There’s just not enough time to compose a lengthy review of some of the great and not-so great feature films, television series and documentaries that I’ve caught over the past month, so instead, I’m handing out a grade and an abridged appraisal.
Bastards—A grim, pointless waste of time from French Director Claire Denis (C-)
Hateship Loveship—Continued proof that former SNL star comedian Kristin Wiig should keep looking for dramatic roles (B)
Orphan Black—Yes, lead actress Tatiana Maslany was robbed of an Emmy nomination for her multiple roles in this great BBC-produced show about clones (A)
Requiem for the Big East—For college basketball fans who grew up in the 1980’s and recall watching these legendary teams, this ESPN documentary will rouse a healthy dose of nostalgia (B+)
The Bridge—in keeping with the very trendy, neo-noir subject of serial killing and the relationship between detectives charged with solving the mysteries (see: True Detective), this cross-border drama explores the messy dialectics of national politics, the consequences of drug/human trafficking and the tension between rich and poor (B+)
Captain Phillips—nothing here was particularly new, assuming you followed the story when it originally unfolded, but it still remains a dramatically compelling, well-paced action film that will jump-start your adrenalin (A-)
Top Hat & Tales: Harold Ross and the Making of the New Yorker—a satisfactory if not condensed portrait of an eccentric visionary and his creative collaborators who developed a unique and lasting publication (B)
Palo Alto—a drained, vacuous sketch of the psychic ennui of rich, white teens whose lives gravitate around sex, drugs, video games and pathetic, exploitative adults (D)
An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theater, whose trustworthiness has been seriously questioned. Film audiences should be wary of gleaning truths from the narrator’s account of the movie's unfolding and plot details. Here are some films that have employed the unreliable narrator approach to storytelling to great effect.
Last Year at Marienbad
The Usual Suspects
The Great Gatsby
Sometimes a film just does not hit you in that sweet spot the first time around. You leave the theater disappointed or mulling over what could have been. Maybe it was you all along, your mood, your unwillingness to open up and let the film work its magic. I’ve hated films that I later came to love and respect after my initial dismissal. There are those films that grow on you and seem to get better with multiple viewings. The first time I saw Frances Ha
, I moaned about its obvious influences and reference points (Godard, Truffault). The protagonist’s personality was a bit grating and I just couldn’t give in to the film’s cloying repackaging of the classics of the 60’s and 70’s it so self-consciously aped. It simply felt derivative, the kind of film where its style devours its substance. I recently gave it a second chance and have subsequently modified my early misgivings. I think the elements of the film I enjoyed the most were the editing and the choice to convert the digital footage into black and white. It’s quite the looker. Now there are a lot of movies not worth a first viewing let alone a second but sometimes there comes a long a film that deserves a reconsideration.
I don’t tend to gravitate toward watching romantic comedies because they’re often disposed to possess the worst elements and doses of sentimentality, cliché, bathos, and stereotype. That’s not to say that in the proper hands, these qualities cannot be reasonably constrained so as to reduce the number of times I consider hitting the eject button. Having said that, I decided to watch a small film from Ireland called Run & Jump
(a title that is a metaphor for loosening up and living life more freely I suppose). It hits most of its notes most of the time and we can probably attribute this to the fact that Hollywood didn’t have its hands all over the writing, casting or plot. There’s only one recognizable actor here and that’s former SNL star Will Forte. There’s plenty of Irish quirkiness (see: stereotype) but it’s finely regulated so as not to delve into caricature. The film centers on a stressed out family coping with the changes to their home life after the father suffers a stroke, leaving him with cognitive and physical disabilities. Forte plays a doctor living with the family and studying the father’s recuperation. A triangular relationship begins to form as Forte and the wife begin to bond, messing up an already chaotic domestic situation. It’s not all dour melodrama as there are plenty of moments of humor sprinkled about this well-crafted film.
is about a man (Ivan Locke) who gets into a BMW and then proceeds to have one conversation after another on his car phone while driving toward London. The end. That’s pretty much it and that’s just enough for this engaging but austere film about one man’s attempt to control his life from a car phone as it spins out of control.
