May 2010

Youth in Revolt

It must be very conflicting to be Michael Cera. On the one hand, the guy has a pretty interesting career of appearing in a disproportionate number of critically acclaimed films and debuting in one of the most revered TV comedies of all time. On the other hand, his boyish appearance and virtuosity at playing acutely mild-mannered underdogs have put him in a typecast purgatory that, at best, might send him on a Ron Howard style trajectory straight from in front of the camera as everyone's favorite perpetual kid to forever behind it as a half-wasted talent who never overcame the constraints of audience demand. At the tender age of 22, Cera has literally never played a character who is older than 16, despite the fact that he's a very good actor with crack comic timing and more range than anyone with studio funds seems willing to acknowledge. To that end, I think the 2009 super indie comedy Youth in Revolt is a minor victory for Michael Cera, if a middling effort for everyone else.

Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog (1999)

Examining any piece of art (whatever that actually constitutes) requires the interpreter to ape some sort of perspective or stance. Looking at a film through the guise of Stanley Fish’s Reader-Response criticism allows a specific view to be revealed, but then could simultaneously leave a bevy of ideas unexplored if not immediately conjured in the critic’s mind. For that reason, as well as a few others, understanding Jim Jarmcusch’s Ghost Dog, a 1999 gangster/crime film, is a bit confusing.

The Grand Finale of the Shrek Franchise

Before I begin, I must admit that there are likely other Shrek-like films to come; I’ve heard about a possible Puss in Boots spinoff movie. That said, Shrek Forever After is the last of the Shrek series as we know it, and boy was is a (nearly) perfect ending to one of the most fun fairytales ever made.

When I first saw the previews to this movie, I was pretty bummed about it. The last two Shrek movies seemed to get progressively worse—less funny, less original plots, and generally more annoying. That alone made a fourth film seem like a bad idea. Then, when we heard that in the fourth movie Shrek would be whisked away from his family for an entirely different adventure—sans babies—I was pissed.

Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995)

Moving further and further in Jim Jarmusch’s career, the distinct periods in his life can pretty easily be seen. Over the director and writer’s first films, which spanned the eighties, there was a relatively calm feel to his work. Visually, each maintained at least some semblance of relation to his oeuvre, but more importantly, that decade allowed Jarmusch to explore and define themes he’d work with for the rest of his career.

Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth (1991)

Each of Jarmusch’s characters, during the early portion of his career at least, were endless rovers. The characters may each have had their own home, or a place to lay down for the evening, but viewers aren’t really given an in-depth glimpse of what those domestic moments are like. But he director and writer isn’t interested in what makes a person normal. Jarmusch is concerned with those little quirks that make us each individuals. And part of the is try to explain why each of us is traveling from one place to another.

Gotcha! 1985

The 1980's are a treasure trove of weird, innovative, ambitious and often misguided cinema. It was the decade that gave us James Bond fighting villains while skiing, a minor science fiction hit that starred an anthropomorphic duck and Val Kilmer defeating an evil scientist with popcorn and laser beams. By far one of my personal favorite oddities from the 80's is Jeff Kanew's 1985 college comedy cum spy thriller Gotcha! starring Anthony Edwards and Linda Fiorentino.

New Jack City (1991)

Understanding the intent of a film like New Jack City (1991) becomes difficult once the viewer realizes that Mario Van Peebles is the son of a man who wrote and directed Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song in 1971.

That earlier film, for some, marks the true emergence of a concerted black-centered film market: produced, written and directed by Mario’s pop, Melvin. But watching that film one gets the sense that it was half intended as serious drama, half as political discourse and half (yeah, that’s three halves) as a variation on the crime drama which some could date back to German Expressionist films from the thirties. Sweet Sweetback, in hindsight is ripe for parody – which was basically accomplished with I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka! around the same time that New Jack City was released. While it might be easy for some folks to place New Jack City in the blaxploitation genre – and maybe that’s where it belongs – looking at it as just another crime film works better.

Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train (1989)

1989’s Mystery Train isn’t Jim Jarmusch’s first foray into film which finds its setting somewhere that the director didn’t live for an extensive period of time – but it was the first time he shot a feature in color. And even if Memphis wasn’t a place that Jarmusch was familiar with as one of the town’s homegrown denizens, his relationship with the city is a part of the film.

