August 2009

Quentin Tarantino: A Basterd All His Own

Fronting for an international cast, Quentin Tarantino has gone and upped the ante in his career long chase of Sergio Leone and whatever a perfect revenge film might be. A quick look back at Tarantino’s earlier work finds many of the same concepts being hashed out in various scenarios all the way from Reservoir Dogs to Kill Bill (choose one). The consistent ability of the director to revitilize these similar tropes in each one of his works is either a testament to his tunnel vision, or maybe just his vision. Viewers haven’t been given a Hamlet as of yet, but we’re getting close.

The New Feel-Good (“Chick Flick”) Movies

When I was sick or depressed throughout high school and college, I used to turn to Meg Ryan. No matter what I was feeling, Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally and especially You’ve Got Mail with a side of hot chocolate or popcorn always made me feel better.

But these days, I like my romance a little less traditional and a whole lot more funny (though you really can’t get much funnier than When Harry Met Sally, can you?), with more humor than drama. Maybe it’s because, as an adult, I’ve got enough drama on my hands to deal with without squirming over whether or not Tom will meet Meg at the top of the Empire State Building. Though I still love my old favorites, here are the newest feel-good “chick flicks” (I hate that term, but that’s pretty much what they are) that I think are great depressed/sick/etc. cure-alls.

Heathers: It's Not Funny, Accidently

When I was a kid, I really liked Kuffs. And while there are myriad reasons why – including the fact that the bad guy in that film wore a shirt with a distorted picture of his own visage – Christian Slater was defined for me in that performance. His nasally, almost Jack Nicholson like speech and almost impressive acting chops were on full display. All of that, however, was three years after he and Winona Rider starred in a weirdo comedy centered on the killing of some horrendous classmates. And while I’d probably be able to watch Rider read a menu for an hour and a half, I was pretty distracted by the end of Heathers.

ZAZ: The Naked Gun 2 1/2 (1991)

Returning three years on after the first installment of The Naked Gun series, Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker seem to be in a similar state of rambunctious flailing. Penned by both David Zucker and hired gun Pat Proft, The Smell of Fear is a seamless continuation from not just that last movie, but the ridiculous show that preceded the filmic versions of these characters. What does seem to be different – which could perhaps be attributed to the fact that there was some outside influence from a writer – is how densely the jokes crop up. It might be more noticeable in the early portions of the film, but each part of the frame is utilized for laughs, the background occasionally being where the craziest action is taking place.

New Classics: Johnny Dangerously

In between mainstream hits and cult favorites, there's a narrow category of movies that didn't get a lot of love when they first screened but gradually became a part of the pop cultural canon for a respectably wide audience. Amy Heckerling's 1984 comedy Johnny Dangerously is such a movie. While it can't really be called a flop in the proper sense, it didn't exactly set the world on fire when it first hit theaters. Only though continued exposure on cable TV and reliable availability on home video did Johnny Dangerously get the viewership it deserved.

Review: Phoebe in Wonderland

I just finished watching this wonderful movie and the thought that immediately popped into my head as the credits began was, “Elle is every bit as talented as Dakota.” And while Elle Fanning’s features, and particularly her voice, do echo her sister’s in many ways, I do think that she portrayed her own distinctive style and a darkness that Dakota, even in some of her more adult-themed roles, did not exhibit at that age. Of course, I’m sure she’s had some tips from her big sister, as well.

Rolling Thunder: Grit in Tact

During the ‘70s American film and television underwent a bizarre shift forward. Instead of being an astute reflection of passing values as it had been – Leave it to Beaver, Singing in the Rain et all – directors, writers and actors attempted to adroitly portray issues that were currently at the fore of American thought. Not every film was a political polemic and some just used the era as a frame for some more obtuse narrative arc. But no matter the use, the era was primed for exploitation. While Rolling Thunder has yet to be released as a DVD feature, its renown has been forever cemented by not the just the film itself, but by Quentin Tarantino’s use of the movie’s name for his short lived distribution project – Rolling Thunder Pictures.

