Staff Picks: Movies
Staff-recommended viewing from the KPL catalog.
Under the Skin is a new film that will figuratively get under your skin with its nightmarishly surreal images and discomfiting plot. Simply put, it’s a slow-burning, almost dialogue free collection of bizarre images that possess a creepiness that leaves its evocative residue all over your mind well after the credits have rolled by. The film is careful to make sure that the weirdness is couched in ideas, specifically notions about perception and how we look at one another often from unfamiliar perspectives. Ultimately, the film feels as though it should have been fleshed out into something on an expanded scale with a more substantive engagement with its ideas. A perfect film, no. A must-see film, absolutely.
Under the Skin
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.
Fans of Errol Morris documentaries will not be surprised by his approach to understanding his most recent subject, the life and philosophies of Donald Rumsfeld. There are the standard cutaways to spirited music (Danny Elfman’s score) blended into a particular image or graphic that relates in some way to the film’s subject. There is the occasional moment where the viewer hears Morris pose a question or request additional information from off camera. Basically, this is a very typical Errol Morris film. Like his previous film The Fog of War, where he allowed former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to candidly speak about his role in the escalation and continuation of the Vietnam War, Morris lets Rumsfeld freely talk to the audience, only interjecting here and there in order to pose a question or contradict his subject’s commentary, much of which exhibits Rumsfeld’s talent for turning a phrase (always with a gleam in his eye and a smirk). Morris is clearly fascinated by Rumsfeld’s hubris, confidence, sense of moral clarity, and ability to be dualistically self-aware and ludicrously delusional-- at times he embodies both within a single exchange of ideas. Those who blame Rumsfeld for the invasion and occupation of Iraq will likely be frustrated that Morris refuses to take a more confrontational stance toward some of Rumsfeld’s claims. This has always been Morris’ artistic approach however, to engage his subject by allowing them to feel comfortable enough to be frank and thus more honest, a successful method that allows the viewer critical insights into the mind of Rumsfeld that otherwise would be lost within a polemical or satiric slant. Ultimately, Rumsfeld doesn't blink, doesn't self-evaluate, and therefore, one mostly sees in his glib snark, a man who sticks to his schtick.
The Unknown Known
As with most of the wonderful films that have been made under the ESPN film series 30 for 30, Youngstown Boys is a moving examination of the relationship between power, money, urban neglect and the role that larger socioeconomic forces play in molding the lives of individual athletes as they develop both on and off the proverbial field. These are not films about sports as such but rather powerful documentaries that explore the lives of the famous and infamous through a sociological lens, positioning their subjects within a broad framework for understanding the causes and effects of noteworthy events. This is the story of the rise and fall and rise again journey of a successful college football coach and his star player. It’s also a story all too common in today’s world, where young, inner-city athletes are confronted with difficult challenges and choices in regards to their future. Running back Maurice Claret and coach Jim Tressel were the toast of Columbus, Ohio for one magical year of success before controversy erupted on Ohio State's campus, leaving both men in very different situations, both trying to succeed in a world of greed, influence and big money. Claret’s story unfolded under the intense glare of the national media whereas the documentary provides greater clarity and a more nuanced context as to the events that would test the strong bond between these two Youngstown Boys.
Last year, the psychological thriller Prisoners was a break out hit for Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. With his follow-up film Enemy, once again starring Jake Gyllenhaal, the director embraces Hitchcockian style and atmosphere over formal plotting. Enemy is a kind of tone poem of dread and anxiety that I suspect will leave many a viewer grumpy and unsatisfied (more description would only spoil it). I for one enjoyed Villeneuve’s playful antics and commitment to the project over any kind responsibility to provide viewers with a conventional follow up. Fans will either love the Kafkaesque horror of the film or despise it for its provocative resistance to philistinism. You decide.
The Good Wife is one of the best network television shows and after five seasons, still going strong with its mixture of secrecy, passion, scheming and legal maneuvering.
It possesses all of the elements for a successful serial: power politics, courtroom confrontations drawn from the headlines, mysterious characters, well-paced intrigue, and nuanced storytelling. Throw in a fantastic cast (that’s refreshingly racially diverse) that brings to life the smart writing and you have a hit show worth binging on.
The Good Wife
This surprisingly moving and affectionate biography of a celebrated skateboard team from the 1980’s will appeal to both current skateboarders as well as those Generation X kids who grew up following these legendary shredders of the street, pools, and ramps. Cobbled together by 70’s skateboarding legend Stacy Peralta, The Bones Brigade was comprised of the era’s most talented and original riders, including: Lance Mountain, Steve Caballero, Tony Hawk, Mike McGill, Rodney Mullen and Tommy Guerrero. This is an entertaining film that recounts both the personal stories of each individual skater and provides fans of the colorful sport with an insider’s account of skateboarding’s golden era.
The Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
In less talented hands, Her could have become a mess of empty romantic sentimentality or an opportunity for heavy handed statements about the future hazards of alienating technologies. But viewers are in luck, the inventive mind of Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are, Adaptation) has made a sensitive and powerful film about the limits and possibilities of human intimacy as mediated through artificial intelligence. Her is a magnificent film that hits the right notes over and over again without giving into satire or weighty pessimism. The film’s casting is superb, the music perfectly fits the emotional tones and the visual imagery of a near-future only delicately disorients our sense of time and setting, leaving the viewer to consider the subject matter as a deeply contemporary one. Fans of films like Lost in Translation, Harold and Maude, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Beginners, and The Future will likely be drawn into Jonze’s quirky world where timeless desire in the future has less to do with operating systems and more to do with the continuous puzzle of the mind/heart machine.
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.
In 2009, documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Catching Fire, Taxi to the Darkside) set out to chronicle the comeback of 7-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. But history was about to be re-written in 2013, forcing Gibney to shelve the project as Armstrong’s legal woes grew and the public’s trust in his well-insulated fraud began to erode. The doping allegations and assertions that Armstrong and his cycling teams were systematically cheating had dogged Armstrong throughout his career, even as his storied fight against cancer and celebrity stardom grew, finally forced the world’s most accomplished cyclist to publically admit to cheating during his run as Tour champion, doing so last year on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Gibney scrapped his original plan for the film and re-worked The Armstrong Lie into a fascinating examination of Armstrong’s storybook ascent to prominence and his Shakespearean fall from grace. Cycling fans will love the insider information about the sport’s well documented history of cheaters and scandal but the film will also appeal to viewers interested in the psychological deconstruction of a man who seemingly had it all but who at the same time, pathologically lied to everyone while building a fortress of corruption around his "narrative". Armstrong apologists, if any exist, will have a difficult time in justifying the means of trickery that Armstrong enacted in order to rationalize the ends. This isn’t just a great piece of schadenfreude but also an engaging study on the power of celebrity, money and the addiction to win at all cost.
The Armstrong Lie
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
Burn is an exhilarating documentary that takes viewers inside the day to day lives of Detroit firefighters, as they confront the enormously dangerous task of stamping out the city’s ceaseless torrent of burning buildings, many of which are the result of arson. The film also explores the tensions within city government and how firefighting services are impacted by Detroit’s dwindling resources, financial woes and political infighting. It’s a great film that is packed with humor, drama and genuine heroism.
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
Jim Jarmusch’s films are not for everyone. They are, however, incredibly influential and important in the history of American cinema. Slowly paced with quirky characters, his droll, often minimalist films explore the ironic and humanistic with equal attention. His films feel very American (the America on the margins that is) while at the same time, they are populated with Italian cabdrivers (Night on Earth), teenage Japanese tourists obsessed with early rock and roll (Mystery Train), and Hungarian immigrants (Stranger Than Paradise). His most accessible and mainstream movie to date is Broken Flowers, due in large part because of Bill Murray’s great performance as a romantically failed, wealthy introvert who wears retro sweat suits while sitting in the dark (during the day), watching television. It’s only when he receives a mysterious letter from one of his ex-girlfriends, suggesting that he has a son he never knew about, does he set out on a personal journey toward…well, maybe nothing and maybe everything. The moments within a journey are what fascinate Jarmusch about the human condition rather than a tightly sewn conclusion to a story. His cult classics Down by Law and Stranger Than Paradise cemented his reputation as an indie sweetheart with a wry sensibility and skill for reimagining genre and form by the early 1990’s. The release of his newest film (Only Lovers Left Alive) will once again shine the light on one of America’s most idiosyncratic, independent filmmakers.
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.
Actor/director Ben Stiller makes a decent go at breathing new life into a classic story by James Thurber that was originally adapted in 1947 with Danny Kaye playing the lead. Thurber disliked the MGM film and I suspect that as an artist who cared deeply about his work, he’d find few remains of his classic tale of a socially awkward introvert prone to vivid daydreaming in Stiller’s ambitious yet uneven attempt. It’s a movie with a heart even if it’s one that is cloying and flavored with a simplistic “just do it” spirit. Stiller’s Mitty fantasizes as a means to escape his life of corporate downsizing and failure to find love. As a heroic everyman willing to brave danger to save a damsel in distress, Mitty finds agency, meaning and purpose (the hyper-masculine sort of course) but then again, that’s only a narrative exercise that takes place between his ears. It’s when he’s propelled by urgency, self-interest and romantic inspiration that our ill-at-ease hero pushes aside his fear and anxiety, leading to the a-ha moments one locates in adventure but also the kind found in every self-help book (live life to the fullest dude!). Stiller’s harmless, family-friendly and entertaining take on a classic is worth a viewing for its reimagined Mitty and superb cinematography but you may want to simply head to the library and pick up Thurber’s story for the substance.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
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
This is the true story of one woman’s pursuit for answers to questions long dismissed by an institution of power and secrecy. For Philomena, her story begins as a young, unmarried teen saddled with the birth of a son in a socially conservative Ireland during the 1950’s. Teen pregnancy was considered a moral sin that required a person’s atonement according to church practices. Taken in by a local abbey, she was coerced to sign away her parental rights, forced into performing labor and tragically witnessed the selling of her child to an American couple. Decades later, having stumbled across a former journalist and political spin doctor who was looking to revive his career by penning a “human interest” story for a magazine, Philomena sets out on a journey toward emotional closure and to learning about her son’s life in the United States. As I watched the film, I couldn't help but wonder if reading the memoir wouldn't have been a much better way to learn about Philomena's story. The actors are top notch but they can't save a film where so much depends upon the final 15 minutes, leaving much of the film about the odd couple relationship between Philomena and the journalist, which sadly, was far from interesting even with their tit for tat discourse regarding the power of faith in the face of injustice.
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.
Edward Shackleton’s failed expedition to the South Pole in 1914 produced the greatest rescue/survival mission ever recorded. Chasing Shackleton is a PBS documentary that follows six modern day adventurers as they attempt to replicate the astounding feats of bravery, ingenuity and physical endurance that Shackleton and his crew members used in their attempt to sail the most dangerous ocean waters on the globe and traverse an unmapped mountain to save their fellow crewman. Led by an audacious leader in Tim Jarvis and clad in the wool clothes of the early 20th century, these six intrepid explorers set out in a tiny sail boat from an island near the South Pole to test their grit and know-how while tackling the enormous obstacles which a hundred years before, lay in the path of Shackleton’s redemption. Pushed to the point of death, will these men survive these harrowing environmental conditions in order to match their predecessor’s glory?
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.
The Danish political drama Borgen has been favorably compared to the American hit show House of Cards. While it resists the kind of farcical plotlines and hyper-cynicism of the Netflix-produced show, there features more than enough intrigue and Machiavelian maneuvering for political power to keep the storylines interesting and germane. Some critics have also alluded to The West Wing’s influence but Borgen resists the kind of naïve portrait of contemporary politics as a romantic idyll or a noble vocation. Borgen’s female protagonist is both a savvy political player engaged in political jousting and a committed wife and mother which suggests that there will be plenty of personal and political sacrifice to go around when the mud begins to fly. This is bingeworthy television, Scandinavian style.
In case you needed one last, post-Oscars list to use for upcoming checkout's. According to a survey of the editors and contributors of Film Comment magazine, these are the Top 20 films of 2013. Some have been released on DVD and others have yet to hit the shelves.
