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Staff Picks: Books

Beyond Clear

If you’ve seen HBO’s recent, much-ballyhooed, critically-acclaimed documentary Going Clear, an exposé of Scientology’s nefarious side, be sure to check out the Lawrence Wright book upon which it was based, the full title of which is Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. The film consists of two straight hours of jaw-dropping revelations about behind-the-scenes misdeeds and corruption—all disclosed by not just former members of Scientology, but former members who were very highly ranked in the organization (right-hand men, enforcers, etc.). Despite being chock-a-block with trespasses, there is so much more that Wright uncovered in his book that filmmaker Alex Gibney could not fit into his movie, including stories of missing persons, suspicious deaths, and other major conspiracies and scandals. The film is not yet available on DVD (though anyone with HBO or HBO Now can watch it on demand), so if you haven’t seen it yet, you can start with the book, and if you have, the book will provide a vast amount of supplemental information for the fullest, “clearest” experience of this subject.

Friends with Benefits with Benefits

After hearing a great deal of positive word-of-mouth from the pop culture hoi polloi, I went out of my way to check out Sex Criminals, the brazenly-titled, tantalizingly hilarious, M-for-Mature graphic novel written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky. Volume one, entitled One Weird Trick, introduces us to Suzie, a young librarian desperate to save her workplace from foreclosure. Suzie befriends an actor named Jon, and together they each discover that the other possesses the same unusual ability that had previously seemed personally unique: they can freeze time whenever they get…romantic. As their relationship deepens and her library’s financial situation grows bleaker, they decide to do what many people would do if they could freeze time: they rob banks. But Suzie and Jon soon learn that their erotic capers may not be as easy to get away with as they think.

Not for the faint of heart, nor prude of taste, Sex Criminals is nevertheless a riotously entertaining coming-of-age caper comedy with a sci-fi twist. It’s irreverent and chockfull of pop culture references and I’d recommended it to anyone at the appropriate level of maturity who doesn’t easily blush.


Sex Criminals. Volume 1, One Weird Trick

Facts Schmacts

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion; however, everyone is not entitled to their own facts.”—Michael Specter, author of  Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives

“Facts are meaningless. You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true. Facts schmacts.” –Homer Simpson


Now, I love a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy (unless the next guy is Jesse Ventura).  In fact, I recently watched a feature-length documentary that details all the crazy theories people have conjured up about secret meanings that Stanley Kubrick supposedly packed into his 1980 film The Shining.  One of these notions is that Kubrick used the Stephen King  adaptation to clandestinely confess that he helped NASA fake the moon landing in 1969.  It would be generous to call the “evidence” these theorists use to make their case for this a stretch: a boy wears an Apollo 11 sweater; a key chain that reads “ROOM No. 237” contains the same letters that one could use to spell “moon room.”  Of course, none of the theorists consider the thought that if they wanted to know if the moon landing happened or not, an old horror movie is probably not the place to go digging for evidence.  But this is just another example of the human tendency to choose one’s beliefs first and selectively scavenge for support second.  These folks are so convinced they are right, that they choose to ignore or deny any kind of actual, factual evidence that would contradict them.

This very conspiracy theory provides the title for the graphic nonfiction book How to Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing the Myths of Science Denial, in which author-illustrator Darryl Cunningham takes some of the most widespread—and often life-threatening—instances of science denial rampant in popular opinion today and presents the scientific evidence to refute them.  Using comic book panels and concise, well-researched information, Cunningham tackles topics like homeopathy, climate change and fracking, debunking the myths surrounding these issues and presenting the science in an accessible manner for both teens and adults.  It’s a quick read and I definitely recommend it to everyone, particularly if you are more likely to believe what Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy have to say about the vaccine-autism controversy than actual scientists.


How to Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing the Myths of Science Denial

Heart of Mulder, Mind of Scully

As I write this, it is 12/21/12 and I am currently not experiencing any sort of Mayan-prophesied apocalypse.  Experts will tell you that the Mayans prophesied no such thing, but - as humans are wont to do - there were folks who built an urban legend out of scraps of misinformation and turned it into a whole big deal.  And thanks to all that doomsday hoopla, civilization was cursed with one particularly crappy John Cusack movie.  Now I don't personally know anyone who will confess to believing that the world was going to end today, but I do know a lot of people who believe many other things that I find difficult to swallow.  From outlandish conspiracy theories to the existence of ghosts and little green men to ancient mythologies, I'm constantly surprised by what people are willing to accept without any substantiation.

Now don't get me wrong:  I love stories of the supernatural and extraterrestrial - The X-Files is my all-time favorite television show.  And like that program's protagonist, Fox Mulder, I want to believe.  I'd give anything to have a ghostly experience or some psychic communication with loved ones from beyond the grave.  But I have to admit to myself, that deep down, I'm much more like Mulder's partner Dana Scully, the skeptic, whose job it was to scrutinize all of Mulder's investigations and look for fact-based scientific evidence to explain their otherwise otherworldly encounters.  I want to believe, but I don't - I can't, in good conscience, accept something outside the parameters of what we as humans have proven as fact.

I'm perfectly comfortable, however, that people believe things that I do not, but I have a hard time when people demonstrate the inability to process new information; acceptance of unproven things should not exclude acceptance of proven things.  I also dislike when selfish people prey upon the personal beliefs of others, as with so-called "psychics" who use the practice of cold reading to take your money and tell you that your dearly departed loved one says that it's okay for you to move on.  These kinds of behaviors make me very angry; I am a humanist and I believe that we should leave this world better than when we found it.  And when I'm angry, I often seek answers that help me understand why things are the way they are.  This summer I found solace in two books by fellow skeptic Michael Shermer:  Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time and The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies - How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.  In these books, Shermer discusses how the evolution of our brains helped us survive by becoming good at recognizing significant patterns in life - yet we're not particularly good at distinguishing between connections that actually exist and connections that have no significance.  He also discusses how we tend to choose our beliefs and then actively select which bits of information we support them with, and which bits we actively ignore.  These are fascinating reads and I suggest them to anyone whether you're a skeptic or not.

In the end, life is full of people who disagree with us, and we need to work hard to figure out a way to thrive among them.  The world would be a boring place if we all believed the same things, but that doesn't mean we can't argue in constructive and productive ways, and it certainly doesn't mean that we shouldn't, like Mulder and Scully, always be in search of the Truth. 


