Staff Picks: Movies
Staff-recommended viewing from the KPL catalog.
For many Pixar fans, the original Cars was the least interesting addition to the studio's impeccable feature film canon on its initial release. At over two hours, its length may be a factor in viewers’ disdain, but I’d also guess that prejudices against NASCAR and Larry the Cable Guy play a part. Circle racing’s not for everyone (though neither is French cuisine cooked up by rats – the overwhelming praise for Ratatouille still perplexes me).
No circle racing in Cars’ sequel – it’s been ditched for the fictional World Grand Prix road race, moving the action to some of the world's great cities and their frantic pace, and away from Radiator Springs and most of its inhabitants (and the small-town ideals of the original film’s storyline). The main Cars characters found here – race car sensation Lightning McQueen and his trusty, rusty sidekick Mater – get tangled up in an international espionage plot worthy of the James Bond franchise (Mater’s mistaken for a spy, which causes trouble on and off the track between him and Lightning, until… well, like Bond films, do the plot details really matter?).
Ultimately, Cars 2’s returning characters suffer the same fate as the Beatles in Help! – they end up as extras in their own movie. The similarities between the films is striking – the goofy protagonist (Ringo, Mater) works and plays with friends in exotic locales (the Beatles’ proto-video performances, Lightning and Mater’s racing set-pieces) while unwittingly being pursued by a variety of good and bad guys led by award-winning actors (Leo McKern, Michael Caine). The results are similar as well – anyone not having seen the previous film (A Hard Day’s Night, Cars) may have no emotional attachment to the characters on-screen.
Cars 2 isn’t really a bad film – animation is top-notch as always, and if you’re really into spy flicks loaded with action, you may enjoy it without ever having watched the original. Still, since strong emotional attachment to characters in Pixar films is a primary source of those films’ greatness, Cars 2’s inability to sustain that attachment makes it the least of the studio’s feature film efforts to date.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been compiling my Best of 2011 list, an annual ritual of sorts, comprised of my favorite books, movies and music published throughout the year. But what about all of the great movies and music from years gone by that I’ve recently embraced and enjoyed? Well, here is a list of films that I’ve recently viewed, some of which are well known classics and others that are gems just waiting to be discovered and checked out. Compared to recently released films, they hold up quite well.
All That Heaven Allows: The great director Douglas Sirk’s classic tale of domestic and social conflict between a restless widow (Jane Wyman) and a close minded society that refuses to accept her love for a younger man played by Rock Hudson. The vibrant Technicolor and use of innovative filming techniques makes this seemingly conventional melodrama an influential touchstone for contemporary directors like Todd Haynes (his great movie Far From Heaven is a reworked homage to Sirk’s classic) and Ranier Fassbinder.
A Streetcar Named Desire: A stunning movie when you consider the time period in which it was made. Everything you’ve read about Marlon Brando’s visceral performance is accurate. His explosive screen presence set the stage for younger method actors to take more expressive approaches to acting. What I didn't know was how mesmerizing Vivian Leigh was going to be as the doomed Blanche DuBois.
Night of the Hunter: A perfectly rendered performance by Robert Mitchum as the creepy murderer posing as a preacher (famously adorned with the words hate and love tattooed on his knuckles) makes Night of the Hunter one of the 1950's most influential films. Mitchum’s deranged killer faces off against two children and an ornery grandmother as he tries to secure a large sum of stolen money. The famous ditty sung by Mitchum throughout the film was referenced by the Joel and Ethan Coen in their 2010 film True Grit during the closing credits.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: One of the director Martin Scorsese’s lesser known films from the 1970’s but a strong, poignant film nonetheless. Driven by the award-winning, tour de force performance of Ellen Burstyn, Alice tells the story of a young mother in search of a career as a torch singer. Unsuccessful in love and singing, Alice ends up in the American Southwest working as a waitress at Mel’s Diner (later to be spun off as a television sitcom). Kris Kristofferson plays a man who shows an interest in Alice and her son. Will Alice settle down and marry or will she head off to California to strike it big as a singer? Her quirky, talkative son provides the movie’s comedic and lighthearted touches. Cameos by future stars include a very young Jodie Foster and Scorsese regular Harvey Keitel.
