Staff Picks: Movies
Last year, the Danish film The Hunt was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It's the story of the social and individual price of a child's lie. Good natured Lucas works at the local elementary school, beloved by the school children and adored by his hunting buddies, Lucas finds himself at the center of a police probe after his best friend's daughter claims that Lucas abused her. As the town rallies behind the girl's claim, Lucas finds himself socially disconnected from the small town and the target of violence. The film tackles the subject of mob mentality and how quickly a faleshood can function to demonize an innocent person. Driven by a strong performance by the lead actor, The Hunt is an excellent film worth checking out.
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.
70 years ago today, one of World War II's most significant battles was D-Day, the day in which thousands of Allied soldiers crossed the English Channel to invade German occupied France. There's certainly no shortage of informational resources on this topic but if you're a WWII buff or simply want to know more about this imporant day in the fight against Nazi Germany, check out The War by Americana documentarian Ken Burns. This is my favorite work of Burns and his most emotionally dramatic. Soldiers who were there, storming the beaches of Normandy, recount with unfiltered descriptions, the horrors, heroism, and blunders that they experienced on that fateful day and in doing so, provide an unromanticized version of their sacrifice. It's Burn's most stirring documentary and one that is required viewing for those interested in World War II. For those who want their history fictionalized, KPL owns many feature films set during wartime, including Saving Private Ryan, Life Is Beautiful, Schindler's List, The Big Red One, Force 10 from Navarone, The Thin Red Line, The English Patient, The Winds of War, In Darkness, Ivan's Childhood, The Cranes are Flying, and Flags of Our Fathers.
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.
These Birds Walk is an unsanitized, visceral portrait of poverty, despair and the day-to-day struggles of an ambulance driver who ferries both dead bodies to and fro as well as transporting young runaways back to their families. Set in a Karachi (Pakistan) orphanage for unwanted and runaway children, the filmmakers have chosen to chronicle their subjects (Omar being the focus) without contextualizing or providing any sort of exposition. Their approach to their subject forces the viewer to become a voyeuristic fly on the wall of the orphanage, observing the young boys as they play, fight, laugh and confess the hopelessness of their lives. Viewers are also taken on a bumpy, chaotic ride through the busy streets of Karachi with an ambulance driver who works for the orphanage and who compassionately talks with the young boys. He sympathizes with their struggles because he too was once in the same situation. It’s easy to understand from simply reading the depth of despair on the faces of these children, how one living in these kinds of inhumane circumstances could be seduced by criminality or religious extremism. Their options are limited and they are under no illusions about their life’s trajectory. As grim a depiction of contemporary poverty as the film is, there are moments, albeit brief, where we glimpse the kindness of a stranger and the power it can wield.
These Birds Walk
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.
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
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.
In case you needed one last, post-Oscars list to use for upcoming checkout's. According to a survey of the editors and contributors of Film Comment magazine, these are the Top 20 films of 2013. Some have been released on DVD and others have yet to hit the shelves.
- Inside Llewyn Davis
- 12 Years a Slave
- Before Midnight
- The Act of Killing
- A Touch of Sin
- Computer Chess
- Frances Ha
- Upstream Color
- Museum Hours
- Blue Is the Warmest Color
- Spring Breakers
- Like Someone in Love
- Stories We Tell
- American Hustle
- The Grandmaster
“Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours is a small movie that contains multitudes”—Luc Sante
Jem Cohen’s film Museum Hours is a brilliant and mesmerizing answer to a question that he himself poses in the essay that accompanies the DVD—“How then to make movies that don’t dictate exactly where to look and what to feel? How to encourage viewers to make their own connections, to think strange thoughts, to be unsure of what happens next or even what genre of movie it is? How to combine the immediacy and openness of documentary with invented characters and stories?”
While not formulaic in the commercial, Hollywood sense, Cohen’s film does have a plot but one would be hard pressed to characterize the film as plot-driven nor does it particularly care about predictable scenes where characters recite lines from a script. It’s a much looser and improvised affair that speaks to Cohen’s interest in depicting the poetic and ephemeral place where life and art intersect, those elements of everyday life that register on the periphery of perception but that still make up the subjective landscape of human experience and history. What the film is (its form and conceptual concerns) and what the film is about (perception, loneliness, the universality of art over time and its allusive, individual character, etc.) is not one in the same but rather they complement each other.
The film at its core is the story of two strangers who meet at the Kunsthistoriches Art Museum in Vienna. Johann is a middle aged guard who spends his hours staring at people looking at art. Anne is a woman visiting her ailing cousin who is dying in a nearby hospital. He befriends her after they meet amongst the paintings of Bruegel, Rembrandt and other European masters. He serves as a kind of Viennese tour guide and translator for her as she awaits news about her comatose cousin. They wander through bars, take hillside strolls, amble through urban markets, and board an underground boat ride, both connecting the other to their life in miniatures, doing so as strangers once did prior to social networking. The dialogue is magically awkward and feels as though the actors were directed to improvise their conversational responses. Anne, played by cult singer Mary Margaret O’hara is especially magnetic. This is one of my favorite films from last year.
