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Staff Picks: Movies

The Overnighters

The Oscar-nominated documentary The Overnighters is a deeply entralling work that focuses its sympathetic lens upon one pastor’s complicated mission to serve the needy and “broken” men of a small North Dakota boom town. Confronted with both his zealous need to serve as a Christian and a church and community increasingly frustrated and suspicious of his motivations, Pastor Jay Reinke is forced to engage the truths of his own brokenness and hypocrisy. What appears at first as an examination of the personal and social costs of the fracking industry’s impact upon Williston, North Dakota, evolves into a provocative essay on the thorny relationships between Reinke, the community, his family, and the men he seeks to serve. This is one of the best documentaries of the year and one that plumbs the tragic intricacies of American society’s two most hegemonic forces—capitalism and religion with empathy and nuance.


Life Itself

Roger Ebert was once the most recognized film critic in the United States. From the time he won a Pulitzer Prize for his criticism in 1975 through the conclusion of his successful weekly television program At the Movies (co-hosted with Gene Siskel until 1999), Ebert established himself as the nation's most powerful pundit. Famous for he and Siskel's trademarked phrase "thumbs up", Ebert past away in 2013 after multiple bouts with cancer that left him without his jaw or the ability to speak.

A brand new documentary by Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, provides an excellent survey of Ebert's professional accomplishments while also covering Ebert's colorful personal life, providing intimate details about his complicated relationship with Siskel, his years as a hard drinking journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times and his midlife marriage to Chaz Hammelsmith, who he married in 1992.  


Women's History Month Highlights

March is Women’s History Month and so in keeping with the theme of highlighting the achievements and contributions of women involved with movie-making, here’s a list of writers, directors and some of their groundbreaking works.

Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere, Selma)
Agnes Varda (Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond)
Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty)
Lena Dunham (Girls, Tiny Furniture)
Maya Deren (Maya Deren: Experimental Films)
Penny Marshall (A League of Their Own)
Allison Anders (Border Radio)
Claire Denis (White Material, Bastards)
Chantal Akerman (From the Other Side, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles)
Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher)
Ida Lupino (The Hitchhiker)
Elaine May (The Birdcage, A New Leaf)


Everything Is Oscar

Oscar nominations were announced yesterday, which means it’s once again time for me to let all the obsessive movie lovers out there know which films are available right now (or very soon), here at the Kalamazoo Public Library.

The first film you’ll want to get your hands on is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.  Nominated for six Academy Awards, this critical darling is the front-runner for Best Picture, Best Director (Linklater) and Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette).  It also received nominations for Best Actor (Ethan Hawke), Film Editing, and Original Screenplay.  Boyhood is an epic coming-of-age tale that was filmed over the course of twelve years using the same actors.  The story follows the journey of young Mason Evans as he ages from six to eighteen, and the viewer can literally watch the young actor grow and mature before their very eyes.  It’s truly a great achievement in filmmaking.

The next movie you’ll want to watch is Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which received nine nominations—tied for the most this year.  It was recognized for Best Picture, Best Director (Anderson), Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Original Score and Production Design.  The hilarious film follows the exploits of a hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes) and his lobby boy (Tony Revolori) as they attempt to wrest a valuable painting from the estate of a recently deceased elderly patron.  Surprisingly, this is Anderson’s first Best Director nomination and the first of his films to get nominated for Best Picture.

After that, it might be time for a marathon of Best Visual Effects nominees: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Guardians of the Galaxy (also nominated for Makeup and Hairstyling).  Come to think of it, if there were an Oscar for the length of the movie title, these would probably be the nominees for that as well.

Then turn your eye to Best Animated Feature nominees: How to Train Your Dragon 2 is out now; The Boxtrolls and Big Hero 6 are not available yet, but they will be soon and you can place a hold on them right now.  Shockingly, everything was not awesome for The LEGO Movie, which did not get nominated for Best Animated Feature as expected, but it did still pick up a nomination for Best Original Song with “Everything Is Awesome,” performed by Tegan and Sara (featuring The Lonely Island).

