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Staff Picks: Movies

Made in Dagenham

I’ve been impressed with Sally Hawkins, ever since I saw her in Happy-Go-Lucky. She plays a much different role as Rita O’Grady in Made in Dagenham, but her performance is equally impressive. In Dagenham, England, O’Grady is a seamstress at the local Ford plant in the 60’s. She and the other women in her bargaining unit vote to strike for equal pay.

The movie illustrates how wearing a strike can be. The strikers persevere for weeks, through exhaustion, wavering determination, personal life crises. Wages are frozen, bills pile up, and the workers must keep showing up to stand up for their cause. Add to it, the women employees face huge pushback from the union bigwigs, Ford management, the male employees, and their own husbands. O’Grady leads the fight, ultimately heading a small group of sister union members to meet with the Employment Secretary of England, to garner support for their struggle.

Made in Dagenham is a fictionalized account of a true event. I loved the soundtrack.

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Made in Dagenham
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Nobody for President

Can you name two other Romneys that have run for President?  Of course, there is Mitt's dad George, but what about Hugh Romney who ran for President as a clown named "Nobody" in 1976?  You might know him better as the 60’s counterculture icon Wavy Gravy, after whom Ben & Jerry named a very tasty ice cream flavor. When I lived in Berkeley, I always hoped I would catch a glimpse of him.  We even tried trick-or-treating at his house, but he was not home. So I was excited to see that the library purchased the new documentary Saint Misbehavin’ about his life so far.

I knew about his Hog Farm Commune, his run for President, and his work with the SEVA Foundation and Camp Winnarainbow; a performing arts summer camp for inner city kids, but the documentary introduced me to so much more. I did not know that he was a Beat poet in the New York scene before heading to California, that he was the one making announcements at Woodstock like, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000,” or that Bob Dylan shared a room with him for a short time and wrote “A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall” on his typewriter.

If you are a fan of Wavy Gravy or have never heard of him, check out this documentary and catch his infectious commitment to change the world for the better.

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Saint Misbehavin'
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The Buddy/Cop Film Revisited

The Guard is a dark comedy set in a small town in Ireland. It's also a throwback buddy film where two cops from different backgrounds work together to fight crime while insulting eachother. It has its tender moments but for the most part, The Guard is all about the genre and complying with the dictates of cliche. The great character actor Don Cheadle plays an uptight FBI agent sent to provincial Ireland to bust a drug ring. Along the way, he encounters the eccentric and verbally unfiltered policeman Gerry Boyle, who has his own method of conducting police investigations. The two bristle at one another’s approach, disliking the other’s personality but like all buddy films, they come to find common ground in bringing the bad guys to justice.

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The Guard
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And the Oscar Won't Go To...

Of the films nominated for the best picture award at this year’s Academy Awards, my vote goes to the impressive, sprawling, sublimely beautiful Tree of Life. Terrence Malick is one of my favorite directors and so it comes as no surprise that I’m voting for this ambitious, yet not altogether perfect allegory that mixes the personal with the historical, the metaphysical with the existential with lush, painterly strokes. Tree of Life is more like a romantic painting or an extended tone poem than a linear, Hollywood cliché designed to sell overpriced candy and heart-stopping popcorn and for that reason alone, it will not win.

On a side note, the film's studio has elected not to release this film as a stand-alone DVD in an attempt to boost its Blu-ray sales and to shift consumer buying practices. Unfortunately, libraries are then only able to circulate the extra DVD's that come with the Blu-ray editions.

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Tree of Life
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Say Hello to My Little Friend (His Name Is Oscar)

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.)