The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

Modern Day Cowboy

It’s no surprise that Elmore Leonard is one of the most adapted novelists of all time; his writing is terse and cinematic, and he paints such vivid pictures of setting and character with unfussy descriptions and crafty dialogue that his words play out like a motion picture in your imagination.  It also doesn’t hurt that he’s good at creating suspense and likes to tell stories about cunning con men, hard-nosed gangsters, slick bounty hunters, and other kinds of folk that aren’t too hard to pass off as “cool.”  And if you’re a fan of the television series Justified, you’ll certainly enjoy Leonard’s latest novel, Raylan for the rare instance of book-inspires-film-inspires-book meta-adaptation that it is.

Justified, you see, is based on a Leonard short-story entitled “Fire in the Hole,” which features the recurring character Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, a modern-day lawman with the spirit of a cowboy and the Stetson to prove it (the pilot episode itself is a massively faithful adaptation of that story).  Raylan’s the kind of cool cat with a fast draw, a mean slow-burn, and a few pithy one-liners; in one particular episode, he provides a stern warning to a menacing bad guy by tossing a bullet at him and saying, “The next one’s comin’ faster.”  As portrayed by the perfectly-cast Timothy Olyphant and guided by series creator Graham Yost, Raylan has become one of the best characters on the small screen, and the success of the television show inspired Leonard (who also executive produces and writes for the show) to dust off Raylan’s hat and get him back at the center of a new novel.

At just 263 pages, Raylan’s a quick read and it’s every bit as visceral and exciting as the TV series.  In fact, Raylan reads like three interwoven episodes of the show, and fans will recognize characters and scenes that were culled from several of the televised scripts, even though the novel itself is not a strict adaptation of any particular part of the series.  You’ll recognize kidney thieves and corporate coal mining thugs and lady bank robbers, all of whom appeared in the most recent seasons of Justified.  But if you’ve never seen the show, fear not, because you can certainly enjoy Raylan for the entertaining crime fiction that it is. 

So check out Raylan, embrace Justified (which is, as of this writing, about to wrap up its third stellar season), and then go back and read Pronto and Riding the Rap, the first two novels to feature Givens.  He’s a now-iconic character and one of the few guys who can get away with wearing that hat.



Staff Picks: Movies

Brush Up on Your CIVIL WAR History

Look, I know you SAY you’re sick of superhero movies, but we both know that’s not true. Sure, Batman vs. Superman was lame, but that’s a DC movie and we are Marvel people. Always have been, always will be. And don’t try to tell me you’re not excited for the May 5th opening of Captain America: Civil War, because I won’t believe you. Tension has been building between Caps and Irons for a while now, and this pro- vs. anti-registration business is just the kind of hot-button political issue that strikes a nerve during a contentious election season. And hey, we’re entering Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe! What’s not exciting about that? In fact, I propose a marathon of all the MCU Phase Two films just to brush up on the mythology before we see Civil War.

First, we’ll start with Iron Man 3. Remember how that was such a perfect ending to the whole solo Stark storyline? At least it seemed that way at the time because RDJ was all acting like he was going to hang up his metal suit, but unsurprisingly he just said he might be down for another one. That dude likes money.

Next we’ll watch Thor: The Dark World. Okay, not the best of the bunch, but we’re completists, so we’ll get through it. Because right after that is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and that movie is awesome. Nick Fury gets all wasted and S.H.I.E.L.D. turns out to be like 75% Hydra. That movie even temporarily breathed some life into the otherwise lame S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show.

After that, we'll move on to one of the all-time best Marvel movies: Guardians of the Galaxy. No one could have anticipated that movie would be the critical and commercial success that it is, particularly since it featured some obscure characters like a talking raccoon and a tree dude and starred the formerly schlubby guy from Parks & Rec. But somehow it all worked.

Then it’s time for Avengers: Age of Ultron. That one’s a bit overstuffed, but it gets better as it goes on, if you ignore the weird shirtless Thor cave stuff that the producers demanded be in there for MCU continuity.

You’d think Ultron would be the capper to Phase Two, but there was one more: Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man. This one is a fun heist-centric actioner that could have been a trainwreck (because hey, it’s called Ant-Man). We’ll never know what the Edgar Wright version of this film would have been, but what we got was actually pretty enjoyable. Michael Douglas looks like Colonel Sanders, though.

So what do you say? We can get through all of these in about 13-and-a-half-hours and it’s the weekend…

'S All Good, Man

Breaking Bad became a ratings phenomenon in its final season thanks to Netflix-enabled binge-watching. The show was always a critical darling, but it took until nearly the end of its run for the eyeballs to match the applause. Not for me, however; I started watching when it first aired and realized it was going to be a genius show somewhere around episode four. I watched because it was created by Vince Gilligan, whom I knew as one of the best writers on The X-Files (which was and is my all-time favorite show). I liked Bryan Cranston from Malcolm in the Middle, but had really been impressed with him after a guest-star turn he made on an X-Files episode named “Drive” (written, not-so-incidentally, by Gilligan himself). I was later thrilled when the show introduced the character of Saul Goodman, the morally-questionable criminal lawyer, in no small part because he was played by Bob Odenkirk, a comedy legend I adored from his work on the HBO sketch series Mr. Show. Goodman became a fan favorite and when Bad began to draw towards its conclusion, there grew talk of a spin-off revolving around the character.

I balked at this idea: quality spin-offs are rare, and Goodman really seemed to work best as the comic relief in an otherwise tense and gritty show. Could the origin story of a sleazy attorney whose future is already known to us make for exciting television? Or was this merely cashing in on a beloved property and might that cheapen its source material? It turns out I needn’t have worried: Thanks to the talents of Gilligan and many of the Bad writers (as well as the dramatic chops of Odenkirk), not only does Goodman have enough of a saga to prop up his own series, but Better Call Saul has turned out to be every bit as well written and directed as its predecessor.

Set years before Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul follows Goodman (working under his real name, Jimmy McGill) as he struggles to launch his law career in the shadow of his successful brother, Chuck (played by another comedy legend, Michael McKean). Chuck, whose career has stalled because of a rare phobia, refuses to take Jimmy seriously and actively works to suppress him. He sees Jimmy as nothing more than the same swindling huckster he was in his youth. To Chuck, Jimmy survives on charisma and conniving—he hasn’t put in the effort to succeed or graduated from a prestigious school. For his part, Jimmy is an earnest guy trying to become reputable, but his outside-the-box tactics for success clash with his straight-laced colleagues and to Chuck, he may never be more than a con man. And to that end, we see the basic concept DNA that Saul shares with Breaking Bad: They are both stories about men whose environments created circumstances that led to their moral downfalls, yet you can point to the personality traits of each man that exacerbated their respective falls from grace.