Next, you’ll want to check out Disney’s Maleficent, nominated for Best Costume Design; Finding Vivian Maier, a Best Documentary Feature nominee; Begin Again, Original Song nominee for “Lost Stars”; and Ida, which scored both Best Cinematography as well as Best Foreign Film.

Best Documentary nominee Virunga is available via our streaming service hoopla.

There are several more nominees that are arriving within the next several weeks that you can place a hold on right now, including eight-time nominee The Imitation Game.  This true, tragic story of Alan Turing, father of the modern computer and preeminent World War II code-breaker, scored recognition for Best Picture, Best Director (Morten Tyldum), Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), Best Supporting Actress (Keira Knightley), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Original Score, and Production Design.  The other coming-soon films that you can place a hold on now are Gone Girl (Best Actress – Rosamund Pike), The Judge (Best Supporting Actor – Robert Duvall), Nightcrawler (Original Screenplay), and Beyond the Lights (Original Song).

So start binging today, and be sure to keep checking our catalog for other Oscar nominated films as more of them become available.

For many of the Oscar nominated films that are still in theaters, be sure to check out downtown Kalamazoo’s Alamo Drafthouse Theater, which is currently playing American Sniper (6 nominations), Foxcatcher (5 nominations), Into the Woods (3 nominations), Selma (2 nominations), Inherent Vice (2 nominations), and the aforementioned The Imitation Game (8 nominations).


Year End Favorites from the Movie Collection

The following were my favorite movies of the past year that are available from the KPL movie collection. Some are classics, many are foreign language, a few are funny, and on occasion, a masterpiece or two made the list. There were also the casual discoveries of pulling a movie from the shelf without knowing that much about it and being pleasantly surprised. Hopefully, there's something for everyone to enjoy. It was a good year to cross off a few from my ever-growing bucket list of movies to watch.

The Funny: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Bull Durham, The Big Chill, Bad Words, and The Trip to Italy

The Masterpieces and Classics: Safe, Rififi, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Vanishing, Persona, Double Indemnity, Eternity and a Day, Autumn Sonata, Pierre le Fou, Down By Law, Walkabout, Brute Force, The American Friend, Johnny Guitar, Ida, Hail Mary

The Surprises: Omar, Certified Copy, The Landlord, Black Orpheus, The Double, Still Walking, Secret Sunshine, Purple Noon, Gerry, Mystery Train, Happy Together, 2046, Captain Philips, Bronson

Documentaries: Black Fish, The Punk Singer, Beware Mr. Baker, Benjamin Smoke, The Bones Brigade: An Autobiography, These Birds Walk, Plimpton, The Armstrong Lie, Cousin Jules, Harry Dean Stanton.     

     

 


The Punk Singer

In 1992 I had the good fortune to have seen the punk band Bikini Kill play at a small club in Chicago. They blew me away with their loud, raw and unfiltered brand of punk rock feminism. Looking back now, I can see how necessary they were at that particular moment, that their commitment to empowering women within the punk scene and raising issues and consciousness was a much needed alternative to the mostly-male dominated culture that existed in the early 1990's. The group’s culture-changing anthems struck a chord (pun intended) with men and women alike (both negatively and positively), especially the lyrics and style of their brash singer Kathleen Hanna. Looking back with fond nostalgia for a time period and cultural milieu that I had experienced firsthand, I was eager to see The Punk Singer, an entertaining film that examines Kathleen Hanna's shape shifting contributions toward changing the punk scene's attitude toward women. Recommended for fans of underground punk music of the early 1990's and those wanting to learn more about the history of the Riot Girl movement.


