Staff Picks: Movies
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.
This year’s Cannes Film Festival winners included Winter Sleep (Best Film), Bennett Miller (Best Director), Julianne Moore (Best Actress) and Timothy Spall (Best Actor). Here’s a look back at some of the films that have previously been awarded the prestigious Palme d’or.
Taste of Cherry—1997
The White Ribbon—2009
From the folks at The Criterion Collection, explore road trip-themed movies over the summer months--many of which can be found in the KPL Catalog.
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.
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
I first saw Annie Hall in 1977 when it first came out in theaters. I was on a date with my now wife, who was living in Basel Switzerland at the time. The movie audio was in German and I had to read the English subtitles. I thought maybe that attributed to my not understanding or not generally getting this movie. Annie Hall won the 1977 Academy Award for Best Picture and was a turning point for Woody Allen. So when KPL got this movie in on DVD I thought I would view it again. The movie is about Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and his relationship with Annie Hall (hence the title of the movie) (Diane Keaton). It delves into Alvy and Annie’s thoughts, feelings, dealings with life or in Alvy’s case his fascination with death. Alvy is Jewish and lives in New York city and is a comedian twice divorced. Annie is undeveloped. Through her relationship with Alvy she grows, goes to community college, reads, sees a therapist and sings on stage. In typical Woody Allen style throughout the movie we see flash backs to other relationships, we see present day Alvy in past day parent’s house under the roller coaster. The part I like is when in the middle of a scene he starts a narration with us the viewer through the camera or he does a scene in a scene. For example while in line to see a movie the guy behind him complains about a director, Alvy does not want to hear this and thinks the man does not know what he is talking about. Then Alvy talks to the camera telling us that the man does not know what he is talking about, the man steps into the camera and tells us he teaches film at Columbia. Alvy then pulls the actual Director out from behind a screen and has him argue with the man. Then Alvy comes back to talking to us through the camera and says don’t you wish life was like this. Annie Hall is deemed a classic, I think I got more out of it this time around, mostly because there now is an internet and I read up on all the reasons this is supposed to be a good movie. If I had only just watched it again I think I would still leave shaking my heard. Only this time I would not be out some major dollars (actually they were Swiss Francs, this was way before the Euro). Getting the DVD for free from KPL is a good deal. BTW after the movie we got a drink at the plaza and they had orange plastic giraffes in them as stirring sticks. I still have the plastic giraffe and I still have the date (now wife) and I still do not understand Annie Hall.
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.
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.
The movie and the man “Riddick” is one of the deadlist frogs you would ever meet. Riddick played by Vin Diesel is a man not a frog, just to be clear. I just like that it sounds like Ribbit Ribbit like a frog. Riddick being the past Lord of the Necromongers would probably not like having his name made fun of. In the movie Riddick has made a deal with Commander Vaako; the location of Furya and a ship to take him there, in exchange for Vaako becoming the next Lord Marshall. Well, they take him to a desolate planet instead and try to kill him. Riddick kills most of his assassinators. But Krone manages to shoot up a rock ledge causing a landslide to burry Riddick. This was all a lead up to keep the story in line and get to what most of this movie is about. Riddick needs to get off the planet. The Planet is full of deadly creatures, one looks like a scorpion but is much larger, more like 50 pounds. The other is a creature that looks a cross between a dog and a leopard. Mostly Riddick is a harden heart kind of guy who can easily kill but he also lives by a code. In this movie they humanize him and make you like him a little more than the bad guys he fights by having him get one of these leopard dog puppies. The dog when grown fights by Riddick’s side and alerts Riddick to danger. Riddick finds an abandon outpost (how convenient, without this there would be no movie, he would just die) He sets a bunch of traps and then hits the emergency beacon which scans him and sends out an alert that Riddick a wanted man with a large bounty is here on this planet. Two different teams come and try to claim the bounty. Riddick leaves a note in the blood of one of them to leave him one ship. The rest of the movie is various attempts to catch or kill Riddick and Riddick killing them. I found the one shot of them looking for Riddick and he is sitting on top of their space ship listening to them scurry about in terror of him, while he is peeking through their sun roof and cutting off pieces of a carrot and eating them to be comical. I think it was supposed to show how superior he is but it gave me a chuckle instead of awe. This is the third movie in a series of Riddick movies. From the sounds of the extras on the DVD there will be more Riddick movies. Give it a try or see them in order, Pitch Black 2000, The Chronicles of Riddick 2004 and Riddick 2014.