Set in Yokohama Japan prior to the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, this animated story of passionate students fighting for the preservation of a beloved school building slated for demolition parallels the romantic story of two young teens and the mysterious history that binds them together. The film will appeal to all ages but teens and tweens may be its biggest audience. Maudlin and sweet, From Up On Poppy Hill can be viewed with either the original Japanese or the English language version.
From Up on poppy hill
This is heart wrenching film from Swedish director Jan Troell focuses on one woman’s tumultuous life as a psychologically and physically abused wife and mother who momentarily escapes her domestic torment by picking up a camera—an instrument of creativity and documentation that she uses as a means for both personal expression and as a gateway to escape her unforgiving life. Shot with exquisite cinematography, Everlasting Moments takes the viewer on an anguished ride through the minefield of Maria Larsson’s troubled life—one defined by her amazing strength and fortitude in the face of heartbreak and disappointment. As bleak as her prospects are, Maria (brilliantly portrayed by Maria Heiskanen) discovers that there are moments, sublime in their ephemerality, when she and her alcoholic husband face the obstacles of war, poverty and hunger together and tenderly. Troell has masterly rendered a humane portrait of a family struggling to survive in pre-WWI Sweden, with the centerpiece constituted by Maria’s endless capacity for grace, forgiveness and persistence.
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
Le Havre is a wonderful film that I missed seeing when it first showed at WMU’s Little Theater several years ago. Named for a provincial city on the northern, French coast, the film is one of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s most warmhearted and charming. Known for his less is more approach to film making, his works tend to give birth to zany, working class characters whose expressions of both joy and futility come off as droll and darkly peculiar (fans of Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch will appreciate the brand of humor). Le Havre is a simple story: an elderly shoe shiner stumbles into a plot to hide a young, African boy from the authorities who seek his deportation. Ex “bohemian” Marcel Marx has a difficult enough time as it is in dealing with his critically ill wife. His newest project, one that he had not expected, is to safeguard with the help of his fellow townspeople, a young refuge named Idrissa, who is seeking to travel to London. With the authorities hot on his trail, Marcel keeps ahead of the fuzz with just enough assistance from Le Havre’s band of bartenders, rock musicians, and an unlikely detective. It’s a beautiful fantasy as much as it is a political fable about community and humanity.
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
Any sort of discussion of historically significant directors must include the work of the great Satyajit Ray. Ray’s visually brilliant and emotionally moving Charulata (1964) tackles the subject of desire; specifically that of a lonely and bored housewife imprisoned by limited social expectations and later on by romantic feelings for her husband’s cousin. Her newspaper-running husband’s responses to her veiled longing and artistic aspirations come off as glib or paternalistic. It’s only when his wayward, free spirited, poetry-composing cousin arrives to live at their home that Charulata begins to self-actualize and to allow her creative passion for writing to become more pronounced and acknowledged. Ray’s talent was in mixing the styles and tone of European and American films with the local, cultural nuances of Indian society. Always sensitive to develop multifaceted characters that are easy to sympathize with, Ray’s films feel like visual diaries of emotionally repressed or socially oppressed persons struggling to reconcile the old with the new, the traditional with the modern. The quality of acting is also top notch.
One of the things I love about Kalamazoo is the Kalamazoo Film Society. Every month for the past 25 years, this great organization has brought a film to Kalamazoo that would otherwise not have been shown locally. The Society recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with two classic films: Federico Fellini's Amarcord, and Ingmar Bergman's Wild strawberries. Those screenings, earlier this month, were the last at the KFS's long-time home, WMU's Little Theatre. Due to the switch to digital projection, and the lack of the necessary equipment at the Little Theatre, the KFS has entered into a partnership with the Alamo Drafthouse, and will continue bringing great movies to Kalamazoo.
One of the things I love about the Kalamazoo Public Library is that we seem to get everything the KFS shows, allowing me to catch up on anything I missed on the big screen. If you haven't seen every single movie they've brought to town over the years, you can find a list of what they've shown that we've got, which at 196 items as of this writing, covers over 16 years.
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
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
The great films from the silent era to today have always addressed the significant, universal themes and truths that lie at the core of human experience. There may be no better film made about the end of life and the instinctive response to look back on one’s dreams, laments, regrets, and accomplishments while standing upon the precipice than Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (Bergman’s Wild Strawberries is a close second). More than a somber piece of cinema about an unremarkable everyman’s last days, Ikiru (meaning “to live”) is a life affirming and poetic masterpiece that beautifully portrays our main character’s search for meaning as he learns he has a terminal disease.
Kanji Watanabe, a government employee who nobody seems to know or respect, agonizes over the belief that he has not lived a full life of importance and it’s this doubt that drives him forward to engage his fleeting days with a fierce purpose. For like so many, the presence of the end animates what it means to be alive. Kurosawa uses his immense directorial talents to bring this theme alive in fresh and unique ways. Fans of Kurosawa’s samurai movies may be surprised at the heartbreaking tenderness that he exhibits in this, his most endearing and humane film that explores life’s preciousness through one man’s death.