Rich Hill

There is a rich documentary film tradition that has chronicled our nation’s struggle to address the sources and solutions of systemic poverty and income inequality. Films like Roger and Me, Poor Kids: An Intimate Portrait of America’s Economic Crisis, Two Nations of Black America, American Dream, The Queen of Versailles, The Corporation, Harlan County, USA, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Down and Out in America, Inside Job, have all with their unique perspectives attempted to shine a critical light on the political, cultural and socioeconomic forces that contribute to endemic hardship in a country where national rhetoric and historical myth about opportunity often run counter to the research data about access to resources, class privilege and wealth accumulation. We can now add the new film Rich Hill to that list, a film that details the everyday struggles of several families in the tiny town of Rich Hill, MO. The film focuses on three young men who are entering their coming of age years, fraught and complicated in any context, but for them, the difficulties of growing up without financial advantages are compounded by their parents’ struggle with chronic unemployment, health problems and incarceration. Each boy clings to the idea that the American Dream is real and attainable even when the statistics are clearly working against the likelihood that the boys will escape such cyclical poverty. It isn't all doom and gloom, as the film does show the children doing what average American teenagers do and think about. While the film concentrates on a very small town, much of the film can be read as a reflection of the challenges facing large swaths of both rural and urban cities alike.


Making the Grade

There’s just not enough time to compose a lengthy review of some of the great and not-so great feature films, television series and documentaries that I’ve caught over the past month, so instead, I’m handing out a grade and an abridged appraisal.

Bastards—A grim, pointless waste of time from French Director Claire Denis (C-)
Hateship Loveship—Continued proof that former SNL star comedian Kristin Wiig should keep looking for dramatic roles (B)
Orphan Black—Yes, lead actress Tatiana Maslany was robbed of an Emmy nomination for her multiple roles in this great BBC-produced show about clones (A)
Requiem for the Big East—For college basketball fans who grew up in the 1980’s and recall watching these legendary teams, this ESPN documentary will rouse a healthy dose of nostalgia (B+)
The Bridge—in keeping with the very trendy, neo-noir subject of serial killing and the relationship between detectives charged with solving the mysteries (see: True Detective), this cross-border drama explores the messy dialectics of national politics, the consequences of drug/human trafficking and the tension between rich and poor (B+)
Captain Phillips—nothing here was particularly new, assuming you followed the story when it originally unfolded, but it still remains a dramatically compelling, well-paced action film that will jump-start your adrenalin (A-)
Top Hat & Tales: Harold Ross and the Making of the New Yorker—a satisfactory if not condensed portrait of an eccentric visionary and his creative collaborators who developed a unique and lasting publication (B)

and...

Palo Alto—a drained, vacuous sketch of the psychic ennui of rich, white teens whose lives gravitate around sex, drugs, video games and pathetic, exploitative adults (D)



The CCC

The Civilian Conservation Corps is an inspiring and informative PBS documentary about the Depression-era initiative that helped to both put American men back to work and heal the nation’s environment after years of neglect and misuse. Roosevelt’s ingenious program sought to positively impact the lives of the participants by providing a structured way of life for young men that included access to a paycheck ($30/month), three meals a day, healthcare, vocational training, and most significantly, a renewed sense of self-worth and pride. Hundreds of CCC camps sprung up around the nation in 1933 as Roosevelt took over the presidency and developed several transformative programs that would address the country’s economic woes and massive unemployment rate (approximately 30%). The legacy of the CCC’s aggressive plan to revitalize the country's collective misery can still be felt today as thousands of American’s enjoy the great outdoors because of the ingenuity, hard work and sense of national unity from those involved.


Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

Writer, editor, partier, commercial pitchman, and friend of the rich, famous and artistic, George Plimpton was never really taken that seriously as an accomplished, literary heavyweight like many of his writer friends (James Salter, Peter Matthiessen, Ernest Hemingway, Gay Talese). Yet nevertheless, he co-founded and served as editor of one of the most important and prestigious literary magazines of the post-war era, The Paris Review. When not publishing some of the most important writers of his time, Plimpton’s reputation grew mostly from his pioneering development of what he referred to as “participatory journalism”, the act of collecting unique experiences and then detailing them in book form. His most famous gimmick was when he tried out for the Detroit Lions football team as a quarterback, culminating in the bestseller Paper Lion. Much of his interest in being the subject of these journalistic “stints” led critics to suggest that his work can be seen as a precursor to what was dubbed the New Journalism (see: Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson) of the 1960’s. For more on Plimpton’s life, relationships and accomplishments, check out the new documentary Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself.