Staff Picks: Movies
Staff-recommended viewing from the KPL catalog.
Learning of James Gandolfini's untimely passing, my thoughts turned not to his iconic role as Tony Soprano, but his recent performance in Sopranos creator David Chase's directorial film debut, Not Fade Away, one of the most honest and under-rated movies ever made about rock and roll. Though seeing Gandolfini as a New Jersey businessman, struggling to keep peace in his suburban home with his wife and children, stirs up memories of his better-known TV family man, his film father and TV father lead quite different lives.
Set in the 1960's, the film's focus is on his son, a budding musician who gives up his college education, funded by his father and an ROTC scholarship, as his rock and roll outfit, heavily influenced by the blues-based Rolling Stones, gains increasing local popularity, which leads all the members to believe they can make it to the big-time, despite the many ego clashes and professional miscalculations that derail their journey. (If this sounds a bit like the plot of That Thing You Do, be aware that the dramatic tone of Not Fade Away is much heavier, and, to me, much more realistic. The heightened realism is aided, in no small part, by the soundtrack chosen by the film's music director, Steve Van Zandt.)
All the storied culture clashes that accompanied the '60's rock revolution are on display here in their most intimate manifestations, most poignantly in the relationship between father and son. Gandolfini's character wants his son to take the career direction originally agreed upon, but as his son's ambitions grow, and his parental norms can no longer be reconciled with his son's evolving belief systems, he comes to accept the break instead of denying it, which helps to mend their strained relationship. Such sweetness is not the Soprano way.
An especially close dinner conversation between father and son in the film's third act, as well as a scene late in the film where the father bids a farewell to his son that may or may not be final, pack an emotional wallop that hit even harder now in the wake of Gandolfini's passing. Thankfully, we have this film, among many others (not to mention the now-legendary TV series), to keep his screen presence from ever fading away.
Not Fade Away
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.
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.
For a guy who insists he’s deliberately “doing nothing” with his life, Greenberg’s title character (Ben Stiller) keeps pretty busy. He’s building a doghouse for his brother’s pet while housesitting for him; he's constantly penning letters to businesses expressing his dissatisfaction with the most minute details of their services; he takes up an offer from women half his age to go on a deep-sea diving expedition in Australia, despite the fact that he’s a terrible swimmer.
From the sounds of it, this quirky, aging slacker’s screen saga – last June's Kalamazoo Film Society selection - might make for light viewing with plenty of laughs, except for one detail – Greenberg’s trying to deal with life outside an institution, from which he’s recently been released after recovering from a breakdown of an unspecified nature. Watching his brother’s house, in a city he left behind years ago, gives him an opportunity to reconnect with members of his old social circle, but since social norms are no longer a constraint for him, the expression of his feelings and impulses can be cause for embarrassment, pain, and alienation, as well as a certain poignancy (and laughs – this is still a comedy). Greenberg’s caught in a vicious cycle of feeling discomfort, which feeds others’ discomfort, which further feeds his own.
Stiller’s pitch-perfect performance – not too wacky, not too angst-ridden – is beautifully complemented by Greta Gerwig’s performance as his brother’s assistant, a woman in her mid-twenties whose impulsive life reflects Greenberg’s own. The two forge a tentative bond that’s constantly tested throughout the film, and one wonders if the bond can possibly last when both people live so in the moment. As with the best character-study films, Noah Baumbach’s latest doesn’t force-feed any resolutions – it’s simply enough to watch these characters try to make sense of their lives, even when they don’t live them sensibly... but who does?
It wasn’t always so easy to catch movies that cleaned up at awards ceremonies – just as The Hurt Locker did during this year’s awards season, capped by its Best Picture win at this week’s Academy Awards presentation – if you’d missed them in the movie theater during their initial runs.
Becoming a serious film buff in the mid-‘70’s, I’d come away from awards show viewings making mental notes about films I’d missed so I’d remember to catch them in a second run (pre-video boom, award winners could clean up at the box office on return engagements), or perhaps when the film made its debut on network TV, which could take a while (pre-pay channel days, I waited two, perhaps three, years to see Annie Hall - somewhat cut and with commercials - on the small screen). Campus film group showings, or bottom billings on drive-in double features, might have been outside opportunities to view these films in a timely manner, but generally, if you missed them in the theater, you’d be waiting a while to see them again.
It’s rare these days for any film studio to hold back a title from DVD release just based on awards nominations, at least when the films aren’t end-of-year releases, to keep it on movie screens. What seems to be more common now is for studios to strategically plan DVD release dates just after awards season for maximum sales and rental impact. Precious and Up in the Air – both major awards season contenders and winners – just made their DVD debuts Tuesday, only two days after the 82nd Academy Awards ceremony. Both those titles, as well as The Hurt Locker and a slew of other awards season winners and nominees, are available for KPL patrons’ viewing enjoyment – no need to wait too long to see them… check our holdings and borrow, or reserve, them today!