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
Described as a film about “everything and nothing”, Yi Yi (Translation: A One and a Two) is writer/director Edward Yang’s moving, slice of life portrait about the up’s and down’s, beginnings and endings, laments and celebrations of a middle-class Taiwanese family. Centered on N.J. and his family, Yang depicts the magical moments in life by juxtaposing them against a backdrop of the mundane. The film begins by showing us a wedding and then quickly cuts to N.J.’s mother-in-law’s failing health, stressing the overlapping and sometimes paradoxical nature of life’s imperfect unfolding. Yang expertly evokes the poetry of the everyday, urban experience in all of its messy dynamics, showing us the beautiful interplay between humor, tragedy, romance and ritual from the perspective of the three primary characters, the father, teenage daughter and the eight year-old son.
Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) is one of the most moving dramas you’ll ever see about the intersecting tension between social norms, generational conflict and familial love, a theme that the great Japanese director masterfully explored with a fierce intelligence and a tender poetry in his post-war films. Late Spring is the story of a daughter who is so dedicated to her father’s well-being that she eschews her family’s urging to marry. At the age of 27 and unmarried, her single status is deemed a problem to be solved by her loving father, persistent aunt, and cynical best friend. Why marry for the sake of fulfilling an outdated social tradition that isn’t necessarily a guarantee for happiness in modern Japan she argues. While her thoughtful and understanding father may agree with such an argument, there exists few options for her future that don’t include either an arranged marriage or one born out of romantic love. Each character is so richly rendered and conceived that antagonists are excluded altogether. Everyone seems to have a legitimate point of view which is a quality that highlights the respectful and sympathetic nature of Ozu’s grasp of character. Highly recommended viewing. For a clip go here.
Have you ever thought what it would be like to be just a Head. You could not move your arms of your legs. The Intouchables is a story about such a man and his caregiver. Philippe is a French aristocrat who has a great life until his wife gets a disease and dies and Philippe who was always into high adventure, goes paragliding and crashes. He crushed his 3rd and 4th vertebrae and is now a quadriplegic. The movie is about the relationship of Philippe and Driss. Philippe is interviewing numerous caregivers, they all have great credentials and PHDs. Driss is applying because in order to draw is benefit (unemployment check) he need to show he is actively looking for a job, he has no real desire to have this job. He talks to Philippe in an off hand manner, “don’t get up”. Philippe likes him because he doesn’t treat Philippe as an invalid. Driss is offered and takes the job. We are given glimpses into what Philippe has to do every day. Massages for the arms and legs, strapped in a chair so he doesn’t fall out, turning pages with a stick in his mouth. Driss asks him if he ever thought of just shooting himself. Philippe says yes but I cannot move my arms or legs so I am stuck. Luckily for Philippe he is rich. He says the Doctors can keep him alive until he is 70. Philippe introduces Driss to the arts, and music, Bach etc. Driss also shows Philippe what he considers good music Earth, Wind and Fire. Driss is a kid from the streets. He introduces Philippe to smoking marijuana to help with the pain. When Philippe has to travel they go the van and Driss says no way is he loading Philippe in the back of the van like a horse, he puts him in the front seat of a muscle car and roars down the road. This is a story of a developing friendship. This movie is foreign and in French so if you do not understand French, you could take a crash course on our Rocket Language lessons, free if you have a library card or for this you could turn on the subtitles. The thing that really touched me is that this is a true story. At the end of the movie they show the people that this movie was based on.
Have you ever thought what it would be like to be just a Head
The Turkish film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was on many end-of-the-year polls of best movies. It’s a slow burning film about a murder and the men who venture into the dark of night charged with locating the deceased’s body. The viewer already knows who did it. The murderer sits between two police officers in the back of a car that traverses the Turkish countryside. It’s actually not about the murder at all but rather about the interior lives of its varied cast of characters. It’s a film about what goes unsaid, that which is communicated only by silence and the elapse of time. It’s a film about a single night and the complicated pasts of men living in a moment.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
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."
Federico Fellini’s most well-known film and a classic of Italian cinema, 8 and 1/2 continues to stand-up as a trailblazing film that introduced viewers in 1963 to an overly self-conscious form of storytelling that mixes fiction, memoir and dreamy surrealism together as a prophetic statement about the nature of celebrity, the mass media and the pressure to create art even when uninspired. Self-referential, wildly imaginative and irreverent, this classic film points the finger at the film industry and increasingly aggressive media while humorously mocking the hollowness of fame. Poking fun at both himself and his critics (both Catholics and Communists), Fellini delights in highlighting the absurdity and emotional alienation of those forced into positions of creating successful commerce while their personal life grows increasingly dysfunctional. See a trailer here.
8 and 1/2
Another Oscar season has come to a close, and it was quite a successful one at that. There were very few upsets or surprises, which helped this movie geek dominate his Oscar pool, getting 21 out of 24 correct – a tie for my all-time best. The Academy made up for snubbing director Ben Affleck by awarding Best Picture to the well-deserved Argo. The visually-stunning Life of Pi took home the most of the night with four, including one for director Ang Lee, who managed to turn what many felt was an unfilmable book into a crowd-pleaser. Skyfall became the first James Bond film to win an Oscar since 1965’s Thunderball. Lincoln ’s Daniel Day-Lewis became the first person ever to win Best Actor three times. And Pixar’s Brave just beat out the video-game-themed Wreck-It Ralph for Best Animated Feature, which is ironic considering poor Ralph spends his entire movie trying to win a trophy just so people will love him. You’ve earned top score from me, Ralph.