The name Peter Bogdanovich may not be a household name but he’s made a career out of making movies, writing about movies and occasionally acting in movies and television (The Sopranos). While his film output is slim compared to other filmmakers of his generation, he made two classic movies in the 1970’s that alone, would establish his cinematic credentials. These two films are Paper Moon (1973) (DVD coming soon!) and The Last Picture Show (1971). Both films put the spotlight on young actors that would go on to become big stars (Ryan O’Neal, Tatum O’Neal, Cybill Sheperd, Ellen Burstyn, and Jeff Bridges). Both films were filmed in black and white and both looked back to a past milieu that seemed a life time away from the early, counter-cultural 70’s when they were made. The Last Picture Show is a moody, bittersweet portrait of teen life in a gloomy, withered West Texas town, one that’s literally been abandoned by the rise of corporatism and the growth of urban and suburban development. It’s a visually rich film that avoids sentimentality while arousing a deep lament for the death of small towns and the innocent, one-dimensional values associated with them. The word ‘longing’ comes to mind when watching this film--the longing for community, for a left behind past, and to be understood.
No less somber in its depiction of desperate living in times of economic decline, Paper Moon does have its moments of levity and humor. Overall however, the film’s two protagonists, a grifting duo conning their way across the Midwest, understand that survival in the midst of hard times is at best precarious and at its worst, fraught with danger. The movie’s heart and soul is animated in large part from the wonderful performances of the father/daughter team of Ryan and Tatum O’Neal. These are two American classics that continue to inspire and influence today’s best filmmakers.
The last picture show
Last year, the Danish film The Hunt was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It's the story of the social and individual price of a child's lie. Good natured Lucas works at the local elementary school, beloved by the school children and adored by his hunting buddies, Lucas finds himself at the center of a police probe after his best friend's daughter claims that Lucas abused her. As the town rallies behind the girl's claim, Lucas finds himself socially disconnected from the small town and the target of violence. The film tackles the subject of mob mentality and how quickly a faleshood can function to demonize an innocent person. Driven by a strong performance by the lead actor, The Hunt is an excellent film worth checking out.
Carried Away is a story about a family and their relationships with each other. It starts with Ed Franklin coming home from Hollywood to Fort Worth Texas. I don’t think we know why. We see that he is a bit of a loser. When he is waiting for his mother to pick him up from the airport we hear him on the phone telling someone about his new play where he is playing all the parts. Just listening to him describe the play you know it will be a boring disaster. We find out the person he is talking to is his ex girlfriend and they have been broken up for months. Then we meet the family, the mother who is not happy with her husband, the younger brother who is awaiting trial for selling pot and seems to be nice and caring, the other brother, who is built like an ox and reverts to physical actions when trying to make his point. Then there is the Father who is a dominating patriarch, a that’s it end of discussion you will do it my way kind of guy.
We find that the grandmother is in a nursing home and she is not happy there. Ed had taken care of and lived with his grandmother from when he was age 8 to age 17. Ed decides to take his grandmother out of the nursing home and take her to live with him in Hollywood. He loads her up in the car and off they go. The father finds out and is furious, the two sons get in the car with him and they take off on a road trip to set things right. What follows is humorous and touching. This isn’t a block buster type of movie but I enjoyed it. Give it a try.
I knew very little about Blue Ruin when I went to see it at Kalamazoo’s Alamo Drafthouse theater—just that it was a revenge thriller that had been widely beloved by critics. It was one of the “Drafthouse Recommends” featured titles, which—for movie buffs like me—is a stamp of approval worth heeding. And wouldn’t you know it: this edge-of-your-seat thriller has turned out to be the best thing I’ve seen so far this year. I appreciated not knowing even the basic premise of the film going into it—a rarity in this age of oversharing, spoiler-y trailers—so I will tell you very little about it in hopes that you will be pleasantly surprised as well.
Here’s what I’ll share: As I’ve said, it’s a revenge thriller, so you know somebody wants to get back at somebody else, but it will take that premise in surprising directions; it’s bloody, so you’ll need to be able to stomach some gore; and perhaps most importantly, you’ll get to see Eve Plumb, best known for playing Jan on The Brady Bunch in her youth, wielding a machine gun (who doesn’t want to see that?). So check it out: Blue Ruin, available soon on DVD here at KPL, and keep an eye out for more “Drafthouse Recommends” titles. The Alamo brings a lot of great films to Kalamazoo that no other theater does. As a die-hard movie fan, I rarely go anywhere else.
