(E) The Elephant Man (1980)
David Lynch’s films are known for their surrealist, unsettling depictions of the intersection where the sinisterly bizarre and the ‘aw shucks’ banal collide, the television series Twin Peaks being the most representational of his singular vision. One of his most commercially successful films, accessible to a wider audience than much of his work, is the 1980 film The Elephant Man, a dreamy, black and white sketch of John Merrick and his infamous deformities. Starring Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt and Anne Bancroft, The Elephant Man certainly has ‘Lynchian’ qualities but it also registers on an emotional level, with audiences coming to sympathize with Merrick’s proud defiance in the face of prejudice and violence.
(C) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
The systems of mendacity that we negotiate with both privately and publicly, the lies that we tell ourselves, the illusions and myths that we employ to whitewash and sweep under the rug uncomfortable truths—these are the core ideas and themes that writer Tennessee Williams was grappling with when he wrote the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a classic domestic drama that provides memorable scenes and captivating performances by lead actors Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives. Several of Williams’ plays were successfully converted into appreciated films including A Streetcar Named Desire, A Fugitive Kind and Suddenly, Last Summer. The film’s adaptation was in many ways a heavily sanitized and redacted version so as to secure the blessing of Hollywood and its censors. References to homosexuality in the conservative 1950’s was a major no-no. Even so, the film crackles with sharp-tongued dialogue and an amazing ensemble cast that fully embodies the family discord that Williams’ plays so fiercely examined.
As part of an ongoing series of 26 of my favorite films...
Bulworth, released in 1998, remains one of the most piercing political parodies of its era. Lead actor and director Warren Beatty puts in a tour de force performance as a suicidal, liberal politician whose disillusionment with the corruption of politics and his passive complicity in the system guides him to hire an unknown assassin to put him out of his misery. After a night of partying with a young woman (Halle Berry) and uttering unfiltered statements that he’d never express as a slick politician, Bulworth changes course and decides that he does indeed want to live. Woopsie, now what? Such an absurd premise connects Bulworth to a cinematic tradition of spoof and farce akin to classics like Network, Wag the Dog, In the Loop, Bob Roberts and Dr. Strangelove.
Tu Dors Nicole is a furtive, dreamy, less self-conscious take on post-graduation ennui than The Graduate, Frances Ha, or Ghost World, though all three of these older films contain bits and pieces of material that one locates in this small yet accomplished film set in a suburban Montreal neighborhood. The tone of the film is one of gentle melancholy, a perfectly realized depiction of the awkward transition from blithe privilege to the emotional pangs of adulthood.
For this post, the first of 25 to follow, I will be recommending a favorite film from each letter of the alphabet.
(A) The Assassin (2015)
The winner of last year's Cannes Film Festival's award for best director, The Assassin is a visual feast of expertly composed images, poetically rendered to evoke the immense beauty of China and its complex political history. The plot's obtuse delivery left me in a state of confusion throughout the viewing, which for some, might understandably be a deal breaker. However, fans of slowly drawn out portraits of morally conflicted, trained killers can ignore the clunker of a story line while still appreciating the magnificent imagery.
Nobody would ever want to be stuck on a train with a character from an Alex Ross Perry film and yet there’s something jabbing and arresting about his work. They’re pitilessly narcissistic, emotionally impaired individuals who are so lacking in self-awareness and empathy, that audiences are likely to want to leap through the screen so as to shake them from their self-absorption. They also function as absurdist vessels for sly, hilariously dark humor. His newest film, Queen of Earth, is a stylistic and tonal leap from his previous film Listen Up Philip. While Perry is certainly charting his own discrete path in an age of Hollywood re-treads, blockbuster franchises, book adaptations, and sanitized biopics, his newest work feels in many ways like the child of two previously made psycho-dramas, Ingmar Bergman’s beguiling Persona (1966) and Roman Polanski’s unsettling Repulsion (1965).
Elizabeth Moss gives an electric performance as a woman slowly descending toward a psychic breakdown over the course of several days while vacationing at a friend’s lake house. The strained relationship between Moss’ Katherine and her friend Virginia leads to questions which may or may not have answers connected to events during the previous summer. One vicious, verbal battle after another between the two antagonistic women and the peripheral men in their lives drives the film’s plot forward with Moss' character growing increasingly erratic.