If you’re behind in your Oscar viewing, a handful of these award-winners are available for home viewing now, right here at the Kalamazoo Public Library:
Several of the Oscar winners are coming soon, and you can place a hold on them now:
Check back for the availability of Silver Linings Playbook, winner of Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence); Les Misérables, winner of Best Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway), Makeup & Hairstyling, and Sound Mixing; and Amour, winner of Best Foreign Film. The release dates of these films will probably be announced soon.
So what did you think of the Oscars? What were you glad to see win? Which categories would you have preferred to go differently? What was your favorite film of 2012?
The Michael Haneke film Amour was nominated for Best Picture this morning in large part because of the amazing performance of 85 year-old French actress Emmanuelle Riva. But did you know that we have Riva’s first film, the brilliant Hiroshima Mon Amour? Released in 1959, the famous French New Wave director Alain Resnais’ beautiful lament for lost love, innocence and peace (both international and personal) introduced the French actress to the world. Set in the recovering city that suffered the explosion of the first atom bomb, Resnais delicately tells the touching story of two lovers, who over the course of a day, search for what it means (if anything) to remember, to forget and to heal from the wounds of war. An affecting masterpiece of both innovation and storytelling, Riva ‘s anguished character (She) attempts to explain to Eiji Okada’s (He) where she came from (the city of Nevers) and how she has arrived in Hiroshima, a city that symbolically parallels her own life’s troubled arch.
Hiroshima mon amour
Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s mysteriously elegant film The Double Life of Veronique explores the supernatural tale of two women, played by the same actress, who never formally meet one another and yet who look exactly the same and who both feel the presence of the other. Set in both France and Kieslowski’s native Poland, the beautiful Irene Jacob stars as both Veronique and Weronika, two women living parallel lives who both sense that they are both ‘here’ and ‘somewhere’ else at the same time. Following Weronika’s death while singing on stage in Poland, Veronique seeks answers to her strange feelings while beginning to stitch together an explanation for the odd events that have begun to culminate, increasing both her unease and her curiosity.
Double life of veronique
If you enjoy the romantic comedy genre and don’t mind English subtitles, the movie Delicacy might be for you. Starring Amelie actress Audrey Tautou, Delicacy is a creatively anodyne yet enjoyable film about tragedy, mourning, and second chances at love. Combining the kind of predictable rom-com tropes with just enough charm and sweetness, fans of quixotic romance will likely accept the film’s lack of originality for its bountiful amount of sentimentality and tenderness. It's emotional candy for the holiday season.
Oslo, August 31st is a beautiful and affecting film that will leave viewers amazed by its humane and sensitive treatment of the subject of drug addiction and depression. The film unfolds over a single day and as the film suggests, is set in the hip and fashionable parts of Oslo. We follow Anders around Norway’s capital city as he leaves his upscale, suburban drug treatment center for a job interview. His anxiety about the future is clear from the opening scenes. The trajectory of plot is presented in a straightforward and well-paced way, periodically weaving the poetic musings and memories of unseen voices (one assumes they are Anders, his family and friends into the narrative mix). Anders visits old friends for affirmation but he can’t seem to relate because of their seemingly comfortable lives. But are they comfortable? Are they happy? Will Anders utilize his intelligence, talent and strong upbringing to transform his life of addiction, fear and shame or will he sink deeper into a pit of psychic despair? I picked this movie up without knowing anything about it and I’m glad I did. This is one of the most sincere, honest and compassionate portraits of a troubled soul I’ve seen in some time.
Oslo, August 31st
Shoot the Piano Player is French New Wave director Francois Truffaut’s homage to the American noir and crime genre. Filmed in 1960, the story centers on a classically trained pianist named Edouard Saroyan, whose life has hit the skids after the tragic death of his wife, leaving him emotionally broken and looking to escape. Taking on a new identity to erase his past, Saroyan becomes Charlie Kholer, a sad and introverted piano player working in a Parisian dive bar trying to forget his life as a successful concert hall musician. Unfortunately for Charlie, his criminally minded brothers get him involved with a robbery gone badly. From there, his life spins out of control even as his romantic life begins to look up. Sad, funny and poignant, this is one of Truffaut’s best films.
Shoot the piano player
On a recent rainy day, I found myself wandering down to the lower level of Central Library to browse the AV collection. I stumbled upon Louvre City which was a great find. This film looks at the work of the operations employees at the Louvre - moving paintings, cataloging and labeling statues, researching works, and developing exhibits. I think the neatest part of the movie was watching the museum staff move massive oil paintings. We see staff unrolling and stretching an enormous oil painting, and later using dozens of men to lift and move the painting into place so that it can be hung. They didn't show how it was hung, but surely that was another huge and labor intensive feat. I have wondered how the mammoth paintings in art museums are moved before, and now I see that it takes a great amount of manual labor!
