Film Review: Kicking and Screaming


Film Review: Kicking and Screaming
Directed by Noah Baumbach
96 min Feature Film, 1995

Here’s a joke: How do you make God laugh? Make a plan. ~ Chet 

If Rick Linklater’s Dazed and Confused is the pinnacle exercise in ‘good-old-days,’ high school nostalgia, Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming lies at the opposite end of the spectrum. 

Baumbach’s debut film hits at the heart of the grand ‘what now?’ conundrum that undergrads awaken to upon graduation. In addition the film deals with some of the shallowest people–archetypes of the liberal arts, Gen-X crowd of no-it-alls–and manages to make them surprisingly endearing and relatable in their naiveness towards life. Whereas Linklater’s immortal classic invokes a longing for the days of sex, drugs and rock and roll, Kicking and Screaming is set during the unsure time many people would rather forget.  

Set in the mid nineties when long parted hair, corduroys and plaid shirts we’re the essentials of any pre-hipster era twenty-somethings, the film revolves around a handful of recently departed academics. There’s the hip English/Creative Writing major Grover (Josh Hamilton), the surly philosophy scholar Max (Chris Eigemen), and the immature, highly neurotic movie buff Otis (Carlos Jacott). Playing the Dazed role of elder Wooderson is Chet (the wonderful Eric Stoltz), a nonchalant intellectual pushing 30 who is blissful as a tenth-plus year senior. 

Opening at a the kind of posh graduation cocktail party well-suited for the stereotypical privileged Ivy Leaguer, the gang sit sipping their drinks contemplating the next step. Grover’s equally witted girlfriend Jane (Olivia d’Abo) is off to Prague for a year, leaving the film’s protagonist bitter and alone. Otis is scheduled to start Engineering school in Milwaukee but chooses to defer the acceptance to stay with his friends and work at a video store. Max finds it necessary to analyze and rip apart the gang’s monotonous conversation pieces while ripping through the daily crossword like a paycheck depends on it. 

Released in the wake of the Pulp Fiction casual dialogue craze, and amidst the rise of the Seinfeld sitcom, the characters in Screaming drone on about film trivia, pointless ‘what if’ scenarios and casual observations of the incoming freshmen of the opposite sex. The screenplay at first comes off as a bit too polished for its so-called casual dialogue but as the film progresses the characters quickly become parodies of the hipster culture. On a number of occasions auxiliary characters even go as far as to say to the group, “you know, you all talk the same.” In one scene when Grover scoffs to his father (a memorable cameo by Elliot Gould) that he never got into “the whole coffeehouse scene,” it’s evident he’s lying. 

The mindless banter of Kicking and Screaming is postmodern but in the most unpretentious sort of manner because Baumbach realizes how naïve and hypocritical his characters are. While they verbally dissect those around them and maintain an elitist attitude towards their individual predicaments–that is, not knowing what the hell to do with their newly appointed degrees–they realize they need each other more than they would like to admit.

The level of comedic uncomfortableness that arises in Kicking and Screaming, particularly with Max, who strives to be smarter than everyone else in the room, is a theme that would carry on to Baumbach’s 2005 film, The Squid and the Whale (see the Jesse Eisenberg character’s casual plagiarism of a Pink Floyd song and his father’s (a serpent-like Jeff Daniels) argument for its artistic merit). Academics, who are completely in love with themselves but ultimately are clueless to life’s master plan, seem to be the archetypes of Baumbach’s work.

As the film comes to a close few characters come away on top, although a number of loose ends are tied and a certain monologue at an airport leaves Grover with some hope for reaching enlightenment. Meanwhile Chet’s barside argument for his lifestyle choices may be the finest explanation for why some people ignore the career driven life in lieu of casual bliss. Overall the film closes on a somber, albeit true to life note. 

The Squid and the Whale, an overly bleak portrayal about the consequences of divorce, quickly established Baumbach as a filmmaker to keep an eye on, however, Kicking and Screaming is his understated masterpiece. Cinematically the film is a mix of low-budget camerawork and effective flashbacks that are so uniquely stunning it’s a shame the technique of freeze frame to live action isn’t utilized more often. And the film’s various locales–from grunge music clubs, townie bars, tight dorm rooms and the stale dark wood interiors of off campus houses–create the perfect mise en scéne for any college backdrop.

For viewers currently suffering the unsure limbo of life out of college the film is a refreshing eye-opener to the ubiquitous dilemma. For the older/wiser viewer the story may recall–with a grin and a chuckle–the immature, naïve years that most go through and how these experiences often necessitate the maturation process. In Baumbach’s eyes we’ve all kicked and screamed our way through life’s obstacles at some point.

Advertisements

The Art Behind Art House Films


For film fanatics The Criterion Collection remains one of the few bastions for the preservation of essential films spanning the globe. Besides being the to go-to place for hard to find releases Criterion is also the premiere leader in film restoration, remarkably in-depth DVD audio commentaries, critical essays and countless other features that actually enhance the overall cinematic experience. Many believe that a trip to the library and a viewing devotion to Criterion’s growing collection makes going to film school seem futile.