I was afraid that the movie You’re Next was going to be just another slasher movie. Go for the gore, forget about the plot. But I was pleased with You’re Next. It did have the blood splashings and it did have a guy get shot in the head with a crossbow but it also had a guy get shot in back with a crossbow and a guy get his head caved in by a meat cleaver and a guy get his head chewed up by a blender. So yeah it had the gore. It also tried for the freaky suspense and the bad guys wore animal masks. Always creepy when can not see your attackers face and even creepier if he is wearing a mask. I gotta say it did enhance my movie experience to see a guy in a lambs head mask take a sledge hammer and use it like a golf club or maybe a crochet mallet to the head of one of their prey. It also had a bit of a mystery to it. Why are they being attacked. Mostly the suspense was what will happen next. Oh, and I did learn a few things, like if you take a board and drive nails through it, it makes a good deterrent for anyone sneaking in through your window, but it also makes them good and mad. If you are looking for a horror type movie but with humans in animal masks, try You’re Next available with many other titles at KPL.
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
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
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.
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
In The Apparition four college kids perform an experiment trying to recreate the Charles experiment from the 1970s, only this time they want to manifest the spirit into this world. They have a figurine of Charles that they concentrate on and with the help of computers magnify their concentration from 4 to 4,000 and it works. The table shakes, the figurine is smashed, lights flash and Lydia is sucked through a wall. I thought ok the spirit is here but the movie fades out and we meet Ben, one of the original four apparently a few years/months (not sure which) later with his girlfriend, Kelly. They are house sitting for her parents in a housing development which is mostly vacant, a good setting for a spirit to haunt. Ben checks his email and has numerous messages from Patrick his old buddy from the experiment. Patrick is played by Tom Felton who was Draco in the Harry Potter series. Patrick has sent message after message increasing in urgency saying Ben is in danger. Kelly is taking a shower and we see spirit stuff. The soap goes all fungus looking and the real horror, all of Kelly’s clothes which are hanging in the closet are tied in knots. We are then treated to a lot of convincing spirit in the house sounds, they did a good job with this part. Ben finds out that Patrick has reopened the rift and a spirit wants into our world. They think they can send it back by playing the sounds from the original experiment backwards. This reminded me of my youth when they thought there were satanic messages on a vinyl record if you played it in reverse. I think the movie plot pushed the recreate experiment too far. First they recreate the 1970s, ok that’s a good premise, but then they leave it and allude to recreating the recreation and this time the spirit is unleashed, the rift was widened. It was big enough to suck Lydia through the first time and what happened to Lydia, we hear nothing more of her. Ben and Patrick set up their equipment, we see a diagram of the house and all the devices sync up, Patrick amplifies, we hear the sound track played in reverse, the spirit makes sounds, the house cracks, this is one big spirit and then nothing… I thought it was an anti-climactic ridding of the spirit. But that was because (spoiler alert) the spirit is not really gone. I liked the build-up to the spirit coming and the sound effects but one recreation was enough. Give it a watch sometime, especially at night, preferable when it is stormy and you are alone.
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
The Sorcerer and the White Snake is gorgeous. The mountain scenery is breathtaking, the underwater visuals are amazing. This is a story of True Love. The demon white snake falls in love with a human. All sorts of problems arise from this but she never regrets it because she now knows true love. The White snake said she meditated once for a thousand years but just a moment with Xu Xian (the human she is in love with) was worth more. This was a great story of love based on a Chinese legend, but the best part was the visuals. It was one breathtaking scene after another. As I have a snake phobia, I wish it wasn’t a White Snake but when they are that big they look more like a sea serpent than a snake so it wasn’t too bad, only at the end did they send in the little snakes. Jet Li is the monk and he does do a lot of action. But even the fighting scenes are overpowered by the visual effects. When Xu Xian is under water the details of the plant life and the fish was spectacular. When the White Snake flooded the town and summoned the waters, it gripped you and the music swelled and you were carried away. While the story is of White Snake and her True Love with a human it also displayed the sister love between White Snake and Green Snake. When White Snake was dying Green Snake offered her life’s essence to her sister. It is a foreign film and you will have to read the subtitles but it is the visual effects that will blow you away. A fun part was the monks apprentice turning into a bat demon and the animated mice were delightful.
The Sorcerer and the White Snake
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
Learning of James Gandolfini's untimely passing, my thoughts turned not to his iconic role as Tony Soprano, but his recent performance in Sopranos creator David Chase's directorial film debut, Not Fade Away, one of the most honest and under-rated movies ever made about rock and roll. Though seeing Gandolfini as a New Jersey businessman, struggling to keep peace in his suburban home with his wife and children, stirs up memories of his better-known TV family man, his film father and TV father lead quite different lives.
