Staff Picks: Movies
Staff-recommended viewing from the KPL catalog.
Looking for a great film to watch after the kids have sleepily gone to bed after tearing open their gifts? Cozy up with a leopard skin Snuggie and warm glass of egg nog and put in a dvd of one of these critically acclaimed films.
The recent “balloon boy” hoax that had citizens across the country glued to news outlets late last week brings Billy Wilder’s 1951 film classic Ace in the Hole back to my mind, in a big way. Ignored in its time, the film predicted the modern-day “media circus” that persists around human interest stories - true or otherwise.
Scenery-chewing (and I mean that as a compliment) Kirk Douglas plays a shady reporter who unexpectedly comes across a man trapped in a cave before any local help has been summoned. Sensing that he’s on to a big scoop, he decides to make it bigger by manipulating the rescue effort for maximum dramatic effect – bringing as much media attention to him as that paid to the hapless victim biding his ever-lengthening, nail-biting time at the bottom of the cave-in. Though the noirish theatrics push the boundaries of credibility, if you’re familiar with the film Wilder made just prior to this - the sublime Sunset Boulevard - you know that OTT can be a good thing in the right hands.
Due to its unavailability in any video format until Criterion’s 2007 DVD release, the film has been something of a rarity in Wilder’s oeuvre, hardly as well-known as Some Like it Hot, Double Indemnity, or The Apartment. It didn’t do well in its theatrical release (the studio changing the film’s title to The Big Carnival without Wilder’s approval), and many contemporary critics found it far too cynical to be believable – but it’s that very cynicism that makes the film very of-the-moment, even six decades after its first screening. Ace in the Hole is no second-string Wilder production – it’s a first-rate film that's simply ahead of its time.
Ace in the Hole
Gregory Nava’s masterpiece El Norte, often cited as an updated and re-imagined “Grapes of Wrath”, is one of the most hailed and accomplished films of the 1980’s, yet has largely gone unnoticed by the film-viewing public since it was first produced in 1983. Now, a distinguished addition to the must-see Criterion Collection, I hope that this groundbreaking film will find its way into the hands of more viewers and be recognized for its rich and powerful depiction of two young Guatemalan teenagers journeying northward to escape injustice while encountering both personal triumph and heart wrenching tragedy along the way.
El norte [videorecording] = The north
Having made its Broadway debut last fall, Billy Elliot: the Musical was the big winner at last night's Tony Awards ceremony, nearly sweeping the awards in the Musical categories, claiming 10 Tonys total.
The original film’s leap from screen to stage seems especially natural. Music and dance are crucial to the plot, in which the young title character pursues his dream of becoming a ballet dancer against the backdrop of the 1984 UK miners’ strike – and some of his family’s wishes. Billy’s fits of dancing are scored by pop classics by T. Rex, the Clash, and Paul Weller’s outfits the Jam and the Style Council, many of which are being heard through home stereo speakers and headphones as Billy lets himself go.
This more organic use of music is in sharp contrast to the stage production's numbers, written by lyricist Lee Hall, who wrote the original film, and composer Sir Elton John. Still, the spirit of the songs found in the original film can’t help but to have influenced those in the musical – especially since the lyricist has such a direct connection to the movie version, and the composer was a contemporary (and fast friend) of the most frequently heard musician on the film’s soundtrack, T. Rex’s Marc Bolan. A classically trained pianist who made his name as a glam rocker, John’s well suited to be involved in this particular musical production.
Whether or not a film version of the musical based on the original film will be made (à la Mel Brooks’ The Producers or John Waters’ Hairspray), the drama and joy found in the music and story of the original Billy Elliot will surely stir the cosmic dancer in viewers who haven't yet seen its award-winning stage incarnation.
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle’s timeless children’s book about a caterpillar’s daily culinary journey through foods both nutritious and snacky. While subtly being taught the days of the week, counting, and metamorphosis may not be foremost among the memories readers take away from the story, Carle’s signature (now iconic) style of illustration ensures that the butterfly-in-waiting that is the story’s center figure is as recognizable among children of any age as any talking bear, frog, or sponge.
Such a famous story will certainly have its own animated version out on DVD – whether or not the animated telling remains faithful to the book. Thankfully, Scholastic’s animated version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a faithful and appropriate adaptation of the story. Using Carle’s original illustrations, the animation is limited and evenly paced, never jarring the senses. The story is narrated word for word, nothing added and nothing taken away. The male narrator’s voice is soothing but not sleep-inducing, and while it’s no substitute for the voice of a loved one reading the story aloud, it has its charm. (Subtitles are available for those who want to read along as the story unfolds.) The film is as short as the book – it’s over in less than 10 minutes – but for those who want more, adaptations of Carle’s Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me, The Very Quiet Cricket, The Mixed-Up Chameleon, and I See a Song are included on the same disc.