The Hurt Locker
I was a little too old for picture books when Judi Barrett’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was first published in 1978 (though I’ve since encountered it during my own child’s storytimes, and am particularly fond of Ron Barrett’s whimsical illustrations). Not having any sentimental attachment to the original work made it easy for me to enjoy the animated film adaptation, released in theaters late last summer (and now out on DVD).
Gone is the framing device of the original story, which has a grandfather spinning a tall tale during his grandkids’ mealtime about a town where food falls from the sky for no apparent reason. In the movie version, a young inventor devises a machine that can turn water into food, which he sends into the clouds above his depressed fishing community so it can enjoy more culinary choices than the steady stream of sardines it’s used to consuming. Once the tasty treats start falling, the former failed scientist becomes a local celebrity... until things go terribly wrong, and disaster borne of mad science must be averted.
The pace of the film is frantic - which can’t be said of the book - but it’s by no means a mean-spirited film, so I’d recommend it to parents who don’t mind getting the kids revved up with high-speed screen antics. Parents shouldn’t be bored, either – there’s some sly satire thrown in the mix, and I especially enjoyed spotting all the ‘70’s and ‘80’s electronics cast-offs the hapless hero uses in his makeshift laboratory. Regardless of its faithfulness to the source material, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is still a satisfying movie treat.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
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
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.
This Memorial Day weekend, classic war films will be seen on countless television screens across the country. At the start of Miracle at St. Anna - the startling 2008 film collaboration between writer James McBride (author of KPL’s 2005 Reading Together selection The Color of Water) and director Spike Lee – the epic war film The Longest Day runs on a World War II veteran’s TV set. This particular vet isn’t so gung ho upon seeing John Wayne, though – his own war experience as a member of the U.S. Army’s all-black 92nd Infantry Division (aka the Buffalo Soldiers) was much different than any that Hollywood was interested in portraying.
The film flashes back to the veteran’s harrowing journey behind enemy lines in war-torn Italy, as he and three fellow Buffalo Soldiers attempt to keep an orphaned boy, the only survivor of a village massacre at the hands of the Nazis, from being discovered. As they travel, not only do the soldiers have to deal with the racist propaganda the enemy uses to distract them (an Axis Sally broadcast during combat, Nazi propaganda posters employing black stereotypes), they still have to endure the explicit prejudice of their commanding officers and, on leave in the deep South, the murderous hatred of ungrateful citizens. In light of all the injustices heaped upon them, their sacrifices at this journey’s end seem especially heroic.
Though McBride and Lee turn the conventions of the epic war film inside-out, the look and structure of the film pay homage to many epic war films that came before. Lee is no stranger to epic filmmaking (see Malcolm X and When the Levees Broke), and though this is his first war film, it plays as though he’s made a dozen. While the film doesn’t glorify combat, it does recognize the unique responsibility of soldiers who put themselves on the line to defend freedoms threatened by force. That some soldiers might have been fighting for freedoms denied to them in their own country is astounding – that rare perspective makes Miracle at St. Anna a war film unlike any other.
Miracle at St. Anna
My kid’s crazy about dogs, so the last three movies we went to see in the theater all centered on canines. While Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Hotel for Dogs were live-action films, they were not nearly as lively (or recommended) as the animated Bolt, a film kids and adults should all enjoy.
Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) plays a dog with superpowers on a popular TV show, which also features his young owner as his co-star. From the time he was a pup, he’s been led to believe he really is a superhero, a ruse his owner and handlers pull off by keeping him in the tightly controlled environs of the studio set, all for the sake of keeping his on-screen performance as believable as possible – he never knows his on-screen adventures are pure fiction. (If this plot sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve seen The Truman Show, which is much more existential and angsty than Bolt.)
Through a series of mishaps, our hero ends up on his own thousands of miles from his owner and known life, and must find his way back, with the help of a streetwise cat (with abandonment issues akin to Jessie’s in Toy Story 2) and superfan hamster (who also stars in the cartoon short exclusive to the Bolt DVD, which includes a hilarious send-up of Hannah Montana, Bolt voice actress Miley Cyrus’s alter-ego). He also has to come to terms with the truth about his superhero abilities, sometimes discovering the truth midway through some harrowing situations on his cross-country journey.
Bolt’s a lot of fun, and possesses more charm and depth than most films aimed at the family audience. If you’re a dog lover, you may want to see all those films I'd mentioned having seen on the big screen – but Bolt’s the only one that’s not a real dog.