I can’t recommend this series enough. If you liked Breaking Bad (and most of you did), definitely check out Better Call Saul. It may not have the body count or the nail-biting tension, but it deserves to have the enthusiastic audience that Bad had; perhaps it can get it a lot sooner in its run. Season Two is still airing, but Season One is on DVD now.


Sheep Thrills

My two-year-old has very limited access to television, thanks to advice gleaned from child-rearing brain-development experts and also common sense. His world of moving pictures has mostly involved the interactive education of Sesame Street, the animated adventures of misbehaving monkey Curious George, and, thanks to his father’s love of all things Aardman, the wooly exploits of British bovid Shaun the Sheep. I grew up on Creature Comforts and Wallace and Gromit, so when it came time for selecting something short that I could enjoy as much as my child, Shaun jumped out at me.

Shaun the character was spun off of the Academy Award-winning Wallace and Gromit short A Close Shave. The series follows Shaun’s life on a small rural farm in Britain and his adventures with fellow sheep, a sheepdog named Bitzer, the hapless farmer, and some misfit pigs. Animated in classic Aardman stop-motion style, Shaun is a family-friendly delight.

Last year saw the feature-length adaptation Shaun the Sheep Movie hit theaters, where it enjoyed great critical success. It has since been deservedly nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar. In the film, Shaun and the gang find themselves having to venture to the big city in order to rescue their missing farmer while staying out of the clutches of a villainous animal containment worker. The film is hilarious for kids and adults (as well as adults without kids); much like Pixar, Aardman is an expert at appealing to multiple generations. Check it out! It’s wool-th your time.

The (Fury) Road to Oscars

The 88th Academy Awards are less than a month away, so if you want to catch up on some of the nominees, the Kalamazoo Public Library can help you out! The following is a list of Oscar-nominated films that are available right now (or very soon) here at KPL:

Summer blockbuster (and, full disclosure, my favorite film of the year) Mad Max: Fury Road received ten nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (George Miller), Cinematography, Film Editing, Costume Design, Visual Effects, Makeup & Hairstyling, Production Design, and Sound Mixing & Editing.

Another popular Best Picture nominee, The Martian, scored a Best Actor nod for Matt Damon, as well as nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay (Drew Goddard), Production Design, Visual Effects, and Sound Mixing & Editing.

Steven Spielberg’s Cold War drama Bridge of Spies was recognized for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Mark Rylance), Best Original Screenplay (Matt Charman, Joel & Ethan Coen), Original Score (Thomas Newman), Production Design, and Sound Mixing.

The riveting thriller Sicario received nominations for Best Original Score (Jóhann Jóhannsson), Best Cinematography, and Best Sound Editing.

Sci-fi thriller Ex Machina received nominations for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Screenplay (Alex Garland).

Three of the Best Animated Feature nominees are currently available: When Marnie Was There, Shaun the Sheep Movie, and Inside Out (which was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay).

Don’t miss must-see Best Documentary Feature nominees The Look of Silence and Amy.

Kenneth Branaugh’s Cinderella received a nomination for Best Costume Design.

The Hunting Ground and Fifty Shades of Grey received Best Original Song nominations.

The cumbersomely-titled The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared was nominated for Best Makeup & Hairstyling.

All-around juggernaut Star Wars: The Force Awakens received five nominations including Best Original Score (John Williams), Best Film Editing, Visual Effects, and Sound Mixing & Editing. The film is not available yet, but John Williams’ Oscar-nominated music is.

The nominees that are not yet available, but are expected within the month are Straight Outta Compton, Spectre, Creed, and Room. You can place a hold on these right now.

So start binging today, and be sure to keep checking our catalog for other Oscar nominated films as more of them become available. For many of the Oscar nominated films that are still in theaters, be sure to check out downtown Kalamazoo’s Alamo Drafthouse Theater, which is currently playing The Revenant (12 nominations), The Big Short (5 nominations), Carol (6 nominations), and the 2016 Oscar nominated shorts, both Live Action and Animated.

The Best Films of 2015 (So Far)

Year-end film lists are always difficult to make in a timely fashion for those of us who don’t live in a large city. A sizeable chunk of the movies that compete for awards tend to be released in only a handful of markets late in the year so that they can capitalize on nominations and guild recognitions; most of us won’t have the opportunity to catch them at our local Alamo Drafthouse until January or February. It is with this caveat that I recap my early best-of list, acknowledging that many of the season’s big contenders have yet to be screened, and others have not yet hit DVD.

Available now:

Mad Max: Fury Road – George Miller’s masterpiece of dystopian demolition is the most exciting, progressive, and visually-stunning blockbuster in recent memory. I’m as surprised as you are.

It Follows – This slow-burn, instant-classic horror film somehow manages to make you both claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time.

Inside Out  – The folks at Pixar prove their genius once again with this profound exploration of the emotions of a young girl struggling with the challenges of growing up.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief – This eye-opening documentary reveals the dark, tragic truth behind L. Ron Hubbard’s institutional legacy of tax evasion, blackmail, manipulation, and physical & emotional cruelty.

The Hunting Ground – Anyone who has a child in college needs to see this disturbing documentary about the legacy of sexual abuse that takes place on campuses across the country—and the shocking lengths to which universities will go to cover it all up.

What We Do in the Shadows – This hilarious vampire mockumentary from one-half of Flight of the Conchords rivals any of Christopher Guest’s improvised comedies.

Ex-Machina – This dark sci-fi film about artificial intelligence features stellar performances from Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander.

Mr. Holmes – Ian McKellen shines as a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes who’s struggling to solve one final case despite dealing with increased memory loss.

Coming soon:

The Look of Silence – This must-see companion piece to the 2013 documentary The Act of Killing explores the Indonesian genocide from the point of view of the victims who still live under the regime that murdered their friends and family.

The Martian Matt Damon gets left behind on Mars and we’re all the better for it.