Under the Skin is a new film that will figuratively get under your skin with its nightmarishly surreal images and discomfiting plot. Simply put, it’s a slow-burning, almost dialogue free collection of bizarre images that possess a creepiness that leaves its evocative residue all over your mind well after the credits have rolled by. The film is careful to make sure that the weirdness is couched in ideas, specifically notions about perception and how we look at one another often from unfamiliar perspectives. Ultimately, the film feels as though it should have been fleshed out into something on an expanded scale with a more substantive engagement with its ideas. A perfect film, no. A must-see film, absolutely.
Under the Skin
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.
Last year, the psychological thriller Prisoners was a break out hit for Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. With his follow-up film Enemy, once again starring Jake Gyllenhaal, the director embraces Hitchcockian style and atmosphere over formal plotting. Enemy is a kind of tone poem of dread and anxiety that I suspect will leave many a viewer grumpy and unsatisfied (more description would only spoil it). I for one enjoyed Villeneuve’s playful antics and commitment to the project over any kind responsibility to provide viewers with a conventional follow up. Fans will either love the Kafkaesque horror of the film or despise it for its provocative resistance to philistinism. You decide.
The Good Wife is one of the best network television shows and after five seasons, still going strong with its mixture of secrecy, passion, scheming and legal maneuvering.
It possesses all of the elements for a successful serial: power politics, courtroom confrontations drawn from the headlines, mysterious characters, well-paced intrigue, and nuanced storytelling. Throw in a fantastic cast (that’s refreshingly racially diverse) that brings to life the smart writing and you have a hit show worth binging on.
The Good Wife
Spike Lee’s seminal film Do the Right Thing was released 25 years ago today to both critical acclaim and grumblings that the movie might insight violence.
The film centers on one extremely hot day in a Brooklyn neighborhood, where racial tensions have reached a breaking point. It did what few movies had done then or even now—honestly addressed racism in our country.
In the resulting 25 years, the movie has become an American classic, one whose story is still as pertinent today as it was when it was released.
Do the Right Thing
In less talented hands, Her could have become a mess of empty romantic sentimentality or an opportunity for heavy handed statements about the future hazards of alienating technologies. But viewers are in luck, the inventive mind of Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are, Adaptation) has made a sensitive and powerful film about the limits and possibilities of human intimacy as mediated through artificial intelligence. Her is a magnificent film that hits the right notes over and over again without giving into satire or weighty pessimism. The film’s casting is superb, the music perfectly fits the emotional tones and the visual imagery of a near-future only delicately disorients our sense of time and setting, leaving the viewer to consider the subject matter as a deeply contemporary one. Fans of films like Lost in Translation, Harold and Maude, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Beginners, and The Future will likely be drawn into Jonze’s quirky world where timeless desire in the future has less to do with operating systems and more to do with the continuous puzzle of the mind/heart machine.
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.
Nebraska, the movie, is filmed in black and white, which makes it different from the start. It is a slower, steady-paced story about an adult son’s resigned understanding toward his aging father who believes he has won a million dollars in a magazine sweepstakes.
Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, the deteriorating father, and Will Forte plays, David, the son. June Squibb plays Kate, the brutally honest wife. The story begins with the father walking along the highway in Billings, Montana. A police officer stops the father and contacts the family to pick up the old man. The son retrieves his father who tells everyone that he is walking to the sweepstakes headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska to claim his fortune. He means what he says and the son realizes there is no stopping him. A road trip ensues. On the way they stop in Hawthorne, Nebraska, Woody’s hometown, occupied by many relatives and friends and former business acquaintances. They stay with Woody’s brother and sister-in-law and criminal sons. Woody announces to everyone that he’s going to be a millionaire. After that, every day is filled with drama, shananigans and tell-all stories from the past.
The believability of the characters and the story is bar-none. You become immersed in the events. It is quirky, goofy, frustrating and tender, all things human. Nebraska was nominated for six Academy Awards. The combination of actors and directors is superb.