The back of the case from the DVD states, "Louvre City is a celebration of the ordinary processes of work in an extraordinary setting." The collection at the Louvre is phenomenal by any standard, being one of the foremost art museums in the world. It is easy to forget or lack understanding of the background work that goes in to making this museum what it is. The movie is titled Louvre City because of the great number of people who work there - over 2,000 according to the museum's website. There are so many people it is almost a city in itself, and they are all devoted to sustaining and sharing the museum's collection.
Sometimes I talk to patrons about the library and they are surprised by the number of background things that have to happen for our operations to run smoothly. Staff at public service desks are our front line but they are supported by the work of many other people who are not seen by the public on a day to day basis. This movie shared with me the same type of insight about this museum; I never realized the amount of work and logistics that went into making a museum what it is. I appreciate museums all the more now for putting in all this time and energy to preserve artifacts for future generations to enjoy and learn from. If you are someone with an interest in museums and/or art I think you would probably really enjoy this interesting movie!
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
Technically, I've missed the mid-year mark but here's a list of my picks for recommended film viewing. I'm sure other titles will end up on the year-end tally (I suspect P.T. Anderson's The Master will be my number one) but here's a start.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
In no way deserving of the hype that this buzzed about indie has received but certainly warrants watching. A five year old protagonist's cute face and acting chops can't save this picture's flaws but many will find its story uplifting and moving.
Damsels in Distress
Indie darling and pre-Wes Anderson autuer of the twee aristrocracy, Whit Stillman returns with a film that will no doubt divide audiences along love/hate lines.
The Turin Horse
Bleak, hopeless, painfully unfolded end of the world fair shot in a sumptuous black and white that will appeal to the existentialist-leaning devotees of Bresson, Bergman and Tarkovsky. No Michael Bay stuff here.
The Deep Blue Sea
A somber story of heartache and loss expressed through the fine acting of British actress Rachel Weisz.
Gerhard Richter Painting
A straight forward documentary that will likely appeal to those familiar with the world's most famous living painter's role in the shaping of post-war art.
The Turin Horse
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.
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]
If you love movies like I do, you may have been waiting anxiously for the Academy Award nominations that were announced this morning, which is kind of like opening day for Oscar season. And if you’re a hardcore fanatic like I am, you try to see as many of the nominated films as possible before the Big Night. Thanks to the nearby Rave Cinema, which often shows more independent and limited-release films than its in-town competitors, I can often catch many of the nominees in a timely fashion. But for some of the more esoteric films, I often find myself driving to places like Grand Rapids, Lansing or Ann Arbor, as I have already done this season. (Crazy, I know, but I did use the word “fanatic” to describe myself.) For those of you normal folks who’d prefer their cultural horizons to be expanded without breaking their odometer, I thought I would mention all of the year’s Oscar-nominated stuff that you can get right here, right now at KPL.
Four of the Best Picture nominees are available now on Blu-ray and DVD:
The film Hugo had the most Oscar nominations with 11, which included Best Picture, Director (Martin Scorsese), and Adapted Screenplay. As of this writing, it does not yet have a release date for Blu-ray or DVD, but you can read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick’s Caldecott-winning book upon which it was based. Howard Shore’s score was also nominated and is currently on compact disc.
Other Best Picture nominees not yet available on Blu-ray or DVD but based on books you can read now include Kaui Hart Hemmings’ The Descendants (5 nominations), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2 nominations), and Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse (6 nominations).
Beyond the Best Picture list, there are plenty of currently available films that received Oscar nominations today:
David Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s mega-popular mystery The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo received five nominations; it’s not yet available on Blu-ray or DVD, but you can read the book, check out the original Swedish version, or listen to Trent Reznor’s score (which was, in my opinion, the Academy’s biggest snub this year).
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy received nominations for Actor (Gary Oldman), Original Score, and Adapted Screenplay. You can read the novel from spymaster John le Carré, or check out the original British mini-series starring Alec Guinness.
Flight of the Conchords vet Bret McKenzie received a Best Original Song nomination for the amusingly existential “Man or Muppet” track from—what else?—The Muppets. The soundtrack is available now. The only other song nomination came from the soundtrack to the animated film Rio.
So there you have it: an exhaustive list of currently available materials from this year’s crop of Oscar nominations, complete with links to the items themselves. Whether you use it to browse for some ideas, or turn it into a checklist for immediate consumption is up to you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some driving to do.
(Psst. If your interested in my personal choices for the ten best films of the year, you can find them here.)
Rare Exports is not your ordinary Christmas tale and certainly is not for kids. In this movie Santa is the Finland version. Santa PUNISHES bad kids. He whips them with a stick and makes them bleed, he puts them in a pot of boiling water. The movie plot is that Pietari a young lad lives with his father who herds reindeer. Some big giant company is excavating a mountain to free an evil Santa who has been frozen and buried many years ago. On a certain night each year Reindeer run through Pietari's town and his father and most of the village herd them into a giant corral and that's how they make their money for the entire year. I'm not sure how they know which night but they do. Well this time all the reindeer are found slain, hundreds of carcasses strewn about. This is tied to the unearthing of the bad Santa even though he is still frozen. His "elves" steal every heat producing device to thaw him out. The elves are not your typical short cute elf with pointy ears. They are old frumpy naked men who do not speak. You'll have to watch the movie to see how Pietari and the villagers deal with the evil Santa and the lack of their income. Oh and this movie is in their native tongue so there will be subtitles.