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Moneyball
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Two from my 'to watch' list

Over the holiday I was able to catch up on some film titles from the past year that I had failed to see during the previous twelve months. In particular, I enjoyed two documentaries, Page One: inside the New York Times and Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, that were both listed on KPL staff 2011 Best of Lists. While very different in style and content, the films relate in my opinion because the subject of each documentary seem to be, at least at some level, “in” on the project and are using the documentary format to take a position and very effectively tell the audience something about themselves. In the case of Page One, it’s the NYT convincing us that they remain relevant and the authoritative place for news in an ever splintering media landscape, and in the case of Conan O’Brien, which was filmed in the aftermath of O’Brien’s famously contentious split with NBC and Jay Leno, its O’Brien convincing us that he is an incredibly, almost compulsively, driven entertainer. Both films have compelling characters featured prominently, with Page One its NYT media and culture columnist David Carr – who, after watching this film, I think of as the Keith Richards of journalism – and with Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop it has to be O’Brien himself, he is in nearly every frame of the film and working incredibly hard to entertain everyone near him during his every waking second. I’m glad that I had the time to watch both films, and I recommend using KPL staff picks, our Movies and Music pages, and KPL staff in all our locations to help keep your “to watch” lists full of great titles.

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Page One: inside the New York Times
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Chilean History, Memory, Telescopes, and Light

A difficult documentary to summarize, Nostalgia for the Light is one of the best nonfiction films I’ve seen in a while. The film is not about one thing in particular but rather synthesizes relatively tangential subjects into a beautiful lament for innocence lost and memories of lost ones. Beautifully crafted, NFTL ties the scientific quest for understanding the origins of our planet with the somber task of mourning and emotional closure for victims of the Chilean military coup in 1973. Highly recommended.

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Nostalgia for the Light
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Hey College Kids! We've Got Your Friend!

Every summer, several of my friends and I travel up north for the annual Traverse City Film Festival.  Founded by Michigan native Michael Moore and co-chaired by Hollywood folk like Curb Your Enthusiasm star Jeff Garlin and Borat director Larry Charles, this cinema-stuffed week gives us a chance to soak in all the indie and foreign films, incisive documentaries and beloved classics that our increasingly sore posteriors can handle.  (We also find time to relax and simply enjoy the beautiful T.C. area when we’re not staring at the silver screen.)  One of our most beloved rituals is getting the whole gang together for a midnight movie of choice; these usually consist of foreign or indie horror films that will never see a wide release in the United States.  Several of the ones we have screened have gone on to achieve cult-classic status:  brilliant Swedish vampire hit Let the Right One In; Norwegian Nazi-zombie gore-fest Dead Snow; South Korean rampaging-monster movie The Host.  In the summer of 2010, we had the opportunity to screen another such instant gem—one that, until recently, had bafflingly avoided a distribution deal:  the top-notch horror-comedy Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.

T&DvE is the kind of tongue-in-cheek splatter flick that offers as much joy from satire and humor as it does from excessive carnage.  The story follows the two titular hapless hillbillies as they set off for their dilapidated vacation home out in the woods.  On their way, they have an unfortunate run-in with a gaggle of snobby college kids who mistake their curiosity for threatening redneck menace.  Tensions mount when one of the girls, Allison, has a swimming accident and winds up in the care of a love-struck Dale and an inconvenienced Tucker.  The guys try to let the kids know they’ve rescued Allison, but their methods—which include shouting through the woods, “Hey college kids!  We’ve got your friend!”—lead the suspicious youth to believe she’s been kidnapped.  The college kids mount an assault on Tucker and Dale, but a series of very unfortunate and very bloody accidents (let’s just say bees and chainsaws don’t mix, nor do wood chippers and lunging) result in a body count that only reinforces Tucker’s and Dale’s images as crazed murderous lunatics, while convincing them that the college kids have some sort of suicide pact.

Credit for the success of this film certainly belongs, in part, to first-time feature director and co-writer Eli Craig.  But the lead cast for this film cannot be more perfect:  30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden gets to expand her comedy chops as Allison; Dale is played by Tyler Labine, best known for TV’s short-lived Reaper and the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  But best of all is Firefly/Serenity MVP Alan Tudyk, a talented movie and TV actor whose comedic timing is unparalleled in Hollywood.  He’s simply one of the funniest guys working today.

So if you are in the mood for a great horror-comedy in the tradition of the Evil Dead franchise or Shaun of the Dead, check out Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.  And then, maybe, rethink that backwoods camping trip you were planning for next summer, and come spend your late-July inside a movie theater in Traverse City with me.

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Tucker & Dale vs. Evil
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Rare Exports a Christmas Tale

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.

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Rare Exports a Christmas Tale
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The Rhythms of Life

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.

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Le Quattro Volte
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