Set in the 1960's, the film's focus is on his son, a budding musician who gives up his college education, funded by his father and an ROTC scholarship, as his rock and roll outfit, heavily influenced by the blues-based Rolling Stones, gains increasing local popularity, which leads all the members to believe they can make it to the big-time, despite the many ego clashes and professional miscalculations that derail their journey. (If this sounds a bit like the plot of That Thing You Do, be aware that the dramatic tone of Not Fade Away is much heavier, and, to me, much more realistic. The heightened realism is aided, in no small part, by the soundtrack chosen by the film's music director, Steve Van Zandt.)
All the storied culture clashes that accompanied the '60's rock revolution are on display here in their most intimate manifestations, most poignantly in the relationship between father and son. Gandolfini's character wants his son to take the career direction originally agreed upon, but as his son's ambitions grow, and his parental norms can no longer be reconciled with his son's evolving belief systems, he comes to accept the break instead of denying it, which helps to mend their strained relationship. Such sweetness is not the Soprano way.
An especially close dinner conversation between father and son in the film's third act, as well as a scene late in the film where the father bids a farewell to his son that may or may not be final, pack an emotional wallop that hit even harder now in the wake of Gandolfini's passing. Thankfully, we have this film, among many others (not to mention the now-legendary TV series), to keep his screen presence from ever fading away.
Not Fade Away
The Man with the Iron Fists was a pretty cool Chinese martial arts movie with plenty of action. I was surprised to see Russell Crowe in this movie but they gave him a knife that spins and shoots bullets. Jungle Village has several warring clans. The Governor trusts Gold Lion to protect a shipment of Gold. Well, Gold Lion did not live long, he was killed by one of his own lieutenant’s, Silver Lion. Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) arrives, he is the Emperor’s undercover agent. He comes into the Pink Blossom brothel run by Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu), requests a room overlooking the street and 3 of the women, one of whom is currently with Crazy Hippo. Jack warns Crazy Hippo to give up the woman and not fight him then promptly knives him with his spinning knife. This isn’t a serious martial arts movie and it seems like they had fun with it. Later in the movie when Jack shoots someone with his knife he says I bring a gun to a knife fight. It’s funnier in the movie that it sounds here. There is a blacksmith played by Rza who also wrote the story, screenplay and directed the movie. He is the one who gets the Iron Fists. There is a mercenary named Brass Body. I think he was the most formidable person. His whole body turns into brass and nothing can hurt him, until the end of the movie and Iron Fists does him in. The movie has a lot of action and the basic plot is guard the gold, gold gets stolen, gold gets back to Emperor but the enjoyment of the movie is watching everyone go martial arts on everyone.
Man with the Iron Fist
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."
Normally when the character of Veronica Mars calls for backup, she’s summoning Backup, the intimidating canine that accompanies her when she’s heading into a dangerous situation—which, as a sharp-witted, young-adult private investigator in the fictional town of Neptune, California, she often is. But last week, Mars called for backup from a different source: fans of the much-loved, short-lived eponymous television program on which she originated. On April 13th, Veronica Mars the television show—which went off the air in 2007 after a mere three seasons—made headlines when its creator, Rob Thomas (no, not that one), and star, Kristen Bell, launched a Kickstarter project that would fund a feature film, giving new life to a cult classic and furthering the adventures of one of TV’s most beloved heroines.
For those of you unfamiliar with Kickstarter, it’s a website where motivated folks can announce projects for which they want to raise money—films, music albums, business ventures, etc.—and the general public can contribute donations, usually for some sort of tiered reward. Creators set financial goals and have a limited amount of time (30 or 60 days) to reach them. If they hit their mark, they get all the money they’ve raised to that point; if they fail, they get nothing. The “Veronica Mars Movie Project” set the highest goal in Kickstarter history: they needed to raise two million dollars in 30 days. They did it in 11 hours, becoming the fastest project on the site to hit that amount of money. As of this writing, the project has raised nearly $3.7 million—well over its goal.
If you’ve seen Veronica Mars, there’s a good chance you loved it enough to kick in a few shekels (as I assuredly did). If you haven’t watched the show, then now’s a good time to jump in head-first! Here’s the basic premise: Veronica is a high-school (later, college) student who moonlights as a private investigator for her detective father, Keith. He was once the town sheriff, but was removed from office in disgrace after accusing a local billionaire of killing his own daughter, who was Veronica’s best friend. This made both father and daughter unpopular around town. In each episode, Veronica tackles a mystery, while also investigating a season-long crime. Despite the fact that it never caught on with a large audience, VM developed a strong cult following thanks to its loveable characters, strong plots, clever writing, and hilariously quotable dialogue. So check out the DVDs of all three seasons—you won’t regret it.
