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Rediscovering Jim Jarmusch

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Perhaps it’s no surprise that Jim Jarmusch’s latest movie, Only Lovers Left Alive, is about vampires. With his shock of white hair and all-black wardrobe, he’s a bit of a vampire himself, not seeming to have aged a day in the 30 years since his breakout feature, the deadpan black-and-white comedy Stranger Than Paradise. But he has grown as an artist, as I can testify having attended several screenings in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s complete Jarmusch retrospective, Permanent Vacation, named after his 1980 debut, a fascinatingly primitive and nearly formless depiction of life in the downtown New York art scene before Manhattan began its transformation into the world’s biggest shopping mall.

In order to find an equally scary and uncivilized place, Jarmusch travelled to Detroit to film much of Only Lovers Left Alive, which can only be described as an undeadpan comedy. Convincingly debauched Brits Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as Adam and Eve — yes, that Adam and Eve — vampires who’ve kept their love (and themselves) alive for all these years by feasting on blood provided by such sources as 16th century playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (John Hurt), who takes some hilariously pointed shots at his contemporary, Shakespeare, and a research-lab worker known only as Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright, who steals both of his scenes).

Adam is a reclusive musical genius haunted by “zombies,” his derisive term for brainless human beings who won’t leave him alone (Los Angeles is termed “zombie central”). Jarmusch’s films have always been fueled by music — and the Film Society of Lincoln Center series smartly paired each of his films with a music video he directed for such artists as Talking Heads and Tom Waits — and Only Lovers Left Alive is no exception. Just as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put A Spell On You” perfectly set the mood for Stranger Than Paradise, tracks by Wanda Jackson, Charlie Feathers and Jarmusch’s own band, SQÜRL help maintain the spooky mood. Among the film’s hilarious throwaway jokes, Jack White (who recruited Jarmusch to direct the video for his band the Raconteurs’ “Steady As She Goes”), is implied to be a vampire as Adam and Eve pass his childhood home in one of their after-dark drives around the Motor City. Eve declines the opportunity to visit the Motown Museum, however, explaining, “I’m more of a Stax girl.” (She’s a vamp after my own heart.)

the_limits_of_control10In Swinton, Jarmusch has found an ideal muse: She also appeared, again with white blonde hair, in his underrated 2009 anti-thriller The Limits of Control, as did Bill Murray, a frequent Jarmusch crony, who delivers a chilling turn as a Dick Cheney-esque pol. It’s no coincidence that Swinton and Murray as are also kindred spirits with Wes Anderson. Jarmusch and the Grand Budapest Hotel auteur share a passion for carefully composed shots and bone-dry humor. (The Limits of Control is also notable for the appearance of Boardwalk Empire‘s frequently naked Paz de la Huerta, or as I call her, “Pants de la Where-ta?” since she’s bottomless through the entire film.)

Whether or not you enjoy Jarmusch’s films—and I’ve loved some (the martial-arts masterpiece Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai) more than others (the muddy dramedy Broken Flowers), you’ve got to give the guy credit for never selling out. Even when he does genre pieces, he subverts the conventions; witness the abstruse Western Dead Man, or Only Lovers Left Alive‘s final scene, which I won’t spoil. To invoke the title of one of his best films, he boarded the Mystery Train long ago, and he’s not about to hop off now.

 

 

Fading Gigolos, Naked Aliens & Captain America

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My apologies, Fretts on Film-goers: I’ve been so busy lately, I haven’t had time to post. But I have been going to movies, so here’s a catch-up. The most surprisingly enjoyable film I’ve seen in ages is Fading Gigolo. Based on his disappointing works as a writer-director (the semi-autobiographical dud Mac, the muddled musical Romance & Cigarettes), John Turturro didn’t seem capable of making a movie that would live up to such a terrific title. But by channeling the spirit of a costar who rarely appears in films he doesn’t write and direct, Turturro has made the best Woody Allen film Woody never made.