- Inside Llewyn Davis
- 12 Years a Slave
- Before Midnight
- The Act of Killing
- A Touch of Sin
- Computer Chess
- Frances Ha
- Upstream Color
- Museum Hours
- Blue Is the Warmest Color
- Spring Breakers
- Like Someone in Love
- Stories We Tell
- American Hustle
- The Grandmaster
Liked That, Try This is an ongoing series of posts that attempts to help movie audiences find a title that is similar to films they’ve enjoyed in the past or that has some historical, stylistic or thematic connection. Today’s installment focuses on television series.
Liked The West Wing, try Borgen
Liked Shameless, try United States of Tara
Liked Twin Peaks, try Top of the Lake
Liked The Wire, try Homicide: Life on the Street
Liked How I Met Your Mother, try Community
Liked Freaks and Geeks, try Undeclared
Liked Parenthood, try Six Feet Under
Liked Downton Abbey, try Call the Midwife
What happens when one of the staff persons charged with helping young people overcome trauma, neglect and abuse at an at-risk juvenile home is quietly suffering from her own painful past? This is the question at the center of this wonderful, little film propelled by strong acting performances and a deft touch at balancing grim subject matter with moments of levity and humor. Grace, played by a fantastic Brie Larson, and her devoted boyfriend Mason work together to help kids manage their feelings and cope with the cards they’ve been dealt. But her strength of character and compassionate heart alone are of little use when it comes to facing her own feelings of fear, anxiety and anger. Short Term 12 proves again that a film’s success is in no way related to the number of celebrity actors, use of CGI or amount of super hero characters. Sometimes, going small produces large rewards.
Short Term 12
Often cited as one of the most influential, low-budget films that contributed to the emergence of the American Independent Film Movement of the 1980’s, Paris, Texas is an inspired evocation of the personal journey of a tortured soul (Harry Dean Stanton) progressing toward forgiveness and redemption. Set in Texas and Los Angeles, German director Wim Wenders paints a moving and poignant picture of an emotionally troubled man seeking to make sense out of his fractured, tumultuous past and in the process, repair some of the damage he’s inflicted upon those he loves. Pitch perfect as a kind of neo-Western, road-film, from the casting down to the spare beauty of Sam Shepard’s writing, Wenders unpacks the story of Travis and Jane to reveal the power of guilt, regret and selflessness.
“Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours is a small movie that contains multitudes”—Luc Sante
Jem Cohen’s film Museum Hours is a brilliant and mesmerizing answer to a question that he himself poses in the essay that accompanies the DVD—“How then to make movies that don’t dictate exactly where to look and what to feel? How to encourage viewers to make their own connections, to think strange thoughts, to be unsure of what happens next or even what genre of movie it is? How to combine the immediacy and openness of documentary with invented characters and stories?”
While not formulaic in the commercial, Hollywood sense, Cohen’s film does have a plot but one would be hard pressed to characterize the film as plot-driven nor does it particularly care about predictable scenes where characters recite lines from a script. It’s a much looser and improvised affair that speaks to Cohen’s interest in depicting the poetic and ephemeral place where life and art intersect, those elements of everyday life that register on the periphery of perception but that still make up the subjective landscape of human experience and history. What the film is (its form and conceptual concerns) and what the film is about (perception, loneliness, the universality of art over time and its allusive, individual character, etc.) is not one in the same but rather they complement each other.
The film at its core is the story of two strangers who meet at the Kunsthistoriches Art Museum in Vienna. Johann is a middle aged guard who spends his hours staring at people looking at art. Anne is a woman visiting her ailing cousin who is dying in a nearby hospital. He befriends her after they meet amongst the paintings of Bruegel, Rembrandt and other European masters. He serves as a kind of Viennese tour guide and translator for her as she awaits news about her comatose cousin. They wander through bars, take hillside strolls, amble through urban markets, and board an underground boat ride, both connecting the other to their life in miniatures, doing so as strangers once did prior to social networking. The dialogue is magically awkward and feels as though the actors were directed to improvise their conversational responses. Anne, played by cult singer Mary Margaret O’hara is especially magnetic. This is one of my favorite films from last year.
Set in Yokohama Japan prior to the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, this animated story of passionate students fighting for the preservation of a beloved school building slated for demolition parallels the romantic story of two young teens and the mysterious history that binds them together. The film will appeal to all ages but teens and tweens may be its biggest audience. Maudlin and sweet, From Up On Poppy Hill can be viewed with either the original Japanese or the English language version.
From Up on poppy hill
This is heart wrenching film from Swedish director Jan Troell focuses on one woman’s tumultuous life as a psychologically and physically abused wife and mother who momentarily escapes her domestic torment by picking up a camera—an instrument of creativity and documentation that she uses as a means for both personal expression and as a gateway to escape her unforgiving life. Shot with exquisite cinematography, Everlasting Moments takes the viewer on an anguished ride through the minefield of Maria Larsson’s troubled life—one defined by her amazing strength and fortitude in the face of heartbreak and disappointment. As bleak as her prospects are, Maria (brilliantly portrayed by Maria Heiskanen) discovers that there are moments, sublime in their ephemerality, when she and her alcoholic husband face the obstacles of war, poverty and hunger together and tenderly. Troell has masterly rendered a humane portrait of a family struggling to survive in pre-WWI Sweden, with the centerpiece constituted by Maria’s endless capacity for grace, forgiveness and persistence.
Reader’s Advisory is a term that librarians use to describe the act of linking similar titles together so that readers are exposed to authors and titles that possess comparable thematic or stylistic qualities. This is the first installment of a film version of that kind of process of suggestion. It’s not scientifically based and so absorb these lists with a grain of salt.
• Liked Goodfellas, try Miller’s Crossing
• Liked Charulata, try Everlasting Moments
• Liked The Truman Show, try Real Life
• Liked Drive, try Taxi Driver
• Liked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, try Petulia
• Liked Last Year at Marienbad, try Memento
• Liked The Ice Storm, try Ordinary People
• Liked Groundhog Day, try Being There
• Liked Take Shelter, try Repulsion
• Liked Il Postino, try Amelie
• Liked E.T, try Super 8
• Liked Doubt, try The Silence
• Liked Mad Men (series), try The Hour (series)
• Liked Paper Moon, try The Last Picture Show
• Liked Harold and Maude, try Delicacy
• Liked Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy, try The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
• Liked Goon, try Slapshot
• Liked Harry and Tonto, try Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
• Liked The Newsroom (series), try Sports Night (series)
• Liked Platoon, try The Thin Red Line
• Liked Leaving Las Vegas, try Taste of Cherry
• Liked Dead Man Walking, try Into the Abyss: a tale of death, a tale of life
• Liked There Will Be Blood, try Citizen Kane
• The Bridge Over River Kwai, try Force 10 from Navarone
• Liked Blue Valentine, try A Woman Under the Influence
Force 10 from Navarone
Le Havre is a wonderful film that I missed seeing when it first showed at WMU’s Little Theater several years ago. Named for a provincial city on the northern, French coast, the film is one of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s most warmhearted and charming. Known for his less is more approach to film making, his works tend to give birth to zany, working class characters whose expressions of both joy and futility come off as droll and darkly peculiar (fans of Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch will appreciate the brand of humor). Le Havre is a simple story: an elderly shoe shiner stumbles into a plot to hide a young, African boy from the authorities who seek his deportation. Ex “bohemian” Marcel Marx has a difficult enough time as it is in dealing with his critically ill wife. His newest project, one that he had not expected, is to safeguard with the help of his fellow townspeople, a young refuge named Idrissa, who is seeking to travel to London. With the authorities hot on his trail, Marcel keeps ahead of the fuzz with just enough assistance from Le Havre’s band of bartenders, rock musicians, and an unlikely detective. It’s a beautiful fantasy as much as it is a political fable about community and humanity.
I’ve been trying to distract myself from the extreme winter weather of late by checking out some of our documentaries on surfing (White Wash, Riding Giants). Maybe it’s the beautiful landscape of the Hawaiian coast or the vibrant blue of the ocean wafting above the earth’s surface that appeals to me as we grind through a cold, grey winter.
Surfwise is an excellent documentary film that will appeal to anyone interested in exploring the question: What is a meaningful life and what does it look like in practice? Surfwise is the portrait of a man (Dorian Doc Paskowitz) with a vision of the world that found it’s life-long manifestation in the rejection of social conventions and modern values. It’s also a film about family dynamics and the conflict between one man’s inflexible idealism and the resentment and problems it later produced for his nine children.
The Criterion Collection has a wonderful page on their website that catalogs the 10 favorite Criterion releases from a wide assortment of actors, musicians, directors, writers and other arty types. I always find these selections a good place to start my search for the unseen and unknown. If I were asked to list my ten favorite films from their collection, I’d start with the following:
1. Harold and Maude
2. Hiroshima Mon Amour
3. Au Hasard Balthazar
4. The 400 Blows
5. The Royal Tenenbaums
7. The Passion of Joan of Arc
8. Late Spring
9. Pierrot Le Fou
10. In the Mood for Love
Any sort of discussion of historically significant directors must include the work of the great Satyajit Ray. Ray’s visually brilliant and emotionally moving Charulata (1964) tackles the subject of desire; specifically that of a lonely and bored housewife imprisoned by limited social expectations and later on by romantic feelings for her husband’s cousin. Her newspaper-running husband’s responses to her veiled longing and artistic aspirations come off as glib or paternalistic. It’s only when his wayward, free spirited, poetry-composing cousin arrives to live at their home that Charulata begins to self-actualize and to allow her creative passion for writing to become more pronounced and acknowledged. Ray’s talent was in mixing the styles and tone of European and American films with the local, cultural nuances of Indian society. Always sensitive to develop multifaceted characters that are easy to sympathize with, Ray’s films feel like visual diaries of emotionally repressed or socially oppressed persons struggling to reconcile the old with the new, the traditional with the modern. The quality of acting is also top notch.
Friendship as a documentary subject is a rare thing and with this affecting and poignant account of the long-term bond between Pulitzer Prize-winning author/actor Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark, viewers may feel as though they are listening in on a personal conversation between two old mates. Fused by both affinity and family, these two friends, entangled within the complicated web of history, not to mention their very different views on life and living, join together to work on an University project regarding their correspondence and ephemera that may result in a book deal. Full of tenderness, humor and sadness, these two old compatriots open up and bare their lifetime of memories, laments and affection for one another before the camera’s eye, offering up fascinating insights about both the limits of male closeness and its lasting durability.
Shepard & Dark
As rabid a film watcher as I am, time restrictions will forever thwart my capacity to plow through KPL’s stellar movie collection but here is an abbreviated list of some of my favorite films from KPL’s collection, watched over the past year. While we add new releases each week, don’t forget about the diversified depth of our collection. We can’t purchase every movie that is requested or inquired about but we can work toward the goal of having most titles for most of our patrons, most of the time.
Upstream Color: With the exception of the increasingly abstract, fragmented and non-linear narratives of Terrence Malick, there have been few notable American films over the past decade or so that have attempted to remake the kind of Eurocentric, anti-classical/realist/romantic films of the 1960’s and 70’s (think: Godard, Bresson, Tarr, Tarkovsky, Resnais, Warhol, Antonioni). With Upstream Color, a sort of Hiroshima Mon Amour for our contemporary times, one hopes that young filmmakers will continue to take the value of abstraction seriously, reimagining it in new and thoughtful ways.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch: A film that came out (pun intended) way ahead of its time. It’s kind of an absurdist musical that is in-your-face bonkers, but bonkers in the most vital, transgressive and beautifully rebellious way. A postmodern Hair.
Young Adult: Charlize Theron gives a great performance as an unraveled mess of a person that attempts to transition from a life of boredom and narcissism toward a more complete, self-aware state where the adjective ‘young’ can finally wither away.
Sullivan’s Travels: I checked this film out because the great American director Preston Sturges’ name kept popping up in literature on director/writer Wes Anderson (a favorite of mine). This well-written and acted screwball comedy hits the mark and lives up to its acclaim as one of the 1940’s best films.
My Dinner with Andre: A film like few others--this conventions-busting mixture of fiction and nonfiction, storytelling and improvised riffing will either bore you into slumber or thrill you with its originality. We almost forget, due to the strong writing, that the great French autuer Louis Malle was its director.