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
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
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 Gate for 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.
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.
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
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
I should warn you that this blog post is not actually about cats, despite the titular tease of feline tomfoolery. So if you were lured in with the promise of kitties doing adorable things, well then, you probably haven’t even bothered to read to the end of this sentence. I only mention cat videos because they are, as we all know, The Reason the Internet Was Invented. Who doesn’t love to watch cute, playful creatures getting themselves into all sorts of mischievous situations? And it doesn’t stop with our solitary enjoyment; once we catch a kitty giving a dog a back massage or playing the keyboard or flushing the toilet ad infinitum, we have to make sure everyone else we know and love sees that video too. We share it on Facebook, we Tweet about it, and we talk about it in our daily conversations. The next thing you know, somebody’s puddy tat has been seen by millions of people virtually overnight. Of course, these memes don’t have to be about cats. They can be music videos, famous quotes, photographs, articles, or any other sort of thing that makes you laugh, think, dance or feel inspired. My point (which I am somewhat habitually and infamously taking my sweet time to get to) is that—before the Internet gave us YouTube and other social media outlets—it used to be a lot harder to create “viral” pop culture sensations.
That’s right, kids. As recently as the late 90s, someone would have to resort to compact discs or—gasp!—VHS cassettes to spread sound or video recordings to their friends. Today, I can give hundreds of my Facebook friends the opportunity to laugh at Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video or the strategic ineptitudes of Leeroy Jenkins with just a few clicks of the mouse. 15 years ago I would have needed a VCR and some gas money to get them to just a few dozen. Fortunately for us, there are two great documentaries that you can check out chronicling the Dark Ages of viral recordings with a couple of infamous examples that you may have missed.
The recently-released documentary Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure tells the story of two young guys named Eddie and Mitch who, in the late 80s, created a pop culture sensation after recording the nightly screaming matches coming from the apartment next door. Their neighbors were an odd couple; a pair of older, anger-filled alcoholics who fought loudly and incessantly, and their profanity-laced, often nonsensical arguments were so jaw-droppingly shocking (and yet darkly hilarious) that Eddie and Mitch decided to record them lest no one believe the stories. Those sound recordings would be passed from friend to friend until, years later, they would be the source of inspiration for comic books, movies, a play and other culturally-inspired art.
Another documentary—this one from 2010—is called Winnebago Man, and it’s about a former RV salesman named Jack Rebney who, in the 80s, became infamous when the outtakes of a commercial he was filming were passed around, catching him in some notably cantankerous and (again) profanity-filled behavior. Still alive, Rebney is now a bit of a hermit but just as crotchety as ever, and the filmmakers’ interviews and Rebney’s subsequent confrontation with his cult popularity make for a wholly enjoyable look at an early viral phenomenon.
So, dear patrons, what are some of your favorite viral videos? What is it about these kinds of videos that make you want to share them with your family and friends? Curious minds want to know…
And now, a trailer for Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure…
…and a trailer for Winnebago Man…
…and for those who stuck around even after finding out I wasn’t writing about kitties, I’ll throw in a cat video just for you.
Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure
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
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]
Every summer, several of my friends and I travel up north for the annual Traverse City Film Festival. Founded by Michigan native Michael Moore and co-chaired by Hollywood folk like Curb Your Enthusiasm star Jeff Garlin and Borat director Larry Charles, this cinema-stuffed week gives us a chance to soak in all the indie and foreign films, incisive documentaries and beloved classics that our increasingly sore posteriors can handle. (We also find time to relax and simply enjoy the beautiful T.C. area when we’re not staring at the silver screen.) One of our most beloved rituals is getting the whole gang together for a midnight movie of choice; these usually consist of foreign or indie horror films that will never see a wide release in the United States. Several of the ones we have screened have gone on to achieve cult-classic status: brilliant Swedish vampire hit Let the Right One In; Norwegian Nazi-zombie gore-fest Dead Snow; South Korean rampaging-monster movie The Host. In the summer of 2010, we had the opportunity to screen another such instant gem—one that, until recently, had bafflingly avoided a distribution deal: the top-notch horror-comedy Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.