It’s good to see Woody back in the ‘hood—New York City, that is—after so many years of carpetbagging around Europe (London, Paris, Barcelona, Rome, etc.). Even Blue Jasmine was mostly set and shot in San Francisco. But he seems right at home in Fading Gigolo as a rare-bookstore owner who closes up shop and opens a new business pimping out his florist/plumber/electrician friend Fioravante (Turturro) around Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Turturro’s view of the City that Rarely, If Ever, Sleeps is slightly different than the Woodman’s. It’s more racially diverse (Woody’s character lives with an African-American woman, played by Tonya Pinkins, and her four adorable sons) and bops along to a funkier kind of jazz—including several tracks by R&B-influenced saxman Gene “Jug” Ammons—than Woody’s beloved Dixieland swing. But Fading Gigolo‘s unpredictable comic tone and amusingly bemused observations about Jewish cultue, including a subplot involving a rabbi’s widow (the pleasingly cast-against-type Vanessa Paradis) and a Hasidic neighborhood watch-man (Liev Schreiber, showing a similar flair for comedy as he did in Larry David’s underrated HBO flick Clear History), puts it right in Woody’s wheelhouse.

Say what you will about Woody’s personal life (and a passing incest reference resonates disturbingly), but as a filmmaker, he’s always had an appreciation for beautifully complicated women, and Turturro is a kindred spirit. As bi-curious babes of a certain age who recruit Fioravante for a menage a trois, Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara exude sex appeal to spare. But it’s the bromance between Turturro and Allen — the auteurs and their characters — that’s the most delightful aspect of Fading Gigolo.

One of Woody’s more recent muses—Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona vet Scarlett Johansson (we’ll skip Scoop)—gets a whole new kind of exposure with her double fantasy features Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Under the Skin. She slips comfortably back into her leather Avengers ensemble as Black Widow, achieving a teasingly flirtatious chemistry with Chris Evans’ all-American hero in the engagingly light-hearted sequel. New directors Anthony and Joe Russo enlist their Community pal Danny Pudi for a funny cameo as well as channeling the sitcom’s antic spirit. And Anthony Mackie, as high-flying sidekick the Falcon, is—as Pudi’s Abed would no doubt put it—cool, cool, cool.scarlett-johansson-600

As for Under the Skin, it’s beyond cool: It’s downright chilly. Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer casts ScarJo as a new type of sexy beast: an alien who seduces and destroys unwitting men as she drives around Scotland. (The locals speak with such thick brogues, this English-language movie could benefit from subtitles). Johansson doesn’t speak much but she frequently disrobes, and Glazer knows she’s a compelling enough camera subject to hold viewers’ interest without a lot of blah blah blah.

Under the Skin looks, sounds and feels like nothing I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure what the point is (or if there is one), but it’s certainly out of this world. The same can be said for Captain America and Fading Gigolo. And as we head into the cinematic silly season that is summer, that’s cause for celebration.

 

Fretts in Fast Company (and more)!

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I’ve been moving in Fast Company lately—and I’m not just talking about the stories I’ve written for The New York Times, New York Magazine‘s Vulture.com or the supercool UK website Digital Spy (not to mention my new job as Senior Articles Editor at Closer Weekly). I’m also now writing for Fast Companyand my first story — an interview with Julia Louis-Dreyfus about how she creates such unforgettable characters — has come out just in time for Veep‘s third-season premiere on HBO. Click here to read about what Julia’s learned from her days working on Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld, Enough Said and more. And keep an eye out for more of my stories in Fast Company, coming soon…

Fretts Zabka-tages New York’s Vulture!

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Sorry I haven’t had time to see any movies (muchless write about them!), but I’ve been busy with my fresh full-time job as Senior Articles Editor at Closer Weekly as well as a new real-life love interest and a booming freelance career. My latest gig: Writing for my favorite website, New York Magazine‘s Vulture.com. My first post is a Q&A with William “Billy” Zabka, best known for playing bullies in ’80s teen flicks like The Karate Kid, Just One of the Guys and Back to School. More recently, he’s poked fun at his image via guest-shots on the next-to-last episodes of Psych and How I Met Your Mother (call him the Penultimate Fighter!). Click here to read William’s—er, Billy’s—comments about why he’s starting a poetry career, why “Cobra Kai never die!” and why—unlike his ex-School mate Rodney Dangerfield—he doesn’t feel like he don’t get no respect. Sweep the leg, my peeps!