Insignificance: I’m still not sure I ‘get’ this peculiar film but it was certainly compelling, the way in which a film can unfold as both an irritant and a puzzling enigma.
Hiroshima Mon Amour: Before I saw this Alain Resnais masterpiece about memory, love and loss, I considered Harold and Maude my favorite film. Now it’s number two.
12 Angry Men: Watch this fictional, court room drama and then the documentary The Central Park Five. The very notion of facts, evidence, justice and human objectivity are brilliantly rendered as a hollow collection of outdated concepts with tragic application.
Hunger: Not to be mistaken with Steve McQueen’s first film about the imprisonment of IRA soldiers of the same name but rather the nimble and haunting adaptation of the classic, existential novella by Danish writer Knut Hamsun.
Summer with Monika: Arguably, my favorite film of Bergman’s but nowhere near his best. That distinction belongs to his magnum opus Scenes from a Marriage, a film that should only be approached by the single and the happily married couple.
Rules of the Game: My goal for movie watching this year was to view a handful of those classics considered important to the historical development of the art form according to the Sight and Sound Magazine’s list of 250 Greatest Films; a list created every ten years by an esteemed cadre of critics. Renoir’s masterpiece (rated at No. 4) is there for a reason and its influence can be seen in almost every film made since 1939 that skewers the vacuity of the rich and clueless.
La Jetee/Sans Soleil: Made by maverick film essayist Chris Marker, these two films are quite distinct from one another in both content and style. Both represent the best in avant-garde, envelope-pushing cinema that emerged parallel with the various manifestations of the European New Wave movement.
Picnic at Hanging Rock: This 70’s cult classic by Peter Weir still holds up as a truly original film that tackles the subject of loss, regret and repressed longing, all of which are tied to a mystery that leaves an Australian women’s school in shock and confusion.
Other notable films: L’ Avventura, Stroszek, Bringing Up Baby, Amarcord, The Killing, Neighboring Sounds, Damnation, The Lives of Others, Magnificent Ambersons, Harvey, Pat and Mike, The Third Man, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Searchers, Elevator to the Gallows, As I Lay Dying, Cleo from 5 to 7, Frances Ha, The Silence, Winter Light, Cries and Whispers, Blast of Silence, Through a Glass Darkly, Argo, Shallow Grave, Band of Outsiders, Fanny and Alexander, Mud, Harry and Tonto, Chasing Ice, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
The new documentary film Room 237 may have only limited appeal but if you love Stanley Kubrick’s movies (Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket, The Killing, 2000: A Space Odyssey), especially his adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining, then this is a must-see film. Structured as an introduction to the many provocative theories about The Shining and its meaning, viewers hear (but never shown) several die-hard fans meticulously outline what they think the film is about and what Kubrick was attempting to express. Those interested in Kubrick’s controversial version (Stephen King hated it) conspiracy theories will love the film and the way it depicts both the intellectual limits of critical semiotics and deconstruction as well as the depth of passion and obsession invested in such a project. Was it really a deeply coded criticism of the genocide of the American Indian or could it have been a winking apology for Kubrick’s participation in the faking of the moon landing and c’mon, what’s up with those cans of Calumet baking soda? If anything, the film proves that art and an artist’s intentions can be interpreted in a number of ways, often resulting with comical conclusions but it also serves as a celebration of theory as an intellectual exercise in deepening our capacity to think more dynamically and critically about the power of messaging and the coding of media.
Arguably, one of Canada’s greatest films, Mon Oncle Antoine is a coming of age tale set in rural Quebec. Beautifully shot and with wonderful acting, it's an unsentimental portrait of young people caught up in a confusing and hostile adult world, where youthful innocence is shattered and when growing up means experiencing complex realities. The film is set in the 1940’s as a small mining town prepares for Christmas celebrations. But unlike most holiday films that purposefully avoid seriousness and genuine pathos, Claude Jutra’s film tenderly addresses the subject of adolescent awakenings under the specter of sex and death. This 1971 film was Jutra’s masterpiece and a brilliant film that captures both the goodness in people as well as their human failings. Read a film essay about the film here.
Mon oncle antoine
A groundbreaking documentary when first released in 1968, this Albert and David Maysles (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter) production follows the emotional up’s and down’s of a group of door-to-door salesman who are charged with the peddling of a gold embossed version of the Good Book. Each of these real life Willy Loman’s has a nickname (The Rabbit, The Gipper, The Bull) which adds an element of fictive artifice, but what the Maysles brothers are really after, is to paint a psychological portrait of the inner turmoil these men feel as they grind their way through each pitch, expressing frustration (at both each other and their customers), skepticism toward the future of their profession and in some cases, a celebratory belief in the power of their vocation. Funny, heartbreaking and myth-busting, Salesman is an American classic of cinema verite.
The great movie directors have always shown an interest in exploring the subject of growing up and the themes of adolescent awakening, rites of passage and the sometimes complex depiction of individuals straddling both adulthood and childhood. As many different kinds of filmmakers as there are, so to have these kinds of movies been varied, both in terms of genre, point of view and style. Childhood it would appear from some of the beloved films that have been inspired by the subject, is messy, complicated and rendered as a darn right miserable experience.
Youth’s opposite condition, the aging process and growing old has also been explored with both tenderness and horror. Sometimes depicted with gritty realism, other times with romantic sentimentality, many of these films examine the way that the elderly either flourish by growing open to new and different ideas about what it means to live or in some cases, investigate the many difficulties that the elderly are confronted with. Here is a brief list of some of the great films that tackle the subject of both youth and the elderly with intelligence, artfulness and humanity.
Harry and Tonto
Harold and Maude
Away from Her
On Golden Pond
The Up Series
The Straight Story
Murmur of the Heart
My Life as a Dog
Mon Oncle Antoine
Stand by Me
Kid with a Bike
Spirit of the Beehive
The Ice Storm
Harry and Tonto
Cult film Blast of Silence (1961), which seemingly came out of nowhere in the early nineties after years of existing amidst a fog of cinematic obscurity, is a blast of style, kinetic energy and unsentimental nihilism. It's a low budget but artistically rendered and edited gem of a film that follows the life of an increasingly conflicted, paid hit man trying to get out of the business even as he preps for his next pay day during the holiday season. Frankie ‘Baby Face’ Bono stalks his New York City target with machine-like precision while at the same time becoming emotionally interested in an old friend’s sister. Made on a shoe-string budget, Allen Baron’s taut thriller perfectly encapsulates the look and feel of similar films of that era connected to the independent film movement of the late 50’s and early 1960’s.
Blast of Silence
The great films from the silent era to today have always addressed the significant, universal themes and truths that lie at the core of human experience. There may be no better film made about the end of life and the instinctive response to look back on one’s dreams, laments, regrets, and accomplishments while standing upon the precipice than Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (Bergman’s Wild Strawberries is a close second). More than a somber piece of cinema about an unremarkable everyman’s last days, Ikiru (meaning “to live”) is a life affirming and poetic masterpiece that beautifully portrays our main character’s search for meaning as he learns he has a terminal disease.
Kanji Watanabe, a government employee who nobody seems to know or respect, agonizes over the belief that he has not lived a full life of importance and it’s this doubt that drives him forward to engage his fleeting days with a fierce purpose. For like so many, the presence of the end animates what it means to be alive. Kurosawa uses his immense directorial talents to bring this theme alive in fresh and unique ways. Fans of Kurosawa’s samurai movies may be surprised at the heartbreaking tenderness that he exhibits in this, his most endearing and humane film that explores life’s preciousness through one man’s death.
The Loving Story is just that, a documentary tale of two people bound by an uncompromising commitment to one another, fighting against injustice and hatred. Marriage equality isn’t only a contemporary legal issue that’s being struggled over in state and federal courts today but one that goes back many years and in this particularly precedent-setting case, begins in 1958, when two Virginians married in Washington D.C., neither aware of a Virginia law that criminalized interracial marriages. Our loving couple, Mildred and Richard Loving were subsequently arrested and charged with a crime. Wanting to continue to live in Virginia, the couple decided to fight this legal bigotry by challenging their convictions as well as the the very law that was designed to oppress Virginian blacks and codify social and economic segregation. Supported by two brash and youthful attorneys, the Loving’s fought their way to the United States Supreme Court and won in 1967. This is their remarkable story.
The Loving Story
The recently released documentary film Chasing Ice is the story of one of the world’s most renowned photojournalists tackling the subject of global warming by documenting the retreat and loss of glacial ice in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, and Montana due to climate change. This documentary, full of breathtaking images of both sublime beauty and environmental degradation introduces us to the passionate photographer James Balog, who with his team of scientists, techies, climbing experts and field guides set out to document the physical evidence of global warming by setting up cameras in multiple locations to film a particular landscape in order to archive the changes. The dramatic effects of global warming are clearly evident as Balog returns to each site several times a year to make sure the cameras are functioning properly and to review the effects upon the glaciers. The film highlights the emotional up’s and down’s and natural obstacles to such an endeavor but what really is the most striking feature of the film is the awe-inspiring magnificence of the arctic landscapes.
One’s take away from writer/director Sarah Polley’s brilliant, semi-autobiographical Stories We Tell may be that the film is about family dynamics and the complex secrets they often keep hidden. But what the film is really about is the way in which our lives are like stories, often interpreted and consumed differently by various actors involved within the circle of a particular narrative. The 'truth' about Sarah's origins becomes increasingly unstable as memories (some of which may be unreliable) of the past highlight the relativistic and nuanced nature of individual perspectives and experiences. Everyone's take on Sarah's mother is bit different, which is to say, she struggled to conform to any singular mold or characterization. The film works very much like Tim O’brien’s masterful fictional memoir The Things They Carried, a novel set in the Vietnam War but a book concerned primarily with the importance of storytelling as a way of understanding splintered, de-centered realities. It’s a wonderful film and one of the best of the year.
Stories We Tell
By the mid 1950’s Katharine Hepburn had solidified herself as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and so with few limitations regarding her career trajectory or concerns regarding box office success, she took on roles that were less about making money and more as vehicles to work with some of the best directors of that time. Summertime, a film that most movie fans don’t immediately recognize as one of her signature movies, is a wonderful tale of doomed romance along the Venetian canals. Directed by legendary British auteur David Lean (A Brief Encounter, Bridge On the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia), Summertime finds Hepburn in a role that has her playing an emotionally lonely yet headstrong and independent secretary, enjoying her dream vacation in Venice when romance comes her way in the form of a smooth-talking shop owner. Shot in vibrant Technicolor, Lean shows off Venice as a beautiful city full of life and history. The city becomes a character onto itself. It’s a film about living in the moment and embracing the vitality of experience.
After watching the Academy Award winning film (Best Foreign Language Film) Amour, a film of tremendous emotional intensity and tenderness, I needed to view a film that took me away into a fantasy world comprised of silly hijinks, screwball comedy and that starred classic Hollywood actors. I found that film in the classic 1938 comedy, Bringing Up Baby, a hilarious romp of absurdity and folly that was the perfect antithesis to Amour’s touching but grim story of the final weeks of an elderly couple’s marriage. Both pictures represent the best and breadth of the library’s film collection, one that has a little bit of everything.
The newest film from maverick filmmaker Terrence Malick will move even the most seasoned movie-watcher with its sheer, lyrical beauty yet will likely confound and annoy those who require a clear, comprehensible and linear plot with a standard amount of dialogue. I love Malick's uncompromised films and yet To the Wonder left me scratching my head at why he's become so drawn to the removal of storytelling and dramatic complexity. It isn’t so much that there is no plot but rather that the story is so utterly stale that one may find its shallow pretenses cause to hit the ‘stop’ button before the 20 minute mark. The voiceover, a device that Malick uses in all of his pictures, is pointless prattle and does little to expand our understanding of the motivations and feelings at the core of the four primary characters, all of whom simply wander about as handsome ciphers. These inadequacies alone would sink most films but of course Malick is one of the giants of cinema and therefore is afforded a bit of leeway given his uncompromising commitment to making films without concern for audience expectations or commercial success (that I really do appreciate). I applaud his integrity while at the same time feel a bit cheated at what could have been. The wondrous imagery that Malick is known for is truly magnificent. His films have always been painterly and romantic, lush and poetic but there’s nothing of human complexity or dimension beneath the endlessly vacuous imagery of glowing sunsets, hands grazing tall grass and beautiful actors behaving foolishly. Give it a try. You may find To the Wonder pointless or transcendent or even both.
