The Civilian Conservation Corps
is an inspiring and informative PBS documentary about the Depression-era initiative that helped to both put American men back to work and heal the nation’s environment after years of neglect and misuse. Roosevelt’s ingenious program sought to positively impact the lives of the participants by providing a structured way of life for young men that included access to a paycheck ($30/month), three meals a day, healthcare, vocational training, and most significantly, a renewed sense of self-worth and pride. Hundreds of CCC camps sprung up around the nation in 1933 as Roosevelt took over the presidency and developed several transformative programs that would address the country’s economic woes and massive unemployment rate (approximately 30%). The legacy of the CCC’s aggressive plan to revitalize the country's collective misery can still be felt today as thousands of American’s enjoy the great outdoors because of the ingenuity, hard work and sense of national unity from those involved.
Writer, editor, partier, commercial pitchman, and friend of the rich, famous and artistic, George Plimpton was never really taken that seriously as an accomplished, literary heavyweight like many of his writer friends (James Salter, Peter Matthiessen, Ernest Hemingway, Gay Talese). Yet nevertheless, he co-founded and served as editor of one of the most important and prestigious literary magazines of the post-war era, The Paris Review. When not publishing some of the most important writers of his time, Plimpton’s reputation grew mostly from his pioneering development of what he referred to as “participatory journalism”, the act of collecting unique experiences and then detailing them in book form. His most famous gimmick was when he tried out for the Detroit Lions football team as a quarterback, culminating in the bestseller Paper Lion. Much of his interest in being the subject of these journalistic “stints” led critics to suggest that his work can be seen as a precursor to what was dubbed the New Journalism (see: Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson) of the 1960’s. For more on Plimpton’s life, relationships and accomplishments, check out the new documentary Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself.
Fans of Errol Morris documentaries will not be surprised by his approach to understanding his most recent subject, the life and philosophies of Donald Rumsfeld. There are the standard cutaways to spirited music (Danny Elfman’s score) blended into a particular image or graphic that relates in some way to the film’s subject. There is the occasional moment where the viewer hears Morris pose a question or request additional information from off camera. Basically, this is a very typical Errol Morris film. Like his previous film The Fog of War, where he allowed former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to candidly speak about his role in the escalation and continuation of the Vietnam War, Morris lets Rumsfeld freely talk to the audience, only interjecting here and there in order to pose a question or contradict his subject’s commentary, much of which exhibits Rumsfeld’s talent for turning a phrase (always with a gleam in his eye and a smirk). Morris is clearly fascinated by Rumsfeld’s hubris, confidence, sense of moral clarity, and ability to be dualistically self-aware and ludicrously delusional-- at times he embodies both within a single exchange of ideas. Those who blame Rumsfeld for the invasion and occupation of Iraq will likely be frustrated that Morris refuses to take a more confrontational stance toward some of Rumsfeld’s claims. This has always been Morris’ artistic approach however, to engage his subject by allowing them to feel comfortable enough to be frank and thus more honest, a successful method that allows the viewer critical insights into the mind of Rumsfeld that otherwise would be lost within a polemical or satiric slant. Ultimately, Rumsfeld doesn't blink, doesn't self-evaluate, and therefore, one mostly sees in his glib snark, a man who sticks to his schtick.
The Unknown Known
As with most of the wonderful films that have been made under the ESPN film series 30 for 30, Youngstown Boys is a moving examination of the relationship between power, money, urban neglect and the role that larger socioeconomic forces play in molding the lives of individual athletes as they develop both on and off the proverbial field. These are not films about sports as such but rather powerful documentaries that explore the lives of the famous and infamous through a sociological lens, positioning their subjects within a broad framework for understanding the causes and effects of noteworthy events. This is the story of the rise and fall and rise again journey of a successful college football coach and his star player. It’s also a story all too common in today’s world, where young, inner-city athletes are confronted with difficult challenges and choices in regards to their future. Running back Maurice Claret and coach Jim Tressel were the toast of Columbus, Ohio for one magical year of success before controversy erupted on Ohio State's campus, leaving both men in very different situations, both trying to succeed in a world of greed, influence and big money. Claret’s story unfolded under the intense glare of the national media whereas the documentary provides greater clarity and a more nuanced context as to the events that would test the strong bond between these two Youngstown Boys.