Fretts in The New York Times!

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My birthday present came one day late this year—but it was worth the wait. My first story for The New York Times just went live on their website! It’ll also appear in Sunday’s Arts & Leisure section, but if you can’t wait, you can read it here. It’s a roundup of standout character actors on TV, including Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Terry Crews, Justified‘s Joelle Carter and more. Check it out!

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Like Fretts on Film? Try Fretts on TV!

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If you enjoy my movie reviews, check out my new TV column, Remote Patrol: Keeping a Watch on TV, for the super-cool UK-based website, Digital Spy. My debut column, about Hannibal and Banshee and why Friday nights are alright for fighting, just went live. Here’s an appetizer…

“Conventional wisdom holds that American viewers crave the TV equivalent of comfort food on Fridays: safe, familiar fare like CBS’s Blue Bloods. The night’s highest-rated show features a family of law enforcers (perhaps not coincidentally named the Reagans) led by good old Tom Selleck and gathered around a table for a meat-and-potatoes feast every week.

It’s a show my 12-year-old daughter and my 81-year-old father can both enjoy, and after a long week of work, I often find myself jonesing for it as well. But recently, a pair of Friday-night shows have offered a different kind of red meat: raw human flesh. Cinemax’s Banshee fairly gushes with bloody violence and explicit sex, while NBC’s Hannibal serves up cannibalistic meals that stick to – and may be made from – your ribs…”

For more, click here, and check back every Friday for my thoughts about what’s hot on “U.S. telly”…

Is “Need for Speed” Aaron Paul’s Big Break?

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When last we saw Aaron Paul on Breaking Bad‘s peerless series finale, he was behind the wheel of a car heading for… who knows where? Well, now we know: Based on his cinematic starring debut in the videogame adaptation Need for Speed, Paul’s on the road to nowhere.

Not since Mark Hamill immediately skidded from Star Wars to 1978′s clunker Corvette Summer has an actor crashed so quickly with a followup vehicle. Paul attempts to invest deeply felt emotion into the story of a street racer who is unjustly convicted of a crime and swears revenge on the rival driver (Dominic Cooper, one of my least favorite actors) who set him up. But without Vince Gilligan’s genius words to speak, Paul somehow seems smaller, even on a big screen.

He’s not the only good actor trapped in Need for Speed‘s wreckage: Michael Keaton, who should’ve learned his automotive lesson after Herbie: Fully Loaded, phones in his role as the webcasting sponsor of the Big Race that it takes the shockingly slow 130-minute film to reach. Dakota Johnson bides her time before 50 Shades of Grey as Cooper’s girlfriend. And gifted young British actress Imogen Poots (A Late Quartet) proves instantly annoying as Paul’s spunky love interest.

Need for Speed wants to be The Fast and the Furious, but its car chases (even in 3D) are stuck in low gear. The movie—which bizarrely starts in the sleepy suburban town of Mt. Kisco, New York, an unlikely locale for street racing—takes Paul’s character on a cross-country journey, somehow eluding authorities along the way. The script, by John Gatins (whose Oscar-nominated screenplay for Flight must’ve been a fluke) and George Gatins, includes references to Speed, Top Gun and Bullitt but the film is nowhere near their caliber. Director Scott Waugh made his debut working with real Navy SEALS in Act of Valor, and elicits equally amateurish performances from his professional cast here.

Paul will get a few more shots at movie stardom, and one can only hope his roles in Ridley Scott’s biblical epic Exodus and the Nick Hornby adapation A Long Way Down (opposite Poots again) will lift him back up again. If not… Better Caul Saul!

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