SicarioEmily Blunt is terrific as a tactical expert who gets trapped in the dark, seedy political underbelly of the war on drugs. The film contains some of the most breath-taking scenes of suspense put on screen this year.

99 Homes Michael Shannon chews the scenery as a real estate operative who evicts people from their homes in this thrilling exploration of the darkest side of the housing crisis. 

Other films I enjoyed this year that aren’t available yet include Steve Jobs, Brooklyn, Spotlight, Bridge of Spies, Creed, Room, and a little can-do picture called Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Check them out in theaters or look for them on DVD in the next few months. I’ll be sure to give you a final top ten list right around Oscar time, as that’s when I’ve usually had a chance to see many more contenders.

Let the Fright One In

I am a fan of good horror, though good horror can be hard to find. If you’re looking to settle down with a top-notch scary movie for Halloween, here are some recommendations for you:

It Follows  – Hailed as an instant classic upon its release earlier this year, this unnerving, Detroit-based film centers around a curse that passes from person to person in which a terrifying, body-jumping entity pursues the victim ceaselessly—and you don’t want to be caught by it!

The Babadook  – Imagine Tim Burton wanted to use his storybook style to make you soil your pants. That’s what the titular creature in this Australian thriller feels like. Top it off with an unhealthy dose of the parental stress that comes with being a single parent raising a child with severe emotional problems, and you’ve got an intense, teeth-grinding thriller!

Let the Right One In  – When an emotionally-abused boy befriends the strange new girl next door, who happens to be a vampire subsisting off blood reaped in a most unseemly manner, the two socially isolated creatures form a relationship that leads to both brutal vengeance and unnerving consequences.

28 Days Later/28 Weeks Later – Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle kicked the (then un-played out) zombie genre into high gear by making his rage virus-infected undead fast! Both the original and the sequel provided plenty of both scares and social commentary.

The Cabin in the Woods  – This horror-comedy is at once an homage to popular genre tropes throughout the ages, and a gory, twisty, laugh-out-loud thriller in and of itself. From producer, co-writer, and all-around geek guru Joss Whedon, this is one scary Cabin you want to visit!

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil – A couple of bumbling rednecks attempt to have relaxing vacation at a cabin out in the woods, but are mistaken for murderous lunatics by a gang of college kids who keep dying off through gory-yet-hilarious accidents.


IRL PT.2: Bathroom Noises

In part one of my series on unique and important documentaries, I wrote about The Act of Killing, a film that tackled the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s, the perpetrators of which are still in power to this day, never having faced consequences for their heinous crimes. This month, I want to discuss a revelatory true-crime docuseries, the subject of which has also eluded any kind of adequate punishment.

A lot of attention was paid this year to HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst—in no small part due to the arrest of the titular subject one day before the final episode was broadcast. If you’re unfamiliar with Durst, he is the wealthy and eccentric black sheep of a New York real estate dynasty who has been suspected of three murders: his wife who has been missing since 1982; a longtime friend who may or may not have assisted him in the disappearance of his wife; and an elderly neighbor whom Durst dismembered while on the lam in Galveston, Texas, where he was hiding out dressed as a woman. Durst himself approached director Andrew Jarecki about doing an interview; Jarecki had previously made a fictionalized version of Durst’s story in the film All Good Things, which starred Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst. Durst believed Jarecki could be the right guy to help clear his name. Needless to say, Durst’s lawyers weren’t thrilled with the idea of putting a camera on him—and for good reason.

The six-part series is a well-researched and finely-crafted true-crime documentary, but what makes The Jinx so unique is Durst himself: the man is a blinking, jittery study in sociopathy. In interviews, his face is a map of deceit and misdirection; and when confronted with damning evidence in the final episode, Durst exhibits a strange, uncontrollable burping—a physiological manifestation of guilt not dissimilar from the violent retching seen by the mass murderer at the center of The Act of Killing. The real coup de grâce against Durst comes, however, a few moments later, when he visits a restroom unaware that his microphone is still hot. I’ll leave you to discover his final solitary confessional for yourself, but I can assure you, there’s never been a moment like it on film before.


IRL PT.1: A Wretch Retches

We are living in a golden age of documentary filmmaking. Just in the last couple of years alone, I’ve seen several nonfiction works that have transcended what the medium has heretofore accomplished. I intend to highlight some of these films over my next several recommendations.

The first of the films I want to promote, The Act of Killing, was a contender* for Best Documentary Feature at last year’s Academy Awards. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and executive produced by two of the greatest documentarians of all time, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, Killing examines the Indonesian killings of the mid-1960s through the eyes of several of the perpetrators. A handful of these mass murderers are invited by the filmmakers to recreate and film scenes about their experiences during the genocide. Disturbing and harrowing, Killing asks these decidedly evil humans—who have never faced any punishment for their crimes against humanity—to put themselves in the shoes of the hundreds of thousands of victims who suffered and died at their very hands. By the end, guilt will manifest itself in a very real, physiological way. The Act of Killing is not easy to watch, but it is an important and unique film—there has undoubtedly never been a film like it before**.

*Tragically, The Act of Killing did not win the Best Documentary Oscar that year; the winner instead was the very nice and not-at-all challenging film 20 Feet from Stardom, a film about back-up singers. Sometimes the Academy gets it wrong.

**But now this unique film has a critically-acclaimed companion piece, The Look of Silence, which examines the Indonesian genocide from the perspective of the victims. As of this writing, Silence is now in theaters and is playing at our very own Alamo Drafthouse Kalamazoo. Please watch and support these very important movies.

Love Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry for Eating the Cat

Kalamazoo is really fortunate to be home to an Alamo Drafthouse; they are one of the most prestigious theater chains in the world. As a massive film geek, I don’t spend my movie-going dollars anywhere else. One reason for this (beyond the strict no-talking, no-texting policy) is their penchant for bringing independent, foreign, and art-house films to Kalamazoo—ones that would never normally play in our mid-sized market. In fact, the Austin-based company has its very own distribution arm and, as you can imagine, they specialize in “provocative, visionary and artfully unusual films new and old from around the world” (their own words). Some of the many great movies found under the Drafthouse Films label include A Band Called Death, The Act of Killing, The Overnighters, A Field in England, and many more.