This surprisingly moving and affectionate biography of a celebrated skateboard team from the 1980’s will appeal to both current skateboarders as well as those Generation X kids who grew up following these legendary shredders of the street, pools, and ramps. Cobbled together by 70’s skateboarding legend Stacy Peralta, The Bones Brigade was comprised of the era’s most talented and original riders, including: Lance Mountain, Steve Caballero, Tony Hawk, Mike McGill, Rodney Mullen and Tommy Guerrero. This is an entertaining film that recounts both the personal stories of each individual skater and provides fans of the colorful sport with an insider’s account of skateboarding’s golden era.
The Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
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.
In 2009, documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Catching Fire, Taxi to the Darkside) set out to chronicle the comeback of 7-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. But history was about to be re-written in 2013, forcing Gibney to shelve the project as Armstrong’s legal woes grew and the public’s trust in his well-insulated fraud began to erode. The doping allegations and assertions that Armstrong and his cycling teams were systematically cheating had dogged Armstrong throughout his career, even as his storied fight against cancer and celebrity stardom grew, finally forced the world’s most accomplished cyclist to publically admit to cheating during his run as Tour champion, doing so last year on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Gibney scrapped his original plan for the film and re-worked The Armstrong Lie into a fascinating examination of Armstrong’s storybook ascent to prominence and his Shakespearean fall from grace. Cycling fans will love the insider information about the sport’s well documented history of cheaters and scandal but the film will also appeal to viewers interested in the psychological deconstruction of a man who seemingly had it all but who at the same time, pathologically lied to everyone while building a fortress of corruption around his "narrative". Armstrong apologists, if any exist, will have a difficult time in justifying the means of trickery that Armstrong enacted in order to rationalize the ends. This isn’t just a great piece of schadenfreude but also an engaging study on the power of celebrity, money and the addiction to win at all cost.
The Armstrong Lie
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
Burn is an exhilarating documentary that takes viewers inside the day to day lives of Detroit firefighters, as they confront the enormously dangerous task of stamping out the city’s ceaseless torrent of burning buildings, many of which are the result of arson. The film also explores the tensions within city government and how firefighting services are impacted by Detroit’s dwindling resources, financial woes and political infighting. It’s a great film that is packed with humor, drama and genuine heroism.
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
Shola Lynch, a documentary filmmaker who has garnered much critical acclaim for her incisive and salient films, is one director whose films are invaluable, particularly for people like me who didn't live through the turbulent times they speak of. Lynch is interested in participatory democracy and how people, especially people who have been historically denied a voice (and a vote), forge new ways and means of being heard. As the director of Chisholm ’72 and Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, Lynch shares with audiences the stories of the titular African American women, both activists and leaders in political and social justice movements in the late 1960s to 70s.
Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed
Shirley Chisholm was our nation’s first Black congresswoman, and her gutsy run for president several years later was another first in U.S. History; she was working under the belief that people would vote with their conscience, rather than cynically voting for “the man most likely…” Lynch portrays the complicated political forces involved that make for a gripping story.
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners
Dr. Angela Davis sought social justice, not by running for elected office (that would transpire years later) but initially by teaching and working directly with local activists. The events that transpire thereafter are so incredible and outrageous that I cannot retell them with any justice here - Lynch has already done that.
Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed
DisneyNature has done it again. This time it is a year in the life of a Bear family. We follow Sky, the mother, and her two cubs Scout and Amber through the first year of their life. We start with their birth and we follow them cross the Alaska wilderness from the snowy mountains to the rivers full of salmon. It is spectacular scenery, breath taking views and a prodigious insight into the life of Bears. I saw DisneyNature-Bears in the theatre and paid movie going prices, you can place a hold now and see it for free from your library. We also have many more movies you may be interested in, come on in and take a look or go to our KPL website and browse from home.
DisneyNature – Bears
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
It’s no secret that the craft beer movement is burgeoning in Michigan—with Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo taking first and second place respectively in the annual Beer City USA poll last year, it’s clear that Michiganders love their craft brews. If you’re interested in finding out more about craft brewing in Michigan, check out The Michigan Beer Film. It focuses mainly on Southwest Michigan, following Greenbush Brewing Company as it rapidly expands and crediting Bell’s for founding the craft beer scene in Michigan. It takes a brief tour of the U.P. and a stop at Short’s Brewing Company, along with a look at a brewing upstart in Detroit. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of brewing around the state, but it is nice to see what’s going on in our area of Michigan, and it’s particularly good to see an industry that’s growing in Michigan. So grab an Oberon and watch The Michigan Beer Film!
