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Staff Picks: Movies

An Iranian Masterpiece

Close-Up is a masterpiece of both poetry and philosophy. Movies like this don’t come around but a couple of times a decade and when this 1990 film was released in the West to much acclaim, it made its Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, an international star. It’s a tremendously moving film that mixes together fictional elements and scripted moments with real people playing versions of themselves as they reenact scenes from a bizarre, true event. 

Kiarostami's film functions as a meditation on cinema’s verisimilitude and its power to blur binaries like true/false and fiction/documentary. Viewers will find it difficult to parse out what is true and what was constructed by Kiaraostami because of the inventive way he threads artifice into a depiction of the actual event, infusing it with universal themes in a sympathetic way. One of the most beguiling, radically ingenious films of the last century, Close-Up is widely considered one of cinema’s most important in pushing the art form forward. 


Newly re-released as a Criterion Collection selection, fans of the 1982 cross-dressing comedy may want to revisit this Sydney Pollack directed classic that stars Dustin Hoffman, Teri Garr, Bill Murray and Jessica Lange. On its surface, Tootsie is a warm-hearted story about a down on his luck actor who disguises himself as a woman in order to land a role on a soap opera. However, look a bit deeper and you’ll discover the poignancy and depth of a film that raised questions about society’s capacity to grapple with issues of gender, sexuality, identity and equality. At the film’s core are questions regarding gender roles and how they function socially and at the unconscious level of individuals and their relationships. The Criterion Collection version provides a wealth of interviews, an essay and short films detailing the making of the movie.

Love Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry for Eating the Cat

Kalamazoo is really fortunate to be home to an Alamo Drafthouse; they are one of the most prestigious theater chains in the world. As a massive film geek, I don’t spend my movie-going dollars anywhere else. One reason for this (beyond the strict no-talking, no-texting policy) is their penchant for bringing independent, foreign, and art-house films to Kalamazoo—ones that would never normally play in our mid-sized market. In fact, the Austin-based company has its very own distribution arm and, as you can imagine, they specialize in “provocative, visionary and artfully unusual films new and old from around the world” (their own words). Some of the many great movies found under the Drafthouse Films label include A Band Called Death, The Act of Killing, The Overnighters, A Field in England, and many more.

One recent favorite of theirs I saw was a creepy indie film called Spring that one promotional blurb perfectly referred to as “Richard Linklater meets H.P. Lovecraft.” As a fan of both creators, this intrigued me. The story follows a young man who sets off to backpack around Europe after his mother dies and the rest of his life falls apart. In Italy, he begins a flirtation with an attractive-yet-aloof young woman, and the two spend a lot of time walking and talking around her scenic coastal village, much like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy did in Linklater’s Before Sunrise series. However, the woman is harboring a dark secret—one that evokes the primordial horror of Lovecraft tales, and one that may pose a threat to more than just their relationship. To say more would be to spoil, but I definitely recommend checking the film out if you’re looking for an unusual twist on two familiar genres. And be sure to check other Drafthouse Films, both here at KPL and at downtown’s Alamo Drafthouse location!


Don’t Miss Hader and Wiig Together on Screen Again

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader have great chemistry as estranged twins (Maggie and Milo,) who find their way back into each other’s lives as the result of Milo’s personal crisis. It turns out they are both having crises, and each could use the other’s help to get through it. Maggie finds Milo and invites him to stay at her home for a while, to get himself together. At first, Milo acts resentful, prickly—ok, obnoxious and self-centered. Maggie has her own prickly ways. Each have reasons for their resentment. Gradually they soften, and what unfolds is beautiful to observe.

The overall flavor of The Skeleton Twins is poignant and sometimes heartbreaking, laced with humor. In one hilarious scene, Milo tries to cheer Maggie up, and he launches into a camped-up rendition of Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” Maggie ultimately responds in kind, and they both light up the screen.

Wiig and Hader worked together for years on Saturday Night Live, and they roll well with each other’s comedic styles. They are convincing as brother and sister, who ‘get’ each other, even after years of no contact.

The Source Family

How does the strongest boy in America transition from a Judo-loving war hero and murderer into a successful health food restaurateur only to become a cult-controlling mystic guru to rich Los Angeles hippies? The answer rests within the gripping tale of the Source Family, a bizarre cult that began in Los Angeles in 1970 and ended five years later in Hawaii. Led by Father Yod, aka Jim Baker, the Eastern religion-inspired group was comprised of mostly young, doped up kids from Los Angeles who were drawn to Baker’s charms and cosmic cool. Not as well-known as Charles Manson or Jim Jones, Baker’s journey from overseeing a popular vegetarian restaurant on the Sunset Strip to leading an almost too good to be true cliché of a group of mentally controlled automatons is a fascinating and faaaaaaar out trip of a documentary that highlights the dangers of group-think.

Into the Woods

In this Stephen Sondheim remake, the plots of many Grimm’s fairy tales are mixed together as everyone goes to the woods to seek their deepest held wishes. Cinderella wishes to go to the festival, Little Red Ridinghood wishes to bring baked goods to her grandma, and the charming princes wish for their unattainable love interests. The first act concludes with everyone singing about how wonderful it is that they have achieved their “happily ever after” and then things get interesting.

From the Prelude:

Into the woods,
Without delay,
But careful not
To lose the way.
Into the woods,
Who knows what may
Be lurking on the journey?
Into the woods
To get the thing
That makes it worth
The journeying.
Into the woods…

Remembering Albert Maysles

Albert Maysles, the trailblazing documentary filmmaker passed away a few months ago but his unique cinematic and narrative vision, innovative editing practices and observational attentiveness are still available to enjoy through the viewing of some of his most important works, including: Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter, Salesman, LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (coming soon!), and Primary.


Fortitude is a new drama set in an isolated, northern island somewhere near the arctic. Branded as the safest city in the world, with its governor hoping to develop a high concept hotel built inside of a glacier, the citizens of Fortitude seem normal enough if you ignore the multitude of personal secrets, infidelities, emotional traumas, corruption, frozen mammoths, and you guessed it, the bizarre string of murders that are beginning to shake this once calm town's residents. For fans of dark and suspenseful shows like The Bridge and True Detective.  


Life of Riley

French director Alain Renais died last year, ironically on the day the Academy Awards were held. He left cinephiles with a significant body of work which features several films considered classics including Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. His inventive, non-commercial, form breaking sensibilities are still on display with his farewell film, Life of Riley. Based upon a British play, Renais transforms the theatrical stage into a cinematic framework, blending the two together to create a work that looks and feels like both. The film doesn't attempt to negate the artificiality and obviousness of the set or limit the dialogue saturated plot. It is a play inside of a film and vice versa. There's a levity to the film that I wouldn't exactly describe as comedic and yet it tackles serious subjects like adultery, illness, aging and friendship.


While the French film Girlhood won’t likely earn the buzz and accolades that Richard Linklater’s hit Boyhood received last year, it presents a more prescient depiction of adolescence, assimilation and identity of the underprivileged, disenchanted French teens looking to escape the housing projects located in the Parisian suburbs. While the story meanders along, feeling stale and uninspired at points, the cast does an admirable job at realistically embodying the emotional high and low points of a first love, the complex navigation of friendships and a future of unknown possibilities.