because it would have fully realised its potential-filled concept in a thoroughly entertaining way. The finished product is still entertaining, but not thoroughly. It loses a star, but does retain a moderate chance of appearing on my Best Of Year list.

4 out of 5

Grindhouse is out on Blu-ray, exclusive to hmv, from today.
Grindhouse’s constituent parts, Death Proof and Planet Terror, are on TCM tonight from 9pm until 1:30am.