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Staff Picks: Movies

The Drop Drops the Ball

With the newest film The Drop, audiences will get some decent acting out of Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini but ultimately, the story that we’re left with is held up by conventionally stale characters and a hopelessly tired plot. Tough guys, gangsters and double-crossing have never looked so unremarkable. Don’t blame the cute puppy for this throwaway.


Ram-Leela: A Bollywood Romeo and Juliet

 When my girls were younger we loved the Bollywood films because they were full of singing, dancing, beautiful costumes, handsome men and gorgeous women. Ram-Leela , a 2013 film directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali , is like that. It has beautiful, beautiful saris, tons of jewelry, a very handsome lead star and the most beautiful heiress. There’s lots of singing and dancing. The film is more modern than I’m used to. The dance moves have lots of hip action and everyone is running around with cell phones and guns.

Ram-Leela is about a couple that falls in love. Their clans have been at war for 5 centuries. Ram is from a crime family and Leela is an heiress, whose mother is ruthless and determined to marry Leela, her jewel, off to a good family. Oh, there are so many surprises with this modern day Romeo and Juliet plot you would think I wouldn’t  be surprised, but I was crushed. Oh and yeah, there are subtitles, but reading the subtitles just kept me glued to the screen.

The French Gangster Film

Writer, actor and filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich once said that it was always the French who told us what was great about American filmmaking, in essence, that the French tended to be more enthusiastic about particular films and filmmakers that were under-appreciated by American audiences and Hollywood studios (examples would include: Orson Welles, Sam Fuller and Howard Hawkes). It was also the French who took the American crime thriller genre and elements of film noir and who with stylish flare re-modeled two decades worth of brilliant movies that depicted criminal protagonists and their anti-social activities (see: Rififi, Bob the Gambler, Les Doulos, Le Samourai, Shoot the Piano Player, and Breathless). 

One of these outstanding films is Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954), starring a washed up, leading man (Jean Gabin) and an unknown actress who would become an international star in the coming years (Jeanne Moreau). Everything simply clicks in this Jacques Brecker directed film about an aging gangster who just wants to retire after a big heist. Gabin plays the affable Max, a man who is both loved and respected by the women and fellow mobsters in his life. When his beloved but bumbling side-kick Riton becomes embroiled in a messy dispute with another gangster, Max must choose between his money and his friendship. The title translates as Don’t Touch the Loot but fans of film noir should certainly get their hands on this classic.

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).

The Journey of Boyhood

Director and writer Richard Linklater’s 12-year odyssey of a film is an ambitious work full of subtle poignancy that details the transition from boyhood to late adolescence for one young man growing up in Texas. It’s not quite the great film that the cultural hype machine and majority of critics have suggested. It does however warrant ample amounts of appreciation and praise for the enormous scale of the concept and the commitment of those involved to see the film through to its completion. Filmed over 12 years, viewers watch our human subject physically and emotionally change before our eyes, redefining the way in which elapsed time contributes to our response and understanding of our protagonist’s journey; one in which we can all empathize with given its universal themes. Unfortunately, the model of the film cannot compensate for a week screenplay and hum drum performances from Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. Linklater's writing steers the viewers away from designed artifice or theatrical drama and instead focuses on developing vignettes of ordinary moments (first kiss, bad haircut, teen rebellion, etc.). In taking this approach to narrative, much of the film drags along from seminal moment to everyday banalities and back again without the kind of punch many viewers will crave. I wanted to really love Boyhood but much of the plot’s sequences felt terribly pedestrian and conventional. Having said that, this is still a film worth watching with its many fantastic moments.

Sunset Blvd.

Even if you haven’t seen the classic Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard (1950), you have likely heard it quoted by someone on television or in another movie. There are several legendary lines delivered by lead actress Gloria Swanson that have become embedded within pop culture’s vernacular. The film has elements of both satire and film noir but at its heart, the film is a cautionary tale about the excesses of wanting too much and the delusions of grandeur that derive from that desire. Swanson plays a long forgotten screen actress of the silent movie era named Norma Desmond. Sadly, she exists within the fantasy land of her mind’s obsession with becoming a star again (“don’t call it a comeback”). She lives with her stern but loyal butler in an old Hollywood mansion on Sunset Boulevard. When she meets a desperate, struggling screenwriter named Joe Gillis (William Holden) and convinces him to draft a film for her return to the big screen (a task he’s not particularly interested in), Norma’s hallucinatory grasp on reality grows into an explosive confrontation between she and Joe that won’t end well for either party.