Rare Exports a Christmas Tale
The clanging of bells hung around the necks of goats, the elderly herder and his incessantly barking dog, and the soft whistle of an Italian breeze. Great films don’t always need a lot of dialogue and this one is no exception. A poetic and haunting film full of rich and mysterious images, director Michelangelo Frammartino forces the audience to surrender not to the language of a fabricated and plot-driven dialogue but rather to the meditative sounds of our mundane lives, the stirring rhythms of life—birth, death, ritual, and nature are presented as long, visual poems. This film is much better experienced than described so I won’t say much other than to suggest that Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times) is one of the year’s most enigmatic films, once again, reinforcing the idea that a skillful use of economy and delicacy can produce a profound and moving piece of art.
Le Quattro Volte
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
The veteran actor Peter Falk passed away last week at the age of 83. Most associate the late actor with the television series Columbo. However, my favorite Falk performances are from the seminal 1970’s John Cassavetes film Woman Under the Influence and the poetic Wings of Desire, directed by Wim Wenders.
Wings of Desire
This blog is fourth and final in a series in which I take a look at four films in our collection which deal with illegal immigration, first and foremost from the perspective of those who undertake the journey, but also from viewpoint of their family, the communities they immigrate to and border patrol officers charged with repelling them from entering the country. Sin Nombre, Which Way Home, Mojados: Through the Night and El Inmigrante are all films that take a look at illegal immigration in greater depth and with a greater diversity of opinions than can be included in the typical media coverage of the debate. If you have a desire to take a closer look at the hows and whys of illegal border crossing, I urge you to check out one or all of these films.
El Inmigrante (The Immigrant)
This final documentary, El Inmigrante, tells the story of one who succeeded in reaching America, one who actually had succeeded several times and was experienced in crossing the desert where he would go on to work in America sending money home to his family. The last time Eusebio de Haro crossed through the desert he would never get home again. He and his travelling companion crossed the dessert, plagued by thirst, and found themselves before an elderly Texan couple, on whose land they stood. They pleaded the Americans for water and a rifle was drawn. Eusebio’s companion ran for his life and Eusbio was shot down from behind while fleeing. From here the documentary fleshes out Eusebio’s story with accounts from his mother, father and his numerous siblings who share memories of their fallen brother and give us a sense of where he came from and why he would make the journey.
Members of the U.S. Border patrol are interviewed and found to be surprisingly sympathetic toward the travelers they guard the border against. Less sympathetic, the vigilante border guards who’ve decided their government is not doing enough and with rifle in hand they watch over their small piece of the border. You hear from people who lived and worked with the gun man including his friend and Sheriff, the same officer who was called to arrest him. and his opinions about his guilt as well as his feelings on the justness of his punishment. And we also hear from Eusebio’s brother who took the news of his brother’s death as a challenge to make the same crossing himself. Now he works in construction and sends money home and remembers his brother and his jokes. Those who made the journey or attempted it contemplate whether the crossing is worth it, whether America is the land of plenty they imagined.
Having travelled via film from Honduras and Chiapas, through Mexico by train, across the Rio and through the desert, into America itself with these poor, tired travelers, will your opinions of the immigration debate be altered, re-affirmed? Whatever your take on the issue, I think everyone can benefit from the rare opportunity of hearing the voices of those the debate is centered on, not just the lawmakers and U.S. citizens who contribute to the debate. Whatever your opinion is, each of these films are excellent stories of individuals who take up a journey of which they have fear, perhaps not too much knowledge of the dangers waiting them and with hope for better things driving them on.
This blog is third in a series in which I take a look at four films in our collection which deal with illegal immigration, first and foremost from the perspective of those who undertake the journey, but also from viewpoint of their family, the communities they immigrate to and border patrol officers charged with repelling them from entering the country. Sin Nombre, Which Way Home, Mojados: Through the Night and El Inmigrante are all films that take a look at illegal immigration in greater depth and with a greater diversity of opinions than can be included in the typical media coverage of the debate. If you have a desire to take a closer look at the hows and whys of illegal border crossing, I urge you to check out one or all of these films.
Mojados: Through the Night
After I watched Which Way Home, I looked to see what other films we had on the subject. Mojados tells the story of three would be illegals attempting to cross the river and then the vast expanse of Texan dessert beyond. While they are also from the far South ends of North America, these travelers have at least enough resources to do without the hardship of balancing on top of a rocking train car and simply say good bye to their families before jumping in a taxi and heading north. They are dropped off in a nondescript area along the side of the Rio Grande/ Rio Bravo. Then they hide in the bushes and wait for night fall and it is from that point that all their troubles begin.
