Staff Picks: Movies
Staff-recommended viewing from the KPL catalog.
The newest film from maverick filmmaker Terrence Malick will move even the most seasoned movie-watcher with its sheer, lyrical beauty yet will likely confound and annoy those who require a clear, comprehensible and linear plot with a standard amount of dialogue. I love Malick's uncompromised films and yet To the Wonder left me scratching my head at why he's become so drawn to the removal of storytelling and dramatic complexity. It isn’t so much that there is no plot but rather that the story is so utterly stale that one may find its shallow pretenses cause to hit the ‘stop’ button before the 20 minute mark. The voiceover, a device that Malick uses in all of his pictures, is pointless prattle and does little to expand our understanding of the motivations and feelings at the core of the four primary characters, all of whom simply wander about as handsome ciphers. These inadequacies alone would sink most films but of course Malick is one of the giants of cinema and therefore is afforded a bit of leeway given his uncompromising commitment to making films without concern for audience expectations or commercial success (that I really do appreciate). I applaud his integrity while at the same time feel a bit cheated at what could have been. The wondrous imagery that Malick is known for is truly magnificent. His films have always been painterly and romantic, lush and poetic but there’s nothing of human complexity or dimension beneath the endlessly vacuous imagery of glowing sunsets, hands grazing tall grass and beautiful actors behaving foolishly. Give it a try. You may find To the Wonder pointless or transcendent or even both.
To the wonder
At the behest of a friend I began watching the tv series Scandal a couple weeks ago, and was quickly drawn into the world of crisis management firm Olivia Pope and Associates. Pope is a 'fixer'- she and her team get their clients, Washington's elite and well-connected, out of sticky situations in order to protect the clients' public reputations. Most episodes follow a case that Pope and her team must handle, but what I love most about the show are the story arcs involving Pope and her associates: these characters are flawed, and they all have their own secrets to protect. Season two's crazy plot twists will definitely have me tuning in for season three in October!
Famously shy and reclusive writer/director Terrence Malick burst into the spotlight with his extraordinary debut Badlands(1973), a classic of American filmmaking starring a young Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen. The library has recently picked up the expanded and refurbished Criterion Collection edition which features recollections from the two actors and the art director. Fans of Malick’s impressionistic and painterly films (The Thin Red Line, Tree of Life, Days of Heaven, The New World) will certainly want to see this version in all of its restored vibrancy. After watching this amazing film, loosely based on the Charles Starkweather murders of the late 1950’s, I’ve attempted to come up with a short list of significant directorial debut films that we currently have in our collection.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
The Night of the Hunter
A Bout De Souffle (Breathless)
Knife in the Water
Killer of Sheep
The 400 Blows
The Sorcerer and the White Snake is gorgeous. The mountain scenery is breathtaking, the underwater visuals are amazing. This is a story of True Love. The demon white snake falls in love with a human. All sorts of problems arise from this but she never regrets it because she now knows true love. The White snake said she meditated once for a thousand years but just a moment with Xu Xian (the human she is in love with) was worth more. This was a great story of love based on a Chinese legend, but the best part was the visuals. It was one breathtaking scene after another. As I have a snake phobia, I wish it wasn’t a White Snake but when they are that big they look more like a sea serpent than a snake so it wasn’t too bad, only at the end did they send in the little snakes. Jet Li is the monk and he does do a lot of action. But even the fighting scenes are overpowered by the visual effects. When Xu Xian is under water the details of the plant life and the fish was spectacular. When the White Snake flooded the town and summoned the waters, it gripped you and the music swelled and you were carried away. While the story is of White Snake and her True Love with a human it also displayed the sister love between White Snake and Green Snake. When White Snake was dying Green Snake offered her life’s essence to her sister. It is a foreign film and you will have to read the subtitles but it is the visual effects that will blow you away. A fun part was the monks apprentice turning into a bat demon and the animated mice were delightful.
