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Staff Picks: Movies

Brush Up on Your CIVIL WAR History

Look, I know you SAY you’re sick of superhero movies, but we both know that’s not true. Sure, Batman vs. Superman was lame, but that’s a DC movie and we are Marvel people. Always have been, always will be. And don’t try to tell me you’re not excited for the May 5th opening of Captain America: Civil War, because I won’t believe you. Tension has been building between Caps and Irons for a while now, and this pro- vs. anti-registration business is just the kind of hot-button political issue that strikes a nerve during a contentious election season. And hey, we’re entering Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe! What’s not exciting about that? In fact, I propose a marathon of all the MCU Phase Two films just to brush up on the mythology before we see Civil War.

First, we’ll start with Iron Man 3. Remember how that was such a perfect ending to the whole solo Stark storyline? At least it seemed that way at the time because RDJ was all acting like he was going to hang up his metal suit, but unsurprisingly he just said he might be down for another one. That dude likes money.

Next we’ll watch Thor: The Dark World. Okay, not the best of the bunch, but we’re completists, so we’ll get through it. Because right after that is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and that movie is awesome. Nick Fury gets all wasted and S.H.I.E.L.D. turns out to be like 75% Hydra. That movie even temporarily breathed some life into the otherwise lame S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show.

After that, we'll move on to one of the all-time best Marvel movies: Guardians of the Galaxy. No one could have anticipated that movie would be the critical and commercial success that it is, particularly since it featured some obscure characters like a talking raccoon and a tree dude and starred the formerly schlubby guy from Parks & Rec. But somehow it all worked.

Then it’s time for Avengers: Age of Ultron. That one’s a bit overstuffed, but it gets better as it goes on, if you ignore the weird shirtless Thor cave stuff that the producers demanded be in there for MCU continuity.

You’d think Ultron would be the capper to Phase Two, but there was one more: Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man. This one is a fun heist-centric actioner that could have been a trainwreck (because hey, it’s called Ant-Man). We’ll never know what the Edgar Wright version of this film would have been, but what we got was actually pretty enjoyable. Michael Douglas looks like Colonel Sanders, though.

So what do you say? We can get through all of these in about 13-and-a-half-hours and it’s the weekend…

Hillsborough Disaster

Some of you may have heard about the court ruling in England yesterday regarding the infamous Hillsborough tragedy of 1989, when 96 persons died at a soccer game as a result of being crushed by a surge of fans who were inadvertently allowed entrance to a portion of the stadium that was not designed to accommodate the number of attendees. The sports network ESPN made a fantastic documentary film about the affair and its a fascinating glimpse inside of the police and political cover-up that immediately took form after the tragic event.

The Graduate

The groundbreaking 1967 film The Graduate has recently been re-released as part of the Criterion Collection. With additional commentary and interviews with both those in front of and behind the camera, admirers of the film or those who have only heard about this celebrated masterwork will find a lot to enjoy. A fabulous film, rich with layers of social commentary, satire and taboo-probing humor, The Graduate gave life to Dustin Hoffman’s career as a leading man and cemented Anne Bancroft’s character (Mrs. Robinson) as an iconic, pop cultural reference point.

Only director Mike Nichols’ second feature film, The Graduate is a sharp and stylish examination of the generational fault lines and collapsing social mores between the counter-cultural baby boomers and their "plastic", establishment-friendly parents. It’s also a film that tonally jumps back and forth from zany to poignant in ways that were unique for a mid-1960’s film. The now-famous usage of Simon and Garfunkel’s music as a score employed to shift audience emotion and narrative movement is common place now but in 1967 it was a fresh way of supplementing the story and its images.

The Prestige

Director Christopher Nolan's 2006 film, the head spinning (and very underrated) The Prestige, is comprised of one twist and turn after another. It's both a fun and cerebral film that doesn't compromise its creative integrity for cheap, Hollywood cliches. In fact, there are plenty of philosophical subjects and meta-cinematic ideas that Nolan subtly weaves throughout the knotty plot that features two magicians battling for illusionist supremacy around 1900. Actors Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are turn of the century showman who trade in secrecy and misdirection and so when their competitive relationship turns violently hostile after the death of Jackman's wife, the increasingly ratcheted up tit for tat can only lead toward tragedy, obsession and betrayal.

My Favorite Films--Z

And finally...