To the wonder
56 Up is the eighth and latest installment in the British documentary Up series. Began in 1964 and airing every seven years, audiences have followed a select group of seven year old children from 1964 to now with the expressed intent to examine British class structure and its power to determine one’s life. We the viewers are allowed access to the personal up’s and down’s of a participant’s life story, including a quick summation of their life as it was and as it is now. The interviews probe the typical subject matter such as married life, employment, children, health and various laments, grievances and successes. Viewers won’t be mesmerized by anything unconventional, extraordinary or surprising. Most of the children have grown up to live relatively banal, middle class lives even as they’ve likely felt a certain pressure as living subjects within an entertainment/sociological experiment.
Famously shy and reclusive writer/director Terrence Malick burst into the spotlight with his extraordinary debut Badlands(1973), a classic of American filmmaking starring a young Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen. The library has recently picked up the expanded and refurbished Criterion Collection edition which features recollections from the two actors and the art director. Fans of Malick’s impressionistic and painterly films (The Thin Red Line, Tree of Life, Days of Heaven, The New World) will certainly want to see this version in all of its restored vibrancy. After watching this amazing film, loosely based on the Charles Starkweather murders of the late 1950’s, I’ve attempted to come up with a short list of significant directorial debut films that we currently have in our collection.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
The Night of the Hunter
A Bout De Souffle (Breathless)
Knife in the Water
Killer of Sheep
The 400 Blows
Can a film be at once a tender, macabre, oddball slice of campy surrealism with a heart? Few have treaded these idiosyncratic waters of exotic eccentricity better than Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. Brand upon the Brain, his feature film from 2008 represents Maddin at his most mainstream, which is not to suggest that the film is going to be embraced by more than a few devotees. But if you’re willing to open your mind up to Maddin’s semi-autobiographical story about a lighthouse that serves as both an orphanage and the setting for mad, scientific experiments, you’ll be rewarded with an enchanting tale of bold, cinematic weirdness.
Brand upon the Brain
Life Is Sweet (1990) solidified British director Mike Leigh’s place as one of the United Kingdom’s most important director/writers. He has since gone on to make several other classic films (Naked, Career Girls, Another Year, Vera Drake, Happy Go Lucky) that explore the darkly twisted world of British working and middle-class life, mixing together black humor with social critique that rarely comes across as contemptuous or mocking. His humane and sympathetic depictions of the shadowy and grim aspects of life are easier to digest because of his deft touch for highlighting the absurd. Leigh’s gift for creating quirky characters out of relatively mundane stories about everyday life is at the heart of many of his films. Life Is Sweet perfectly illustrates this vision, where the grotesque, odd and cruel are wedded to the jovial, loving and poignant. Be prepared to watch with subtitles given the thick accents and quick deliveries of the dialogue.
Life is sweet
The BBC’s stylish and entertaining series The Hour has been compared to Mad Men, in large part because of the approximate time period (mid 1950’s) the show is set and because of the copious amount of drinking and smoking that characters indulge in. Aside from those superficial comparisons, The Hour tackles mid-century, hot-button political issues through the prism of an hour-long, topical news program (think early 60 Minutes) run by young, idealistic journalists who inevitably butt heads with both their own management as well as the political establishment. What makes the series really tick is the element of mystery that emerges to provide a bit of tension and noir to this excellent, two-season drama.
Described as a film about “everything and nothing”, Yi Yi (Translation: A One and a Two) is writer/director Edward Yang’s moving, slice of life portrait about the up’s and down’s, 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 N.J.’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, urban experience 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.
Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) is one of the most moving dramas you’ll ever see about the intersecting tension between social norms, generational conflict and familial love, a theme that the great Japanese director masterfully explored with a fierce intelligence and a tender poetry in his post-war films. Late Spring is the story of a daughter who is so dedicated to her father’s well-being that she eschews her family’s urging to marry. At the age of 27 and unmarried, her single status is deemed a problem to be solved by her loving father, persistent aunt, and cynical best friend. Why marry for the sake of fulfilling an outdated social tradition that isn’t necessarily a guarantee for happiness in modern Japan she argues. While her thoughtful and understanding father may agree with such an argument, there exists few options for her future that don’t include either an arranged marriage or one born out of romantic love. Each character is so richly rendered and conceived that antagonists are excluded altogether. Everyone seems to have a legitimate point of view which is a quality that highlights the respectful and sympathetic nature of Ozu’s grasp of character. Highly recommended viewing. For a clip go here.
If I had to choose my top film for 2013 today, it would surely be Mark Cousins’ epic series The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a serious film connoisseur’s dream documentary that covers the history of film from its 19th century origins up through the present. Cousins, never timid to express his own attitude toward the nature of both the economics and politics of the film industry, weaves the technical, cultural and artistic evolution of movie making through the lens of both that of an erudite chronicler, passionate critic, and corrective revisionist. He summarizes the development of movies as both an art form and as a business enterprise. He deconstructs established myths and ‘official’ accounts of film’s development while respectfully pointing to the shortcomings of conventional perspectives on the canon. His thick Scottish/Irish brogue may be too derisive an element for some viewers to overcome but overall (the project is obviously too personal for Cousins to have employed another narrator), Cousins’ work will for some time constitute the benchmark for others to follow.
Cousins navigates the viewer through the decades, styles, genres, technical innovations and regional characteristics of the major epicenters of movie-making (Hollywood, France, the Soviet Union, Sweden, Japan, and Italy) introducing us to both American films emanating from the Hollywood star machine as well as those less acknowledged masterpieces made throughout the Asian, Latin and African world. The strength of Cousins’ view, that the story of film up until now has been one of exclusion and omission, arises from his ability to present an international collection of seminal directors and films, showing how these works and the talented minds behind their production arose parallel to more celebrated works of the Western world. Much of this history has been driven by the tension and balance between art, commerce and ideas, which Cousins explores throughout the series with great attention to detail and with obvious affection for the subject. The usual suspects are all here, including, Thomas Edison, Sergei Eisenstein, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Howard Hawkes, John Ford, Jean-Luc Godard, Fredrico Fellini, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Steven Spielberg as well as lesser known directors like Hind Rostom in Bab.Al-Hadid, Abel Gance, Erich von Stroheim, George Albert Smith, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Lynne Ramsay. Cineaphiles rejoice, your love letter to movies has been made.
The Story of film: an odyssey
Paul Newman starred as a dynamic antihero in several movie classics throughout his long career like The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The Texan novelist Larry McMurtry has had many of his works adapted to the big screen and television including Lonesome Dove, Brokeback Mountain, Terms of Endearment, and The Last Picture Show. In 1963 the two came together for the making of Hud, one of Newman’s greatest performances. Newman plays Hud Bannon, the bad son who ruins everything he touches, including the bumpy relationship between his moralistic and principled father, his impressionable nephew Lon and the housekeeper Alma, wonderfully played by Patricia Neal. When not carousing with married women, Hud engages in drunken brawls and tension-filled conversations with his father about the future of the family ranch. Newman is brilliant at playing the hard-living, self-absorbed son who perceives situations only in terms of selfish opportunism. Directed by Martin Ritt (Norma Rae, Sounder, Hombre, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), Hud still stands up as a subject-rich, gritty, family drama set amongst the austere landscape of Texas.
The new documentary from filmmaker Ken Burns (The Central Park Five) is an outrage-inducing expose of the insidious injustice carried out upon five New York City teenagers in 1989. The story begins with the brutal attack of a jogger in Central Park. From there, the police department and prosecutors seek out those that they could label as the perpetrators, not the actual rapist. The evidence would suggest that investigators were neither interested in justice nor the truth about who was responsible for the vicious crime. The city explodes in racist condemnation of the teen suspects with much of the media and political class trying the case in the court of public opinion and tabloid. This is a must-watch film that should be shown in every classroom across this country.
The Central Park Five
The Turkish film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was on many end-of-the-year polls of best movies. It’s a slow burning film about a murder and the men who venture into the dark of night charged with locating the deceased’s body. The viewer already knows who did it. The murderer sits between two police officers in the back of a car that traverses the Turkish countryside. It’s actually not about the murder at all but rather about the interior lives of its varied cast of characters. It’s a film about what goes unsaid, that which is communicated only by silence and the elapse of time. It’s a film about a single night and the complicated pasts of men living in a moment.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
It’s pretty easy to argue that movie expert Roger Ebert was America’s First Film Critic, in the sense that he was the country’s most well-known and respected reviewer of cinema. Ebert passed away yesterday from complications due to cancer. Ebert and the late Gene Siskel introduced millions of Americans to thoughtful conversations about both commercial and artistic-oriented films with their Saturday afternoon television show that aired from the mid 1980’s until Siskel’s death in 1999. Ebert’s brilliant reviews, many of which are collected in numerous books, are an excellent starting point for the novice fan of film to introduce themselves to the treasure trove of great movies. Ebert was known for his superb prose, much of which eschewed jargon and obtuse forms of critical theory. He also had a keen ability to criticize films he found intellectually stupefying or devoid of purpose with a biting sense of humor, some of which can be found below.
“The Last Airbender is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented. The laws of chance suggest that something should have gone right. Not here. It puts a nail in the coffin of low-rent 3D, but it will need a lot more coffins than that.”
“Battlefield Earth is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. It’s not merely bad; it’s unpleasant in a hostile way.”
“Dice Rules is one of the most appalling movies I have ever seen. It could not be more damaging to the career of Andrew Dice Clay if it had been made as a documentary by someone who hated him. The fact that Clay apparently thinks this movie is worth seeing is revealing and sad, indicating that he not only lacks a sense of humor, but also ordinary human decency.”
“Saving Silverman is so bad in so many different ways that perhaps you should see it, as an example of the lowest slopes of the bell-shaped curve. This is the kind of movie that gives even its defenders fits of desperation. Consider my friend James Berardinelli, the best of the Web-based critics. No doubt 10 days of oxygen deprivation at the Sundance Film Festival helped inspire his three-star review, in which he reports optimistically, ‘Saving Silverman has its share of pratfalls and slapstick moments, but there’s almost no flatulence.’ Here’s a critical rule of thumb: You know you’re in trouble when you’re reduced to praising a movie for its absence of fart jokes, and have to add ‘almost.’”
And one of his most famous disses concerns Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. It "is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments. One of these involves a dog-like robot humping the leg of the heroine. Such are the meager joys. If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination."
Federico Fellini’s most well-known film and a classic of Italian cinema, 8 and 1/2 continues to stand-up as a trailblazing film that introduced viewers in 1963 to an overly self-conscious form of storytelling that mixes fiction, memoir and dreamy surrealism together as a prophetic statement about the nature of celebrity, the mass media and the pressure to create art even when uninspired. Self-referential, wildly imaginative and irreverent, this classic film points the finger at the film industry and increasingly aggressive media while humorously mocking the hollowness of fame. Poking fun at both himself and his critics (both Catholics and Communists), Fellini delights in highlighting the absurdity and emotional alienation of those forced into positions of creating successful commerce while their personal life grows increasingly dysfunctional. See a trailer here.
8 and 1/2
While End of Watch’s storyline doesn’t break new ground (Cops vs Drug Cartel) in terms of fresh subject matter, the affecting bond between the two LAPD officers and the remarkable performances delivered by the actors Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal are enough to recommend this gritty, police drama, written by David Ayer (Training Day). See a trailer here.
End of Watch
One of last year’s most electrifying documentaries, The Imposter will leave an indelible mark, if only to remind you how entertaining (and ultimately sad) the interplay between fact and fiction, truth and fantasy can be when linked to a thriller of a story. One cannot describe this film without spoiling much of the suspense but viewers are likely to be both scratching their heads and muttering such things as “really?”, “no way!”, and “are people really that stupid and gullible?” How does a missing 13 year old boy from Texas mysteriously reappear in southern Spain, claiming he’d been kidnapped by military personnel, tortured and sold into slavery, convince the boy’s family and government officials that he is in fact the missing teen? Well, the answer to that and much more will likely leave your head spinning as you consider the subjects’ motivation and capacity to deceive. Fans of the runaway hit Catfish will find a great deal in The Imposter to like. View the trailer here.