Michigan Beer Movie
Edward Shackleton’s failed expedition to the South Pole in 1914 produced the greatest rescue/survival mission ever recorded. Chasing Shackleton is a PBS documentary that follows six modern day adventurers as they attempt to replicate the astounding feats of bravery, ingenuity and physical endurance that Shackleton and his crew members used in their attempt to sail the most dangerous ocean waters on the globe and traverse an unmapped mountain to save their fellow crewman. Led by an audacious leader in Tim Jarvis and clad in the wool clothes of the early 20th century, these six intrepid explorers set out in a tiny sail boat from an island near the South Pole to test their grit and know-how while tackling the enormous obstacles which a hundred years before, lay in the path of Shackleton’s redemption. Pushed to the point of death, will these men survive these harrowing environmental conditions in order to match their predecessor’s glory?
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
About twenty years ago, I stumbled on a documentary called Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. It told the story of the investigation into the murder of three eight year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas and the subsequent conviction of three teenagers, casting doubt on whether the teenagers were guilty of murder or just guilty of wearing black, listening to heavy metal music, and enjoying horror films.
Over the years, the documentary filmmakers who made the original Paradise Lost have produced two other films: Paradise Lost: Revelations and Paradise Lost: Purgatory. These documentaries and other information about the case convinced some high profile people like: Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Johnny Depp, and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson to lobby for the release of these teenagers.
After a bizarre plea deal, they were released on August 19, 2011 after serving over eighteen years for crimes they possibly didn’t commit.
Now, Damien Echols, who was on death row for those eighteen years, tells his story in Life After Death. Watch the documentaries and read his book and decide who you believe.
Paradise Lost: Purgatory
Sandra Bullock may have taken on deadly space debris in Best Picture contender Gravity, but it’ll likely be Cate Blanchett that destroys her chances at winning a second Oscar come Sunday, March 2nd. That’s right, the 86th Academy Awards ceremony is less than two weeks away, which mean now’s the time to catch up on all those critically-acclaimed movies you’ve been meaning to watch. Thankfully, the Kalamazoo Public Library is here to help with this list of all the Oscar-nominated films that you can check out from us right now:
- Best Picture nominee Captain Phillips received 6 nods overall, including Supporting Actor (Barkhad Abdi), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing (Tom Hanks just missed the cut for Best Actor, but his performance is riveting, especially in the film’s final 10 minutes).
- Cate Blanchett is the front runner for Best Actress in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. The film also received nominations for Supporting Actress (Sally Hawkins) and Original Screenplay.
- Best Animated Feature nominees The Croods and Despicable Me 2 are available now (Front-runner Frozen will be here in March). Despicable also received a nomination for Best Song with Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”
- Four of the five Best Documentary Feature nominations are here: The Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, and 20 Feet from Stardom.
- Big-budget summer films Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, and The Lone Ranger received nominations for Best Visual Effects. Ranger also received a nod for Hairstyling & Makeup alongside fellow unlikely-contender Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa.
- Baz Luhrmann’s opulent take on The Great Gatsby was recognized for Costume Design and Production Design.
- Best Foreign Language Film nominee The Hunt is currently available, while fellow contenders The Broken Circle Breakdown and The Great Beauty will arrive in March.
- The third part of Richard Linklater’s beloved romance trilogy, Before Midnight, received an Adapted Screenplay nod.
- All is Lost features a great performance from Robert Redford and was recognized for Best Sound Editing.
- Abduction thriller Prisoners is competing for Best Cinematography.
Several more Oscar contenders will be available on DVD or Blu-ray very soon:
- With 10 nominations (including Bullock’s), Gravity (available February 25th) will be a force to be reckoned with on Oscar night. It has a great shot at winning Best Picture and Director (Alfonso Cuarón) and is also the front-runner for technical categories like Visual Effects, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. The film was also recognized for Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, and Production Design.
- Also out on February 25th is Nebraska, which welcomed nominations for Best Picture, Director (Alexander Payne), Actor (Bruce Dern), Supporting Actress (June Squibb), Cinematography, and Original Screenplay.
These Oscar contenders will be available in March, and you can place a hold on them right now:
- 12 Years a Slave received 9 nominations, including Best Picture, Director (Steve McQueen), Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong'o).
- American Hustle was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Director (David O. Russell), Actor (Christian Bale), Actress (Amy Adams), Supporting Actor (Bradley Cooper), and Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence).
- Dallas Buyers Club has 6 nominations, including Best Picture, Actor (Matthew McConaughey) and Supporting Actor (Jared Leto), and both actors are favored to win in their respective categories.
