Staff Picks: Movies
Staff-recommended viewing from 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.
DisneyNature has done it again. This time it is a year in the life of a Bear family. We follow Sky, the mother, and her two cubs Scout and Amber through the first year of their life. We start with their birth and we follow them cross the Alaska wilderness from the snowy mountains to the rivers full of salmon. It is spectacular scenery, breath taking views and a prodigious insight into the life of Bears. I saw DisneyNature-Bears in the theatre and paid movie going prices, you can place a hold now and see it for free from your library. We also have many more movies you may be interested in, come on in and take a look or go to our KPL website and browse from home.
DisneyNature – Bears
Writer Patricia Highsmith’s novels have been adapted for the big screen on more than one occasion. Clearly, directors from varied backgrounds have felt something motivating in her twisting tales of deception and murder. Her ominous story (The Talented Mr. Ripley) of a young American sent to Italy to return an expatriate, school chum to his father in San Francisco was the inspiration for French director Rene Clement’s (Forbidden Games) Purple Noon. This stylish, Hitchcockian adaptation was the coming out party for 1960’s French heartthrob Alain Delon as Tom Ripley, the cold and calculating con man who wants more than just a courier fee for the return of the glib, rich boy. German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) took Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game and transformed it into The American Friend (1977), a beautifully shot thriller that burns slowly as a psychological portrait of desperation into one of unleashed madness, if not comically so. The late British director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) made a patchy version of The Talented Mr. Ripley starring Jude Law, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Matt Damon in 1999.
Actor/director Ben Stiller makes a decent go at breathing new life into a classic story by James Thurber that was originally adapted in 1947 with Danny Kaye playing the lead. Thurber disliked the MGM film and I suspect that as an artist who cared deeply about his work, he’d find few remains of his classic tale of a socially awkward introvert prone to vivid daydreaming in Stiller’s ambitious yet uneven attempt. It’s a movie with a heart even if it’s one that is cloying and flavored with a simplistic “just do it” spirit. Stiller’s Mitty fantasizes as a means to escape his life of corporate downsizing and failure to find love. As a heroic everyman willing to brave danger to save a damsel in distress, Mitty finds agency, meaning and purpose (the hyper-masculine sort of course) but then again, that’s only a narrative exercise that takes place between his ears. It’s when he’s propelled by urgency, self-interest and romantic inspiration that our ill-at-ease hero pushes aside his fear and anxiety, leading to the a-ha moments one locates in adventure but also the kind found in every self-help book (live life to the fullest dude!). Stiller’s harmless, family-friendly and entertaining take on a classic is worth a viewing for its reimagined Mitty and superb cinematography but you may want to simply head to the library and pick up Thurber’s story for the substance.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Paolo Sorrentino’s mesmerizing film The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) is a triumphant depiction of a conflicted man standing at an emotional crossroads. Both wry in its biting humor and satire, it is a powerfully visual film (crane shots, close-ups, slow motion, zooms—the entire repertoire is employed) with boundless charity toward plumbing the emotional depths of universal themes (death, lost love, artistry, loneliness, spiritual desire) from within a carefully sketched milieu (Rome’s glamorously debauched and powerful).
Confronted with both the ubiquity of beautiful things found in everyday moments (the radiant smile of a young child, ancient sculpture, an early morning sunrise) and the grotesque and decadent trappings of Rome’s high society, well-tailored flaneur Jep Gambardella, hops from party to party, engaging in vacuous conversation that leaves him bored and wearily wondering whether being the “king” of the vapid souls of conga lines and performance artist flunkies is worth his growing ennui. When he learns of the death of a woman he had a youthful affair with many summers ago, Jep begins to soul search in between attending parties for 104 year old Saints (a dead ringer for Mother Teresa), a trip to the botox shaman and a visit to a magician who makes giraffes disappear. Much of that contemplation on the frivolousness of his life takes place during quiet strolls back to his lonely bachelor pad and this is where some of the most touching scenes of the movie take place. Sumptuous in its portrait of Rome’s scenic beauty and borderline whimsical in a way that echoes the fantastical leanings of Fellini, The Great Beauty is just that, a magnificent spectacle of visual eye candy that poetically affirms our human yearning for something other than self-absorption. Lastly, this film has a wonderful soundtrack that includes Arvo Part, The Kronos Quartet, and Damien Jurado. Far and away my favorite film from last year, The Great Beauty is also available to stream from Hoopla.