Carle’s print version of the story, in its many forms (most fun – an oversized board book with a toy caterpillar that can be moved in and out of the holes of the eaten fruits), is the finest way to enjoy the tale. Still, it’s nice to have an animated version of this classic available, as a calm alternative to the more boisterous cartoon fare which may not suit all ages or moods. In any form, Carle’s vivid colors are sure to amaze those who encounter them as much forty years on, as in forty years past.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Other Stories
Very few shows are “appointment television” for me anymore (and with the advent of immediate online viewing of many series’ current episodes following their air dates, at least web users don’t have to make any special appointments for viewing their favorites), but Medium – which begins its newest season this week - is one of them.
Following reluctant medium Allison Dubois (Patricia Arquette) as she helps the Phoenix, AZ police department investigate murders revealed to her randomly (and often piecemeal) during her sleep, the show is no ordinary detective drama. Arquette is perfectly cast in the role of a special investigator who doesn’t really want the job, constantly trying to balance the stress of her unusual occupation with the everyday struggles of marriage and motherhood. The family scenes are sweet, and often hilarious, which offer relief from the heavy suspense (and frequently creepy violence) of the crimes the protagonist envisions without warning.
Any uninitiated intrigued by the show's premise - which, by the way, is based on the experiences of a real-life medium named Allison Dubois - will be glad to know they can catch up with Medium on DVD through our library – make an appointment today!
For fans of the unjustly ignored TV series Freaks and Geeks, the recent big-screen success of its creators, Apatow Productions, is sweet justice. Pineapple Express is the Apatow team’s most recent film success, and may be its most outrageously over-the-top yet – and anyone who’s seen Superbad knows that’s saying a lot.
Following the adventures of a process server (Freaks alumnus Seth Rogen) and his pot dealer (fellow Freaks alumnus James Franco) as they flee from a drug lord after witnessing his murder of an international rival, the film is not for the faint of heart. Not only are the gags as dirty-minded as ever, but the high level of violence (never before seen in Apatow ventures) is on par with that found in Quentin Tarantino films.
Between the foul language, the bloody action, the rampant drug use, and a premise that’s ridiculous beyond belief, I couldn’t possibly recommend this to sane-minded viewers who withstood the vulgarities of The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up enough to appreciate their sweeter aspects. As for the rest of you – don’t tell anyone you found out about this movie from me.
Like every other parent of a small child, I don’t get out to the movies as often as I’d like. When I do go, more often than not, it’s to a kids’ film with my child in tow. Fortunately, we live in an era when animated feature films can be as engaging for adults as they are for kids (and, of course, some aren't meant for kids). Sure, there are still kids’ movies I wouldn’t want any of my friends and family to endure (I’m looking at you, Beverly Hills Chihuahua), but I have no qualms recommending any of this year’s contenders for the Best Animated Feature Oscar to anyone, no matter what age.
Which one is my favorite? Pixar’s WALL-E amazed me with its incredible sci-fi visuals (set in outer space and on trashed terra firma), amusing social commentary on consumerism run amok (I now quote the line “I didn’t know we had a pool” whenever I realize I’ve been far too engaged in front of a computer screen), and daring narrative choices (for one thing, no significant dialogue is spoken in the film's first third).
Still, for sheer popcorn pleasure, Kung Fu Panda wins. I’ve never cared for Dreamworks' animated features as much as Pixar’s, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The story of a klutzy panda bear who dreams of being a kung fu master (and gets his wish) was funny and action-packed – anyone who loves martial arts films should find all kinds of sly references to classics of the genre, as well as combat sequences that are beautifully staged and bound to leave one breathless.
I also enjoyed Disney’s Bolt (due out on DVD in March) more than I expected - I'd read about animator Chris Sanders' original concept for the movie (working title: American Dog), and was worried about getting a watered-down version. The finished film, about a brainwashed canine actor who tries to use superpowers he doesn't have while on a cross-country adventure, may not have matched Sanders' original vision, but it never lacked for thrills or heart (and being my - and my child's - first 3D movie theater experience made it even more of a thrill).
Some animation fans will be disappointed that more adult fare didn't make this year's nominations, but no matter which film wins, each deserves the nod. Did I mention kids should like them, too?
Kung Fu Panda
As if I needed any reasons to watch any of Italian director Sergio Leone's classic westerns again, KPL's recent acquisition of 2-disc collector's editions of A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More gives me more. Once again, I find myself wandering the hallways whistling themes from these films' soundtracks, scored by Ennio Morricone early on in his legendary career. In a decade when uses for the electric guitar were stretched beyond previously known boundaries, the composer's use of it expanded its cinematic appeal - only "James Bond Theme" composer John Barry might have made a greater impact on contemporary film with his use of the instrument. Though there are many reasons for film fans - even those who think they hate westerns - to see these classics, it's the music they hear that will echo in their heads long after the movies are over.
A Fistful of Dollars