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
Return to Me is a Heart warming tale and I chose those words on purpose. Bob (David Duchovny) is a construction worker and has a wife who works with primates. She has a special bond with one gorilla and they give each other special signs. She dies. She has to die because the whole movie is about Bob falling in love with the woman who receives his wife’s heart. Prior to her dying we are introduced to Grace ( Minnie Driver). She needs a heart and works in an Irish diner. Carol O’Connor is one of the owners and speaks with an Irish accent. I found it hard to believe that Archie Bunker had an Irish accent. We meet her sister played by Bonnie Hunt who wrote and directed this movie. So now you feel good about Grace, she has a nice family, she is deserving of a heart and she gets one. Time passes, Bob misses his wife but it has been enough time that we, the audience, do not feel he would be cheating on her, betraying her love if he met someone. Bob has come to terms with it. Bob gets set up on a blind date and guess which restaurant they choose. While at the restaurant Bob is inexplicitly drawn to Grace. He asks her out. She is not sure she wants to go out with anyone as her chest has a huge scar from the heart transplant. We are treated to their courtship, the eventual revealing of the heart transplant and whose heart it was. We see a scene where Grace is at the zoo and the gorilla is giving her the special sign. While I personally think a heart is just a muscle and does not encompass any of the personalities of its owner, it makes for a cute romantic movie. You feel for Bob. You want Grace to go out and have romance. You cheer when they do finally get together. And you have the added pleasure of hearing Archie Bunker talk with an Irish accent. What more could you want. Sit back, get your popcorn and enjoy.
Return to Me
From the folks at The Criterion Collection, explore road trip-themed movies over the summer months--many of which can be found in the KPL Catalog.
Jim Jarmusch’s films are not for everyone. They are, however, incredibly influential and important in the history of American cinema. Slowly paced with quirky characters, his droll, often minimalist films explore the ironic and humanistic with equal attention. His films feel very American (the America on the margins that is) while at the same time, they are populated with Italian cabdrivers (Night on Earth), teenage Japanese tourists obsessed with early rock and roll (Mystery Train), and Hungarian immigrants (Stranger Than Paradise). His most accessible and mainstream movie to date is Broken Flowers, due in large part because of Bill Murray’s great performance as a romantically failed, wealthy introvert who wears retro sweat suits while sitting in the dark (during the day), watching television. It’s only when he receives a mysterious letter from one of his ex-girlfriends, suggesting that he has a son he never knew about, does he set out on a personal journey toward…well, maybe nothing and maybe everything. The moments within a journey are what fascinate Jarmusch about the human condition rather than a tightly sewn conclusion to a story. His cult classics Down by Law and Stranger Than Paradise cemented his reputation as an indie sweetheart with a wry sensibility and skill for reimagining genre and form by the early 1990’s. The release of his newest film (Only Lovers Left Alive) will once again shine the light on one of America’s most idiosyncratic, independent filmmakers.
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
Writer Patricia Highsmith’s novels have been adapted for the big screen on more than one occasion. Clearly, directors from varied backgrounds have felt something motivating in her twisting tales of deception and murder. Her ominous story (The Talented Mr. Ripley) of a young American sent to Italy to return an expatriate, school chum to his father in San Francisco was the inspiration for French director Rene Clement’s (Forbidden Games) Purple Noon. This stylish, Hitchcockian adaptation was the coming out party for 1960’s French heartthrob Alain Delon as Tom Ripley, the cold and calculating con man who wants more than just a courier fee for the return of the glib, rich boy. German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) took Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game and transformed it into The American Friend (1977), a beautifully shot thriller that burns slowly as a psychological portrait of desperation into one of unleashed madness, if not comically so. The late British director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) made a patchy version of The Talented Mr. Ripley starring Jude Law, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Matt Damon in 1999.
Actor/director Ben Stiller makes a decent go at breathing new life into a classic story by James Thurber that was originally adapted in 1947 with Danny Kaye playing the lead. Thurber disliked the MGM film and I suspect that as an artist who cared deeply about his work, he’d find few remains of his classic tale of a socially awkward introvert prone to vivid daydreaming in Stiller’s ambitious yet uneven attempt. It’s a movie with a heart even if it’s one that is cloying and flavored with a simplistic “just do it” spirit. Stiller’s Mitty fantasizes as a means to escape his life of corporate downsizing and failure to find love. As a heroic everyman willing to brave danger to save a damsel in distress, Mitty finds agency, meaning and purpose (the hyper-masculine sort of course) but then again, that’s only a narrative exercise that takes place between his ears. It’s when he’s propelled by urgency, self-interest and romantic inspiration that our ill-at-ease hero pushes aside his fear and anxiety, leading to the a-ha moments one locates in adventure but also the kind found in every self-help book (live life to the fullest dude!). Stiller’s harmless, family-friendly and entertaining take on a classic is worth a viewing for its reimagined Mitty and superb cinematography but you may want to simply head to the library and pick up Thurber’s story for the substance.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Paolo Sorrentino’s mesmerizing film The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) is a triumphant depiction of a conflicted man standing at an emotional crossroads. Both wry in its biting humor and satire, it is a powerfully visual film (crane shots, close-ups, slow motion, zooms—the entire repertoire is employed) with boundless charity toward plumbing the emotional depths of universal themes (death, lost love, artistry, loneliness, spiritual desire) from within a carefully sketched milieu (Rome’s glamorously debauched and powerful).