In preparation for St. Patrick's Day, be sure to stop in and check out some of the many films that we own that feature the Emerald Isle. We have biographies, history, travel, documentaries and feature length films that highlight the rich and vibrant culture of Ireland.
The Quiet Man
Rattle and Hum
Beckett on Film
The Swell Season
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
My Left Foot
Rick Steves' Ireland & Scotland
A Love Divided
The Butcher Boy
If you like sweet and charming dramas with a pinch of humor, may I suggest the film Liberal Arts. How I MetYour Mother’s Josh Radnor wrote, directed and starred in this film about an increasingly disaffected thirty-something suffering from a bad case of nostalgia for his college days after he finds himself stuck in an emotional rut. After being asked by one of his former college professors (Richard Jenkins) to come back to his Ohio alma mater to attend a retirement dinner, Jesse realizes how much he misses the excitement, innocence and idealism of being nineteen, intellectually hungry and feeling optimistic. Such euphoria leads him to Zibby, a classical music-loving sophomore co-ed (Elizabeth Olsen) who is talented, precocious and drawn to Jesse’s enthusiastic love of books and because he's not the typical college boy she's interested in. As their relationship develops, the issue of their age gap comes into play while Jesse’s former professor struggles with his own anxiety about his post-employment future. Liberal Arts is definitely sappy in places and oozes with maudlin marrow but if you can get past some of the movie’s weaker elements, you’ll find the core of the story’s message about aging with grace relatively well-intended and affecting.
Most filmgoers know Christopher Nolan from his work as the director behind the recent Batman films and Inception but it was the film Memento that unleashed Nolan’s talent for sinister and suspensful movies that underscore his interest in the darker elements of human nature. Nolan’s work is also interested in exploring the elasticity of narrative and how the various constituents of a story fragmented and detached from a linear unfolding, impact the viewer’s experience and expectations. Fans of his films should definitely see his first film, the playful thrillerFollowing, a Paul Auster-like nightmare where identities are swapped and nothing is as it seems. One can see in this early attempt at disorienting the viewer’s grasp of time and plot, a precursor to the brilliant Memento.
As a punk rock skateboarder in the 1980’s, Another State of Mind was the most authentic depiction of life as a teenager involved in the underground music scene that any of us had seen put to film. It could only be found on late night cable television during the eighties and early nineties (you were lucky if one of your friends had a VCR and made a copy of it) and so I leapt at the opportunity to add the DVD release to our documentary film collection, hoping it would appeal to a newer generation as well as those who experienced the eighties punk scene first-hand. Made in 1982, at the time of hardcore punk’s heyday, the film takes the viewer on a cross-country journey with legendary Southern California bands The Youth Brigade and Social Distortion. There is plenty of live footage of the bands playing but the filmmakers primarily concentrated their focus on detailing the experiences of the band members as they struggled to survive the daily grind of touring in an old school bus. There’s also quite a bit of attention given to providing voice to kids the bands met along the way as well the occasional teenage denunciation (targets include: Reagan politics, middle-class conformity, religion, etc.). It certainly brought back some fond memories of my youthful days of DIY music and culture. See a clip here.
Another State of Mind
Wayne White has worn many creative hats over the years (art director, painter, puppeteer, music video director, set designer, animator, comic book illustrator, and so on) but what is most striking about this incredibly accomplished artist is his enthusiasm for integrating humor, levity and fun into his work, a rare mission for someone who has been embraced by both the entertainment industry (Pee Wee’s Playhouse) and the fine art world of museums and galleries. Like most, I knew nothing of his life or work until I saw the wonderful documentary portrait of this high energy personality called Beauty Is Embarrassing. You’ll learn about White’s humble, Southern origins and about his artistically constituted family (including his wife Mimi Pond). There are also tender moments in between the laughter and absurdity where White discusses his upbringing and the support he had growing up from his parents. This is a great film that will inspire your inner artist and rebel.
Beauty is Embarrassing
In Richard Linklater’s Bernie, a surprise hit released in 2012, Jack Black delivers a dialed down performance worthy of award recognition. Black belts out Gospel standards, dances to show tunes and brings a dramatic depth and sympathy to the role that one rarely finds in his oeuvre of slapstick comedies. Bernie is based on a true crime set in East Texas. Black plays the lovable but quirky Bernie, the assistant funeral director who when not comforting his beloved widows, befriends the town matriarch, a mean spirited woman made of money, played by legend Shirley MacLaine. From there, Bernie’s life of piety and service spins out of control when he deviates from his saintly deeds and finds himself confronted with the truth and consequences of his actions.
Director Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter brought him huge commercial success and an Oscar Award for Best Picture in 1978. His follow-up movie, the epic Western Heaven’s Gate, became known as a major flop of a film that almost financially ruined its studio (United Artists) and led to the label of Cimino as overbearing, obsessive and overly ambitious. For those interested in the behind the scenes drama of the making of Heaven’s Gate, see Steven Bach’s book Final Cut: dreams and disaster in the making of Heaven’s Gatefor an excellent summary. The Criterion Collection has recently released the director’s cut of this notorious film and it clocks in at over 200 minutes long.
Starring an excellent group of actors like Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, and Isabelle Huppert, Heaven’s Gate is a fictionalized story about the class and cultural conflict between the big money interests of the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association and European immigrants who were accused of poaching cattle and land in the faraway outpost of rural Wyoming. Cimino’s vision is grand and evocative of the vast, beautiful American West, warts and all. While neither a perfectly misunderstood masterpiece nor as terrible a film as its detractors have suggested, Heaven’s Gate is worthy of a viewing but be prepared for the long haul.
Gerhard Richter Painting is basically a straight forward, gimmick-less documentary presenting the world’s most famous painter doing what he does best--making art. The aloof Richter, now in his 80’s, shows few signs of slowing down though he admits during the film that he’ll call it quits when there’s nothing left of interest. The most fascinating part of the film, which will appeal to those who are working artists themselves, are the scenes revealing Richter’s techniques, many of which are suggestive of both an unpretentious approach and a meticulous thoughtfulness to the act of creation. Few will deny the genuine eclecticism of his highly celebrated oeuvre and fewer yet, will be able to afford one of his sought after paintings even if you win the Lotto.
Gerhard Richter Painting
The Michael Haneke film Amour was nominated for Best Picture this morning in large part because of the amazing performance of 85 year-old French actress Emmanuelle Riva. But did you know that we have Riva’s first film, the brilliant Hiroshima Mon Amour? Released in 1959, the famous French New Wave director Alain Resnais’ beautiful lament for lost love, innocence and peace (both international and personal) introduced the French actress to the world. Set in the recovering city that suffered the explosion of the first atom bomb, Resnais delicately tells the touching story of two lovers, who over the course of a day, search for what it means (if anything) to remember, to forget and to heal from the wounds of war. An affecting masterpiece of both innovation and storytelling, Riva ‘s anguished character (She) attempts to explain to Eiji Okada’s (He) where she came from (the city of Nevers) and how she has arrived in Hiroshima, a city that symbolically parallels her own life’s troubled arch.
Hiroshima mon amour
Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s mysteriously elegant film The Double Life of Veronique explores the supernatural tale of two women, played by the same actress, who never formally meet one another and yet who look exactly the same and who both feel the presence of the other. Set in both France and Kieslowski’s native Poland, the beautiful Irene Jacob stars as both Veronique and Weronika, two women living parallel lives who both sense that they are both ‘here’ and ‘somewhere’ else at the same time. Following Weronika’s death while singing on stage in Poland, Veronique seeks answers to her strange feelings while beginning to stitch together an explanation for the odd events that have begun to culminate, increasing both her unease and her curiosity.
Double life of veronique
After years of plowing through the great films, scratching one masterpiece after another off of my cinema bucket list, I finally sat down and watched the one film that is almost unanimously regarded as the ‘best ever’—that being Orson Welles’ signature debut, Citizen Kane, released in 1941. Did it live up to the hype? Well, yes and no. No film is perfectly conceived or executed and while Welles’ masterpiece ushered in a new, modern looking and sounding film that cemented his talent, Citizen Kane left me feeling a wee bit let down, mostly because much of the intrigue of the story was already spoiled for me. I suppose my expectations were unfairly high to begin with and that I was likely responding to it with judgments based upon the 70 years of filmmaking history that it had inspired.
The tale is a Shakespearean rags-to-riches-to-fall from grace formula but one that creatively unfolds byway of a frenetic, flashback narrative structure that helped to usher in a new era of innovative methods of cinematic storytelling. The acting performances are strong and the shadow-based cinematography predates the film noir style that would become popular throughout the 1940’s. The story of the making of the film is almost as interesting as Welles’ thinly disguised portrait of newspaper magnet William Randolph Hearst. So even having been exposed to hundreds of parodies and references of this strikingly contemporary film, Citizen Kane was still worth the wait and definitely should be viewed by any serious fan of film.
If you enjoy the romantic comedy genre and don’t mind English subtitles, the movie Delicacy might be for you. Starring Amelie actress Audrey Tautou, Delicacy is a creatively anodyne yet enjoyable film about tragedy, mourning, and second chances at love. Combining the kind of predictable rom-com tropes with just enough charm and sweetness, fans of quixotic romance will likely accept the film’s lack of originality for its bountiful amount of sentimentality and tenderness. It's emotional candy for the holiday season.
We come to literature or of certain books in strange ways, sometimes circuitous, often by chance but how we get ‘there’ is of less importance than the experience we have inside of the interior worlds that our favorite books evoke. I often pick up a book when I’ve read that a particular book or author has some sort of relationship to a favorite author of mine. Usually the relationship is only tangential and often what the writers have in common is less about stylistic similarities than the sort of common themes, concerns and tones that are explored. The name of W.G. Sebald always seems to pop up in reviews, essays or on lists of great writers. Though I have not read any of his transgressive, category-less books, I recently stumbled across a documentary film that maps out his work and discusses his artistic contributions to literature. Both fascinating as a biographical introduction and as a documentary film that explores Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn, Patience: After Sebald, has now intensified my interest in his highly praised books.
Patience: After Sebald
Oslo, August 31st is a beautiful and affecting film that will leave viewers amazed by its humane and sensitive treatment of the subject of drug addiction and depression. The film unfolds over a single day and as the film suggests, is set in the hip and fashionable parts of Oslo. We follow Anders around Norway’s capital city as he leaves his upscale, suburban drug treatment center for a job interview. His anxiety about the future is clear from the opening scenes. The trajectory of plot is presented in a straightforward and well-paced way, periodically weaving the poetic musings and memories of unseen voices (one assumes they are Anders, his family and friends into the narrative mix). Anders visits old friends for affirmation but he can’t seem to relate because of their seemingly comfortable lives. But are they comfortable? Are they happy? Will Anders utilize his intelligence, talent and strong upbringing to transform his life of addiction, fear and shame or will he sink deeper into a pit of psychic despair? I picked this movie up without knowing anything about it and I’m glad I did. This is one of the most sincere, honest and compassionate portraits of a troubled soul I’ve seen in some time.
Oslo, August 31st
Shoot the Piano Player is French New Wave director Francois Truffaut’s homage to the American noir and crime genre. Filmed in 1960, the story centers on a classically trained pianist named Edouard Saroyan, whose life has hit the skids after the tragic death of his wife, leaving him emotionally broken and looking to escape. Taking on a new identity to erase his past, Saroyan becomes Charlie Kholer, a sad and introverted piano player working in a Parisian dive bar trying to forget his life as a successful concert hall musician. Unfortunately for Charlie, his criminally minded brothers get him involved with a robbery gone badly. From there, his life spins out of control even as his romantic life begins to look up. Sad, funny and poignant, this is one of Truffaut’s best films.
Shoot the piano player
The HBO film The Artist is Present chronicles the lead-up to Marina Abramovic's incredibly popular and well-documented retrospective at the MOMA in 2010. Since she emerged as a provocative performance artist in the 1970’s, Abramovic has blurred the distinction between life and art, using her body as both a literal canvas and a means to shock and move her audiences. One of the most interesting take away’s from this well put together film is how seemingly down to earth she appears compared to the intense character and controversial nature of her creative output. I also developed a much more nuanced understanding of her creative themes and intellectual motivations while not necessarily finding the entirety of her work to my liking. However, I dare even the most cynical of us to dismiss her recent (and probably most famous) work wherein which she sat in a chair for three months straight, everyday, simply staring at museum-goers during open hours. Highly emotional, the grueling performance situates the meaning of the work inside the personal responses and experiences of those who exist before her hypnotic gaze. If this sounds like your conceptual artist’s cup of tea, give it a shot.