One recent favorite of theirs I saw was a creepy indie film called Spring that one promotional blurb perfectly referred to as “Richard Linklater meets H.P. Lovecraft.” As a fan of both creators, this intrigued me. The story follows a young man who sets off to backpack around Europe after his mother dies and the rest of his life falls apart. In Italy, he begins a flirtation with an attractive-yet-aloof young woman, and the two spend a lot of time walking and talking around her scenic coastal village, much like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy did in Linklater’s Before Sunrise series. However, the woman is harboring a dark secret—one that evokes the primordial horror of Lovecraft tales, and one that may pose a threat to more than just their relationship. To say more would be to spoil, but I definitely recommend checking the film out if you’re looking for an unusual twist on two familiar genres. And be sure to check other Drafthouse Films, both here at KPL and at downtown’s Alamo Drafthouse location!


If Horror Could Win a Caldecott...

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

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

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

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


A Birdman in the Hand Is Worth 4 Oscars in the Bush

I’m not gonna lie: As much as I personally loved Academy Award Best Picture winner Birdman more than expected winner Boyhood, I’m still shocked that the artsy and eccentric tale of a washed-up superhero actor trying to do “legitimate theater” (and please in your head imagine that pronounced as “theee-ATER”) beat out the wholesome, relatable, coming-of-age tale that was filmed over the course of twelve years.  I’m certainly happy for Birdman—just not so happy about what it did to my Oscar pool.  In addition to Best Picture, Birdman picked up wins for Best Director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu), Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki) and Best Original Screenplay (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo).

In case you’d like to catch any of the other available Oscar winners that you may have missed, I’ve listed them below. Click on the links and place a hold on a copy today.

  • My favorite film of the year, Whiplash, picked up three wins for Best Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons), Best Film Editing (Tom Cross), and Best Sound Mixing.
  • Many people won for working on Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel—except poor Wes Anderson himself; the film won for Best Original Score (Alexandre Desplat), Best Costume Design (Milena Canonero), Best Production Design (Adam Stockhausen), and Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
  • Be sure to check out Eddie Redmayne’s Best Actor performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything; it was a well-deserved win.
  • Boyhood's lone win was for Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette).
  • Disney’s Big Hero 6 won for Best Animated Feature; the Best Animated Short winner, Feast, can be found on the Big Hero DVD or Blu-ray.
  • Best Foreign Film winner Ida is amazing and you should watch it--regardless of your unfortunate and snooty hatred of subtitles.

The following winners will be released soon and are available for holds now:

Keep checking back for Still Alice, for which Julianne Moore won Best Actress, Selma, which featured Best Original Song winner “Glory” by John Legend and Common, and must-see Best Documentary Feature winner CitizenFour.  We don’t have releases for these titles yet, but we will assuredly carry them.


Everything Is Oscar

Oscar nominations were announced yesterday, which means it’s once again time for me to let all the obsessive movie lovers out there know which films are available right now (or very soon), here at the Kalamazoo Public Library.

The first film you’ll want to get your hands on is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.  Nominated for six Academy Awards, this critical darling is the front-runner for Best Picture, Best Director (Linklater) and Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette).  It also received nominations for Best Actor (Ethan Hawke), Film Editing, and Original Screenplay.  Boyhood is an epic coming-of-age tale that was filmed over the course of twelve years using the same actors.  The story follows the journey of young Mason Evans as he ages from six to eighteen, and the viewer can literally watch the young actor grow and mature before their very eyes.  It’s truly a great achievement in filmmaking.

The next movie you’ll want to watch is Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which received nine nominations—tied for the most this year.  It was recognized for Best Picture, Best Director (Anderson), Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Original Score and Production Design.  The hilarious film follows the exploits of a hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes) and his lobby boy (Tony Revolori) as they attempt to wrest a valuable painting from the estate of a recently deceased elderly patron.  Surprisingly, this is Anderson’s first Best Director nomination and the first of his films to get nominated for Best Picture.

After that, it might be time for a marathon of Best Visual Effects nominees: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Guardians of the Galaxy (also nominated for Makeup and Hairstyling).  Come to think of it, if there were an Oscar for the length of the movie title, these would probably be the nominees for that as well.

Then turn your eye to Best Animated Feature nominees: How to Train Your Dragon 2 is out now; The Boxtrolls and Big Hero 6 are not available yet, but they will be soon and you can place a hold on them right now.  Shockingly, everything was not awesome for The LEGO Movie, which did not get nominated for Best Animated Feature as expected, but it did still pick up a nomination for Best Original Song with “Everything Is Awesome,” performed by Tegan and Sara (featuring The Lonely Island).

Next, you’ll want to check out Disney’s Maleficent, nominated for Best Costume Design; Finding Vivian Maier, a Best Documentary Feature nominee; Begin Again, Original Song nominee for “Lost Stars”; and Ida, which scored both Best Cinematography as well as Best Foreign Film.

Best Documentary nominee Virunga is available via our streaming service hoopla.

There are several more nominees that are arriving within the next several weeks that you can place a hold on right now, including eight-time nominee The Imitation Game.  This true, tragic story of Alan Turing, father of the modern computer and preeminent World War II code-breaker, scored recognition for Best Picture, Best Director (Morten Tyldum), Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), Best Supporting Actress (Keira Knightley), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Original Score, and Production Design.  The other coming-soon films that you can place a hold on now are Gone Girl (Best Actress – Rosamund Pike), The Judge (Best Supporting Actor – Robert Duvall), Nightcrawler (Original Screenplay), and Beyond the Lights (Original Song).

So start binging today, and be sure to keep checking our catalog for other Oscar nominated films as more of them become available.

For many of the Oscar nominated films that are still in theaters, be sure to check out downtown Kalamazoo’s Alamo Drafthouse Theater, which is currently playing American Sniper (6 nominations), Foxcatcher (5 nominations), Into the Woods (3 nominations), Selma (2 nominations), Inherent Vice (2 nominations), and the aforementioned The Imitation Game (8 nominations).

Crazy Train

If the snowy weather’s got you down and you want to watch people who are colder than you are, or if you’re in the mood to wallow in mankind’s devastating effect on global temperatures—or if you just like a good sci-fi action movie—check out the recent South Korean (but mostly English language) release Snowpiercer. Based off the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige and co-written and directed by Bong Joon-ho, best known for the rollickingly great rampaging monster flick The Host, Snowpiercer is set in a dystopian future where mankind’s attempts to reverse global warming have expedited a new Ice Age that has killed off most life on the planet. The few humans that remain live on the Snowpiercer, a massive train that continuously circumnavigates the globe. Within the train, people are divided into social classes, with the poor living in squalor in the rearmost cars, cruelly lorded over by the wealthiest passengers from the front cars. But a revolution is brewing, as man-with-a-past Curtis (Captain America’s Chris Evans) leads the impoverished on a car-by-car battle towards the engine, with hopes of overthrowing the Snowpiercer’s creator and authoritarian leader, played by Ed Harris.