Confronted with both the ubiquity of beautiful things found in everyday moments (the radiant smile of a young child, ancient sculpture, an early morning sunrise) and the grotesque and decadent trappings of Rome’s high society, well-tailored flaneur Jep Gambardella, hops from party to party, engaging in vacuous conversation that leaves him bored and wearily wondering whether being the “king” of the vapid souls of conga lines and performance artist flunkies is worth his growing ennui. When he learns of the death of a woman he had a youthful affair with many summers ago, Jep begins to soul search in between attending parties for 104 year old Saints (a dead ringer for Mother Teresa), a trip to the botox shaman and a visit to a magician who makes giraffes disappear. Much of that contemplation on the frivolousness of his life takes place during quiet strolls back to his lonely bachelor pad and this is where some of the most touching scenes of the movie take place. Sumptuous in its portrait of Rome’s scenic beauty and borderline whimsical in a way that echoes the fantastical leanings of Fellini, The Great Beauty is just that, a magnificent spectacle of visual eye candy that poetically affirms our human yearning for something other than self-absorption. Lastly, this film has a wonderful soundtrack that includes Arvo Part, The Kronos Quartet, and Damien Jurado. Far and away my favorite film from last year, The Great Beauty is also available to stream from Hoopla.
The Great Beauty
This is the true story of one woman’s pursuit for answers to questions long dismissed by an institution of power and secrecy. For Philomena, her story begins as a young, unmarried teen saddled with the birth of a son in a socially conservative Ireland during the 1950’s. Teen pregnancy was considered a moral sin that required a person’s atonement according to church practices. Taken in by a local abbey, she was coerced to sign away her parental rights, forced into performing labor and tragically witnessed the selling of her child to an American couple. Decades later, having stumbled across a former journalist and political spin doctor who was looking to revive his career by penning a “human interest” story for a magazine, Philomena sets out on a journey toward emotional closure and to learning about her son’s life in the United States. As I watched the film, I couldn't help but wonder if reading the memoir wouldn't have been a much better way to learn about Philomena's story. The actors are top notch but they can't save a film where so much depends upon the final 15 minutes, leaving much of the film about the odd couple relationship between Philomena and the journalist, which sadly, was far from interesting even with their tit for tat discourse regarding the power of faith in the face of injustice.
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
Francois Truffaut’s sinuous portrait of provincial childhood is one of his lesser known works but those who appreciate his acclaimed 1960’s movies (The Antoine Doinel series, Shoot the Piano Player) will no doubt discover that Small Change is a true gem within his oeuvre. Known for depicting the complicated by joyous nature of French childhood with a tender humanism tied to an un-romanticized realism, Truffaut approaches his young subjects and the local adults like a documentarian, concentrating his focus on capturing both the special and everyday moments that mark a life. A first kiss, the anxiety of answering a question in front of the class, sneaking into a movie theater with a friend, even falling from an open window--Truffaut effectively mixes the lighthearted with the darker shades of growing up.
When it was released in 1960 to universal acclaim, visionary maverick Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless broke all the rules of conventional moviemaking. As posited by The Criterion Collection site, "there is a before Breathless, and an after Breathless” along the timeline of film history. The film’s radical break with tradition promptly posed new questions about what a movie could look like, sound like, mean, and most importantly, what a film could be. Even today, the film that kicked off the French New Wave retains a freshness and vitality that are striking and discomforting to those new to its anarchic, free-jazz sensibilities and inventive modes of representation. Godard’s reinvented salute to the American gangster genre mixes together into a highly original work of art with countless allusions to previous movies, references to literary texts, celebratory homages to American directors, and stylistic devices such as his famed jump cuts and an enthusiastic embrace of natural lighting and sound that in 1960, deviated from mainstream studio practices. It’s a film that is winking at the audience from the eye of its director and yet even as we push aside it’s question posing and deeply philosophical implications, it also functions as a terribly entertaining movie. Not only is the film considered one of the most influential, it subsequently launched the career of French leading man Jean-Paul Belmondo, who went on to work with Godard on A Woman Is a Woman and Pierrot le Fou. The Criterion Collection has just recently re-released Breathless on Blu-Ray and DVD with a wonderful array of supplents to go along with the feature.