In keeping with a motif that crops up again and again in Jarmusch’s work, the three seemingly disparate, but interrelated vignette’s boast characters that are all foreign to the city. Reaching beyond just foreigness within an American context, the principals in each of the film’s sections are from other countries – Japan, Italy and England respectively. Jarmusch here continues to insert a sense of endless wondering into his narrative.

The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant?

There are various ways by which to be entertained by films that aren’t really that good. Inebriation and jokes are perennial favorites, but once the booze and friends dry up, there’s gotta be another solution. Working to understand b-movie fair as art probably gets people through a few features. But after spotting some boom mics or off set paraphernalia at the edges of the frame, that outlook becomes difficult.

It’s not as common, but easily more fulfilling, though, to find some soon to be stars (or past ones for that matter) working in cut rate movies. And while there aren’t too many chances to glimpse the second Marilyn Munster outside of 1313 Mockingbird Lane, The Incredible 2 Headed Transplant is one of them.

Jim Jarmusch's Permanent Vacation (1980)

Educational institutions are supposed to expose students to a wealth of ideas not readily available elsewhere – well, maybe they’re available somewhere else, but it might just be esoteric stuff hidden from plain sight. Whatever the case, it seems that most folks who pursue education post bachelor’s degree are disappointed in some way. It might be a weirdo clutch of faculty members who aren’t quite together themselves – or it might be lackluster facilities, or even a lackluster cohort. Whatever the case, there’re endless famous filmmakers and otherwise relatively respected folks who ditched their educational goals to go it alone.

Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise (1984)

The most important thing about Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise really has nothing to do with the litany of “Thank Yous” that come after the proper credits at the film’s end. It’s really interesting to take in, though. Jarmusch was a part of the generation of filmmakers just after Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda figured out how to make quality movies on the cheap. Of course Fonda’s familial pull didn’t hurt. But Easy Rider and all of the New York films with Italian guys in ‘em revolutionized what movies did and how each went about accomplishing it all.

FCC OK's Direct Streaming of First-Run Movies

Recently, the FCC gave the green light to the Motion Picture Association of America's plan to create a system that will allow movie studios to stream newly released films directly to viewer televisions at the same time those films are in theaters. This development has raised a number of concerns from people on both sides of the movie business. Will direct streaming discourage film piracy or will it make pirating films easier? Will the ability to cheaply, legally watch new movies at home irreparably damage the theater business? How will this change what kinds of movies are made and released?

The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man (2009)

The Coen Brothers occupy a difficult position in American culture. The pair’s been responsible for a few of the most thoughtful and artfully rendered filmic work over the last twenty years. Simultaneously, though, they’ve also worked up fair like The Big Lebowski, which can’t be said to be anything other than a spectacular comedy. But after finding such a wide audience, the duo has endeavored to craft a few pictures that seem much darker and personal in nature.

Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout (1971)

There are huge problems when attempting to make what amounts to an art film while working to sell it to the general public. Getting into even more difficult territory, a British filmmaker, attempting to make an Australian film for Australians, but rendering it all in obtuse terms, couldn’t have ended in some financial success. That wasn't Nicholas Roeg’s objective. He wasn’t concerned with crafting a money maker, although, surely, he wouldn’t have shied away from a fat paycheck. But everything that goes into setting up a production like this – foreigners commenting on a country, basing the film on an outlined script and improvising huge portions of the action – should seem odd, even for the early seventies.

Teaching Jazz with Ken Burns

I apparently watch Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz once every ten years. For whatever reason, it seems that I also take classes on the history of the genre at roughly the same interval. Despite that, though, my two experiences in classroom settings, getting earfuls of individual’s takes on the development of the music and the country we live in, it seems as if the film has supplanted any semblance of text sets.

First entering academia at the tail end of the ‘90s, I was primed to hear as much music via this new fangled thing called the internet as possible. It resulted in hours of jazz being streamed through some pretty dinky computer speakers. Either way, what resulted was a supreme interest in what seemed like the most well articulated expression of the American experience as musicians could muster.

David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross

I’ve not lived in Chicago for too long, but it’s pretty easy to figure out what neighborhoods one shouldn’t be walking around in late at night. Represented in film, though, the city takes on a drastically different reality – there’re still more places to roam around and not worry about anything apart from exorbitant price tags than places to stay away from. Either way, in countless movies, the Second City finds itself transformed into a sort of perpetually wet, dreary and crime ridden place. Sure, the neighborhood I live in had something like fifty eight murders over the span of just about a month. But you know what, I’ve never been hassled.