The Artist is present
Fans of cinema will want to look over Sight & Sound’s most recent poll of 250 of the Greatest Films ever made. Compiled once a decade since 1962, this list is a great primer for anyone interested in watching the most talked and written about works, including silent films, movies from Hollywood’s golden era, contemporary art house flicks and foreign language masterpieces from the 1950’s and 60’s. Comedies, Drama, Westerns, Noir, Romance—it’s all there. Here are the top ten:
- Citizen Kane
- Tokyo Story
- La regle du jeu
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
- The Searchers
- Man with a Movie Camera
- Passion of Joan of Arc
- 8 1/2
Passion of Joan of Arc
The history of cinema is a rich and varied one that can be enjoyed and understood by engaging in works that dot the historical timeline and cross geographic borders. If you’re a film buff who loves discovering classic films and pioneering directors like I am, you’ll certainly want to keep an eye on our collection of historically significant foreign language films. Many of the greatest films to reach the big screen came about in European, Asian and Latin American countries, where filmmaking represents a fundamental piece of their cultural identities. Below, you’ll find a brief list of foreign language films made from the mid 1950’s through today that are transformative works of art that are crucial touchstones in the development of world cinema. Many of these rule-breaking films are now available from the Criterion Collection.
- Jean-Luc Godard
- Francois Truffaut
- Carl Dreyer
- Robert Bresson
- Frederico Fellini
- Ingmar Bergman
- Wong Kar-wai
- Ranier Werner Fassbinder
- Werner Herzog
- Wim Wenders
- Akira Kurosawa
- Michangelo Antonioni
- Andrei Tarkovsky
- Roberto Rossellini
- Pedro Almodovar
- Jean Renoir
- Milos Forman
- Fritz Lang
- Krzysztof Kieslowski
- Claude Chabrol
- Louis Malle
- Luis Bunuel
- Bela Tarr
- Agnes Varda
- Ashes and Diamonds
- Werckmeister Harmonies
- Aguirre, The Wrath of God
- Umberto D
- Bicycle Thieves
- The Conformist
- Vivre sa vie
- Pierrot le fou
- Tokyo Story
- City of God
- Amores Perros
- El Topo
- Cinema Paradiso
- Breaking the Waves
- My Life as a Dog
- Fanny and Alexander
- Battleship Potemkin
- All About My Mother
- Red, White and Blue Trilogy
- Wild Strawberries
- Wings of Desire
The New York City art world in post-war America was dominated by the rise of Abstract Expressionist painting. Led by iconic painters like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, abstract painting and its theoretical exponents tended to be an exclusive man’s club. However, there were several female painters who emerged during the late fifties and early sixties who are now recognized for their creative talents and artistic output. One of these pioneering figures was Joan Mitchell, a painter whose gestural works often hang upon the same museum walls today as her better known male counterparts. This documentary weaves together a strong and personal portrait of her life as a midcentury painter working through her romantic relationships and the frustrating battles with the gender politics of the art world. She spent much of her life in France, finding inspiration from nature and the physical universe.
ESPN Films' Catching Hell is the captivating tale of Steve Bartman and how he became a city-wide pariah and scapegoat. Who is Steve Bartman you ask? Award-winning director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Darkside) first introduces the viewer to former Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, a man who knows a little something about having an entire city’s rage and anger directed at him and his family. During the 1986 World Series, Buckner infamously allowed a ground ball to dribble through his legs, allowing the New York Mets a Game 6 victory that would subsequently propel them on toward a Game 7 victory, thus denying the long suffering Red Sox fans a championship. Buckner was universally blamed by the Boston fans and media while the poor play of his fellow teammates went unacknowledged. In Buckner, the fans had their scapegoat and target to vent their frustration toward.
Bartman, like Buckner would also find himself at the center of a bizarre twist of fate during the 2003 National League Championship Series between the equally futile Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins. Five outs away from a place in the World Series, Bartman’s actions would forever link him inextricably to Chicago Cubs history. Gibney’s well directed documentary asks us why we scapegoat some while not others and to what extent do we take our love of sports too far.
The Fab 5 is a smart and nuanced documentary that will appeal to University of Michigan basketball fans that followed the meteoric rise of these five young men from highly touted high school blue chippers to college basketball icons. From the initial recruiting process of the Michigan coaching staff to the off-court legal problems faced by one of its star players, the film successfully weaves together the known and unknown while thoughtfully providing background regarding the experiences of these teenagers who were thrust under the media’s microscope from the beginning. The film does a nice job of discussing the high stakes world of collegiate basketball, the pressure to succeed and the high’s and low’s of the Fab 5’s on-court success and disappointment.
The Fab 5
The writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson takes his time and thoughtfully chooses the kinds of stories he wants to tell. To this end, his patience has left fans of his dynamic pictures with only a handful to ponder and obsess upon. Luckily, the small number of films to which he’s made (6 in all) in no way diminishes the artistic strength of the work. In fact, one might argue that with the possibility of a minor hiccup in Punch Drunk Love (a decent but not great film) that both his reputation and talent continue to grow. He is among a small number of my favorite directors working today who make powerful, smart and compelling films that eschew Hollywood conventions. His films are not easy to emotionally or intellectually abandon, as they have a unique way of sticking to your pyschic bones well after the roll of the end credits. His newest success, The Master, already christened as a tour de force by some, opens nation-wide today. We’ll have to wait a few months before it becomes available for purchase but you can always take a look back at his previous films (There Will Be Blood, Hard Eight, Magnolia).
There Will Be Blood
The award winning comedy Modern Family is comfort food television. It's a sugary snack that leaves you with a warm heart and feeling a bit gooey on the inside. Exaggerated characters full of zaney cluelessness crisscross through the lives of their siblings and parents, screwing things up for one or more of their family members. Because these characters only exist in TV Land, they always pull together to resolve the mishaps with a lesson learned and a family hug by the end of the show. It's not a show that will sit along side the Seinfeld's of the comedic world but for a few hours, you can rest your brain and let slip a few chuckles at these disfunctional clans as they navigate contemporary issues.
The documentaryJazz on a Summer’s Day (National Film Registry selection) is a one of a kind film that brings to life in lively Technicolor, the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, featuring live performances by musical legends like Louis Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan, Anita O’Day, Mahalia Jackson, and Thelonious Monk. Pieced together by art director and still photographer Bert Stern, the expressionistic film is mostly absent of dialogue or narration. However, the visual energy and kinetic tone of the film captures much more than just the great music of the day by extending its images beyond the stage to capture the colorful fashion and style of the late fifties (delight in the myriad of cool sunglasses and hipster chic), not to mention costal scenes shot of yacht races and summertime Newport life.
Jazz on a summer's day
Jack Cardiff was the twentieth century’s biggest name in cinematography. Camerman: the life and work of Jack Cardiff documents his long and storied career as a remarkable innovator of the art of shooting films. Having worked with the most famous actors and directors from the 1940’s on, Cardiff shares intimate details about the movie industry men and women who he worked with and filmed including Michael Powell, Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe, Kirk Douglas, Charleton Heston, Sophia Loren, and Audrey Hepburn. Cardiff applied his interest in painting and light to his work with the Technicolor film that came of age after World War Two. His relationship with director Michael Powell during the late 40’s was incredibly fruitful having resulted in some of the most expressive and beautiful images put to the big screen including classic films Black Narcissus, Stairway to Heaven and Red Shoes. Film buffs will love this!
Cameraman: the life and work of jack cardiff
Our film collection offers a wide variety of educational and documentary portraits of many fascinating and noteworthy individuals whose contributions, in most cases, left a significant mark on the historical record. Whether you’re a history buff or a student looking to supplement print resources, don’t forget to browse our biographical works. Over the years we’ve blended artsy documentaries like The Fog of War, I’m Still Here, Man on Wire, Tarnation, and In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger with PBS portraits of Ansel Adams, Mark Twain, Ronald Reagan, Frida Khalo,Woody Gutherie, Walt Whitman, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Here’s a sampling of some of the persons you may want to learn more about:
George H.W. Bush
John and Abigail Adams
Robert E. Lee
Frank Lloyd Wright
Charles and Ray Eames
Oddballs and Miscellaneous
The Fab Five
Fog of war
Technically, I've missed the mid-year mark but here's a list of my picks for recommended film viewing. I'm sure other titles will end up on the year-end tally (I suspect P.T. Anderson's The Master will be my number one) but here's a start.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
In no way deserving of the hype that this buzzed about indie has received but certainly warrants watching. A five year old protagonist's cute face and acting chops can't save this picture's flaws but many will find its story uplifting and moving.
Damsels in Distress
Indie darling and pre-Wes Anderson autuer of the twee aristrocracy, Whit Stillman returns with a film that will no doubt divide audiences along love/hate lines.
The Turin Horse
Bleak, hopeless, painfully unfolded end of the world fair shot in a sumptuous black and white that will appeal to the existentialist-leaning devotees of Bresson, Bergman and Tarkovsky. No Michael Bay stuff here.
The Deep Blue Sea
A somber story of heartache and loss expressed through the fine acting of British actress Rachel Weisz.
Gerhard Richter Painting
A straight forward documentary that will likely appeal to those familiar with the world's most famous living painter's role in the shaping of post-war art.
The Turin Horse
There are quite a few similarities between the 1945 British drama Brief Encounter and the newly released Deep Blue Sea. Both stories are set in post-war England, a drab and darkly lit place where background buildings show the ill effects of Germany’s bombing raids and where the sun rarely shines. Both tales bring to light the inner frustration of women caught in difficult situations where the sum of their choices and regrets, understood as matters of the conflicted heart, may lead them down the road toward unhappiness or social stigma. Rachel Weisz is simply brilliant at playing the unhappy wife who falls for a younger, ex-fighter pilot to escape her bland, loveless marriage, only to find out that life is rarely forgiving when the comforts of privilege and stability are stripped away. I’ve always enjoyed the acting of Weisz and I’m hoping her performance receives some attention come award season. The film’s reoccurring score is also a lush and beautiful lament that captures the somber tone perfectly.
Brief Encounter, directed by the great British director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Bridge on the River Kwai) also tackles the subject of temptation and fidelity (see also: In the Mood for Love). A lonely but relatively content housewife meets a stranger at a railway station, sparks fly and the two develop a romance that may or may not lead to something further. Both films have very straightforward, traditional plots that rely heavily upon the authentic, emotional turmoil of conflicted characters and the choices they make and their subsequent consequences.
Deep blue sea
The PBS television series The History Detectives, not known for drawing attention to itself, made headlines this week by declaring that they have found and authenticated the Fender guitar used by Bob Dylan at the legendary 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The current owners of the guitar, the daughter of a man who flew private planes for Dylan in the 60’s, claims that her father picked up the sunburst Stratocaster after it was left behind after a trip. Not so fast says Dylan’s representatives, who claim the famous axe is still in the possession of Dylan. Who is right? We’ll just have to see, given Dylan hasn’t stated whether or not he’ll actually provide physical proof to contradict the program’s evidence.
Several months earlier, Dylan and filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker joined forces to film several of his United Kingdom shows. Don’t Look Back is a classic rockumentary that takes you behind closed doors to give you access to a somewhat contrived Dylan and his growing dissatisfaction with fame and with his folkie fans. His sycophantic entourage and their gratuitous mocking of both the press and his contemporaries (see: Joan Baez and Donovan) are weaved in between the footage of Dylan playing songs from his albums Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited.
Don't Look Back
Summertime in hot, hot, Michigan means getting out on the tennis courts, baseball diamonds, soccer fields, trails and of course, diving in the water. For those days where the sweltering weather is prohibitive for even the most dedicated of athletes, be sure to stop by the library and browse our eclectic collection of sports-related documentaries.