The Danish political drama Borgen has been favorably compared to the American hit show House of Cards. While it resists the kind of farcical plotlines and hyper-cynicism of the Netflix-produced show, there features more than enough intrigue and Machiavelian maneuvering for political power to keep the storylines interesting and germane. Some critics have also alluded to The West Wing’s influence but Borgen resists the kind of naïve portrait of contemporary politics as a romantic idyll or a noble vocation. Borgen’s female protagonist is both a savvy political player engaged in political jousting and a committed wife and mother which suggests that there will be plenty of personal and political sacrifice to go around when the mud begins to fly. This is bingeworthy television, Scandinavian style.
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
While there’s wisdom in that adage advising us to avoid judging books by their covers, when it comes to movies, I don't feel the least bit superficial when I admit that I’m swayed by an attractive cover- even if only a mildly interesting synopsis is on the back. When I recently saw the cover for Reaching for the Moon- sunshine, blue skies and a radiant, happy couple on a beach- I hurriedly borrowed it, learning only after that it is a drama depicting the real life love affair between renowned poet Elizabeth Bishop and Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soareswas.
While the film takes artistic liberties with actual events, its depiction of the romantic relationship between these two complex women is done in a way that feels as honest and real as a fictionalized account can, and, thankfully, is light on sentimentality; while Reaching for the Moon tells the story of women who are lovers, it is not a romance and its focus isn't only on their love. The lives of these talented, accomplished women, the places and times they navigate, their lifestyles, their complicated relationship and the poetry it all inspired are tastefully explored and make for a remarkable film, one far more interesting and and better told than many. I expect to be recommending it for quite some time.
Reaching for the Moon
What happens when one of the staff persons charged with helping young people overcome trauma, neglect and abuse at an at-risk juvenile home is quietly suffering from her own painful past? This is the question at the center of this wonderful, little film propelled by strong acting performances and a deft touch at balancing grim subject matter with moments of levity and humor. Grace, played by a fantastic Brie Larson, and her devoted boyfriend Mason work together to help kids manage their feelings and cope with the cards they’ve been dealt. But her strength of character and compassionate heart alone are of little use when it comes to facing her own feelings of fear, anxiety and anger. Short Term 12 proves again that a film’s success is in no way related to the number of celebrity actors, use of CGI or amount of super hero characters. Sometimes, going small produces large rewards.
Short Term 12
Often cited as one of the most influential, low-budget films that contributed to the emergence of the American Independent Film Movement of the 1980’s, Paris, Texas is an inspired evocation of the personal journey of a tortured soul (Harry Dean Stanton) progressing toward forgiveness and redemption. Set in Texas and Los Angeles, German director Wim Wenders paints a moving and poignant picture of an emotionally troubled man seeking to make sense out of his fractured, tumultuous past and in the process, repair some of the damage he’s inflicted upon those he loves. Pitch perfect as a kind of neo-Western, road-film, from the casting down to the spare beauty of Sam Shepard’s writing, Wenders unpacks the story of Travis and Jane to reveal the power of guilt, regret and selflessness.
“Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours is a small movie that contains multitudes”—Luc Sante
Jem Cohen’s film Museum Hours is a brilliant and mesmerizing answer to a question that he himself poses in the essay that accompanies the DVD—“How then to make movies that don’t dictate exactly where to look and what to feel? How to encourage viewers to make their own connections, to think strange thoughts, to be unsure of what happens next or even what genre of movie it is? How to combine the immediacy and openness of documentary with invented characters and stories?”
While not formulaic in the commercial, Hollywood sense, Cohen’s film does have a plot but one would be hard pressed to characterize the film as plot-driven nor does it particularly care about predictable scenes where characters recite lines from a script. It’s a much looser and improvised affair that speaks to Cohen’s interest in depicting the poetic and ephemeral place where life and art intersect, those elements of everyday life that register on the periphery of perception but that still make up the subjective landscape of human experience and history. What the film is (its form and conceptual concerns) and what the film is about (perception, loneliness, the universality of art over time and its allusive, individual character, etc.) is not one in the same but rather they complement each other.
