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Staff Picks: Movies

Ozu's Family Dramas

The great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s post-WWII work returns again and again to his interest in domestic drama and the sometimes strained relationship between old and young, traditional and modern. His final film and second photographed in color was An Autumn Afternoon (1962). Like his 1948 masterpiece Late Spring, this final work presents the growing pressure a widower feels to locate for his daughter a husband to marry. Ozu’s style was one of exacting commitment to framing scenes symmetrically with a stationary camera set up on the floor (the “tatami shot”). The graceful simplicity of his films further their overall richness while neither excluding humor nor giving in to empty sentimentality. His poignant films capture the essence of the love between family members even when that love becomes interwoven within changing social roles, expectations and values. His films evoke both the melancholy and lament of an older generation’s realization that modernism, consumerism and technology had become a staple part of post-war Japan.

 


Liked That, Try This

It's another installment of Liked That, Try This, where we match movies with similar styles, themes, or intersecting approaches to movie-making. Here goes...

Domestic Dramas--

Liked The Royal Tenenbaums try Fanny and Alexander

Liked Late Spring try Yi Yi

Liked Savages try You Can Count on Me

Summer Romances--

Liked Summer with Monika try A Summer's Tale

American Literature--

Liked To Kill A Mocking Bird try The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

Film Noir--

Liked Double Indemnity try The Killers

Liked The Third Man try Odd Man Out

Coming of Age--

Liked Boyhood try King of the Hill

Liked Fish Tank try L'enfance Nue

Liked Ratcatcher try The Long Day Closes

Science Fiction--

Liked Interstellar try Solaris


Stalker

One doesn't merely watch an Andrei Tarkovsky film, they experience them. They are haunting, enigmatic poems that explore the kinds of questions plumbed by philosophers and theologians. There is nothing commercial nor common place about these slowly paced, gorgeously shot works of art that eschew specific meanings while meditating on the nature of existence, memory and the immaterial. Even among his peers, his creative vision and technical prowess were considered unmatched in their power to evoke and mystify. His movie-making heroes acknowledged his greatness throughout his short life with Ingmar Bergman saying, "When film is not a document, it is dream. That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn't explain. What should he explain anyhow? He is a spectator, capable of staging his visions in the most unwieldy but, in a way, the most willing of media. All my life I have hammered on the doors of the rooms in which he moves so naturally."

Of his films, Stalker is my favorite and likely his most accessible for those unfamiliar with his style. The look of this film is almost indescribable. You simply have to see it to fully appreciate the level of artistry (all done without a Hollywood budget no less). Three men venture into the Zone, a quarantined area (ostensibly set in The Soviet Union) where a meteor had crashed. It has been rumored that the zone holds supernatural powers to grant individuals their special requests. A stalker, those who smuggle people into this no-go area, ventures deep into the heart of the unknown with two other characters, a writer and a professor, both of whom have different reasons for wanting to engage with the mysteries of the zone. Writer Geoff Dyer loved this film so much that he wrote an entire book about it called Zona.     


Tootsie

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!

 


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.


If Horror Could Win a Caldecott...

Every year, dozens of horror films are dumped on the movie-going public—many of them profitable, most of them awful. Thankfully, each year there always seems to be one or two gems that manage to make it to market, and as a fan of the genre, it is my duty to seek them out. Last year, one of these instant cult classics was The Babadook, the terrifying (if curiously titled) Australian film debut from writer-director Jennifer Kent. I discovered this film at my annual pilgrimage to the Traverse City Film Festival and have been singing its praises since.

The Babadook follows Amelia, a beleaguered single mother whose troubled young son, Samuel, is a very taxing ward. Samuel has a hyperactive fear of monsters and a predilection for making homemade weapons, which gets him into a lot of trouble both at home and at school. He constantly seeks nighttime refuge in his mother’s bed, tense and clinging. Amelia finds herself overworked, overstressed, and severely deprived of sleep. She also harbors an unspoken resentment of her son; she secretly blames him for the death of her husband, who died in a car accident while taking her to the hospital the night Samuel was born.

The film gets its title from a children’s storybook that Amelia finds in her house: Mister Babadook tells the tale of a ghastly figure in a black overcoat and top hat who terrorizes children and represents one’s darkest impulses. Once Amelia reads this book to her son, they begin to be tormented by an unsettling presence. But is there really a monster named Babadook after them, or is Amelia just becoming psychologically unraveled? Either way, danger will reach a boiling point.

 
The Babadook plays like a Tim Burton acid-trip gone horribly wrong. It’s arguably the most intense film I’ve ever sat through—even without the dread-inducing bogeyman, the reluctantly dutiful relationship between mother and son is such a source of angst and consternation that you’ll be clenching your fists and gritting your teeth for the majority of the film’s running time. All of which is to say, this film is a must-see for horror fans. It’s one that will get under your skin and stick with you, because much like the eponymous storybook suggests, once you let him in, you can’t get rid of The Babadook.

 


1001 Movies You Must See...

We own a comprehensive reference book called 1001 Movies You Must See before You Die. I’ve used it on several occasions to select titles for the collection. I am pleased to report that the library owns many of these classic films. I thought I would share a film from each decade, highlighted by the editors of the book. There are many films that we simply cannot add to the collection because they are not available or out of print.