Muhammad and Larry
Jews and Baseball
Vintage World Series Films, Detroit
ABC Wide World of Sports: 40 Years of Glory
The Birth of Big Air
Thrilla in Manila
Only the Ball Was White
Jews and baseball
Bobby Fischer Against the World is a fascinating rise and fall portrait of a man that struggled with genius, fame and mental illness. From his troubled childhood to his triumphant victory over the Soviet world champion Boris Spassky in 1972 and concluding with his final days living in national disgrace and exile, Fischer captivated the world with both his extraordinary aptitude for chess and his often peculiar public image. A fair and balanced documentary that presents the perspectives and recollections of those who knew him best throughout his life, Fischer’s tumultuous story is both sad and bewildering.
Bobby Fischer Against the World
The multi-episode series On the Waterways is a fun documentary that takes the viewer along with a young ship crew of college-age adventurers and introduces us to the many individuals and communities that lie alongside a body of water, while highlighting the important role that water has played in the development of towns and economies throughout the United States. Narrated by the late actor Jason Robards, On the Waterways may look and feel a bit outdated but it still stands up as an entertaining and educational examination on the relationship between humans and their environment.
On the waterways
Writer and director Nora Ephron passed away yesterday from cancer. Some of her films include Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, Heartburn, and Julie & Julia. Known for quirky, romantic comedies, Ephron's work lives on here at KPL.
Julie & Julia
I don’t often use the superlative ‘masterpiece’ when describing movies but Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker warrants such a descriptor. This enigmatic allegory that routinely finds its way onto ‘Best Of’ lists was almost never made due to the careless corruption (it has been suggested that Soviet authorities were responsible for the film’s destruction) of the original film stock, which then forced its brilliant director to reshoot most of the film a second time even as his health declined.
Stalker, a parable film known for its long, beautifully developed scenes and cryptic plot, delves as deep as any film before or after into the murky, existentialist terrain that one finds in the cinematic work of masters Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman (Tarkovsky’s major influences). One of the most gorgeous films you will watch, Tarkovsky blends vibrant colors with sepia toned silver, with each shot meticulously filmed and edited to emphasize both nature’s beauty and its mysteries.
The film’s three characters (the Stalker, the Writer, the Professor) journey into a mysterious, quarantined off area referred to as The Zone for different reasons. Rumors abound of a secretive room that exists at the heart of this depopulated area that Soviet authorities have surrounded and barred entrance. The room will allegedly grant you a wish of your making. The Stalker, who is paid by The Scientist and the Writer to sneak them past the Soviet guards into The Zone may or may not be who he says he is. With a famous ending that rewards the patience of the viewer, Stalker is like no other film you will experience.
From time to time, a film buried long ago, unknown to most, emerges from its cult status to reclaim its proper place in the pantheon of great cinema. The 1956 documentary On the Bowery is one such film that can make that claim. Introduced by the legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who explains why he identifies with the film both on a personal and historical level (he grew up a few blocks away from where the film was shot), Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery takes the viewer to the famously impoverished New York City street known for housing the destitute and those suffering from alcohol abuse. While there is a very simplistic plot setup that frames the film’s three day course, most of the film captures the essence of the Bowery by employing a kind of impressionistic realism that gives the film its gritty, naturalistic look. Rogosin sought to portray his subjects sympathetically, simply showing their persoanl struggles without preaching or romanticizing their plight. The film was added to the prestigious National Film Registry in 2008 because of it groundbreaking stature.
On the bowery
For steadfast Beatles fan, this HBO documentary by Martin Scorsese is a must-see film. For the casual music buff, you’ll learn all about Harrison’s life as the “quiet Beatle”, from his austere, post-war Liverpool upbringing to life in the Fab Four and thereafter. Harrison’s unique contribution to both the music world and his interest in Indian spiritual practices are fully explored through old interview footage, concert clips and the honest remarks of friends and family like Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Olivia Harrison and Paul McCartney.
George Harrison: living in the material world
I’ve really enjoyed watching many of the sports-meets-society series called 30 for 30, produced by ESPN Films. Each film tackles a singular sports subject by broadening the scope of the featured topic by taking into account the social, economic, and cultural determinants as well as the historical impact. The films are well produced and include candid commentary by journalists, athletes and entertainers. One Night in Vegas details the final moments before the rapper Tupac Shakur was killed. The library owns the following films in this series:
Straight Outta L.A.
June 17th, 1994
One Night in Vegas
The Birth of Big Air
The Two Escobars
No Crossover: the trial of Allen Iverson
Little Big Men
Muhammad and Larry
One night in vegas
For those too young to remember or to have lived during the Black Power Movement of the late 1960's, this film will function as an introduction to some of the seminal figures in this political and cultural movement designed to radically reorganize society, redistribute economic power more equitably and shift the Civil Rights Movement toward a more confrontational style. Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975 is composed of mostly news footage shot by Swedish journalists eager to understand the explosive social issues confronting American society, namely, the role that key civil rights leaders like Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers were playing in rethinking the movement’s strategies and goals. Throughout the film, both new and old commentators alike (Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, Talib Kweli, and Melvin Van Peebles) share their thoughts about the legacy and importance of these historical figures and their relevance to today’s younger generation.
Black Power Mixtape
In the documentary Stone Reader, filmmaker Mark Moskowitz tries to locate the author of the 1972 novel The Stones of Summer, a book that was critically acclaimed when first published but that dissapeared from library shelves as quickly as its author dropped out of the limelight, never writing another book again. Moskowitz cites the book as one of his favorite reading experiences while in his twenties and is clearly fascinated by the cultural and pyschological power of great literature. He wonders why a writer as talented as Dow Mossman threw in the towell after his initial success. Along the way toward locating Mossman (assuming he does), Moskowitz interviews writers and critics about the creative process in an attempt to better understand what may have driven Mossman's retreat from writing. A small yet affecting film, Stone Reader will reinvigorate your love for the classics and for reading in general.
Charles and Ray Eames were the two most popular American furniture designers during the 1950’s but they were more than just the creative face of mid-century, American modernism. They made a variety of different kinds of films, designed groundbreaking homes, constructed wartime leg splints using plywood, were commissioned to create animated commercials for IBM and much more. Follow this fascinating journey from their humble beginnings at the Michigan-based Cranbrook Academy of Art to the evolution of their successful firm in Los Angeles. Eames: The Architect and the Painter is a dazzling introduction for the lay person and a wonderful celebration of two of the most important artists of the 20th Century for the rabid fans of their coveted chairs.
Eames [videorecording] : the architect and the painter
Thanks to the strong acting performance of Oscar nominated actor Demian Bichir, hopefully more film fans will be drawn to the emotionally moving and poignant film A Better Life. The storyline is straight forward and echoes other journey films of immigrant life like El Norte or In America. The narrative centers on the personal struggle of a single father working to keep his son from gravitating toward the allure of gang life while he works toward starting his own landscaping business amidst the constant threat of deportation. A wonderful and affecting film about the love between father and son, A Better Life balances sentimentality with the material realism of today’s immigrant experience.
A Better Life
A classic is a work of art that can stand the test of time and remain relevant, fresh and engaging years after its creation. It possesses the internal mechanisms and universal themes to produce pleasure and awake interest in its audience year after year. Its appeal will carry on long after trends and fads dissolve into the dustbin of historical detritus. The films of John Hughes are unquestionably considered classics today by both the navel gazing critic and the new movie fan alike. Hughes worked mostly in the 1980’s, mostly concentrating his writing and directing on intelligently conceived teen comedies (The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful) that possessed depth, dimension and pathos, characteristics that were rare for youth-centered movies of the eighties. Hughes had a string of hits that he either wrote or directed beginning with Sixteen Candles (1984) thru Home Alone (1990).
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a hilarious romp that follows the afternoon adventures of a school skipping Ferris, his girlfriend Sloane and his best friend Cameron, launched the career of Matthew Broderick and also featured a cameo from a young Charlie Sheen. Arguably one of Hughes’ best “teen” films, it continues to feel unsullied by time, even today, twenty six years after it was released.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
The film review web site rottentomatoes.com gave the documentary film The Interrupters a score of 99 percent “Fresh”. Other movie critics have also been quick to praise the gritty, unromanticized film that brings to light the challenges faced by a small group of urban mediators tirelessly working to halt violence and resolve conflict on Chicago’s most unforgiving streets. Day after day, shooting after shooting, the members of CeaseFire take to the streets in Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods to work with communities on how to better resolve disputes. You’ll learn about the personal stories of these community heroes and why they’ve dedicated their lives to stem the tide of youth violence when the odds are so clearly stacked against them. There is little discussion of the social and economic factors that play a central role in why violence is such an epidemic fact of everyday life in many parts of the United States however even as it refuses to explore solutions or to critically analyze the roots of violence, this striking film is well worth exploring. Here is a video clip of one of the featured interrupters on the Colbert Report.
Like many of the famous rock stars of the 1960’s who lived fast and died young, Jean-Michel Basquiat exploded on to the world art scene in the early 1980’s, made a sizeable impact on the development of painting, was befriended by his idol Andy Warhol, grabbed headlines as an enfant terrible, and then was dead at 27. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child chronicles the meteoric rise and fall of this painter whose relationship to the art world was deeply complicated. Once the beloved darling of the downtown art scene, then castigated as a manufactured, one-hit wonder, Basquiat’s legacy and artistic achievements have been firmly cemented with the passage of time. This is a perfect documentary to watch in celebration of Black History Month.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: the radiant child
The Guard is a dark comedy set in a small town in Ireland. It's also a throwback buddy film where two cops from different backgrounds work together to fight crime while insulting eachother. It has its tender moments but for the most part, The Guard is all about the genre and complying with the dictates of cliche. The great character actor Don Cheadle plays an uptight FBI agent sent to provincial Ireland to bust a drug ring. Along the way, he encounters the eccentric and verbally unfiltered policeman Gerry Boyle, who has his own method of conducting police investigations. The two bristle at one another’s approach, disliking the other’s personality but like all buddy films, they come to find common ground in bringing the bad guys to justice.
On a recent day, whilst in the midst of reflecting upon the great breadth of films we own at KPL and those I’ve watched, I challenged myself to list 100 of my favorite movies while acknowledging that such a list was neither full nor accurate (the problem of memory). I’m sure I’m missing some very obvious choices but here they are, in no particular order and with almost no employed criteria involved whatsoever. Later on this year, I'll add another 100 to the mix.
Harold and Maude
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
There Will Be Blood
My Left Foot
Dog Day Afternoon
Au Hasard Balthazar
Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
The Elephant Man
The Breakfast Club
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Tree of Life
Cool Hand Luke
All the President’s Men
Night of the Hunter
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Rebel Without a Cause
The Way We Were
The Royal Tenenbaum’s
A Few Good Men
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Coal Miner’s Daughter
Dead Man Walking
The Shawshank Redemption
Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
My Own Private Idaho
The Deer Hunter
A Streetcar Named Desire
Full Metal Jacket
Little Big Man
Kramer Vs Kramer
The Last Picture Show
Do the Right Thing
Frankie and Johnny
My Life as a Dog
Wings of Desire
Silence of the Lambs
Thelma and Louise
This is Spinal Tap
Raiders of the Lost Ark
When Harry Met Sally
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
The Age of Innocence
The Big Lebowski
In the Mood for Love
Days of Heaven
Glengarry Glen Ross
The professional [videorecording]
Of the films nominated for the best picture award at this year’s Academy Awards, my vote goes to the impressive, sprawling, sublimely beautiful Tree of Life. Terrence Malick is one of my favorite directors and so it comes as no surprise that I’m voting for this ambitious, yet not altogether perfect allegory that mixes the personal with the historical, the metaphysical with the existential with lush, painterly strokes. Tree of Life is more like a romantic painting or an extended tone poem than a linear, Hollywood cliché designed to sell overpriced candy and heart-stopping popcorn and for that reason alone, it will not win.
On a side note, the film's studio has elected not to release this film as a stand-alone DVD in an attempt to boost its Blu-ray sales and to shift consumer buying practices. Unfortunately, libraries are then only able to circulate the extra DVD's that come with the Blu-ray editions.