Shot with cinematic grandeur, Snowpiecer succeeds on many levels: as suspenseful fight-laden actioner; as a dystopian fable; as a commentary on our environmental malfeasance; and, as an acting showcase—Tilda Swinton’s gonzo portrayal of a ministerial henchwoman is worth the proverbial price of admission alone. So check it out—the icy backdrop and chilly social undertones may just be the belly-warming tonic you need to make it through these first few frozen weeks of the season.

You Ransom, You Lose Some

Life of Crime is not an official prequel to Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, but it’s okay to pretend it is. Both films are based on Elmore Leonard books (The Switch and Rum Punch, respectively) and feature two of the crime novelist’s recurring characters, ex-cons and criminal cohorts Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara. Mos Def and John Hawkes take over these roles—originally played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro in Jackie Brown—and give you a glimpse at the earlier days of their illegal antics.

Set in Detroit in the late 1970s, Life of Crime follows Ordell and Louis as they hatch an ill-fated plan to extort money from corrupt real-estate developer Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins) by kidnapping his wife, Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), while he’s away on business. Unfortunately for the kidnappers—and for Mickey—Frank is actually off in Florida with his mistress (Isla Fisher), and when he hears that his wife is in mortal peril if he doesn’t pony up a million dollar ransom, Frank sees this as an opportunity to escape what was a failing marriage without having to face a costly divorce and steep alimony payments. Things are further complicated as Frank’s mistress hijacks the hostage negotiations, the white supremacist-slash-gun nut harboring Mickey grows dangerously unstable, and Louis begins to develop feelings for Mickey even though he may be forced to kill her.

Directed by Daniel Schechter and co-starring Will Forte and Mark Boone, Jr., Life of Crime deftly captures the pulpy crime and oddball humor of the best Leonard adaptations and would make for a great double feature with Tarantino’s masterpiece, even if the two are related only in spirit.



The whole dystopian thing may have reached the point of oversaturation in our popular culture: zombies, givers, hunger gamers, diverging, purging, maze running—we’ve had so much of it, the genre’s bound to regress into some sort of metaphorical mass-market post-apocalyptic wasteland of itself. And yet this summer’s underappreciated gem The Rover is so delicate in its vision, so realistic in its squalor, you may forget you’re watching something taking place ten years after a catastrophic global economic collapse. Set in the Australian outback, the film depicts a world of desolation and lawlessness, of dog-eat-dog survivalism; there’s no fantasy or sci-fi to this wasteland—this is what real dystopia is going to look like.

Amidst this societal decay is Eric (Guy Pearce), a drifter whose life is as hollow and ruinous as the world around him. While passing through the middle of nowhere, Eric encounters thieves who are fleeing from a botched robbery, and they steal his car. Taking the last possession of a man with nothing left to lose proves to be a bad move on their part, as Eric begins a dogged pursuit to retrieve his vehicle with the steely vigilance of a Terminator. Just when he thinks he’s lost the trail, Eric comes upon a wounded man named Rey (Robert Pattinson) who turns out to be the brother of one of the thieves—badly injured in the robbery, they left him for dead. Eric takes Rey hostage and demands he be led to where his brother’s gang will be hiding out. Rey is the one man who can help Eric get back the last thing in his life that he cared about, but will he be more trouble than he’s worth?

Written and directed by David Michôd, who also made the excellent, Academy Award-nominated crime drama Animal Kingdom, The Rover is suspenseful and well-acted (Pearce is always reliable and Pattinson goes a long way to make you forget all the sparkly vampire paint he used to wear). The gritty world is richly detailed in its bleakness, and the final shot, though some may find it divisive, is a pitch perfect elegy to companionship and a dirge to life before the world collapsed under the weight of selfishness and greed.


Bee Sting

In Jason Bateman’s directorial debut, Bad Words, a prickly forty-something with a long-festering grudge named Guy inserts himself into a national spelling bee for children by taking advantage of a loophole in the rules that simply stipulate that entrants must not have graduated from the eighth grade.  Having dropped out of middle-school (and accompanied by a scrappy journalist ready to spread negative publicity at the drop of a hat), Guy meets with begrudging official compliance that quickly erupts into a national controversy surrounding his participation.  It doesn’t help that Guy gleefully exerts dominance over his otherwise bright and intelligent kid competitors whom he eviscerates through intimidation, manipulation, fear, and his own grown-up word power.  Guy’s motives for competing against children in a nationally televised spelling bee are kept a mystery until near the end of the film, but suffice it to say, he’s an angry man looking for revenge.  Along his path of destruction, Guy develops an unlikely friendship with an overly earnest 10-year-old named Chaitanya, who proves to be quick study in the ways of profanity, reckless behavior, and ultimately, stubbornness.

Bad Words is a pleasantly vulgar, pitch-black comedy that avoids the usual tidy-bow happy-ending clichés found in most Hollywood comedies.  Guy is unabashedly unpleasant and his slightly paternal relationship with Chaitanya never gets cloying.  It’s worth checking out if you like your humor dark and inappropriate.  The talented cast includes Kathryn Hahn, Philip Baker Hall, and Allison Janney.

Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Blue

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.


Blue Ruin

Something, Something, DANGER ZONE!!!

If you’re not yet a fan of the TV-MA hijinks of FX’s animated spy comedy Archer, then now is the time to get recruited: KPL has just acquired all four seasons of the series that are currently available on DVD. The show follows the misadventures of the titular character, Sterling Archer, who works as a spy for an agency called ISIS. He’s handsome, charismatic, dangerous, and skilled at his job—but he’s also egotistical, crude, laden with vices, and prone to causing as much trouble as he prevents. He’s like a more cartoonish version of James Bond—literally. His cohorts in espionage are quite the characters themselves: his boozy mother is also his overbearing boss; the number two field agent is also his femme fatale ex-girlfriend; the research scientist may be a clone straight out of criminal Nazi war experiments; and the eccentric human resource director has a penchant for dolphin puppets, drift car racing, and bare-knuckle brawling.