Abar, the First Black Superman or How to Make a Low Budget Film

Frank Packard is responsible for unloosing the screed of politics and race relations that a few scant fans might be familiar with in the form of Abar, the First Black Superman. Coming towards the end of blaxploitation’s viability in even the smallest of theaters, this 1977 film possesses everything that a movie of the genre should have. There’s a well to do black dude, a pseudo superhero and a slew of evil, demented white folks kicking around. Beyond the traditional tropes associated with this sort of film, there’s even a bit of scientific tomfoolery to be had as well.

Review: District 9

As a critic and as a viewer, I can appreciate that different genres of film have different obligations to the audience, so it's really not fair to judge all genres on the same metric. For the price of my ticket, as long as the movie about aliens has good visual effects, sustained tension and a script that doesn't rely on snarky one-liners, I'm satisfied. So, when a movie like District 9 comes along that manages to do that plus a really compelling story and just the right amount of social commentary, I'm thrilled.

New Classics: Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Because the New Classics column is mostly concerned with movies of the 80's, certain names are going to come up more than once. Two of those names are associated with today's entry, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. What may be the best high school movie ever made, Fast Times (title truncated for brevity and not to be confused with the horrible attempted TV adaption of the same name) had a couple of powerhouses behind it, at least powerhouses in the world of movies about high school. Written by a 25-year-old Cameron Crowe and directed by underrated comedic talent Amy Heckerling, this film has remained relevant long after its target audience grew up, got jobs and became decidedly square.

ZAZ: The Naked Gun (1988)

First off, Leslie Nielsen’s dad was a Canadian Mountie. How incredible and bizarre is that? Pretty bizarre is the answer that I was looking for. During his career, though, Nielsen’s kinda done it all. From being stranded on some alien planet with a robot by his side to fighting crime with Police Squad, the man’s appeared in an endless succession of films and television shows since the fifties. And at the tender age of eighty three, he’s still appearing in new projects. Incredible. But closest to my heart out of all the work that Nielsen’s been involved with are the Naked Gun movies.

A David Lynch Primer

Some directors have such a distinct authorial voice that their work inhabits its own category. They can be shoehorned into a given set of genres and tentatively targeted at certain audiences, but in the end they're just dipping proverbial toes into those taxons. Such is the case with the work of David Lynch, an American director and screenwriter whose approach to filmmaking is so unlike anyone else's that his films can only truly be described as "David Lynch movies". Mixing nightmarish surrealism with highly figurative storytelling and an obvious love of Old Hollywood, Lynch is not a director for neophytes. A lot of viewers get turned off by the overt weirdness of his more recent projects or the sheer abrasiveness of his early student work, so there's definitely a right and a wrong way to dive into Lynch's supremely unusual canon. Here's a handy guide for the intrigued.

New Classics: The Big Chill

As years roll on, film buffs identify those movies of the past that have retained enough charm to be considered classics. But what actually makes a film worthy of that illustrious canon? With more movies being produced every year in a studio system that favors quick returns over artistic merit, the gems get buried a little more each season. It's now up to current movie lovers to find those films that have been around just long enough to escape the zeitgeist of when they were made and decide whether or not they're true classics. My criteria for The New Classics are simple: A nominated film has to have been made between 1979 and 1989, and it must also have achieved notoriety in its time. I have my own list, but feel free to nominate films in our comments section for future entries.

G-Rated Movies That Deserve Their Rating

There aren’t many animated family films that I don’t like. Our house is filled with Pixar fans, and if it’s a Dreamworks cartoon or even associated with Nickelodeon in any way, you can bet we’ll watch it. But I never realized just how violent, scary, or inappropriate many so-called kids’ films are until I had a child of my own. Suddenly, I’m now seeing so much un-G-rated stuff in G-movies that I’m shocking myself.

Take Ratatouille, for example. We adore this movie—but it’s got two scenes with guns in it! Surely parents should be worrying less about the amount of swearing or nudity in a film when firearms are in it? I’d much rather see a buttock or hear “Damn!” (as you will hear in films such as The Last Unicorn or The Secret of Nimh, by the way) than see guns going off in a children’s movie.