T&DvE is the kind of tongue-in-cheek splatter flick that offers as much joy from satire and humor as it does from excessive carnage. The story follows the two titular hapless hillbillies as they set off for their dilapidated vacation home out in the woods. On their way, they have an unfortunate run-in with a gaggle of snobby college kids who mistake their curiosity for threatening redneck menace. Tensions mount when one of the girls, Allison, has a swimming accident and winds up in the care of a love-struck Dale and an inconvenienced Tucker. The guys try to let the kids know they’ve rescued Allison, but their methods—which include shouting through the woods, “Hey college kids! We’ve got your friend!”—lead the suspicious youth to believe she’s been kidnapped. The college kids mount an assault on Tucker and Dale, but a series of very unfortunate and very bloody accidents (let’s just say bees and chainsaws don’t mix, nor do wood chippers and lunging) result in a body count that only reinforces Tucker’s and Dale’s images as crazed murderous lunatics, while convincing them that the college kids have some sort of suicide pact.
Credit for the success of this film certainly belongs, in part, to first-time feature director and co-writer Eli Craig. But the lead cast for this film cannot be more perfect: 30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden gets to expand her comedy chops as Allison; Dale is played by Tyler Labine, best known for TV’s short-lived Reaper and the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But best of all is Firefly/Serenity MVP Alan Tudyk, a talented movie and TV actor whose comedic timing is unparalleled in Hollywood. He’s simply one of the funniest guys working today.
So if you are in the mood for a great horror-comedy in the tradition of the Evil Dead franchise or Shaun of the Dead, check out Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. And then, maybe, rethink that backwoods camping trip you were planning for next summer, and come spend your late-July inside a movie theater in Traverse City with me.
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil
For many Pixar fans, the original Cars was the least interesting addition to the studio's impeccable feature film canon on its initial release. At over two hours, its length may be a factor in viewers’ disdain, but I’d also guess that prejudices against NASCAR and Larry the Cable Guy play a part. Circle racing’s not for everyone (though neither is French cuisine cooked up by rats – the overwhelming praise for Ratatouille still perplexes me).
No circle racing in Cars’ sequel – it’s been ditched for the fictional World Grand Prix road race, moving the action to some of the world's great cities and their frantic pace, and away from Radiator Springs and most of its inhabitants (and the small-town ideals of the original film’s storyline). The main Cars characters found here – race car sensation Lightning McQueen and his trusty, rusty sidekick Mater – get tangled up in an international espionage plot worthy of the James Bond franchise (Mater’s mistaken for a spy, which causes trouble on and off the track between him and Lightning, until… well, like Bond films, do the plot details really matter?).
Ultimately, Cars 2’s returning characters suffer the same fate as the Beatles in Help! – they end up as extras in their own movie. The similarities between the films is striking – the goofy protagonist (Ringo, Mater) works and plays with friends in exotic locales (the Beatles’ proto-video performances, Lightning and Mater’s racing set-pieces) while unwittingly being pursued by a variety of good and bad guys led by award-winning actors (Leo McKern, Michael Caine). The results are similar as well – anyone not having seen the previous film (A Hard Day’s Night, Cars) may have no emotional attachment to the characters on-screen.
Cars 2 isn’t really a bad film – animation is top-notch as always, and if you’re really into spy flicks loaded with action, you may enjoy it without ever having watched the original. Still, since strong emotional attachment to characters in Pixar films is a primary source of those films’ greatness, Cars 2’s inability to sustain that attachment makes it the least of the studio’s feature film efforts to date.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been compiling my Best of 2011 list, an annual ritual of sorts, comprised of my favorite books, movies and music published throughout the year. But what about all of the great movies and music from years gone by that I’ve recently embraced and enjoyed? Well, here is a list of films that I’ve recently viewed, some of which are well known classics and others that are gems just waiting to be discovered and checked out. Compared to recently released films, they hold up quite well.
All That Heaven Allows: The great director Douglas Sirk’s classic tale of domestic and social conflict between a restless widow (Jane Wyman) and a close minded society that refuses to accept her love for a younger man played by Rock Hudson. The vibrant Technicolor and use of innovative filming techniques makes this seemingly conventional melodrama an influential touchstone for contemporary directors like Todd Haynes (his great movie Far From Heaven is a reworked homage to Sirk’s classic) and Ranier Fassbinder.
A Streetcar Named Desire: A stunning movie when you consider the time period in which it was made. Everything you’ve read about Marlon Brando’s visceral performance is accurate. His explosive screen presence set the stage for younger method actors to take more expressive approaches to acting. What I didn't know was how mesmerizing Vivian Leigh was going to be as the doomed Blanche DuBois.