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.     



A Vampire Movie for Adults

One of my favorite films of the year comes from director/writer Jim Jarmusch, who has made a very charming movie (Only Lovers Left Alive) about...well...very cool vampires with excellent musical and literary tastes, hanging out in Detroit, lamenting the zombie-led destruction of all that which they consider civilized (vintage guitars, romantic poetry, art). The film feels a bit like a love letter to all of Jarmusch's influences and interests. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play two bummed out, very 21st Century vampires in love who have lived a very long time on earth and who are feeling a bit blue about the future of not only the world's swing toward ruin but their own crisis of faith in continuing their tiresome slog through the centuries. Hey, it's tough out there for a vampire.

All Memories Are Traces of Tears

At its core, the Wong Kar-Wai film 2046 (2004) is about the anchor of memory and the struggle to move beyond the emotional stasis of ill-fated love. Developed as an associated sequel to his breathtaking classic In the Mood for Love (2000), it’s a poignant and heart-wrenching follow-up that restarts the story of Mr. Chow, an uninspired writer of pulp whose life as an aloof playboy incapable of emotionally connecting with the several women he encounters both in real life and in literature. While a central character from ITMFL is alluded to several times during the film, often hanging over the plot like a ghostly signifier for Chow’s past, one could conceivably view 2046 as a singular film about the pitfalls of timing but I would highly recommend beginning with ITMFL before undertaking the narratively intricate arcs of 2046 (there are countless allusions to the previous film that will function only to confuse the audience).

Mostly set in Hong Kong during the latter part of the 1960’s, Mr. Chow (played brilliantly by actor Tony Leung) is writing a Science Fiction story about the year 2046, a time and place where people go to relive their memories, a place where nothing changes. No one has ever come back from 2046 except for the teller of the tale, a Japanese man named Tak, a kind of stand-in for Chow. Chow’s unsentimental affair with a call girl who lives in an adjacent apartment (room number 2046) is achingly born out of Chow’s loneliness and boredom with his career but she has an earnest and quixotic plan for him that will force him to address his yearning for a past that has come and gone. Both films masterfully depict moodiness and atmosphere like few others in due part to the sensual cinematography of Christopher Doyle and use of melodic music to evoke the interior longing of characters. Prepare for a non-linear plot that jumps backward and forward throughout the film.


Calvary is a powerhouse of a film set in a small city along the picturesque coast of Ireland. The film’s themes concentrate around the power of religious faith, its practical limitations to address contemporary life’s complexities and the power of forgiveness in a world of lost belief and despair. Fiercely emotional, Calvary goes straight to the heart of whether or not forgiveness for unthinkable crimes is possible and whether one respectable priest’s fidelity to his vocation can be shaken by the varied reproaches echoed by those whose lives are mired in “well earned” melancholy and cynicism. Actor Brendan Gleeson is a decent priest who attempts to provide counsel and solace to several residents in the provincial town, most of whom mock and dismiss his honest intentions to provide comfort and guidance. 

From the opening scene of the film, we learn (without seeing the identity) that a victimized parishioner plans on murdering the priest, not because he’s been wronged by our protagonist but because killing an innocent person will in some way symbolically draw attention to the sex abuse crimes committed against thousands of Irish children like himself. It’s a brilliant, opening salvo that will force Father James to confront his own troubled relationship with belief, reconcile with his depressed daughter and come to terms with a fate that may well end with his life coming to a close. Billed as a dark comedy, Calvary has its moments of lighthearted quirkiness but the overall somberness of the film’s tone cannot be ignored. This is serious material handled with sensitivity. Even as the film’s core is suffused with an undeniable tension between righteous anger and its corrosive impact on the self, there are moments where we see genuine kindness expressed as in the case of the grieving French woman's scenes with Father James. 

That’s not to say that there are no problems with the film, some of which can be felt in the way the highly stylized characters of the foiling townspeople were written. Their ‘realness’ was clearly substituted for their capacity to represent the secular world’s various grievances with the church and its subsequent decline in status. In the end, the movie succeeds, mostly due to the stunning performance given by the veteran actor Gleeson.