Staff Picks: Movies
Staff-recommended viewing from the KPL catalog.
Throughout the history of cinema, many filmmakers have attempted to examine the nature of identity and the notion of the ‘self’ but few have made a film as visually rich and haunting as director Ingmar Bergman’s masterful Persona—a tour de force of a movie that when released in 1966 expanded the poetry of film and solidified Bergman as one of the great artists of the medium. For some critics, the film has been viewed as a hypnotic culmination of many of his themes and obsessions. For others, Persona was a confusing, unintelligible and pretentious mess. Time has been very friendly to this influential precursor to films like Mulholland Drive, 3 Women, Black Swan, Fight Club and other psychodramas that portray identity and self as an unfixed, transferable construct that modulates between states of being rather than as a permanent characteristic of the human psyche. This classic is now on Blu-ray as well as DVD.
70 years ago today, one of World War II's most significant battles was D-Day, the day in which thousands of Allied soldiers crossed the English Channel to invade German occupied France. There's certainly no shortage of informational resources on this topic but if you're a WWII buff or simply want to know more about this imporant day in the fight against Nazi Germany, check out The War by Americana documentarian Ken Burns. This is my favorite work of Burns and his most emotionally dramatic. Soldiers who were there, storming the beaches of Normandy, recount with unfiltered descriptions, the horrors, heroism, and blunders that they experienced on that fateful day and in doing so, provide an unromanticized version of their sacrifice. It's Burn's most stirring documentary and one that is required viewing for those interested in World War II. For those who want their history fictionalized, KPL owns many feature films set during wartime, including Saving Private Ryan, Life Is Beautiful, Schindler's List, The Big Red One, Force 10 from Navarone, The Thin Red Line, The English Patient, The Winds of War, In Darkness, Ivan's Childhood, The Cranes are Flying, and Flags of Our Fathers.
This year’s Cannes Film Festival winners included Winter Sleep (Best Film), Bennett Miller (Best Director), Julianne Moore (Best Actress) and Timothy Spall (Best Actor). Here’s a look back at some of the films that have previously been awarded the prestigious Palme d’or.
Taste of Cherry—1997
The White Ribbon—2009
From the folks at The Criterion Collection, explore road trip-themed movies over the summer months--many of which can be found in the KPL Catalog.
These Birds Walk is an unsanitized, visceral portrait of poverty, despair and the day-to-day struggles of an ambulance driver who ferries both dead bodies to and fro as well as transporting young runaways back to their families. Set in a Karachi (Pakistan) orphanage for unwanted and runaway children, the filmmakers have chosen to chronicle their subjects (Omar being the focus) without contextualizing or providing any sort of exposition. Their approach to their subject forces the viewer to become a voyeuristic fly on the wall of the orphanage, observing the young boys as they play, fight, laugh and confess the hopelessness of their lives. Viewers are also taken on a bumpy, chaotic ride through the busy streets of Karachi with an ambulance driver who works for the orphanage and who compassionately talks with the young boys. He sympathizes with their struggles because he too was once in the same situation. It’s easy to understand from simply reading the depth of despair on the faces of these children, how one living in these kinds of inhumane circumstances could be seduced by criminality or religious extremism. Their options are limited and they are under no illusions about their life’s trajectory. As grim a depiction of contemporary poverty as the film is, there are moments, albeit brief, where we glimpse the kindness of a stranger and the power it can wield.
These Birds Walk
Writer Patricia Highsmith’s novels have been adapted for the big screen on more than one occasion. Clearly, directors from varied backgrounds have felt something motivating in her twisting tales of deception and murder. Her ominous story (The Talented Mr. Ripley) of a young American sent to Italy to return an expatriate, school chum to his father in San Francisco was the inspiration for French director Rene Clement’s (Forbidden Games) Purple Noon. This stylish, Hitchcockian adaptation was the coming out party for 1960’s French heartthrob Alain Delon as Tom Ripley, the cold and calculating con man who wants more than just a courier fee for the return of the glib, rich boy. German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) took Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game and transformed it into The American Friend (1977), a beautifully shot thriller that burns slowly as a psychological portrait of desperation into one of unleashed madness, if not comically so. The late British director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) made a patchy version of The Talented Mr. Ripley starring Jude Law, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Matt Damon in 1999.