Night of the Hunter: A perfectly rendered performance by Robert Mitchum as the creepy murderer posing as a preacher (famously adorned with the words hate and love tattooed on his knuckles) makes Night of the Hunter one of the 1950's most influential films. Mitchum’s deranged killer faces off against two children and an ornery grandmother as he tries to secure a large sum of stolen money. The famous ditty sung by Mitchum throughout the film was referenced by the Joel and Ethan Coen in their 2010 film True Grit during the closing credits.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: One of the director Martin Scorsese’s lesser known films from the 1970’s but a strong, poignant film nonetheless. Driven by the award-winning, tour de force performance of Ellen Burstyn, Alice tells the story of a young mother in search of a career as a torch singer. Unsuccessful in love and singing, Alice ends up in the American Southwest working as a waitress at Mel’s Diner (later to be spun off as a television sitcom). Kris Kristofferson plays a man who shows an interest in Alice and her son. Will Alice settle down and marry or will she head off to California to strike it big as a singer? Her quirky, talkative son provides the movie’s comedic and lighthearted touches. Cameos by future stars include a very young Jodie Foster and Scorsese regular Harvey Keitel.
The Big Sleep: A lively if often convoluted whodunit, this first adaptation of the Raymond Chandler classic, was a major success at the box offices when it was released in 1946. Starring Hollywood’s hottest couple at the time, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, this Phillip Marlowe-centered, detective thriller is one of the few book adaptations that translates well to the big screen in large part to the great chemistry between the two stars and the crackling dialogue, filled with gritty innuendo.
Alice Doesn't Live here Anymore
The Swedish coming of age film My Life as a Dog (1987) is both touching and lighthearted, successfully balancing sentimentality with multifaceted, dramatic themes (loss, death, sexuality, friendship, etc.). The director Lasse Hallstrom’s most impressive work to date (even admitting in a 2002 interview that he has yet to top it with subsequent movies), tells the tale of both the innocent blossoming of youth and the harsh realization that life’s twists and turns often result in both delight and sorrow. Set in both the Swedish city and the bucolic countryside, My Life as a Dog follows the puberty-saddled Ingemar, a precocious 12 year old that cannot seem to avoid trouble, a predicament that makes life difficult for his ill mother and antagonistic brother. Sent to live with his Aunt and Uncle during the summer months, Ingemar comes to grip with both the hard truths of life and its rich and beautiful possibilities. A Soviet dog abandoned in space, the sweet science of boxing, a confusing if not budding friendship/romance, eccentric townies and a controversial sculpture add peripheral character to this charming story of embracing setbacks with humor, love and barking.
My Life as a Dog
Produced by Nickelodeon studios – which gave the world SpongeBob and slime – Rango was heavily promoted on Nick’s cable channel (and elsewhere) just prior to its theatrical release last March. Why not? The film is populated by talking animals, its lead character (voiced by Johnny Depp, star of Rango director Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean series) is naively charming and quirky, and, hey, it’s animated! Must be a kids’ flick.
Not so fast. It’s not that kids won’t enjoy Rango – my first-grader did – it’s just that Rango may really be a cult film for adults disguised as a kids’ flick. (Yes, my kid enjoyed it, but didn’t talk about it much past the day we saw it.) While most decent kids’ films in the last decade have plenty of references kids may not get, the entirety of Rango will make the most sense to adults who have grown up with, well, films for grown-ups.
Our hapless title hero, a domesticated lizard who, like Bolt and so many other animated big-screen pets, gets separated from his cushy lifestyle in the film’s opening moments, is thrown into a gritty western scenario more evocative of Anthony Mann than Woody’s Roundup. Townspeople are terrorized by villains who control the town’s water supply (shades of Chinatown), so when the goofy stranger arrives on the scene, they look to him as their last great hope (echoes of High Noon). Nothing here the kids can’t enjoy, but what’s up with that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reference?
Rango’s classic western types are thoroughly engaging characters that should have their audience really caring about their fates, whether or not it cares about westerns. That said, familiarity with the western genre should make the film even more enjoyable. If that sounds like your kind of film, then don’t wait for the kids to pick it up from our collection.
American film director/writer Terrence Malick is by no means prolific. In fact, the much admired auteur has only produced a handful of films over the past 30 years--his fifth work coming out this summer (Tree of Life). Malick’s movies are lush, visually sensual pictures mostly shot in outdoor settings, using natural light. His directorial style, known for its poetic touch, nevertheless wrestles with serious subject matter including the fog of war (The Thin Red Line), violence and celebrity (Badlands) and colonization (The New World). Fans of Malick’s work are a patient lot and are hoping that the star-studded (Brad Pitt and Sean Penn) Tree of Life lives up to the inevitable hype.
I love zombie movies. I don’t care if the acting is bad or the budget is low, if a movie has zombies in it I’ll watch it. Of course I was happy when AMC decided to produce a TV show based on the graphic novel The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead follows police officer Rick Grimes as he struggles to survive in world where society has collapsed due to a mysterious virus that turns people into zombies. The show has a good balance between character development and action. The six-episode season seemed like tease to me—I can’t wait until season two starts in the fall.