The film at its core is the story of two strangers who meet at the Kunsthistoriches Art Museum in Vienna. Johann is a middle aged guard who spends his hours staring at people looking at art. Anne is a woman visiting her ailing cousin who is dying in a nearby hospital. He befriends her after they meet amongst the paintings of Bruegel, Rembrandt and other European masters. He serves as a kind of Viennese tour guide and translator for her as she awaits news about her comatose cousin. They wander through bars, take hillside strolls, amble through urban markets, and board an underground boat ride, both connecting the other to their life in miniatures, doing so as strangers once did prior to social networking. The dialogue is magically awkward and feels as though the actors were directed to improvise their conversational responses. Anne, played by cult singer Mary Margaret O’hara is especially magnetic. This is one of my favorite films from last year.
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.
Set in Yokohama Japan prior to the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, this animated story of passionate students fighting for the preservation of a beloved school building slated for demolition parallels the romantic story of two young teens and the mysterious history that binds them together. The film will appeal to all ages but teens and tweens may be its biggest audience. Maudlin and sweet, From Up On Poppy Hill can be viewed with either the original Japanese or the English language version.
From Up on poppy hill
This is heart wrenching film from Swedish director Jan Troell focuses on one woman’s tumultuous life as a psychologically and physically abused wife and mother who momentarily escapes her domestic torment by picking up a camera—an instrument of creativity and documentation that she uses as a means for both personal expression and as a gateway to escape her unforgiving life. Shot with exquisite cinematography, Everlasting Moments takes the viewer on an anguished ride through the minefield of Maria Larsson’s troubled life—one defined by her amazing strength and fortitude in the face of heartbreak and disappointment. As bleak as her prospects are, Maria (brilliantly portrayed by Maria Heiskanen) discovers that there are moments, sublime in their ephemerality, when she and her alcoholic husband face the obstacles of war, poverty and hunger together and tenderly. Troell has masterly rendered a humane portrait of a family struggling to survive in pre-WWI Sweden, with the centerpiece constituted by Maria’s endless capacity for grace, forgiveness and persistence.
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
Le Havre is a wonderful film that I missed seeing when it first showed at WMU’s Little Theater several years ago. Named for a provincial city on the northern, French coast, the film is one of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s most warmhearted and charming. Known for his less is more approach to film making, his works tend to give birth to zany, working class characters whose expressions of both joy and futility come off as droll and darkly peculiar (fans of Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch will appreciate the brand of humor). Le Havre is a simple story: an elderly shoe shiner stumbles into a plot to hide a young, African boy from the authorities who seek his deportation. Ex “bohemian” Marcel Marx has a difficult enough time as it is in dealing with his critically ill wife. His newest project, one that he had not expected, is to safeguard with the help of his fellow townspeople, a young refuge named Idrissa, who is seeking to travel to London. With the authorities hot on his trail, Marcel keeps ahead of the fuzz with just enough assistance from Le Havre’s band of bartenders, rock musicians, and an unlikely detective. It’s a beautiful fantasy as much as it is a political fable about community and humanity.
As a new parent, my interest in stories of kidnapping and child abduction has suspiciously dwindled, and yet the stellar reviews for Denis Villeneuve’s recent film Prisoners compelled me to watch it. In it, Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a survivalist father whose daughter goes missing along with her best friend. A suspicious camper is seen in the nearby area, and when the police attempt to question the driver, he behaves erratically and tries to flee. The suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is arrested, questioned, and his camper and home are combed over by a forensic crew. No evidence is discovered, and the police deem Jones to be mentally incapable of taking the children without a leaving a trace, so he is released. This incenses Dover, who believes the children are still out there, waiting to be rescued. When it’s clear that the lead detective, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, has moved on to other leads, Dover decides to take the matter into his own hands. He kidnaps Jones, holes him up in an abandoned building, and proceeds to torture the suspect in hopes that it will lead to the whereabouts of the girls.
