IndieDVD // Unrated // $19.98 // August 19, 2003
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted August 16, 2003
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The swing revival is done and over with leaving a lot of cherry poppin' daddies with no place to shake their two-tone shoes. Director Brian Johnson's film Pop was filmed in 1997 and released in 1999 but it's only hitting DVD now. Still, this swanky throwback to the slickster era has enough pep and goofy charm to outlive its moment of cultural relevancy.

Billed as a cross between The X-Files and Scooby Doo, Pop tells the story of Nora (Elisa Donovan of the Clueless and Sabrina the Teenage Witch TV series) and Nick (Peter Paige from Queer as Folk), co-workers at the Oppenheimer labs. This light-hearted pair of physicists find themselves caught up in a plot cooked up by various shadowy government agencies to find their co-worker Hugo, who seems to have stolen something called the Fat Boy Numeral. There is a lot of running around (mostly in a slap-stick style) and eventually Hugo is located, shacking up with an unusual new girlfriend named Five.

The thing that makes Pop stand out is that nearly everyone in it seems to have internalized the rhythms and feel of some weird swingin' alternate universe. They speak in groovy slang and wear styling outfits but there's a feel and sensibility to the way they carry themselves as well. The two leads in particular are really effective. Paige is snappy and sarcastic, approaching nearly every situation, no matter how absurd, with a "seen it all" attitude. He really gets to show off his witty side here. Between this role and his role on Queer as Folk this guy has the sharp-tongued sass-mouthed hipster all wrapped up.

Donovan is just as good. She was perfectly cruel in Clueless but here she gets to show off a much sweeter side, matching Paige for wit but also adding a soft feminine touch. There's something really fetching about her performance. Like her co-star she spends nearly the entire film with a big smile plastered on her face - something that helps define their too-cool characters - but it never comes off as fake. She's sexy and silly and fun.

The film itself is filled with pop-culture references. (The names of the characters are a reference to Nick and Nora, the witty and urbane sleuthing couple in a terrific series of films from the 1930's and 1940's.) They don't always fly and sometimes the script is not quite as clever as it thinks and it leaves the actors flailing (but only for a moment; they always recover.) But there's still that snappy energy that allows an actor to stop mid-pursuit and say "I can't run anymore! Can't we just have a car chase?" and not come off as trying too hard.

The film's look is an attempt at creating a groovy style on a low budget. The costumes are swing flavored without being showy or overdone. The locations are obviously modern (It's Portland, Oregon) but dressed up in subtle ways or shot from bizarre angles to accentuate the retro feel of the film. The outcome is that the movie takes place outside of time. It is clearly set today (email is mentioned) but the characters are living in some retro netherworld. Also worth pointing out is the beautiful Saul Bass-style opening credit sequence.

One other element that really helps the film set its tone is D Guy Baker's terrific score. The loungey space-age music has a real light touch, using different styles all the time: jazzy here, sci-fi there, but always blending extremely well. For such a low-budget production this is one musical score that really stands out.

Unfortunately for such a visual film the print and transfer for Pop are below par. The print is damaged at times and has a washed out, gritty texture. The transfer seems taken from an old video and shows occasional drop-outs and the gumminess of VHS. There's no doubt that the low-budget of the film has an effect on the look but some of these problems come from not taking care with the print handling, the film-to-video transfer and the DVD compression. It is non-anamorphic widescreen.

The Dolby Digital audio, like the video, is not very fancy. The excellent score sounds good and dynamic but voices are flat and uninvolving. At times they're a bit murky.

The disc includes "Cocktail Party Commentary" with the director, producer and production designer. They're fun to listen to, discuss a lot of what it took to make the film but clearly don't take themselves too seriously.

Another form of commentary (and probably the coolest extra feature) is the "Pop-Omatic" Pop Culture guide, which slides into the frame whenever a pop culture reference is made (which is virtually non-stop) and explains it. A really fun addition that elevates the disc's features quite a bit.

The disc includes a piece called Making Pop which is really a series of stills narrated by the filmmakers. It's a nice look at some of the ephemera of filmmaking since there are Polaroids, snapshots, photocopies and poster designs, as well as a short video the filmmakers made of the Eugene premiere to help promote the picture. . Not a traditional behind the scenes piece but pretty good.

Also included is an interview with the creator of the film's music, Guy Baker. Not necessarily the most lively guy ever interviewed on camera but his contribution is a major one to the film and it makes sense to single him out. It also includes some brief footage of him in his bedroom recording studio. In fact he reveals that the score was composed almost entirely in computer programs, which is pretty incredible considering how lively and organic it feels.

A trailer is also included.

Not perfect, Pop has some very fun elements. Most of the cast is excellent, as is Baker's score. The story is light and fun. It's too bad that the film couldn't have the crisp, colorful look the filmmakers probably envisioned but overall the presentation is fine. It's perfect for anyone who considers themselves clever and urbane and wants to check out similar folks. You'll wish you could hang out with this Nick and Nora, sip a martini and join the snarky fun.

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