Paolo Sorrentino’s mesmerizing film The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) is a triumphant depiction of a conflicted man standing at an emotional crossroads. Both wry in its biting humor and satire, it is a powerfully visual film (crane shots, close-ups, slow motion, zooms—the entire repertoire is employed) with boundless charity toward plumbing the emotional depths of universal themes (death, lost love, artistry, loneliness, spiritual desire) from within a carefully sketched milieu (Rome’s glamorously debauched and powerful).
Confronted with both the ubiquity of beautiful things found in everyday moments (the radiant smile of a young child, ancient sculpture, an early morning sunrise) and the grotesque and decadent trappings of Rome’s high society, well-tailored flaneur Jep Gambardella, hops from party to party, engaging in vacuous conversation that leaves him bored and wearily wondering whether being the “king” of the vapid souls of conga lines and performance artist flunkies is worth his growing ennui. When he learns of the death of a woman he had a youthful affair with many summers ago, Jep begins to soul search in between attending parties for 104 year old Saints (a dead ringer for Mother Teresa), a trip to the botox shaman and a visit to a magician who makes giraffes disappear. Much of that contemplation on the frivolousness of his life takes place during quiet strolls back to his lonely bachelor pad and this is where some of the most touching scenes of the movie take place. Sumptuous in its portrait of Rome’s scenic beauty and borderline whimsical in a way that echoes the fantastical leanings of Fellini, The Great Beauty is just that, a magnificent spectacle of visual eye candy that poetically affirms our human yearning for something other than self-absorption. Lastly, this film has a wonderful soundtrack that includes Arvo Part, The Kronos Quartet, and Damien Jurado. Far and away my favorite film from last year, The Great Beauty is also available to stream from Hoopla.
The Great Beauty
Most of us prefer sound with our visual imagery when it comes to movie watching. However, if you’re looking to challenge yourself to experience visual poetry and storytelling in new ways without the element of music or dialogue, here’s a quick introductory sampler of well-regarded works.
People on Sunday
Le Quattro Volte (sound, but no dialogue)
The Passion of Joan of Arc
People on sunday
Francois Truffaut’s sinuous portrait of provincial childhood is one of his lesser known works but those who appreciate his acclaimed 1960’s movies (The Antoine Doinel series, Shoot the Piano Player) will no doubt discover that Small Change is a true gem within his oeuvre. Known for depicting the complicated by joyous nature of French childhood with a tender humanism tied to an un-romanticized realism, Truffaut approaches his young subjects and the local adults like a documentarian, concentrating his focus on capturing both the special and everyday moments that mark a life. A first kiss, the anxiety of answering a question in front of the class, sneaking into a movie theater with a friend, even falling from an open window--Truffaut effectively mixes the lighthearted with the darker shades of growing up.
When it was released in 1960 to universal acclaim, visionary maverick Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless broke all the rules of conventional moviemaking. As posited by The Criterion Collection site, "there is a before Breathless, and an after Breathless” along the timeline of film history. The film’s radical break with tradition promptly posed new questions about what a movie could look like, sound like, mean, and most importantly, what a film could be. Even today, the film that kicked off the French New Wave retains a freshness and vitality that are striking and discomforting to those new to its anarchic, free-jazz sensibilities and inventive modes of representation. Godard’s reinvented salute to the American gangster genre mixes together into a highly original work of art with countless allusions to previous movies, references to literary texts, celebratory homages to American directors, and stylistic devices such as his famed jump cuts and an enthusiastic embrace of natural lighting and sound that in 1960, deviated from mainstream studio practices. It’s a film that is winking at the audience from the eye of its director and yet even as we push aside it’s question posing and deeply philosophical implications, it also functions as a terribly entertaining movie. Not only is the film considered one of the most influential, it subsequently launched the career of French leading man Jean-Paul Belmondo, who went on to work with Godard on A Woman Is a Woman and Pierrot le Fou. The Criterion Collection has just recently re-released Breathless on Blu-Ray and DVD with a wonderful array of supplents to go along with the feature.