Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Lost classics

Crunk and I had a short discussion in the comments about Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming, an early movie by the director of The Squid and the Whale that should not be confused with the Will Ferrell soccer comedy. This 1996 movie about a group of recent college grads who can't get over their graduation or each other is one of my staples -- a little uneven, but it nails a moment.

I've never heard anyone talk about Kicking and Screaming. There are at least three other movies I love that never managed to find a place. Get on NetFlix or set the DVR.

1. True Stories. Has anyone ever heard of this movie, much less seen it? This 1986 Talking Heads movie is criminally underappreciated .

Talking Heads frontman David Byrne directs and stars in a mockumentary celebrating the 150th anniversary of Virgil, Texas, a town that thrives after the birth of the computer chip. This isn't a satire like the Christopher Guest movies (Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman) -- more of a deadpan comedy that doubles as a rock movie. It's a series of elaborate comic set pieces about small towns, romance and technology. Radiohead named itself after a song in the soundtrack.

One sequence halfway through features the late great Spalding Gray in an extended monologue about how computers are changing everything. It predated the tech boom by more than a decade, but was prescient in mocking all the pretensions that came with it. Other great sequences include a conspiracy theorist minister whose sermon segues into a wacked-out Talking Heads gospel song, the greatest fashion show in the history of movies, and a voodoo priest (played by Pops Staples) helping a pre-Roseanne John Goodman win over a bed-ridden heiress.

I'm making this sound too much like just another self-consciously quirky small-town comedy. No way. There's something about the music and photography that makes it unique. I'd like to say that it's about how technology upends people, except that the movie is so effin' fun I don't want to overthink it. It's what MTV might have become if it'd had the balls to be great. Turn it up and don't take your eyes off it.

Roger Ebert's enthusiastic review struggled to describe the movie, but sums it up best:
It's a bold attempt to paint a bizarre American landscape. This movie does what some painters try to do: It recasts ordinary images into strange new shapes. There is hardly a moment in True Stories that doesn't seem everyday to anyone who has grown up in Middle America, and not a moment that doesn't seem haunted with secrets, evasions, loneliness, depravity or hidden joy - sometimes all at once. This is almost like a science-fiction movie: Everyone on screen looks so normal and behaves so oddly, they could be pod people.
2. Fearless. This 1993 movie directed by Peter Weir (of Dead Poet's Society and Mosquito Coast) has some of the all-time great character actors in best form: Jeff Bridges, Rosie Perez, John Turturro, Isabella Rossillini, Tom Hulce, and a pre-famous (and chunky) Benicio Del Toro. It's the story of what happens to Bridges's character in the weeks after he survives a plane crash in California and leads other passengers into safety.

It's about a yuppie whose life is changed, but not in any easy, cheesy way. He become literally fearless, convinced of his invincibility, alternately thrilled and terrified by what he thinks of his new power.

In showing a guy seeing everything new for the first time, the movie is completely persuasive. He sees the petty worries that paralyze normal people, and they seem trivial to you, too. It's a scream against being bored and worried.

3. Dangerous Liaisons. A movie about humping and getting humped in order to get revenge on people you don't like, which should never be confused with a Jane Austen costume drama.

There's too much in this movie to love: Glenn Close, playing an evil, feminist nymphomaniac; John Malkovich in his first star turn; Uma Thurman and Michelle Pfeiffer at maximum hotness; and a hilariously miscast Keanu Reeves as an opera fan. Close and Malkovich work out a scheme for Malkovich to seduce Thurman to get revenge against their old flames. As an aristocratic gigolo, Malkovich wants to seduce Pfeiffer only for the triumph of wrecking a virtuous woman.

It's funnier and more watchable than its retarded rip-off Cruel Intentions. The movie makes amorality entertaining, and when it turns serious toward the end, the shift in mood works.

I watched it a lot when I was thirteen or fourteen. My parents probably thought I was being weird for watching a costume drama so much, not realizing that it was a subversive story about sex and Uma Thurman's boobs.


Flop said...

Fucking Netflix never had it while I was a member. Still haven't seen it.

Jeff said...

I've heard a lot of talk (all positive) about Kicking and Screaming now that it's getting a DVD release. Squid and the Whale was my favorite movie of last year, so I'm definitely gonna' check out his first film.

And I'll throw down anyday for Dangerous Liaisons. it's one of my favorite movies actually. i wrote a paper on it in college for a French film history class. Uma Thurman in that movie is one of the most unbelievalble looking actresses in any film.

CrimeNotes said...

Kicking and Screaming is very sentimental and not nearly as harsh (or funny) as The Squid and the Whale. (I guess you could have predicted that it was also my favorite movie of last year.) But it's completely earnest and honest and likeable, really disarming. I had a friend who graduated a year ahead of me and we used to sit around and watch it all the time. Criterion Collection is releasing it on DVD later this summer, and I also caught it on IFC or Sundance recently.

In the interim,I highly recommend tracking down a copy of True Stories.