Despite the bleak premise, Prisoners ends up sticking with you for all the right reasons. The film dares you to question how far you would go to rescue your own endangered child. At once you want Dover to push through the barriers created by a plodding police investigation, yet his vigilantism clearly veers out of control. We’ve seen Jones behave villainously, but by the time Dover has beaten him to an unrecognizable pulp, it’s hard not to feel reluctant sympathy. On top of this, Villeneuve does a great job getting the viewer to wonder whether or not Jones is guilty; in one great sequence, Dover believes he hears Jones say something incriminating under his breath that no one else around them catches, and smartly, the audio is too muffled to allow the audience to hear it either.
Prisoners succeeds in no small part because of its actors: Hugh Jackman gives a performance that in less-crowded years might have been considered for a Best Actor Academy Award nomination; Paul Dano is reliably creepy; Melissa Leo continues her streak of stellar turns; and Jake Gyllenhall brings the right level of world-weariness to the lead detective who seems to be hindered by an overwhelming bleakness that has beaten him down over the years.
When I first saw a preview for Prisoners I was put off by what seemed to be a very by-the-numbers revenge mystery. Thankfully, the film turned out to be so much more, and as I settle into this pre-Oscars period of assembling my favorite films of the past year, it’s looking more and more like this movie I cannot shake is going to make my top ten.
The Criterion Collection has a wonderful page on their website that catalogs the 10 favorite Criterion releases from a wide assortment of actors, musicians, directors, writers and other arty types. I always find these selections a good place to start my search for the unseen and unknown. If I were asked to list my ten favorite films from their collection, I’d start with the following:
1. Harold and Maude
2. Hiroshima Mon Amour
3. Au Hasard Balthazar
4. The 400 Blows
5. The Royal Tenenbaums
7. The Passion of Joan of Arc
8. Late Spring
9. Pierrot Le Fou
10. In the Mood for Love
Any sort of discussion of historically significant directors must include the work of the great Satyajit Ray. Ray’s visually brilliant and emotionally moving Charulata (1964) tackles the subject of desire; specifically that of a lonely and bored housewife imprisoned by limited social expectations and later on by romantic feelings for her husband’s cousin. Her newspaper-running husband’s responses to her veiled longing and artistic aspirations come off as glib or paternalistic. It’s only when his wayward, free spirited, poetry-composing cousin arrives to live at their home that Charulata begins to self-actualize and to allow her creative passion for writing to become more pronounced and acknowledged. Ray’s talent was in mixing the styles and tone of European and American films with the local, cultural nuances of Indian society. Always sensitive to develop multifaceted characters that are easy to sympathize with, Ray’s films feel like visual diaries of emotionally repressed or socially oppressed persons struggling to reconcile the old with the new, the traditional with the modern. The quality of acting is also top notch.
Whether or not you count yourself among the many that study and delight in the works of Shakespeare, you might find that Joss Whedon’s recent interpretation of Much Ado about Nothing is well worth a watch. While the cast speaks in Shakespearean tongue, Whedon and his cast convincingly tell this story as a modern one still worth our attention.
The film is beautifully shot in black and white. The contemporary setting (Whedon’s family home) and the choice of real-life clothing rather than period costuming support a phenomenal cast who deliver the lines in the cadences of contemporary speech, making the story feel fresh, the plot devices less archaic.
I was particularly riveted by Amy Acker’s portrayal of the smart, sharp-tongued Beatrice, who is moved to moral outrage at her cousin Hero’s undeserved disgrace at the wedding altar, displaying what would have been thought of in Shakespearean times as more “manliness” than any of the men who stood by instead of defending Hero’s honor. Her delivery of the famous “O that I were a man” speech gave me chills as she exclaims her frustration at her powerlessness as a woman of her time and her fury that she “cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.” Her performance is done with such conviction, she seems anything but powerless; if anything, she seems heroic (no word play intended). Ultimately, of course, Beatrice embraces the man she’d so adamantly mocked before, having challenged him to become a man worthy of her.
While the story is rife with drama, deceit, and what passes for romance, there’s plenty of physical humor, with Benedick rolling in the grass outside the windows and Beatrice hiding in the kitchen to overhear conversations undetected, and comedic relief in the delightfully self-important security guards: bumbling tough guys whose swagger is intentionally and plainly laughable.
Thanks to one director's interpretation and a talented cast, I've never enjoyed a Shakespearean tale as much as I did this movie. Perhaps you will, too.
Much ado about nothing