While presenting each film at its absolute pinnacle edition is Criterion’s true raison d’être, the collection also serves as a haven for some of the most beautiful DVD packaging art around. From revivals of old and often rare film posters and prints to original layouts from up-and-coming artists and graphic designers, Criterion continues to beg its loyal following to judge the book by its cover.

An entire column could be devoted to praising the countless classics–everything from standards to forgotten gems and everything in between–being released annually through Criterion. For devout film aficionados Criterion is a proverbial name. The company’s token logo, ordered spine numbering system, and expensive price tags make the discs a collector’s Holy Grail–DVD fiends pine over particularly rare or out-of-print discs the way literary buffs seek out that pristine first edition to complete their library. From the filmmaking standpoint, a coveted release amidst the cinematic giants–Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Renoir, Ozu, Godard, Buñuel, Hitchcock, Truffaut, Powell & Pressburger, to name a few–generally means an artistic career high.

Running at around $30 per disc, with special box sets running as high as $650 (for a 50 film/disc art house film retrospective collection), Criterion discs are pricy but the general rule of thumb is you pay for the quality, this includes packaging designed with love and care.

Unlike most DVDs, which provide poster art, film stills or the occasional inspired 
“Special Edition” cover for their packaging, Criterion generally goes a step further by designing carefully thought out images to pair up with the film’s content. Sometimes this means taking a preexisting piece of artwork from the film’s past and doctoring it up, other times it calls for a re-imagining of the film’s central themes or characters to be displayed front and center.

ImageTake for example the beautifully crafted cover of Fellini’s Amarcord, one of Criterion’s first releases (spine #4), which was reissued in a two-disc collector’s edition in 2006. A terribly gifted artist named Caitlin Kuhwald was commissioned to paint what eventually became a mini four-panel mural depicting four scenes from the film in a vibrant, jump off the canvas array of colors that is as much a wink and a nod to the golden age of Technicolor film processing, as it is visually stunning. The artwork is not only showcased on the cover but also spans into the DVD inserts. Kuhwald continues to return to Criterion most recently with their release of the beloved, magical children’s classic The Thief of Baghdad.

For Criterion’s massive DVD release of Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the art direction team turned to none other than longtime Thompson collaborator and surreal ink blot illustrator Ralph Steadman. The grotesque drawing of Duke and Dr. Gonzo racing through the desert with looming bats overhead and a dark, art deco “Emerald City”esque fortress in the background is the perfect center piece for the film and story’s equally loony content. The company has also gone to great lengths to give Gilliam’s Time Bandits and Brazil a proper release, with the latter’s box-set packaging also serving as the rare example of a literal “box” set.

ImageSometimes Criterion goes the minimalist route featuring a simple film still or photograph behind carefully chosen typeface. The packaging for the five-disc release of Ingmar Bergman’s epic masterpiece Fanny and Alexander features nothing more than a series of slightly grainy photographs of the film’s protagonists. The images portray the children as young, innocent, and naïve to their true bourgeois surroundings, perfectly respecting Bergman’s cinematic intentions for the film and subsequent television mini-series.

The cleverly layout for Nicholas Roeg’s sci-fi cult classic, The Man Who Fell to Earth, simply presents an orange haired, possibly inebriated David Bowie (the film’s alien star) in front of a pitch black background. The film’s title, placed over Bowie’s face, is in a typographical descent:
 

Image

Simple but effective, the packaging for Earth is as bleak and dark as the film itself.

ImageFinally Criterion continues to be the exclusive home of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa’s wide-ranging catalogue, with each release and re-release receiving the royal artistic treatment. From Throne of Blood’s black, white and red cartoon of Tohiro Mifune as a pseudo Macbeth, the simple splatter paint and Japanese character inspired cover for the equally vibrantly colored film Ran, the more modern, metropolis driven front for the Bad Sleep Well (the towering white, art deco office building with a single red X on one window is another clever tie into the film, which tells the tale of revenge set inside the corporate world), to the fabulously blurred shot of the central home in Rashomon, an allegory to the blurred reality of the story being told and retold in the film (think Usual Suspects), Criterion continues to pay its respects to this filmmaking legend.

A new Criterion release is an event all in itself. Discovering what buried treasure of a film they’ll take on next is always a delightful moment for film buffs. What they choose to display on the cover is also part of the fun. Not only does this method give up and coming artists and graphic designers a chance to showcase their talent but it opens up a new level of creativity to an old classic. Often times the art is the sole catalyst for checking out a new and unfamiliar title.

Up next for Criterion is the company’s first foray into the High Definition arena with four Blue-Ray releases, including Bottle Rocket, which completes its devotion to the films of Wes Anderson and yet another re-release of The Third Man, which features arguably one of the most beautifully dark, and menacing packaging art design in Criterion’s catalogue. Criterionco.com lists all of the company’s current titles as well as its back stock of Laserdiscs, which served as a starting point for the extras now common on DVDs. There are also a number of Criterion “completist” blogs of buff working their way through every disc in the collection, for example criterioncollection.blogspot.com and criterionconfessions.com.