The Great Beauty
This is the true story of one woman’s pursuit for answers to questions long dismissed by an institution of power and secrecy. For Philomena, her story begins as a young, unmarried teen saddled with the birth of a son in a socially conservative Ireland during the 1950’s. Teen pregnancy was considered a moral sin that required a person’s atonement according to church practices. Taken in by a local abbey, she was coerced to sign away her parental rights, forced into performing labor and tragically witnessed the selling of her child to an American couple. Decades later, having stumbled across a former journalist and political spin doctor who was looking to revive his career by penning a “human interest” story for a magazine, Philomena sets out on a journey toward emotional closure and to learning about her son’s life in the United States. As I watched the film, I couldn't help but wonder if reading the memoir wouldn't have been a much better way to learn about Philomena's story. The actors are top notch but they can't save a film where so much depends upon the final 15 minutes, leaving much of the film about the odd couple relationship between Philomena and the journalist, which sadly, was far from interesting even with their tit for tat discourse regarding the power of faith in the face of injustice.
Most of us prefer sound with our visual imagery when it comes to movie watching. However, if you’re looking to challenge yourself to experience visual poetry and storytelling in new ways without the element of music or dialogue, here’s a quick introductory sampler of well-regarded works.
People on Sunday
Le Quattro Volte (sound, but no dialogue)
The Passion of Joan of Arc
People on sunday
Francois Truffaut’s sinuous portrait of provincial childhood is one of his lesser known works but those who appreciate his acclaimed 1960’s movies (The Antoine Doinel series, Shoot the Piano Player) will no doubt discover that Small Change is a true gem within his oeuvre. Known for depicting the complicated by joyous nature of French childhood with a tender humanism tied to an un-romanticized realism, Truffaut approaches his young subjects and the local adults like a documentarian, concentrating his focus on capturing both the special and everyday moments that mark a life. A first kiss, the anxiety of answering a question in front of the class, sneaking into a movie theater with a friend, even falling from an open window--Truffaut effectively mixes the lighthearted with the darker shades of growing up.
When it was released in 1960 to universal acclaim, visionary maverick Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless broke all the rules of conventional moviemaking. As posited by The Criterion Collection site, "there is a before Breathless, and an after Breathless” along the timeline of film history. The film’s radical break with tradition promptly posed new questions about what a movie could look like, sound like, mean, and most importantly, what a film could be. Even today, the film that kicked off the French New Wave retains a freshness and vitality that are striking and discomforting to those new to its anarchic, free-jazz sensibilities and inventive modes of representation. Godard’s reinvented salute to the American gangster genre mixes together into a highly original work of art with countless allusions to previous movies, references to literary texts, celebratory homages to American directors, and stylistic devices such as his famed jump cuts and an enthusiastic embrace of natural lighting and sound that in 1960, deviated from mainstream studio practices. It’s a film that is winking at the audience from the eye of its director and yet even as we push aside it’s question posing and deeply philosophical implications, it also functions as a terribly entertaining movie. Not only is the film considered one of the most influential, it subsequently launched the career of French leading man Jean-Paul Belmondo, who went on to work with Godard on A Woman Is a Woman and Pierrot le Fou. The Criterion Collection has just recently re-released Breathless on Blu-Ray and DVD with a wonderful array of supplents to go along with the feature.
The Danish political drama Borgen has been favorably compared to the American hit show House of Cards. While it resists the kind of farcical plotlines and hyper-cynicism of the Netflix-produced show, there features more than enough intrigue and Machiavelian maneuvering for political power to keep the storylines interesting and germane. Some critics have also alluded to The West Wing’s influence but Borgen resists the kind of naïve portrait of contemporary politics as a romantic idyll or a noble vocation. Borgen’s female protagonist is both a savvy political player engaged in political jousting and a committed wife and mother which suggests that there will be plenty of personal and political sacrifice to go around when the mud begins to fly. This is bingeworthy television, Scandinavian style.