Intolerance (1916)—D.W. Griffith’s attempt to counter the negative reception of his previous film The Birth of a Nation
Metropolis (1927)—Widely considered by critics as the first, science fiction epic, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was far ahead of its time, incorporating elements of sex, violence and special effects into the plot structure. It so confused audiences with its various allusions, subtext and allegories that it bombed at the box office.
The 39 Steps (1935)—Before making films that unnerved American audiences in the 1950’s and 60’s, British director Alfred Hitchcock made this high octane film that employs the trope of the character who unwittingly sees something they’re not supposed to see and who then becomes entangled in a mystery (that always involves a chase) that endangers their life.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)—Slapstick and romance never worked so well in this star power-driven farce that features Cary Grant, James Stewart and Katharine Hepburn.
Umberto D (1952)—Made during the peak of Italian Neorealism’s influence, Vittorio De Sica’s heartbreaking tale of the daily struggles of an elderly man and his pet dog will undoubtedly produce a tear or two.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)—One of the great film adaptations of a stage play, Mike Nichols’ film was successful in due part to having a real life married couple playing the lead characters. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor give electrifying performances in this dialogue-heavy portrait of marital gamesmanship.
Killer of Sheep (1977)—Considered by many critics an essential piece of American independent movie-making, Killer of Sheep was Charles Burnett’s first feature and his most critically praised. Subtle yet moving, the film established itself as one of the first films to depict African Americans as ordinary subjects going about their everyday lives, burdened yet dynamic, imbued with dignity and agency.
My Left Foot (1989)—The first of three Oscars for actor Daniel Day-Lewis who gives a fantastic performance in this portrait of one man’s extraordinary spirit in the face of physical limitations and social prejudice.
Goodfellas (1990)—With all due respect to The Godfather trilogy, this is the greatest mob film and arguably Martin Scorsese’s best work.
Russian Ark (2001)—The film that ultimately achieved the technical feat that Hitchcock once sought to accomplish (cameras ran out of film after 10 minutes in the late 40’s)—a film shot in one continuous take without a single cut.


Watership Down

Last month, The Criterion Collection re-released a new version of the animated classic Watership Down (1978), an allegorical film that explores themes related to human conflict and political repression through the eyes of a band of rabbits, seeking a peaceful life, far away from the dangers posed by human development and other predatory animals. Working as an intense, often grim critique of the environmental cost of land development, a small group of rabbits led by Hazel, Bigwig and Fiver, attempt to flee both the dangers posed by people and an increasingly authoritarian rabbit society, one that could be read as a symbol of the rigid class divisions in Britain of the late 1970's. Beautifully drawn, scored and voiced, Watership Down hasn't lost its power to question and explore social and environmental dynamics, much of which remains germane today.


Hidden Gems

Here are some selected titles that staff feel are hidden gems, secret treasures or unknown classics that you may have missed or simply never knew existed.

Before Ryan Gosling was a huge movie star and occasional internet meme, he made the quirky, small budget film Lars and the Real Girl, a tale about a socially awkward man who falls in love with…yes…a blow up doll.

Years before he struck it big with Birdman, Alejandro Innaritu directed Amores Perros, a gritty film set in Mexico City that connects several storylines and characters together ala Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia or Innaritu’s more commercially successful work Babel.

Safe is “a profoundly unsettling work from the great American director Todd Haynes, Safe functions on multiple levels: as a prescient commentary on self-help culture, as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis, as a drama about class and social estrangement, and as a horror film about what you cannot see. This revelatory drama was named the best film of the 1990s in a Village Voice poll of more than fifty critics.”—The Criterion Collection

Prior to Peter Jackson’s adaptations of the Lord of the Rings books, he and a young and relatively unknown actress named Kate Winslet collaborated on Heavenly Creatures, a shocking, true crime story that took place in New Zealand in the 1950’s. Two teenage girls develop an inseparable bond and as their fantasy-fueled relationship grows increasingly lethal, their parents attempt to break them apart.

Forbidden Games is a 1952 French film that depicts the macabre yet childlike way that an orphaned girl grapples with her grief after her parents are killed by the Germans during World War II. Befriended by a young boy and taken in by his peasant family, the adults are ill equipped to sympathize with the grisly ways in which the children cope with the trauma of war.

Certified Copy might be one of the more unique and certainly beguiling films to explore the complexities and narrative like qualities of a relationship. Similar to the Richard Linklater “Before” trilogy in that these films focus on dialogue more so than plotting and action, Iranian master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami tackles questions about truth, authenticity and subjectivity both in how these ideas manifest themselves within human relationships as well as art.

Shadows was the first film from maverick American director John Cassavetes and while it doesn’t possess the richness and complexity of his later films, it marked a key moment in the history of American cinema for its low budget appearance and verite approach. Exploring interracial relationships in New York City during the Beat-era and originally scored by bassist Charles Mingus, Shadows is considered by historians as an early prototype for what came to be dubbed “independent cinema.”

Election—Alexander Payne’s debut hits all the right marks when it comes to this high school-set black comedy starring a fantastic Reese Witherspoon as the hyper-achieving foil to Matthew Broderick’s squeaky clean teacher.

Muriel—Alain Resnais, the late French master of fragmented pyscho-dramas with beguiling plot structures made his name with Hiroshima Mon Amour and Late Year at Marienbad but fans of those works should give this lesser known work the attention it deserves.