Tree of Life
A difficult documentary to summarize, Nostalgia for the Light is one of the best nonfiction films I’ve seen in a while. The film is not about one thing in particular but rather synthesizes relatively tangential subjects into a beautiful lament for innocence lost and memories of lost ones. Beautifully crafted, NFTL ties the scientific quest for understanding the origins of our planet with the somber task of mourning and emotional closure for victims of the Chilean military coup in 1973. Highly recommended.
Nostalgia for the Light
There have been several touching, documentary portraits of musicians that are known both for their significant contributions to the world of music and for their personal struggles. Fans of cult artists like Daniel Johnston (The Devil and Daniel Johnston), Gram Parsons (Gram Parsons, Fallen Angel) and Harry Nilsson (Who is Harry Nilsson: And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?) will surely want to watch Be Here to Love Me, the story of influential troubadour Townes Van Zandt. This is a wonderful introduction to Van Zandt’s story and one that shouldn’t be ignored if you enjoy the music of country and folk artists like Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark and Steve Earle.
Be here to love me
The clanging of bells hung around the necks of goats, the elderly herder and his incessantly barking dog, and the soft whistle of an Italian breeze. Great films don’t always need a lot of dialogue and this one is no exception. A poetic and haunting film full of rich and mysterious images, director Michelangelo Frammartino forces the audience to surrender not to the language of a fabricated and plot-driven dialogue but rather to the meditative sounds of our mundane lives, the stirring rhythms of life—birth, death, ritual, and nature are presented as long, visual poems. This film is much better experienced than described so I won’t say much other than to suggest that Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times) is one of the year’s most enigmatic films, once again, reinforcing the idea that a skillful use of economy and delicacy can produce a profound and moving piece of art.
Le Quattro Volte
There have been a slew of Saturday Night Live alumni that haven’t accomplished much of anything after they departed from the long-running late night show. For every Tina Fey or Eddie Murphy, there have been countless cast members whose careers stalled. Fey’s good friend and sometime collaborator Amy Poehler, has had tremendous success with her hit show Parks and Recreation. I just love this show for its bumbling characters and madcap storylines, all of which center around the Parks and Recreation Department in the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. Longtime fans of the show The Office will recognize many similarities between the two series, including how the show is formatted, filmed and narrated. Here’s to hoping that the quirky, smart plotlines continue to stay fresh and hilarious.
Parks and Recreation
The newly released film Submarine is a sharply written, sweetly-toned, dark comedy reminiscent of the quirky films of Wes Anderson (see: Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaum’s) and the lively joie de vivre of the French New Wave. The film doesn’t cover new ground in terms of themes and subject matter, but it sustains your interest and deserves to be seen for the beautifully rendered cinematography (the gray, sunless beauty of the Welsh coast is its own character) and the strong acting performances, especially the work of Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor as the protagonist’s parents. The movie is an adaptation of the novel by author Joe Dunthorne, who also co-wrote the screenplay.
Oliver Tate is an angst-filled and precocious teen who sits in class, fantasizing about his own death and how his schoolmates will remember him (heroically of course). Cut from a similar cloth as Harold from Harold and Maude and possessive of the qualities of a slightly neurotic, hormonally-driven teenager (see: every coming of age movie over the past fifty years) who speaks with a rapid-fire deadpan, Oliver sets out to address his two biggest concerns as a 15 year-old: saving his parents’ marriage from a new age “mystic” and figuring out his relationship with his firework’s-obsessed, anti-romantic romantic girlfriend Jordana. In between these two goals, Oliver plays movies in his head and listens to the records of French crooners. He constructs mental films of his existential woes (what tormented teen doesn’t?) and not surprisingly, has a Woody Allen photo on his bedroom wall and reads Catcher in the Rye and Nietzsche (because as we all know, most teens are reading The Birth of Tragedy). His problems range from the domestic to the romantic, both conflicts driving him to actions both absurdly funny and achingly real. Some of the best parts of the movie are when Oliver attempts to intervene in his parents’ rocky marriage, spying on them both while conceiving of ways to bring them closer. The soundtrack, written by Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys is fantastic as well.
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
This is a must-see documentary for parents who have children engaged in violent sports like football. Tackling the dangerous rise in concussions and physical injuries to young football players, Football High also shines a light on the culture and industry of high stakes football programs. As more and more evidence mounts regarding the brain’s response to concussions and accumulative damage from physical trauma, the film's producers pose the question: what are the long-term risks associated with violent sports and are schools prepared for the consequences or will big money and athletic prestige trump the safety and health of student athletes?
Marwencol is the story of Mark Hogancamp, a man who constructed a fictional universe made up of World War 2 toy soldiers and Barbie dolls. This first-rate documentary follows Hogancamp’s artistic endeavors and provides the contextual grounding for understanding Hogancamp’s drive to heal both physically and emotionally while exploring in great detail, the highly personal and original nature of his work. Hogancamp was brutally attacked outside of a bar by five people. After emerging from a coma, he lost most of his memories and suffered both physical and emotional damage as a result. For therapeutic reasons and to aid in his recovery, Hogancamp began to develop a fictional account of a war strewn town called Marwencol (constructed outside of his trailer home) populated by soldiers, wherein which many of the characters assume the names of friends and co-workers in Hogancamp’s real life. Hogancamp situates the dolls within a variety of plot twists, even going so far as to fashion a time machine out of an old VCR that allows one of his characters travel time in order to save the story’s main protagonist from the Nazi dolls. He then photographs the dolls playing out their various scenes, many of which mirror Hogancamp’s own life.
What happens when Hogancamp’s fantasy world of violence and revenge is discovered by an art critic and subsequently asked to exhibit his work in a fancy NYC art gallery? You’ll just have to find out. Marwencol will appeal to artists and non-artists alike. Recommended.
Has it really been 25 years I heard my inner voice ask yesterday when NPR highlighted the quarter of a century anniversary of Stand by Me, the classic film adaptation of a Stephen King short story that starred a young River Phoenix. I find myself often uttering those words more and more. A true sign of aging I suppose.
But anyway, back to the movie. Rob Reiner of All in the Family fame directed this tale of a group of young high school boys who venture out into the wild Oregon mountains in search of a missing body, presumably that of a local boy who had died. What they ultimately learn is that family relations are complex, growing up can be difficult and that the friendships that they develop during the teenage years can last a very long time. Check out this classic 80’s coming of age tale.
Stand by me
Last year’s Rabbit Holeshares several thematic similarities with the Best Picture of 1980, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. Both films tackle the subject of grief and how the painful loss of a child often can lead to marital strain as the two people struggle to forgive themselves and to move on with their lives. It’s a simple story: a young boy is accidentally killed while chasing the family dog into the street. The husband and wife, played with humanity and compassion by Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman work through their emotional pain, sadness and guilt by taking different paths toward healing. I was most surprised by the range of emotional depth that Eckhart brought to his role. Overall, Rabbit Hole succeeds by not being heavy handed and manipulative but rather a genuine glimpse of two people trying to make sense of their new world.
As I was driving to work today, I was reminded of the seminal 1990’s film Boyz in the Hood by way of a National Public Radio piece that summarized the story of how the movie was made and its lasting legacy. A college film student by the name of John Singleton wrote and directed this powerful depiction of life in South Central Los Angeles, a community in the late eighties that was struggling with gang violence. With a strong cast and script, BITH went on to have both commercial and critical success, launching the acting careers of Cuba Gooding Jr. and the rapper Ice Cube. A Blu-ray edition has been released and will be here soon.
Boyz in the hood
The veteran actor Peter Falk passed away last week at the age of 83. Most associate the late actor with the television series Columbo. However, my favorite Falk performances are from the seminal 1970’s John Cassavetes film Woman Under the Influence and the poetic Wings of Desire, directed by Wim Wenders.
Wings of Desire
You might not think that a film where the primary character is stuck in the same place without the capacity to move for almost a week would possess the kind of dramatic force and narrative flow that is required of a movie almost two hours in length but Danny Boyle’s127 Hours succeeds in keeping the audience focused and committed to the real-life story of Aron Ralston by intercutting flashbacks and dream-like sequences. It’s a terrifying journey yet one with a happy ending.
Ralston, played by actor James Franco, becomes trapped within a canyon wall in the Utah desert after a large boulder falls upon his right arm. Miles away from help and with little hope of rescue, Ralston must find within himself the physical and emotional strength to survive an almost unbelievable situation. For almost a week, the ingenious Ralston attempts to free his arm but to no avail. Finally, as death nears, Aron decides to extract himself with one last attempt. It should be noted that the squeamish may want to avert their eyes from some of the more gory details of Ralston’s heroic escape.
So what is Magnolia about? Well, it’s a movie that covers the deep contours and complexities of life lived and the death to be faced, the burden of guilt and the redemptive quality of forgiveness, the reconciliation of the past while struggling day to day to survive the here and now, the mysteriousness of coincidence and the weight of chance, and a few descending amphibians. You won’t find a film with a better ensemble cast. Directed and written with masterful grace and humanity by Paul Thomas Anderson, lovers of intelligent movies will forgive the film for its length (3 hours). Magnolia, more than just a flower, it’s a masterpiece that pieces together disparate lives and flawlessly connects them to what is often called the human condition. The two soundtracks (Jon Brion and Aimee Mann) are also fantastic companion pieces.
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.
Admittedly, I’m not a very big fan of television series. Those that I do enjoy tend to be dramas or comedies featured on cable networks (The Sopranos, Deadwood, In Treatment, Six Feet Under, MadMen, Curb Your Enthusiasm). A friend of mine who is predisposed to making awful suggestions regarding films and television series mentioned that I might like the comedy How I Met Your Mother. Well, apparently you cannot be wrong all of the time and in this particular case, my friend’s suggestion hit the mark. HIMYM centers on mid-twenty-something, hopeless romantic Ted Mosby and his quirky journey to find his soul mate amongst millions of New Yorkers. Alongside Ted are his best friends Barney (the lecherous womanizer and author of the Bro Code), Lily and Marshall (the perfect, engaged couple) and Robin (a possible love interest). The unreliable narration unfolds in reverse to Ted’s children via flashbacks by the dubbed voice of Bob Saget in the year 2030.
How I Met Your Mother
Never Let Me Go is a grim dystopia that explores the triangular relationship between Tommy, Kathy and Ruth—three British boarding school students who attempt to understand and reconcile secrets about their lives that sealed their fates when they were born. Based upon the novel by British writer Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day), audiences who prefer their movies full with hope and buoyancy will likely be unsatisfied. Aside from the uncompromising darkness of the movie, the actors give strong performances and the cinematography is remarkably rendered with artistic flare.
Never let me go
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
In today’s post, I’d like to highlight several films that engage in one way or another with the theme of forgiveness (both of oneself and that of others). The affirmative expression of forgiveness and its role in repairing damaged lives and communities will be a central point of discourse during this year’s Reading Together programs. Each of these films and their characters either directly or sometimes in subtle ways explores the ways in which subjects negotiate the complexities of forgiveness, either on a broad social level or that of individuals in search of unburdening of some sort of psychic pain in order to reconnect (Ordinary People). Throughout these films, there is a thematic current of struggle to redeem and to mend, coursing its way through the lives of characters as they hunt for meaning in an otherwise turbulent and uncertain world. Whether it’s the death row inmate seeking forgiveness prior to his execution in Dead Man Walking or the colonial slave trader in The Mission looking to amend for his earlier crimes amongst the same community he unjustly worked to destroy, films have long probed the difficulties and possibilities involved with reconciliation. So while you’re enjoying the book discussions with your fellow community members and participating in a Reading Together program or two, don’t forget to supplement your engagement with this always timely and dynamic topic with a thought provoking film from our rich collection.
The Straight Story
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
The Royal Tenenbaum's
In my previous post, I mentioned the film In the Mood for Love because of its lush and stylistic cinematography. Released in 2000 by acclaimed director Wong Kar-wai, the film takes place in Hong Kong in 1962. Two lonely neighbors are brought together over the fact that their spouses are engaged in an affair; and while they're committed to not duplicating the deceit by having their own tryst, a bond between them developes a unique intensity as they find solace in eachother's company. A film that resists cliche at every turn, In the Mood for Love is buttressed with strong acting performances and an amazing musical theme that evokes the anxiety and aching desire between these two characters as they grow closer with every masterfully shot frame. A truely original work of simplicity and beauty!
In the Mood for Love