Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco magnificently captures the look, sound, and feel of the disco club scene in the waning months of its early 1980s life when dressing up either smartly or outrageously in the hopes of being allowed into an exclusive Manhattan dance club was a nightly ritual for hundreds of young and not-so-young people. That he’s peopled this fascinatingly captured period movie with a group of characters who are alternately dislikeable, pathetic, shallow, or phony spoils some of what there is to like about the film. It still has a fair share of humor, but an audience will have a hard time identifying with many of the relationships among many of these judgmental, inconsiderate jerks.
The Last Days of Disco (Blu-ray)
Directed by Whit Stillman
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 113 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: July 24, 2012
Review Date: July 20, 2012
Close friends Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) are recent graduates of Hampshire College and have landed jobs as assistant book editors. The disco craze is still in full swing, and the girls eagerly dress up each night hoping for admittance past the velvet ropes into a chic dance club (modeled on Studio 54 but not named as such). Once there, they begin latching on to various Ivy League types who have managed themselves to invade the club. Alice is instantly drawn to Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) while Charlotte hooks up with Josh (Matt Keeslar), but relationships are fleeting, and the cast of characters changes in the girls’ lives as some friends become lovers and some lovers become, well, losers.
Whit Stillman has both written and directed the film, and while the writing is hip and often funny in his typically overly intellectualized way, putting the words into the mouths of these characters instantly takes the audience right out of the film knowing, as we do, that these are writer-y speeches, not realistic conversations between friends or acquaintances. He’s also been too quick to make so many of his main characters arch and unlikable: one gives his date gonorrhea and herpes on the first date and isn’t the least remorseful, another breaks up with all the women he’s sleeping with and cheating on by telling them he’s realized he’s actually gay when he isn’t. The emphasis on sharp putdowns of friends is very off-putting, especially in Kate Beckinsale’s Charlotte who, in the real world, wouldn’t have a friend to call her own after being subjected to her verbally diarrheic tongue-lashings about their faults. The writer-director may find it chic to insert demeaning quips about Harvard types, ad guys, yuppies, the Woodstock generation, tall people, but, really, just who does this crowd feel is worthy of their time and friendship? (Case in point: an extended bit denigrating Disney’s Lady and the Tramp is quite witty even in its haughty outrageousness and supercilious superiority.) All of the scenes in the disco are a tonic with the spirited soundtrack offering up an exciting medley of early 80s era disco hits. Keep an eye on what’s going on in the background and on the sides of the scenes with the principals because the background players sometimes constitute a more outrageous and likely more interesting cross-section of character types who might have made a more entertaining focus group than the uptight, smug snobs the film is attending. The drug scene rampant in the disco clubs of the era is only barely touched on during the movie (all of the main characters prefer booze to drugs), so that aspect of the era seems a bit lacking here.
Kate Beckinsale’s American accent is spot-on, but her character is such a mean-natured, shallow bitch that being around her for an extended period is a turn-off despite her expert characterization. Against such a titanic force, poor Chloë Sevigny seems a bit colorless and somewhat ineffectual as her friend Alice who inevitably becomes the focus of pursuit for several of the men in the cast. Chris Eigeman is the jerk who “turns gay” when he wants to break up with a woman, a down-to-earth portrayal of a genuine creep and a performance that is much superior to his earlier work with Stillman in his first film Metropolitan. Mackenzie Astin as the ad man desperately trying to stay on the good side of the club owners so he can bring clients there does a very smooth, very apt job and is probably the most appealing of the main characters. Matt Keeslar as an up-and-coming lawyer manages to retain the remaining audience sympathy that is available for the major cast members. In smaller roles, Michael Weatherly, Matthew Ross, and David Thornton neatly etch their characters into one’s memories, but to say more would spoil surprises built into the film’s plot.
The film has been framed at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. This is a very impressive, reference-quality transfer with color saturation levels and sharpness exemplary and flesh tones as realistic and appealing as can be. Contrast has been perfectly dialed in whether it be inside the darkened club or outside during either day or night scenes. Black levels are excellent. The film has been divided into 27 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix is impressive with the steady parade of disco hits pumping through the entire soundstage and sounding stupendous and a steady throb of bass emanating from the subwoofer. Dialogue is well recorded and is usually easily understandable though there is occasional loss due to the volume of the music. (Of course, in a real club of that era, it wouldn’t have been possible to hear what anyone was saying.) The surround channels get somewhat cheated with a lack of ambient sounds of New York City away from the club.
An audio commentary features writer-director Whit Stillman and co-stars Chloë Sevigny and Chris Eigeman. Stillman does most of the talking though the others chime in with comments or to ask Stillman questions about the production. It’s a nice adjunct to the film itself.
Apart from the trailer, all of the bonus features are presented in 1080i.
There are four deleted scenes which can be viewed separately or together in one 8 ¼-minute grouping. The viewer can also turn on a commentary track for each scene featuring the same three participants as in the film’s audio commentary.
Writer-director Whit Stillman reads the epilogue from his book The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards which deals with the character of Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) after the film’s action concludes. This runs for 17 ¼ minutes.
An EPK featurette of The Last Days of Disco featuring the director and stars talking about the movie runs 5 ¾ minutes.
A stills section with loving captions for each photograph written by writer-director Whit Stillman can be stepped through by the viewer.
The original theatrical trailer in runs for 2 ¼ minutes and is in 1080p.
The enclosed pamphlet contains cast and crew lists and a critique of the film by novelist David Schickler.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
3.5/5 (not an average)
The Last Days of Disco may not feature the greatest cast of characters, but the disco era is portrayed so richly and so well that the film is worth investigating and does indeed generate some good laughs despite some of its pretensions. The Blu-ray boasts reference quality video and very effective audio encodes making it a definite step up from the 2009 DVD release for fans of the movie.