At 64 minutes this is not a very lengthy documentary but I think it delivers a sense of what this portion of the journey entails. There is some criticism aimed at Tommy Davis, the director for not doing more to distinguish the characters from one another and for the jiggling hand held camera work. However, of the films described in this blog, it is in my opinion that the director of Mojados has gone through the most pain and effort to bring us the story of his subjects (Though I can’t say that without mentioning the two years of research spent with train travelers on the part of director Cary Fukunga or the time he invested with actual members of the much feared Mara Salvatrucha in preparation for Sin Nombre). Mr. Davis is actually making the journey with his subjects as we witness it. He is climbing the same fences, drinking the same bacteria infested water, eating the same molding tortillas and standing through the same freezing dessert nights afraid to sleep for fear of never seeing the sun again. Also included are interviews and accounts of some ranchers who pity the travelers but are also vexed with the damage done to fences and other effects of their passing.
Again, I don’t want to give away the fate of these travelers, but rest assured, the endings, inconclusive or unhappy, thoroughly illustrate the desperate act of crossing the border and the likely hood of survival.
Mojados: Through the Night
This blog is second in a series in which I take a look at four films in our collection which deal with illegal immigration, first and foremost from the perspective of those who undertake the journey, but also from viewpoint of their family, the communities they immigrate to and border patrol officers charged with repelling them from entering the country. Sin Nombre, Which Way Home, Mojados: Through the Night and El Inmigrante are all films that take a look at illegal immigration in greater depth and with a greater diversity of opinions than can be included in the typical media coverage of the debate. If you have a desire to take a closer look at the hows and whys of illegal border crossing, I urge you to check out one or all of these films.
Which Way Home
With Sin Nombre still fresh in mind I was pleased to come across Which Way Home while I was perusing the new releases in the Audio Visual department. This was a documentary about the real-life youths making the journey by train. Even more astounding than witnessing the same dangerous circumstances of riding “el tren,” now with actual lives at stake, was the extremely young age of those who rode it. “La Bestia,” the beast, this is the affectionate and fearful title given to their transport by the main figure, Kevin “El Gordo” or “Fatty.”
Kevin made this journey at the age of 14, making him the eldest among the children featured in the film. In fact, most of the children in this documentary are only around eight or nine years old. What a terrifying thought to think of my own child riding on top of a train all the way across the length of the Mexican territory. Some ran away from home. Some never had a home and some were sent by their families with hope they would arrive in America and be able to send money back home. The children laugh, make jokes and sing just like any other children. It is difficult not imagining a child you know of the same age making the journey.
I was very moved by two travelers in particular, Olga and Freddy, whose youth and innocence seems impossible in those surroundings. They are preoccupied with childish games but also worry about the dangers of their journey and sit awake through the night telling horror stories of what happens to those swept off the roof by a tree branch and between the cars below. When they talk about crossing the desert, as they must when they reach the end of the line, they have an air of bravado. They seem unconcerned with the warnings given by social workers who have volunteered to assist and inform the travelers in their crossings. However, although the situation is pitiful there is a lot of joy in the movie, thanks to the children.
The journey they share ends differently for all of them, and without saying too much, I can assure you that none of those endings is entirely unhappy, but it should be remembered that happy endings are not in store for all those who travel this way, perhaps they are even the exceptions to the rule.
Which Way Home
Recently I took in a series of four films that brought me witness to a 2,000 mile journey undertaken by over 160,000 hopeful men, women and children every year. They departed from El Salvador, Honduras and the far southern Mexican state of Chiapas, traversing hundreds of miles of open country while perilously perched atop a freight train, to the edge of the Rio Bravo/ Rio Grande and across to great expanses of Texan dessert, a portion of the journey which in itself would take four, five, maybe six days to cross. After this odyssey the travelers must be wary of immigration officers, conmen and thieves. Some came to support their families, some to be reunited with them. Perhaps they will find work. Others came to escape, from the law of their homelands, from its criminal elements, perhaps both. It was a fascinating journey as well as an emotional one. Along the way I was given a perspective of the immigration debate that is ignored more often than not. That being the experiences and hopes of the immigrants themselves, the individuals most involved in the debate, but who are heard from the least.
If that is a perspective that you might also be interested in, I urge you to check out these movies. Here’s the first in the series; watch for the rest later this week.
Sin Nombre (Nameless)
Sin Nombre is a fictional film about youths travelling across Mexico by train, illegally. There are many films that describe some of methods and also the dangers of crossing America’s southern border, but it was not until I had seen this film that I considered how a poor traveler, often as not coming from Mexican states that are distant from the border or maybe even they have come from countries further south such as Honduras or Guatemala, how does such a traveler cross the distance of Mexico itself. In this case it is the railway that provides a means of free travel, however for the young people in this movie hopping a train does not mean finding an empty box car and hiding until the iron house begins chugging down the rails. It seems that Mexican authorities have made the cars inaccessible leaving the migrants one option for a free ride, sitting on top of the railroad cars themselves. Without shelter from wind or rain, heat or the freezing nights they sit atop the cars, bouncing down the tracks and watching out for branches, bridges or other low obstacles that would brush a body right off of the train and under the steel wheels. There is constant danger of this. Someone must also stay awake through the night watching for obstacles. They are afraid to fall asleep for fear of falling off the cars or worse, between the cars. For people with no money and a strong desire to get closer to the U.S. border, this is sometimes seen as the only option.