If you’re not interested in investing time in a TV show, KPL has plenty of those zombie movies I like so much. My favorite, Shaun of the Dead, is a funny movie made by people who share my love of zombie films. If you’re interested in something a little scarier, there’s always 28 Days Later, Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle’s take on the genre. And if camp and gore is what you want, give Dead Snow a try.
The Walking Dead
Maybe you never heard of these series when they were first produced or maybe they didn’t appear on the surface to be your cup of tea, so you bypassed them altogether. Now, like a fine wine, aged with time, these programs are considered classics which pushed the television industry envelope. Here are a couple of television gems within our collection that you may want to revisit or experience for the first time.
Sports Night: A show written and produced by the award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin shortly before he moved his focus to The West Wing. Sports Night fuses comedy and drama together with a rapid-fire delivery of dialogue, reminiscent of Sorkin’s best work (A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). The show struggled to find a balance between humor and more weighty subject matter and thus confused both its network and audiences (the addition of laugh tracks were eliminated by the second season). It lasted a mere two seasons but is thought of as a forward-thinking show that posited inventive ideas about how to mix comedy and drama with the occasional sprinkling of politics.
Freaks and Geeks: Another show that baffled its network at the time of its release in 1999 and yet garnered both critical acclaim and a robust fan base. Set in 1980’s Michigan, Freaks and Geeks, like Sports Night, was adept at suturing madcap narratives and hilarious dialogue to sensitive themes and dramatic depth. The series centered around two high school cliques—the nervous and awkward incoming freshman crowd and the hard-to-reach students comprised of school rebels. The character Bill Haverchuck may be the most layered and multidimensional nerd in the history of television. Judd Apatow, the successful film director and producer was an Executive Producer on Freaks and Geeks and many of its actors have appeared in his other movie projects. The show’s future stars included James Franco, Jason Segel, Busy Philipps, and Seth Rogen.
The Larry Sanders Show: Years before Curb Your Enthusiasm emerged as one of HBO’s most cringe-worthy comedies and years before the overly self-conscious and meta-choreographed rise of reality television and shows like Entourage, there was The Larry Sanders Show—a show about a show. Comedian Gary Shandling plays a neurotic talk show host who rarely has a day off from the various shenanigans that fate has dealt him. Surrounding Larry is a well-rounded cast of celebrities playing themselves, often to hilarious effect as well has his screwball agent (Rip Torn), his Ed McMahon-like sidekick (Jeffrey Tambor) and host of other future stars like Jeremy Piven and Janeane Garofalo.
Freaks and Geeks
This hilarious and ultimately heartwarming documentary tells the story of the people responsible for the "so bad it's good" film Troll 2 and what has happened to them as the low budget horror film they were involved with in 1989 slowly turned into what is affectionately known as “the worst movie ever made” - a cult favorite with maniacal fans and Rocky Horror Picture Show like midnight showing parties. Written and directed by Michael Stephenson – who actually starred in Troll 2 as a child – Best Worst Movie’s main focus is George Hardy, the father in Troll 2, who is now a well loved general dentist living a quiet and happy life in a small Alabama town. The film examines the Troll 2 phenomenon and follows George and many of the other cast members, several who are clearly not as well adjusted as George appears to be, as they hit the Troll 2 circuit, engaging with rabid fans and soaking up the weird fame that they have in this realm. The film is well made, touching, funny, and above all entertaining. Even if you have never seen Troll 2 you will be a fan after viewing this great documentary.
Best Worst Movie
Robert Rodriguez's new move Machete give you lots of explosions, shooting, blood, guts, gore and nifty outfits with a plot and big named actors. Dany Trejo; Steven Segal (as a bad guy), Robert De Niro, Lindsey Lohan and Jesica Alba. I watched this thinking OK let's watch some shooting and some explosions, but I was rewarded by it also having a watchable plot.
The 1970’s were arguably one of the best decades for film making in the United States. Many of the major studios began to allow young directors much greater power and freedom to craft artistic pictures and in doing so, gave birth to the last golden age of American cinema. The seventies saw the emergence of decorated and influential directors and writers like Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), William Friedkind (The Exorcist), George Lucas (American Graffiti, Star Wars), Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Mean Streets), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather Trilogy, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now), Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven), Robert Towne (Chinatown), Peter Bogdanovich (Paper Moon, The Last Picture Show), Sydney Pollack (Three Days of the Condor, The Way We Were, All the President’s Men) Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) and Robert Altman (MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye) to name but just a few. Here are just a few of the most interesting films made during this original decade that we currently circulate. Lastly, a great documentary that chronicles this subject, Decade Under the Influence, will soon accompany these other classic films on our shelves.