Born from the brain of Adam Reed (who also helmed a short-lived and little-seen gem for Adult Swim called Frisky Dingo—seek it out!), Archer has one of the most talented voice casts ever assembled, including the ubiquitous H. Jon Benjamin, the hilarious Aisha Tyler, Arrested Development’s priceless Jessica Walter & Judy Greer, SNL’s Chris Parnell, and the unparalleled Amber Nash. The show is packed with running gags and catchphrases galore, so slip on a Tactleneck, wash up those man-hands, and enter the Danger Zone: If quoting Archer doesn’t make you a hit at your next eeeeeeeelegant dinnah paaaahty, then at the very least you’ll understand all of the references that just confounded you.


Archer, seasons 1-4

In Space, No One Can Hear Sandra Bullock Lose an Oscar

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:

 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:

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!



Captivating, Pun Intended

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.




Hey, I Know That Place

Be sure to check out the romantic comedy Cherry, which we’ve recently acquired here at the library.  The story follows a college freshman named Aaron who falls for an older woman he meets at school.  Things get complicated when the woman’s 14-year-old daughter develops a crush on Aaron.  Age becomes a challenging factor in both relationships, but they all manage to learn valuable life lessons before the credits roll.  The movie itself is an enjoyable watch, but the real reason you’ll want to catch it is that the 2010 film was shot right here in Kalamazoo.  Throughout the film you can catch glimpses of locations at Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College, various downtown storefronts, and on recognizable streets like Kalamazoo Avenue and Rose Street.  Although, there should have been a really awesome public library in there somewhere…



Calling for Backup

Normally when the character of Veronica Mars calls for backup, she’s summoning Backup, the intimidating canine that accompanies her when she’s heading into a dangerous situation—which, as a sharp-witted, young-adult private investigator in the fictional town of Neptune, California, she often is. But last week, Mars called for backup from a different source: fans of the much-loved, short-lived eponymous television program on which she originated. On April 13th, Veronica Mars the television show—which went off the air in 2007 after a mere three seasons—made headlines when its creator, Rob Thomas (no, not that one), and star, Kristen Bell, launched a Kickstarter project that would fund a feature film, giving new life to a cult classic and furthering the adventures of one of TV’s most beloved heroines.

For those of you unfamiliar with Kickstarter, it’s a website where motivated folks can announce projects for which they want to raise money—films, music albums, business ventures, etc.—and the general public can contribute donations, usually for some sort of tiered reward. Creators set financial goals and have a limited amount of time (30 or 60 days) to reach them. If they hit their mark, they get all the money they’ve raised to that point; if they fail, they get nothing. The “Veronica Mars Movie Project” set the highest goal in Kickstarter history: they needed to raise two million dollars in 30 days. They did it in 11 hours, becoming the fastest project on the site to hit that amount of money. As of this writing, the project has raised nearly $3.7 million—well over its goal.

If you’ve seen Veronica Mars, there’s a good chance you loved it enough to kick in a few shekels (as I assuredly did). If you haven’t watched the show, then now’s a good time to jump in head-first! Here’s the basic premise: Veronica is a high-school (later, college) student who moonlights as a private investigator for her detective father, Keith. He was once the town sheriff, but was removed from office in disgrace after accusing a local billionaire of killing his own daughter, who was Veronica’s best friend. This made both father and daughter unpopular around town. In each episode, Veronica tackles a mystery, while also investigating a season-long crime. Despite the fact that it never caught on with a large audience, VM developed a strong cult following thanks to its loveable characters, strong plots, clever writing, and hilariously quotable dialogue. So check out the DVDs of all three seasons—you won’t regret it.


Veronica Mars

Argo Watch 'Em Already

Another Oscar season has come to a close, and it was quite a successful one at that. There were very few upsets or surprises, which helped this movie geek dominate his Oscar pool, getting 21 out of 24 correct – a tie for my all-time best. The Academy made up for snubbing director Ben Affleck by awarding Best Picture to the well-deserved Argo. The visually-stunning Life of Pi took home the most of the night with four, including one for director Ang Lee, who managed to turn what many felt was an unfilmable book into a crowd-pleaser. Skyfall became the first James Bond film to win an Oscar since 1965’s Thunderball.   Lincoln ’s Daniel Day-Lewis became the first person ever to win Best Actor three times. And Pixar’s Brave just beat out the video-game-themed Wreck-It Ralph for Best Animated Feature, which is ironic considering poor Ralph spends his entire movie trying to win a trophy just so people will love him. You’ve earned top score from me, Ralph.

If you’re behind in your Oscar viewing, a handful of these award-winners are available for home viewing now, right here at the Kalamazoo Public Library:

  • Argo – winner of Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Editing
  • Brave – winner of Best Animated Feature
  • Searching for Sugar Man – winner of Best Documentary Feature
  • Skyfall – winner of Best Song (“Skyfall” by Adele), and Best Sound Editing (tie)


Several of the Oscar winners are coming soon, and you can place a hold on them now:


Check back for the availability of Silver Linings Playbook, winner of Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence); Les Misérables, winner of Best Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway), Makeup & Hairstyling, and Sound Mixing; and Amour, winner of Best Foreign Film. The release dates of these films will probably be announced soon.

So what did you think of the Oscars? What were you glad to see win? Which categories would you have preferred to go differently? What was your favorite film of 2012?




Oscar Unchained

The Academy Award nominations were announced yesterday, and one of the great joys that I take from Oscar season is that I can get sweet, nerdy revenge on all my Facebook friends who, for months, have cluttered my newsfeed with football jargon and armchair coaching advice (I don't know what "roll tide" means, but it sounds like a new way to help protect my laundry against stains).  For a short period of time, all the sports geeks that I know get to hear this ardent movie nut spout off on things like Ben Affleck's snub for directing Argo (seriously, Academy?) or why Supporting Actor front-runner Tommy Lee Jones (from Lincoln) deserves the gold so much less than Django Unchained's Samuel L. Jackson or Leonardo DiCaprio, both of whom were overlooked.  But whether you like Oscar pools or fantasy football (which I'm pretty sure is just Dungeons & Dragons for sports fans), you should absolutely check out some of the nominated films, several of which you can get right now at the Kalamazoo Public Library.

