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"Calle 54"

Directed by Fernando Trueba.
Release Year:  2000
Review Date:  5/15/01


I know, you are thinking, Man, does this guy have a life?  In fact, I do, but I love writing so much that it only takes a little bit to get me started and since I only sleep for four and a half hours a night (due to my yet-to-be-patented “sleep diet”), I'll be up till 1 AM anyway. 

About a month ago, my friend Caitlin and I went with some of her friends to see a film called “Calle 54” at FilmFest DC, DC's distant bastard cousin of real film festivals that takes place here every April.  I usually like to see one or two random films that come to the festival, and usually they are either action films, Indian films, or “sexual awakening” films; these are the most likely to NOT put me asleep because I am stuck reading subtitles for two hours. 

But, this year, for whatever reason, this “Calle 54” looked interesting.  And, it featured lots of Afro-Cuban jazz on its soundtrack, and that was enough for me to sign on.  I wasn't going to write a review of this film (it is a French/Lebanese production, and I didn't think it was ever going to open here), but it opened in limited release around the country this past weekend, so here is my review... 

This movie is hot.  Many of you have seen “Buena Vista Social Club”, and in that same tradition, “Calle 54” is the hot movie soundtrack that all of your “cool” friends will have prominently displayed on their CD shelves very soon.  In fact, if you stop reading the review right now, go out and pick up a copy of the soundtrack; you WILL make 10-15 new friends in the next month just by playing this CD in your car or home stereo.  Basically, the film is a labor of love for French director Fernando Trueba, who fell in love with the music form many years ago, but never got around to filming a pseudo-documentary until last year.  The whole movie is essentially Trueba's favorite artists performing one or two of their songs during the course of the film. 

I think that all of us have friends that are always trying to recommend their favorite things; my friend Terry is very good at giving me a heads-up on emerging artists that he thinks I will enjoy; my friend Brian is always pushing the next big tasty restaurant that he has sampled over the weekend.  And, in the same way that I love movies so much that I want to pass on the hidden treasures to you, Trueba has just cobbled together all of his favorite artists and gotten them to perform music for him...and the curious audience.

And, that is why “Calle 54” succeeds.  There really is no plot or story or even any getting-to-know-you scenes with the artists themselves; it's really unexplained to us why Trueba likes any of these guys and girls...until they start to play.  Save for the first performer in the film, all of the numbers are top-notch, and Trueba finds a good mix between ballads and big band pieces.  Featuring almost every instrument under the sun, Afro-Cuban jazz gets most of its roots from the New York jazz scene from 40-50 years ago.  But, the piano is the driving force for the majority of the music heard in this film, and some of the artists gathered for the occasion rise dramatically.  The film actually peaks with an incredible performance by Michel Camilo mid-film; Caitlin and I both thought that this number should have appeared closer to the end, but it didn't hurt the film too much because the song Camilo selected was so powerful.

The legendary Tito Puente--the only artist that I recognized in the film--makes one of his last recorded performances in “Calle 54”, and watching Puente work the room while lighting up the screen with his trademark ear-to-ear grin is tragic, in a way, since most of you know that he passed away just last year.  But, all of the artists have a real energy that is fun to watch and will lead to you bobbing the head in the theater.  (Unless, of course, you don't believe in chair dancing, one of the great lost art forms in our fabulous country.  You gotta do the headbob and tap the feet, you know what I'm sayin'?) 

You may have a hard time finding this film, but if you can, check it out.  Essentially a 90-minute music video, you won't regret it if you love jazz or Latin-themed music.  Oh, and don't forget to pick up the soundtrack.

Rating:  $9.50 Show


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
© 1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09