The Last Picture Show
Harold and Maude (VHS)
Little Big Man
Kramer Vs Kramer (VHS)
Having recently taken over the responsibilities of selecting films for our audiovisual collection, I’m excited to report about some of the new titles that I’ve recently ordered. Some are here in the building and others are on their way. Why these films you ask? Well, these are personal favorites of mine that I would argue with great adoration and zeal that because of their artistic merits warrant their inclusion within our diverse and varied cinema collection. Some are big name classics and others are great films that have either languished in obscurity or have been appreciated only by its ardent fans. Some may have already been part of our collection in years past and now have a second chance at falling into your hands. I hope you enjoy these movie treasures.
- The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
- Ghost World
- Carnal Knowledge
- Coming Home
- Hoop Dreams
- Killing Fields
- Lone Star
- Little Big Man
- My Left Foot
- My Private Idaho
- Il Postino
- My Beautiful Laundrette
- The Professional
- Splendor in the Grass
- Silence of the Lambs
I watch more films than the average person, so while the allure of the Lake Michigan shore often takes priority during these warm, sunny months, I've still managed to find some time to view several exceptional films that are worth checking out.
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Classic political satire from Frank Capra)
- La Vie En Rose (French biopic on singer Edith Piaf with an amazing performance from Marion Cotillard)
- Vivra Sa Vie (Classic from the French New Wave master)
- Avatar (Lot's of CGI without much of a plot, at least not an original one)
- Metropolitan (A cult indie classic from influential director Whit Stillman)
The French film director Jean-Luc Godard was arguably the centerpiece of the La Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). This loosely associated group of French directors and critics were heavily indebted to the contributions of the Italian Neorealism movement (Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini e.g.) and came to prominence in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties, seeking to revitalize French cinema with paradigmatic changes to the classical style of Hollywood movies, their plots and aesthetic approaches to narrative and editing techniques. Godard, who continues to work today, created some of world cinema’s most recognizable and influential films; his most important and conventional, produced between 1960 and 1967. For the beginner, I would recommend delving into Godard’s self conscious tales of cinematic referentiality, satiric deconstruction, and counter cultural politics in chronological order: Breathless (1960), Vivre sa vie (1962), Alphaville (1965), Pierrot le fou (1965) and Weekend (1967). A very stylized director who broke with traditional movie-making norms and cinematographical techniques throughout his long career, Godard's influence can be witnessed throughout contemporary movies as well as in the sort of jump-cut editing found in television commercials and MTV videos.
When talking about directors who consistently make provocative, intellectually-inspired films that are commercially successful while not slighting of the audience’s acumen, the conversation must include the films of the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan). Known for their genre bending, dark comedies, the Coen’s have made some of the most memorable films of the past two decades, including the adapted No Country for Old Men, which won Best Picture in 2007, Fargo (1996), Raising Arizona (1987), Miller’s Crossing (1990), and the cult masterpiece, The Big Lebowski (1998). There have been a couple of missteps along the way (Intolerable Cruelty and The Lady Killers) but for the most part, their unique vision of human destiny embodies a distinctive mixture of gallows humor, richly drawn characters, and absurd circumstances that often pit their protagonist against both the quirks of chance and the poorly conceived decisions of individuals. While I wouldn’t characterize their newest film A Serious Man as one of their best movies, it remains as one of last year’s better films that will likely satisfy the devotee. What do you get when you engage a Coen Brothers film? A little bit of crime fiction, a dash of film noir, a teaspoon of odd ball comedy, a bag of literary and film allusions, topped off with a pinch of both real and implied violence thrown in. Of their 14 full length films, the following selection is arguably their most important.
No Country for Old Men (adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel)
The Big Lebowski
This is following upon Ann's earlier post about the depth and diversity of our film and television collection. I'd also like to point to the marvelous array of foreign language movies and in particular those that have been released by the Criterion Collection. There is no better way to introduce yourself to the rich body of world cinema then to explore Criterion's growing pool of cult films, many of which have never found a broad audience here in the United States. I'm referring to Larisa Shepitko's heartbreaking The Ascent (Russian), François Truffaut's memorable new wave coming of age story The 400 Blows (French), Hong Kong action hits like John Woo's The Killers (Cantonese), the highly influential masterpiece Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa (Japanese), and Steven Soderbergh's provoking narrative about drug trafficking Traffic (Spanish/English).
Essential art house. Rashomon [videorecording]