The film itself is excellent. Two teenagers from two very different, yet neighboring homelands meet on the train traveling north. Sayra leaves her home life in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Willy or “El Casper” is from the far southern Mexican state of Chiapas. El Casper is hunted by his former gang members, whom he has offended and now he must keep a wary eye trained for members of Mara Salvatrucha, the gang which he had so recently considered to be his family. El Casper knows the train lines and though recognized by the other passengers as a gang member which keeps them at a careful distance, they also recognize the valuable resource he is in helping them not only in staying on the train without being spotted by bulls, or railroad guards, but also how to survive on top of the train. Sayra comes from Honduras travelling for far northern New Jersey to be reunited with her family. It is clear that Sayra is not a street survivor like El Casper .These differences in origin’s departed from, the relatively stable family life Sayra has left behind and the life threatening circumstances of Willy’s presence on the train illustrate the desperate and varied circumstances that drive someone to make the dangerous journey by train.
In my previous post, I mentioned the film In the Mood for Love because of its lush and stylistic cinematography. Released in 2000 by acclaimed director Wong Kar-wai, the film takes place in Hong Kong in 1962. Two lonely neighbors are brought together over the fact that their spouses are engaged in an affair; and while they're committed to not duplicating the deceit by having their own tryst, a bond between them developes a unique intensity as they find solace in eachother's company. A film that resists cliche at every turn, In the Mood for Love is buttressed with strong acting performances and an amazing musical theme that evokes the anxiety and aching desire between these two characters as they grow closer with every masterfully shot frame. A truely original work of simplicity and beauty!
In the Mood for Love
There are certain films that are beautifully rendered and a joy to watch because of the way in which the cinematographer has chosen to use light or a certain kind of film that produces striking and dynamic images. Here are a few of my favorite films where color, light and shadows are as central to the end product as are the plot, characters or setting.
Days of Heaven
In the Mood for Love
The Man Who Wasn’t There
The Thin Red Line
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Kisses is a small-scale but affecting film that showcases the impressive talents of its two young actors. Emotionally and physically abused tweens Dylan and Kylie, set out on a twenty-four hour adventure in the big city in hopes of escaping their domestic problems. Searching for Dylan’s big brother, who allegedly lives in Dublin, these two tough yet sweet kids from the suburbs discover that the city possesses both a dangerous and exhilerating side to it. Kisses effectively mixes together a romantic tale about childhood innocence with the grim depictions of an unforgiving urban environment.
The tearjerker is a film that transcends one’s predispositions and cuts into those deep and often impenetrable portions of our shared, collective humanity to move us in ways we never dared to admit. Another view, one much less celebratory, reads the tearjerker as the sort of film that eschews realism for romanticized dramatic effect, that idealizes human relations, or that revoltingly rejoices in the most insidious forms of Hollywood sentimentality. Sometimes intellectually or creatively deeper than acknowledged, but still retaining of the elements of the cheesiness factor, are films that balance both of these tensions and contradictions; films that are both at times lurching toward being maudlin and overwrought and yet at other times depict authentic and truthful depth.
Here is a short list of films that will have you racing for the Kleenex.
- The Way We Were (1973)
- Kramer vs Kramer (1979)
- Umberto D (1952)
- Sophie’s Choice (1982)
- Love Story (1972)
- Terms of Endearment (1983)
- Bambi (1942)
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
- Glory (1989)
- An Affair to Remember (1957)
- The English Patient (1996)
- The Elephant Man (1980)
- The Deer Hunter (1978)
- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
- The Mission (1986)
- The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968)
The Way We Were
I had been waiting anxiously to see the film The White Ribbon for some time, due in part because it was directed by Michael Haneke and in part because it nominated for the best foreign film Oscar in 2009. Michael Haneke directed the film Cache, a French thriller that I really enjoyed. I expected The White Ribbon to have the same slow-building suspense and beautiful cinematography as Cache, and I was not disappointed. The movie revolves around the people of a small village in Germany just before the beginning of World War I. As mysterious “accidents” befall members of the community, the villagers (and the audience) are left wondering who could be so brutal to his/her fellow man. The village pastor uses a white ribbon in the movie as a symbol of innocence, but it quickly becomes clear that no one in the village is entirely innocent. As the suspense builds, the World War I backdrop becomes particularly pertinent: it perfectly reflects the growing unease and tumultuousness in the village and reiterates the subject of lost innocence.
The White Ribbon is a fairly long and slow movie, with a subtly creepy feeling that pervades the story. If it’s an action-packed thriller you want, this is not the movie; however I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys intelligent, beautiful film making and a good mystery.
The White Ribbon
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.
The Beaches of Agnes is a clever, Surrealist mash-up that chronicles the life and memories of Belgian director/screenwriter/editor/producer Agnes Varda. Employing both documentary and memoir, Varda whimsically stitches together her recollections using photographs, scenes from her films, and playful reenactments that retell her story, from her childhood in coastal France, her success as an influential film maker during the sixties and seventies, to her long marriage to French director Jacques Demy. In addition to being a love letter to the great film makers of French cinema, this is a fun, lively and visually experimental piece that locates the nebulous nature of memory as one of the primary characters.
Beaches of Agnes
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]