Staff Picks: Movies
Staff-recommended viewing from the KPL catalog.
The less I say about the BBC America thrillerOrphan Black, probably the better. Full of suspense, the show centers around Sarah, a drug-dealing petty criminal who suddenly finds herself in the middle of a mystery when she sees a woman jump in front of a subway train. The thing is, the woman looks like her—and not just a little bit, but exactly like her. Sarah then embarks on a journey to find out who the dead woman is and ends up questioning her own story. The plot is fascinating and always surprising; there are no red herrings here. As details unfold, perspectives change but nothing is thrown in just as a ploy to lead the audience astray (a sign of a good mystery if you ask me). Tatiana Maslany, the star of the show, does an excellent job playing multiple, demanding roles that would not work in the hands of a less talented actress. Orphan Black will definitely make it onto my “best of 2013” list.
The great films from the silent era to today have always addressed the significant, universal themes and truths that lie at the core of human experience. There may be no better film made about the end of life and the instinctive response to look back on one’s dreams, laments, regrets, and accomplishments while standing upon the precipice than Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (Bergman’s Wild Strawberries is a close second). More than a somber piece of cinema about an unremarkable everyman’s last days, Ikiru (meaning “to live”) is a life affirming and poetic masterpiece that beautifully portrays our main character’s search for meaning as he learns he has a terminal disease.
Kanji Watanabe, a government employee who nobody seems to know or respect, agonizes over the belief that he has not lived a full life of importance and it’s this doubt that drives him forward to engage his fleeting days with a fierce purpose. For like so many, the presence of the end animates what it means to be alive. Kurosawa uses his immense directorial talents to bring this theme alive in fresh and unique ways. Fans of Kurosawa’s samurai movies may be surprised at the heartbreaking tenderness that he exhibits in this, his most endearing and humane film that explores life’s preciousness through one man’s death.
One’s take away from writer/director Sarah Polley’s brilliant, semi-autobiographical Stories We Tell may be that the film is about family dynamics and the complex secrets they often keep hidden. But what the film is really about is the way in which our lives are like stories, often interpreted and consumed differently by various actors involved within the circle of a particular narrative. The 'truth' about Sarah's origins becomes increasingly unstable as memories (some of which may be unreliable) of the past highlight the relativistic and nuanced nature of individual perspectives and experiences. Everyone's take on Sarah's mother is bit different, which is to say, she struggled to conform to any singular mold or characterization. The film works very much like Tim O’brien’s masterful fictional memoir The Things They Carried, a novel set in the Vietnam War but a book concerned primarily with the importance of storytelling as a way of understanding splintered, de-centered realities. It’s a wonderful film and one of the best of the year.
Stories We Tell
By the mid 1950’s Katharine Hepburn had solidified herself as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and so with few limitations regarding her career trajectory or concerns regarding box office success, she took on roles that were less about making money and more as vehicles to work with some of the best directors of that time. Summertime, a film that most movie fans don’t immediately recognize as one of her signature movies, is a wonderful tale of doomed romance along the Venetian canals. Directed by legendary British auteur David Lean (A Brief Encounter, Bridge On the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia), Summertime finds Hepburn in a role that has her playing an emotionally lonely yet headstrong and independent secretary, enjoying her dream vacation in Venice when romance comes her way in the form of a smooth-talking shop owner. Shot in vibrant Technicolor, Lean shows off Venice as a beautiful city full of life and history. The city becomes a character onto itself. It’s a film about living in the moment and embracing the vitality of experience.
After watching the Academy Award winning film (Best Foreign Language Film) Amour, a film of tremendous emotional intensity and tenderness, I needed to view a film that took me away into a fantasy world comprised of silly hijinks, screwball comedy and that starred classic Hollywood actors. I found that film in the classic 1938 comedy, Bringing Up Baby, a hilarious romp of absurdity and folly that was the perfect antithesis to Amour’s touching but grim story of the final weeks of an elderly couple’s marriage. Both pictures represent the best and breadth of the library’s film collection, one that has a little bit of everything.
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