The Big Sleep: A lively if often convoluted whodunit, this first adaptation of the Raymond Chandler classic, was a major success at the box offices when it was released in 1946. Starring Hollywood’s hottest couple at the time, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, this Phillip Marlowe-centered, detective thriller is one of the few book adaptations that translates well to the big screen in large part to the great chemistry between the two stars and the crackling dialogue, filled with gritty innuendo.
Alice Doesn't Live here Anymore
The Swedish coming of age film My Life as a Dog (1987) is both touching and lighthearted, successfully balancing sentimentality with multifaceted, dramatic themes (loss, death, sexuality, friendship, etc.). The director Lasse Hallstrom’s most impressive work to date (even admitting in a 2002 interview that he has yet to top it with subsequent movies), tells the tale of both the innocent blossoming of youth and the harsh realization that life’s twists and turns often result in both delight and sorrow. Set in both the Swedish city and the bucolic countryside, My Life as a Dog follows the puberty-saddled Ingemar, a precocious 12 year old that cannot seem to avoid trouble, a predicament that makes life difficult for his ill mother and antagonistic brother. Sent to live with his Aunt and Uncle during the summer months, Ingemar comes to grip with both the hard truths of life and its rich and beautiful possibilities. A Soviet dog abandoned in space, the sweet science of boxing, a confusing if not budding friendship/romance, eccentric townies and a controversial sculpture add peripheral character to this charming story of embracing setbacks with humor, love and barking.
My Life as a Dog
Produced by Nickelodeon studios – which gave the world SpongeBob and slime – Rango was heavily promoted on Nick’s cable channel (and elsewhere) just prior to its theatrical release last March. Why not? The film is populated by talking animals, its lead character (voiced by Johnny Depp, star of Rango director Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean series) is naively charming and quirky, and, hey, it’s animated! Must be a kids’ flick.
Not so fast. It’s not that kids won’t enjoy Rango – my first-grader did – it’s just that Rango may really be a cult film for adults disguised as a kids’ flick. (Yes, my kid enjoyed it, but didn’t talk about it much past the day we saw it.) While most decent kids’ films in the last decade have plenty of references kids may not get, the entirety of Rango will make the most sense to adults who have grown up with, well, films for grown-ups.
Our hapless title hero, a domesticated lizard who, like Bolt and so many other animated big-screen pets, gets separated from his cushy lifestyle in the film’s opening moments, is thrown into a gritty western scenario more evocative of Anthony Mann than Woody’s Roundup. Townspeople are terrorized by villains who control the town’s water supply (shades of Chinatown), so when the goofy stranger arrives on the scene, they look to him as their last great hope (echoes of High Noon). Nothing here the kids can’t enjoy, but what’s up with that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reference?
Rango’s classic western types are thoroughly engaging characters that should have their audience really caring about their fates, whether or not it cares about westerns. That said, familiarity with the western genre should make the film even more enjoyable. If that sounds like your kind of film, then don’t wait for the kids to pick it up from our collection.
American film director/writer Terrence Malick is by no means prolific. In fact, the much admired auteur has only produced a handful of films over the past 30 years--his fifth work coming out this summer (Tree of Life). Malick’s movies are lush, visually sensual pictures mostly shot in outdoor settings, using natural light. His directorial style, known for its poetic touch, nevertheless wrestles with serious subject matter including the fog of war (The Thin Red Line), violence and celebrity (Badlands) and colonization (The New World). Fans of Malick’s work are a patient lot and are hoping that the star-studded (Brad Pitt and Sean Penn) Tree of Life lives up to the inevitable hype.
I love zombie movies. I don’t care if the acting is bad or the budget is low, if a movie has zombies in it I’ll watch it. Of course I was happy when AMC decided to produce a TV show based on the graphic novel The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead follows police officer Rick Grimes as he struggles to survive in world where society has collapsed due to a mysterious virus that turns people into zombies. The show has a good balance between character development and action. The six-episode season seemed like tease to me—I can’t wait until season two starts in the fall.
If you’re not interested in investing time in a TV show, KPL has plenty of those zombie movies I like so much. My favorite, Shaun of the Dead, is a funny movie made by people who share my love of zombie films. If you’re interested in something a little scarier, there’s always 28 Days Later, Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle’s take on the genre. And if camp and gore is what you want, give Dead Snow a try.