- The Wolf of Wall Street was nominated for Best Picture, Director (Martin Scorsese), Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill), and Adapted Screenplay.
- Philomena is competing for Best Picture, Actress (Judi Dench), Original Score, and Adapted Screenplay.
- Also arriving in March are nominees The Grandmaster (Cinematography, Costume Design), Inside Llewyn Davis (Cinematography, Sound Mixing), The Book Thief (Original Score), Saving Mr. Banks (Original Score), and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Original Song).
Keep an eye out for the rest of the nominees, which are sure to follow. In the meantime, come on down to KPL and start prepping for Oscar night!
Tom Hanks is not talking to a basketball named Wilson this time and I haven’t seen any cute UPS type commercials like there were after the Cast Away. Captain Phillips was a more serious movie and it was made after real events. A real Captain Phillips was really steering an ocean going container ship carrying much needed food and water to Africa. It was attacked by Somali pirates and boarded. The movie starts out introducing you to lives on both sides. We see Captain Phillips saying goodbye to his wife as he boards a plane to go to Oman to captain the boat. We see the Somali people and how they are forced to be pirates. The movie does not waste a lot of time showing you background, it jumps right to the actual attack. The Container ship repels the first attempt but when the one boat comes back they successfully board the container ship, largely due to a malfunctioning fire hose that was supposed to keep the little boat away. What I found interesting is that there were only 4 Somali pirates and they were not that bright. But they had automatic weapons. If the container ship had even a couple of guns they might have staved off the attack. When the little boat gets close and hooks it’s ladder to the ship I kept thinking why don’t they go and repel boarders. The people who lived in castles did it all the time. Somebody puts up a ladder, you push them and the ladder off. Once boarded Captain Phillips misleads the pirates, tricks them, tells them the ship is broken etc. The Pirates were not the brightest. I think the Somali Pirates should use this movie as a training film for what not to do when hijacking a ship. When the Somali pirates took Captain Phillips in the lifeboat it got very real for me. I remembered watching this lifeboat and hearing about the Navy Seals and their 3 shots fired simultaneously and how much praise they got for their accuracy. In the movie when they rescue Captain Phillips it wasn’t like in a Sylvester Stallone movie where they pounce around all macho. Tom Hanks did an excellent job of being in shock. He couldn’t speak, he was on the verge of crying. He made you feel his distress. I give him high praise for conveying that emotion effectively. Come on down and check this DVD out from KPL.
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
Last month marked the 80th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, so if you're going to be stuck inside during these cold and snowy days, you may as well cozy up with a hot toddy and watch Ken Burns' documentary series describing the passage, enforcement, and repeal of Prohibition in the United States. When I watched the series last month I wasn't sure how much I'd learn, since this era was covered in my American history classes and has been heavily mined by pop culture, but I found all five-and-a-half hours engaging. I especially enjoyed the first episode, which outlines the factors leading to the passage of the 18th Amendment, including immigration and the introduction of the federal income tax.
The library has several copies of the DVD, but it's also available to check out anytime with Hoopla, the library's source for instant streaming videos, music, and audiobooks.
If you're interested in fictional depictions of Prohibition, check out the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing, the television series Boardwalk Empire, or Woody Allen's comedic take Bullets Over Broadway.
I’ve been trying to distract myself from the extreme winter weather of late by checking out some of our documentaries on surfing (White Wash, Riding Giants). Maybe it’s the beautiful landscape of the Hawaiian coast or the vibrant blue of the ocean wafting above the earth’s surface that appeals to me as we grind through a cold, grey winter.
Surfwise is an excellent documentary film that will appeal to anyone interested in exploring the question: What is a meaningful life and what does it look like in practice? Surfwise is the portrait of a man (Dorian Doc Paskowitz) with a vision of the world that found it’s life-long manifestation in the rejection of social conventions and modern values. It’s also a film about family dynamics and the conflict between one man’s inflexible idealism and the resentment and problems it later produced for his nine children.
Friendship as a documentary subject is a rare thing and with this affecting and poignant account of the long-term bond between Pulitzer Prize-winning author/actor Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark, viewers may feel as though they are listening in on a personal conversation between two old mates. Fused by both affinity and family, these two friends, entangled within the complicated web of history, not to mention their very different views on life and living, join together to work on an University project regarding their correspondence and ephemera that may result in a book deal. Full of tenderness, humor and sadness, these two old compatriots open up and bare their lifetime of memories, laments and affection for one another before the camera’s eye, offering up fascinating insights about both the limits of male closeness and its lasting durability.
Shepard & Dark