The Sorcerer and the White Snake
Can a film be at once a tender, macabre, oddball slice of campy surrealism with a heart? Few have treaded these idiosyncratic waters of exotic eccentricity better than Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. Brand upon the Brain, his feature film from 2008 represents Maddin at his most mainstream, which is not to suggest that the film is going to be embraced by more than a few devotees. But if you’re willing to open your mind up to Maddin’s semi-autobiographical story about a lighthouse that serves as both an orphanage and the setting for mad, scientific experiments, you’ll be rewarded with an enchanting tale of bold, cinematic weirdness.
Brand upon the Brain
Life Is Sweet (1990) solidified British director Mike Leigh’s place as one of the United Kingdom’s most important director/writers. He has since gone on to make several other classic films (Naked, Career Girls, Another Year, Vera Drake, Happy Go Lucky) that explore the darkly twisted world of British working and middle-class life, mixing together black humor with social critique that rarely comes across as contemptuous or mocking. His humane and sympathetic depictions of the shadowy and grim aspects of life are easier to digest because of his deft touch for highlighting the absurd. Leigh’s gift for creating quirky characters out of relatively mundane stories about everyday life is at the heart of many of his films. Life Is Sweet perfectly illustrates this vision, where the grotesque, odd and cruel are wedded to the jovial, loving and poignant. Be prepared to watch with subtitles given the thick accents and quick deliveries of the dialogue.
Life is sweet
The BBC’s stylish and entertaining series The Hour has been compared to Mad Men, in large part because of the approximate time period (mid 1950’s) the show is set and because of the copious amount of drinking and smoking that characters indulge in. Aside from those superficial comparisons, The Hour tackles mid-century, hot-button political issues through the prism of an hour-long, topical news program (think early 60 Minutes) run by young, idealistic journalists who inevitably butt heads with both their own management as well as the political establishment. What makes the series really tick is the element of mystery that emerges to provide a bit of tension and noir to this excellent, two-season drama.
Described as a film about “everything and nothing”, Yi Yi (Translation: A One and a Two) is writer/director Edward Yang’s moving, slice of life portrait about the up’s and down’s, 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 N.J.’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, urban experience 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.
Learning of James Gandolfini's untimely passing, my thoughts turned not to his iconic role as Tony Soprano, but his recent performance in Sopranos creator David Chase's directorial film debut, Not Fade Away, one of the most honest and under-rated movies ever made about rock and roll. Though seeing Gandolfini as a New Jersey businessman, struggling to keep peace in his suburban home with his wife and children, stirs up memories of his better-known TV family man, his film father and TV father lead quite different lives.
Set in the 1960's, the film's focus is on his son, a budding musician who gives up his college education, funded by his father and an ROTC scholarship, as his rock and roll outfit, heavily influenced by the blues-based Rolling Stones, gains increasing local popularity, which leads all the members to believe they can make it to the big-time, despite the many ego clashes and professional miscalculations that derail their journey. (If this sounds a bit like the plot of That Thing You Do, be aware that the dramatic tone of Not Fade Away is much heavier, and, to me, much more realistic. The heightened realism is aided, in no small part, by the soundtrack chosen by the film's music director, Steve Van Zandt.)
All the storied culture clashes that accompanied the '60's rock revolution are on display here in their most intimate manifestations, most poignantly in the relationship between father and son. Gandolfini's character wants his son to take the career direction originally agreed upon, but as his son's ambitions grow, and his parental norms can no longer be reconciled with his son's evolving belief systems, he comes to accept the break instead of denying it, which helps to mend their strained relationship. Such sweetness is not the Soprano way.
An especially close dinner conversation between father and son in the film's third act, as well as a scene late in the film where the father bids a farewell to his son that may or may not be final, pack an emotional wallop that hit even harder now in the wake of Gandolfini's passing. Thankfully, we have this film, among many others (not to mention the now-legendary TV series), to keep his screen presence from ever fading away.
Not Fade Away