With a throw-back score, overwrought but necessarily so, that sounds as though it was taken straight from a 1980’s horror film pulsating throughout the film, Perry juxtaposes the film’s bucolic setting with a murky, sinister tone that works to discomfit viewers and their narrative bearings, throwing them off the trail of what kind of movie they’re watching. Is it a horror film or a comedy or something in between? These are the sort of questions I hope Perry continues to ask of his audiences.
When I first heard the basic premise of the newer television series Jane the Virgin – an early-20-something devout Catholic woman who's decided to save her virginity until marriage is accidentally artificially inseminated – I immediately dismissed it as something I had zero interest in watching. But since the series debuted in fall 2014, I continued hearing positive buzz about the show. I recently took a few days away from the library to stay with my mother during her recovery from surgery; camping out in front of the TV was the only 'activity' she had the energy for, so we decided to check out the first episode of Jane the Virgin. That episode pulled us in, leading us, in the course of a few days, to binge-watch the entire first season and seek out the available episodes from season two online. The series is hilarious and totally charming, and manages to address relevant societal issues in a smart and natural manner. It offered a casual opportunity for my mom and me to have a conversation about immigration that we may not have had otherwise. The series as a whole is definitely much better than the over-the-top premise.
Here are a few other binge-worthy series that generate discussion:
Orange Is the New Black
Master of None
The 88th Academy Awards are less than a month away, so if you want to catch up on some of the nominees, the Kalamazoo Public Library can help you out! The following is a list of Oscar-nominated films that are available right now (or very soon) here at KPL:
Summer blockbuster (and, full disclosure, my favorite film of the year) Mad Max: Fury Road received ten nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (George Miller), Cinematography, Film Editing, Costume Design, Visual Effects, Makeup & Hairstyling, Production Design, and Sound Mixing & Editing.
Another popular Best Picture nominee, The Martian, scored a Best Actor nod for Matt Damon, as well as nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay (Drew Goddard), Production Design, Visual Effects, and Sound Mixing & Editing.
Steven Spielberg’s Cold War drama Bridge of Spies was recognized for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Mark Rylance), Best Original Screenplay (Matt Charman, Joel & Ethan Coen), Original Score (Thomas Newman), Production Design, and Sound Mixing.
The riveting thriller Sicario received nominations for Best Original Score (Jóhann Jóhannsson), Best Cinematography, and Best Sound Editing.
Sci-fi thriller Ex Machina received nominations for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Screenplay (Alex Garland).
Three of the Best Animated Feature nominees are currently available: When Marnie Was There, Shaun the Sheep Movie, and Inside Out (which was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay).
Don’t miss must-see Best Documentary Feature nominees The Look of Silence and Amy.
Kenneth Branaugh’s Cinderella received a nomination for Best Costume Design.
The Hunting Ground and Fifty Shades of Grey received Best Original Song nominations.
The cumbersomely-titled The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared was nominated for Best Makeup & Hairstyling.
All-around juggernaut Star Wars: The Force Awakens received five nominations including Best Original Score (John Williams), Best Film Editing, Visual Effects, and Sound Mixing & Editing. The film is not available yet, but John Williams’ Oscar-nominated music is.
The nominees that are not yet available, but are expected within the month are Straight Outta Compton, Spectre, Creed, and Room. You can place a hold on these right now.
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 The Revenant (12 nominations), The Big Short (5 nominations), Carol (6 nominations), and the 2016 Oscar nominated shorts, both Live Action and Animated.
Part musical, part feel-good drama with just enough charm to balance the weighty subjects of war and racism, The Sapphires is an entertaining if not typical, rags to riches tale about a collection of young, Australian Aboriginal women who take their talents for singing Motown on the road to the heart of the Vietnam War. Loosely based upon a true story, actor Chris O'Dowd plays the group's flaky but lovable manager who encourages the gutsy women to embrace soul music as a way to find success playing concerts for American troops. It's a predictable film that feels like you've seen it before but like a good pop song, the infectious characters groove their way into your sentimental heart and sometimes, that's just enough.
Liked The Big Short, try Inside Job
Liked Bridge of Spies, try The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
Liked Brooklyn, try In America
Liked Mad Max: Fury Road, try Bellflower
Liked The Martian, try Apollo 13
Liked The Revenant, try Jauja
Liked Room, try The Wolfpack
Liked Spotlight, try All the President’s Men