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Staff Picks: Movies

Beautiful and Brutal

The award-winning, revenge-filled tone poem The Revenant is a magnificently shot film that features sublime cinematography that in scene after scene, generously pays homage to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. It's also a flaccid story immersed in its endless detailing of unromanticized violence and the kind of brute survival it took to endure the unforgiving natural world of the early 19th Century West. The two-plus hour run time forces the audience to withstand the torturous story of a fur trader named Hugh Glass, who finds himself on the wrong end of a vicious grizzly bear attack after he and his fellow traders are mercilessly raided by American Indians in search of an elder's kidnapped daughter. From there, Glass' tormented body witnesses an ever increasing number of physical setbacks and emotional traumas as he plots his revenge on those who've done him harm. The haunting score of the film supplements the film's visual poetry and dreamy flashbacks which provide information regarding Glass' backstory. Prepare yourself for both the beauty and the brutality of The Revenant.

The Graduate

The groundbreaking 1967 film The Graduate has recently been re-released as part of the Criterion Collection. With additional commentary and interviews with both those in front of and behind the camera, admirers of the film or those who have only heard about this celebrated masterwork will find a lot to enjoy. A fabulous film, rich with layers of social commentary, satire and taboo-probing humor, The Graduate gave life to Dustin Hoffman’s career as a leading man and cemented Anne Bancroft’s character (Mrs. Robinson) as an iconic, pop cultural reference point.

Only director Mike Nichols’ second feature film, The Graduate is a sharp and stylish examination of the generational fault lines and collapsing social mores between the counter-cultural baby boomers and their "plastic", establishment-friendly parents. It’s also a film that tonally jumps back and forth from zany to poignant in ways that were unique for a mid-1960’s film. The now-famous usage of Simon and Garfunkel’s music as a score employed to shift audience emotion and narrative movement is common place now but in 1967 it was a fresh way of supplementing the story and its images.

The Prestige

Director Christopher Nolan's 2006 film, the head spinning (and very underrated) The Prestige, is comprised of one twist and turn after another. It's both a fun and cerebral film that doesn't compromise its creative integrity for cheap, Hollywood cliches. In fact, there are plenty of philosophical subjects and meta-cinematic ideas that Nolan subtly weaves throughout the knotty plot that features two magicians battling for illusionist supremacy around 1900. Actors Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are turn of the century showman who trade in secrecy and misdirection and so when their competitive relationship turns violently hostile after the death of Jackman's wife, the increasingly ratcheted up tit for tat can only lead toward tragedy, obsession and betrayal.

My Favorite Films--Z

And finally...

( Z) Zodiac

Director David Fincher is to the psychological thriller what Christopher Nolan is to the science fiction genre—a guy who can make thoughtful, well-constructed popcorn movies with wide appeal that don’t surrender artistic integrity or craftsmanship along the way. Aside from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, much of his oeuvre tends to lean toward dark and ominous stories (and that includes his fictional portrait of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network). His 2007 film Zodiac tackles the infamous story of a serial killer who randomly picked out his victims while taunting the media and police in the process. To this day, the mystery of the killer’s identity and motivation has remained unsolved. With strong performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr., Fincher’s Zodiac deserves to be mentioned alongside his other classic films Seven, The Game and Fight Club

My Favorite Films--Y

An ongoing series of 26 posts about movies...

(Y) Yi Yi (2006)

Described as a film about “everything and nothing”, Yi Yi is writer/director Edward Yang’s moving, slice of life portrait about the ups and downs, beginnings and endings, laments and celebrations of a middle-class Taiwanese family. Centered on N.J. and his family, Yang depicts the magical moments in life by juxtaposing them against a backdrop of the mundane. The film begins by showing us a wedding and then quickly cuts to our protagonist's mother-in-law’s failing health, stressing the overlapping and sometimes paradoxical nature of life’s imperfect unfolding. Yang expertly evokes the poetry of the everyday in all of its messy dynamics, showing us the beautiful interplay between humor, tragedy, romance and ritual from the perspective of the three primary characters, the father, teenage daughter and the eight year-old son. 

My Favorite Films--W

As part of an ongoing series of 26 posts...

(W) Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)

Mike Nichols cemented his reputation as a director to pay attention to when he cast a real life, hard-drinking couple (Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) to play a fictionalized, hard-drinking couple in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Adapting writer Edward Albee's successful play to the big screen in 1966, Nichols' first film is a raucous portrayal of domestic discord with a blistering performance from Taylor. An unhinged married couple who have grown tired of their own inebriated banter seduce a young couple into unwittingly participating in their increasingly emotionally desperate and manic attempts at "fun and games".     

The End of the Tour - 2015

Written by Donald Margulies Directed by James Ponsoldt
Starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg

How He Met That Author…

Based on David Lipsky’s best-selling memoir ‘Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself’, this movie tells the story of a young journalist for Rolling Stone talking his way into an interview with literary superstar David Foster Wallace as he prepares to finish up his book tour promoting the smash literary hit ‘Infinite Jest.’

You don’t really need to know anything about Foster Wallace, but the poignancy of his truncated life certainly adds an extra flavor of preciousness to this intimate study of two men getting to know each other in strange circumstances.

It’s an amazing performance by Jason Segel who is better known for his comedy roles in TV’s How I Met Your Mother as well as movies like The Muppet Movie and Jeff Who Lives at Home. Physically, he certainly resembles Foster Wallace and his somewhat ungainly, methodical presence and mannerisms contrast well with Eisenberg’s energetic portrayal of a younger, more ambitious writer.
The director does a great job of capturing the dialogue without intruding upon the action (or lack thereof) and the humor to be found in this brief friendship can’t help but seduce the viewer into falling in love with Wallace’s character. Rather than a pretentious author for the elite, he comes across as not exactly a regular guy but definitely someone with whom you’d love to spend a little time. Not only is his home portrayed flawlessly as very much nothing out of the ordinary, the movie is careful to make sure we see that Wallace has a couple of dogs to whom he is greatly attached. It may be my interpretation alone, but they feel like a deliberately relatable representation of the warmth we end up feeling for this troubled, but apparently affectionate, author.   

Filmed around the Grand Rapids area in the Winter of 2014, the ‘making of’ featurette on the DVD is an engaging eye-opener into what is obviously a labour of love for everyone involved. It’s rare that a movie this quiet speaks so loudly to the troubled parts of us, and it carries an extra weight due to the sad ending of David Foster Wallace’s short but spectacular time on this planet.

Post Script
If you wish to dig a little deeper, there are interviews with the author to be found online and you can go to your local library and check out Foster Wallace’s literary work. With a little patience, you might just be rewarded by the experience of making it through Infinite Jest, now exactly 20 years old and included by Time Magazine in its list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.


My favorite films--V

As part of an ongoing series of 26 posts...

(V) The Visitor (2011)

Veteran character actor Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under, Olive Kitteridge, Liberal Arts) takes the lead in this deftly constructed portrait of one man's personal journey toward an emotional engagement with the moral complexities of our age when cross-cultural exchange and the politics of fear and misunderstanding fuse together to form a heartbreaking bond between strangers. A lonely, disengaged, sleepwalking through life professor discovers that his rarely used apartment is being occupied by two immigrants, setting off a moving story about empathy, difference and humanity's common language--the beating heart.      

'S All Good, Man

Breaking Bad became a ratings phenomenon in its final season thanks to Netflix-enabled binge-watching. The show was always a critical darling, but it took until nearly the end of its run for the eyeballs to match the applause. Not for me, however; I started watching when it first aired and realized it was going to be a genius show somewhere around episode four. I watched because it was created by Vince Gilligan, whom I knew as one of the best writers on The X-Files (which was and is my all-time favorite show). I liked Bryan Cranston from Malcolm in the Middle, but had really been impressed with him after a guest-star turn he made on an X-Files episode named “Drive” (written, not-so-incidentally, by Gilligan himself). I was later thrilled when the show introduced the character of Saul Goodman, the morally-questionable criminal lawyer, in no small part because he was played by Bob Odenkirk, a comedy legend I adored from his work on the HBO sketch series Mr. Show. Goodman became a fan favorite and when Bad began to draw towards its conclusion, there grew talk of a spin-off revolving around the character.

I balked at this idea: quality spin-offs are rare, and Goodman really seemed to work best as the comic relief in an otherwise tense and gritty show. Could the origin story of a sleazy attorney whose future is already known to us make for exciting television? Or was this merely cashing in on a beloved property and might that cheapen its source material? It turns out I needn’t have worried: Thanks to the talents of Gilligan and many of the Bad writers (as well as the dramatic chops of Odenkirk), not only does Goodman have enough of a saga to prop up his own series, but Better Call Saul has turned out to be every bit as well written and directed as its predecessor.

Set years before Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul follows Goodman (working under his real name, Jimmy McGill) as he struggles to launch his law career in the shadow of his successful brother, Chuck (played by another comedy legend, Michael McKean). Chuck, whose career has stalled because of a rare phobia, refuses to take Jimmy seriously and actively works to suppress him. He sees Jimmy as nothing more than the same swindling huckster he was in his youth. To Chuck, Jimmy survives on charisma and conniving—he hasn’t put in the effort to succeed or graduated from a prestigious school. For his part, Jimmy is an earnest guy trying to become reputable, but his outside-the-box tactics for success clash with his straight-laced colleagues and to Chuck, he may never be more than a con man. And to that end, we see the basic concept DNA that Saul shares with Breaking Bad: They are both stories about men whose environments created circumstances that led to their moral downfalls, yet you can point to the personality traits of each man that exacerbated their respective falls from grace.

I can’t recommend this series enough. If you liked Breaking Bad (and most of you did), definitely check out Better Call Saul. It may not have the body count or the nail-biting tension, but it deserves to have the enthusiastic audience that Bad had; perhaps it can get it a lot sooner in its run. Season Two is still airing, but Season One is on DVD now.



The Academy Award for Best Picture winner this year was the film Spotlight, a well-mannered, taut drama about an investigative team of journalists from the Boston Globe newspaper that uncovered the Catholic Church’s role in the child abuse scandal of 2002. After a new editor takes over the paper, he presses his best reporters on why more attention hasn’t been given to uncovering the troubling evidence that a widespread system of abuse and cover-up has been taking place throughout the city’s parishes. While the film plays it safe in terms of narrative form and mise en scene, the strength of the film comes from the solid performances given by the ensemble cast that includes Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Liev Schreiber. Much of the film focuses on the ways in which the reporters hustled their way through the city-wide labyrinth of lies and cover-up’s with the assistance of victims and their lawyers to eventually shine a light on the criminal negligence of church officials.