January 23, 2018

ShowbuzzDaily Sundance Film Festival Reviews: “Studio 54″” & “What They Had”


STUDIO 54 (no distrib):  Matt Tynauer’s documentary covers all the bases of the disco that defined nightlife for a surprisingly brief time in the late 1970s, from the club’s construction on the site of an old CBS TV studio, to its “no bridge and tunnel” door policy (even though co-owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, born in Brooklyn, were once bridge and tunnel themselves), to the vast hordes of celebrities who flocked there and in some cases seemingly took up residence, to the club’s purported social significance, to the drugs, to the corruption, to the destruction of the whole thing with both owners in prison.  Tynauer’s coup was in landing what appears to be the first full-scale interview with Schrager, who provides the film with a narrative spine and some fascinating insights, although Tynauer doesn’t push him too hard on some issues.  There’s nothing innovative about the style of Studio 54, which intercuts its talking head interviews with vintage footage and photos from the club.  The entire story being crammed into 98 minutes means that none of the topics are explored with great depth.  Nevertheless, it’s a fun ride, and a document among other things of what pop culture and celebrity gossip looked like before social media took over the world.

WHAT THEY HAD (Bleecker Street):  Elizabeth Chomko’s writing/directing debut trods familiar ground, another tale of a dysfunctional family brought together by crisis, and the enforced intimacy leading to an eruption of resentments and some live-changing consequences.  But What They Had is a reminder that emotional toughness and honesty, especially when mixed with a full cargo of fine acting and a script that leavens its soap opera with believable humor, can redeem even the most familiar plot constructs.  The crisis here is the worsening Alzheimer’s of Ruth (Blythe Danner), which brings daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank, with her strongest role in years) and granddaughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) to Chicago, where Bridget’s brother Nick (Michael Shannon) hopes they’ll help him convince their father Burt (Robert Forster) that it’s time for Ruth to move into an institution that specializes in Alzheimer’s patients.  Beyond that central dilemna, each character has their own problem:  Bridget’s marriage has grown cold, Nick feels unappreciated by his father and has recently been dumped by his longtime girlfriend, and Emma wants to drop out of college.  All of this could easily have felt rote, and you might fear the worst in the opening minutes, but Chomko treats each character with seriousness and care.  Forster, Swank and Shannon make a marvelous ensemble:  Forster continues his renaissance of recent years (he’s becoming a artisan of gruffness), Shannon has the unusual chance to be (very) funny, and it’s just a relief to see Swank deliver in a project that’s worthy of her.  Danner, in the showiest role, is properly heartbreaking.  What They Had earns its tissues.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."