The Walking Dead
Maybe you never heard of these series when they were first produced or maybe they didn’t appear on the surface to be your cup of tea, so you bypassed them altogether. Now, like a fine wine, aged with time, these programs are considered classics which pushed the television industry envelope. Here are a couple of television gems within our collection that you may want to revisit or experience for the first time.
Sports Night: A show written and produced by the award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin shortly before he moved his focus to The West Wing. Sports Night fuses comedy and drama together with a rapid-fire delivery of dialogue, reminiscent of Sorkin’s best work (A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Studio 60 on theSunset Strip). The show struggled to find a balance between humor and more weighty subject matter and thus confused both its network and audiences (the addition of laugh tracks were eliminated by the second season). It lasted a mere two seasons but is thought of as a forward-thinking show that posited inventive ideas about how to mix comedy and drama with the occasional sprinkling of politics.
Freaks and Geeks: Another show that baffled its network at the time of its release in 1999 and yet garnered both critical acclaim and a robust fan base. Set in 1980’s Michigan, Freaks and Geeks, like Sports Night, was adept at suturing madcap narratives and hilarious dialogue to sensitive themes and dramatic depth. The series centered around two high school cliques—the nervous and awkward incoming freshman crowd and the hard-to-reach students comprised of school rebels. The character Bill Haverchuck may be the most layered and multidimensional nerd in the history of television. Judd Apatow, the successful film director and producer was an Executive Producer on Freaks and Geeks and many of its actors have appeared in his other movie projects. The show’s future stars included James Franco, Jason Segel, Busy Philipps, and Seth Rogen.
The Larry Sanders Show: Years before Curb Your Enthusiasm emerged as one of HBO’s most cringe-worthy comedies and years before the overly self-conscious and meta-choreographed rise of reality television and shows like Entourage, there was The Larry Sanders Show—a show about a show. Comedian Gary Shandling plays a neurotic talk show host who rarely has a day off from the various shenanigans that fate has dealt him. Surrounding Larry is a well-rounded cast of celebrities playing themselves, often to hilarious effect as well has his screwball agent (Rip Torn), his Ed McMahon-like sidekick (Jeffrey Tambor) and host of other future stars like Jeremy Piven and Janeane Garofalo.
Freaks and Geeks
This hilarious and ultimately heartwarming documentary tells the story of the people responsible for the "so bad it's good" film Troll 2 and what has happened to them as the low budget horror film they were involved with in 1989 slowly turned into what is affectionately known as “the worst movie ever made” - a cult favorite with maniacal fans and Rocky Horror Picture Show like midnight showing parties. Written and directed by Michael Stephenson – who actually starred in Troll 2 as a child – Best Worst Movie’s main focus is George Hardy, the father in Troll 2, who is now a well loved general dentist living a quiet and happy life in a small Alabama town. The film examines the Troll 2 phenomenon and follows George and many of the other cast members, several who are clearly not as well adjusted as George appears to be, as they hit the Troll 2 circuit, engaging with rabid fans and soaking up the weird fame that they have in this realm. The film is well made, touching, funny, and above all entertaining. Even if you have never seen Troll 2 you will be a fan after viewing this great documentary.
Best Worst Movie
Robert Rodriguez's new move Machete give you lots of explosions, shooting, blood, guts, gore and nifty outfits with a plot and big named actors. Dany Trejo; Steven Segal (as a bad guy), Robert De Niro, Lindsey Lohan and Jesica Alba. I watched this thinking OK let's watch some shooting and some explosions, but I was rewarded by it also having a watchable plot.
The 1970’s were arguably one of the best decades for film making in the United States. Many of the major studios began to allow young directors much greater power and freedom to craft artistic pictures and in doing so, gave birth to the last golden age of American cinema. The seventies saw the emergence of decorated and influential directors and writers like Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), William Friedkind (The Exorcist), George Lucas (American Graffiti, Star Wars), Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Mean Streets), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather Trilogy, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now), Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven), Robert Towne (Chinatown), Peter Bogdanovich (Paper Moon, The Last Picture Show), Sydney Pollack (Three Days of the Condor, The Way We Were, All the President’s Men) Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) and Robert Altman (MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye) to name but just a few. Here are just a few of the most interesting films made during this original decade that we currently circulate. Lastly, a great documentary that chronicles this subject, Decade Under the Influence, will soon accompany these other classic films on our shelves.
The Last Picture Show
Harold and Maude (VHS)
Little Big Man
Kramer Vs Kramer (VHS)