( Z) Zodiac

Director David Fincher is to the psychological thriller what Christopher Nolan is to the science fiction genre—a guy who can make thoughtful, well-constructed popcorn movies with wide appeal that don’t surrender artistic integrity or craftsmanship along the way. Aside from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, much of his oeuvre tends to lean toward dark and ominous stories (and that includes his fictional portrait of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network). His 2007 film Zodiac tackles the infamous story of a serial killer who randomly picked out his victims while taunting the media and police in the process. To this day, the mystery of the killer’s identity and motivation has remained unsolved. With strong performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr., Fincher’s Zodiac deserves to be mentioned alongside his other classic films Seven, The Game and Fight Club

My Favorite Films--Y

An ongoing series of 26 posts about movies...

(Y) Yi Yi (2006)

Described as a film about “everything and nothing”, Yi Yi is writer/director Edward Yang’s moving, slice of life portrait about the ups and downs, 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 our protagonist'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 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. 

My Favorite Films--X

A continuing series of 26 posts about movies...

(X) Xanadu

Ok, well maybe not one of my “favorite” films, Xanadu (1980) perfectly embodies its cultural moment—a bizarre, train wreck of a science fiction meets musical fever dream that features a fair amount of roller skating and dancing, the cameo of a golden era Hollywood star (Gene Kelly), the girl from Grease, a great soundtrack featuring ELO, and all the weirdness that you’d expect from such an assortment of poorly conceived and executed concepts. Available to stream via Hoopla.

Call Me Lucky

Call Me Lucky is a fascinating portrait of one man's rise within the national comedy scene during the 1980's and the dark secret that drove both his comedy and his political activism. Barry Crimmins was a hard drinking, hard smoking comedian who ran a club/bar in Boston in the early 1980's that was an influential pit stop for young, aspiring funny people doing stand up or who later became writers for well known television shows. Crimmins was a volatile, angry firebrand whose humor was saturated with political critiques in opposition to Ronald Reagan and his policies. In 1989 Crimmins dropped a bomb shell on his friends and fans when at the end of one of his gigs, openly talked about the grim secrets of his past that were beginning to consume his life and his ability to perform. From there, the film takes a dark turn in exploring Crimmin's childhood trauma, his later activism and concludes with a turn toward the redemptive.

My Favorite Films--W

As part of an ongoing series of 26 posts...

(W) Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)

Mike Nichols cemented his reputation as a director to pay attention to when he cast a real life, hard-drinking couple (Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) to play a fictionalized, hard-drinking couple in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Adapting writer Edward Albee's successful play to the big screen in 1966, Nichols' first film is a raucous portrayal of domestic discord with a blistering performance from Taylor. An unhinged married couple who have grown tired of their own inebriated banter seduce a young couple into unwittingly participating in their increasingly emotionally desperate and manic attempts at "fun and games".     

The End of the Tour - 2015

Written by Donald Margulies Directed by James Ponsoldt
Starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg

How He Met That Author…

Based on David Lipsky’s best-selling memoir ‘Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself’, this movie tells the story of a young journalist for Rolling Stone talking his way into an interview with literary superstar David Foster Wallace as he prepares to finish up his book tour promoting the smash literary hit ‘Infinite Jest.’

You don’t really need to know anything about Foster Wallace, but the poignancy of his truncated life certainly adds an extra flavor of preciousness to this intimate study of two men getting to know each other in strange circumstances.

It’s an amazing performance by Jason Segel who is better known for his comedy roles in TV’s How I Met Your Mother as well as movies like The Muppet Movie and Jeff Who Lives at Home. Physically, he certainly resembles Foster Wallace and his somewhat ungainly, methodical presence and mannerisms contrast well with Eisenberg’s energetic portrayal of a younger, more ambitious writer.
The director does a great job of capturing the dialogue without intruding upon the action (or lack thereof) and the humor to be found in this brief friendship can’t help but seduce the viewer into falling in love with Wallace’s character. Rather than a pretentious author for the elite, he comes across as not exactly a regular guy but definitely someone with whom you’d love to spend a little time. Not only is his home portrayed flawlessly as very much nothing out of the ordinary, the movie is careful to make sure we see that Wallace has a couple of dogs to whom he is greatly attached. It may be my interpretation alone, but they feel like a deliberately relatable representation of the warmth we end up feeling for this troubled, but apparently affectionate, author.   

Filmed around the Grand Rapids area in the Winter of 2014, the ‘making of’ featurette on the DVD is an engaging eye-opener into what is obviously a labour of love for everyone involved. It’s rare that a movie this quiet speaks so loudly to the troubled parts of us, and it carries an extra weight due to the sad ending of David Foster Wallace’s short but spectacular time on this planet.

Post Script
If you wish to dig a little deeper, there are interviews with the author to be found online and you can go to your local library and check out Foster Wallace’s literary work. With a little patience, you might just be rewarded by the experience of making it through Infinite Jest, now exactly 20 years old and included by Time Magazine in its list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.