Of the nine Best Picture nominees, the only one currently available on DVD is Beasts of the Southern Wild.  This must-see film also received nominations for first-time feature-length director Benh Zeitlin, and Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only 6 years old when the film was made and is now the youngest person ever to be nominated for Best Actress.  Beasts is also competing for Best Adapted Screenplay, which was written by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin.

Best Picture nominee Argo will be out on DVD and Blu-ray on February 19th, but KPL patrons can put a hold on a copy of the film now.  It received 7 nominations overall, including a Best Supporting Actor nod for previous winner Alan Arkin.  And while you wait for the film to come out, you can read the amazing true story upon which it's based, written by real-life CIA agent Antonio Mendez (whom Affleck plays in the film).

Best Picture front-runner Lincoln does not yet have a release date for DVD and Blu-ray, but you can check out John's Williams' music from the film, which received a nomination for Best Original Score.  Meanwhile, Tony Kushner received a Best Adapted Screenplay nod, having based the book off a small portion of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham LincolnLincoln received the most nominations with 12, which include sure-thing Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, the aforementioned Tommy Lee Jones for Supporting Actor, Sally Field for Supporting Actress, and Steven Spielberg for Director.

Other Best Picture nominees not yet available on Blu-ray or DVD but based on books you can read now include Yann Martel's Life of Pi (11 nominations), Matthew Quick's Silver Linings Playbook (8 nominations), and Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (8 nominations), which was also adapted from the beloved musical.

Beyond the Best Picture list, there are several films currently available at KPL that received Oscar nominations:

Several more contenders will be available in February: Flight, which received nominations for Best Actor (Denzel Washington) and Original Screenplay (John Gatins); The Sessions, which recognized Helen Hunt for Best Supporting Actress; and Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which scored nods for Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Best Supporting Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Best Supporting Actress (Amy Adams).

So come on down to KPL and check out some of these Oscar-nominated films.  In the meantime, tell us what your favorite films were this year.  What nominations were you excited about, and what snubs got you riled up?  What would you choose as the Best Picture of 2012?


Beasts of the Southern Wild

Are WE having FUN yet?

Comedic straight men are vastly underrated.  Ask anyone who the funniest person on  Arrested Development  was, and they’ll say someone like Will Arnett or David Cross or Jessica Walter.  But I’ll defy everybody and say that the MVP of that particular piece of television gold was Jason Bateman, who had to deal with a cadre of loonies while wearing a straight face and lobbing under-the-breath quips and deadpan one-liners that could steal the show from any chicken-dancing cast member.  His was a subtly brilliant performance that provided a (mostly) levelheaded balance to the rest of the kinetic comedy going on around him, and he doesn’t get enough credit for it.

Bateman’s heir apparent to the Underappreciated Straight Man throne is Adam Scott.  Scott’s been playing a wide variety of roles in both film and television since the nineties; he’s the kind of ubiquitous actor who, if you don’t know his name, certainly makes you think, “Hey, it’s that guy from that one thing.”  Some people recognize him from his turn as Will Ferrell’s arrogant younger sibling in 2008’s  Stepbrothers; others might know him from his stint on the critically-acclaimed-but-short-lived HBO drama Tell Me You Love Me.  Of course now he’s best known for playing Ben Wyatt, Pawnee’s former assistant city manager, recovering Boy Mayor, and Leslie Knope’s go-to grope on the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation.  Here, much like Bateman, Scott repeatedly finds himself playing it straight to eccentrics like Aziz Ansari’s aspiring entrepreneur Tom Haverford and Chris Pratt’s dimwitted Andy.  His comedic timing and down-to-earth wryness have helped turn Parks & Rec into what is easily the funniest show currently on television.

But the series that put Adam Scott on my radar was another short-lived gem known as Party Down.  This two-season Starz comedy ran from 2009 to 2010 and follows the exploits of a small catering company in Los Angeles comprised of Hollywood outcasts—aspiring actors, comedians, and writers on the rumpled fringe of success, most of whom are waiting despondently for their big break.  Scott plays disillusioned Henry Pollard, whose brief moment in the spotlight as the star of a popular nationwide beer commercial made him a household face, but ruined his career.  Now Henry finds himself stuck in the aimless limbo of early adulthood, unsure of what his next step will be and haunted by the career that never was, thanks in particular to the constant stream of people who order him to recite his famous line from the old beer spot, “Are we having FUN yet?”  Each time Henry is forced to repeat the catchphrase, Adam Scott lets you see a little bit of his character’s soul dying.  It’s another one of Scott’s hilarious straight-man performances in the middle of a great show that ended too soon.  So if you’re a fan of Parks and Recreation (and if you’re not, you should be), check out  Party Down, because every time Adam Scott says, “Are we having FUN yet?” you’ll say, “Yes, Adam.  We are.  Thanks to you.”

Now it’s time for you to let us know:  Who are some of your favorite underrated comedic actors and actresses?


Party Down

We Used to Have to Work a Lot Harder to Watch Cat Videos

I should warn you that this blog post is not actually about cats, despite the titular tease of feline tomfoolery.  So if you were lured in with the promise of kitties doing adorable things, well then, you probably haven’t even bothered to read to the end of this sentence.   I only mention cat videos because they are, as we all know, The Reason the Internet Was Invented.  Who doesn’t love to watch cute, playful creatures getting themselves into all sorts of mischievous situations?  And it doesn’t stop with our solitary enjoyment; once we catch a kitty giving a dog a back massage or playing the keyboard or flushing the toilet ad infinitum, we have to make sure everyone else we know and love sees that video too.  We share it on Facebook, we Tweet about it, and we talk about it in our daily conversations.  The next thing you know, somebody’s puddy tat has been seen by millions of people virtually overnight.  Of course, these memes don’t have to be about cats.  They can be music videos, famous quotes, photographs, articles, or any other sort of thing that makes you laugh, think, dance or feel inspired.  My point (which I am somewhat habitually and infamously taking my sweet time to get to) is that—before the Internet gave us YouTube and other social media outlets—it used to be a lot harder to create “viral” pop culture sensations.

That’s right, kids.  As recently as the late 90s, someone would have to resort to compact discs or—gasp!—VHS cassettes to spread sound or video recordings to their friends.  Today, I can give hundreds of my Facebook friends the opportunity to laugh at Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video or the strategic ineptitudes of Leeroy Jenkins with just a few clicks of the mouse.  15 years ago I would have needed a VCR and some gas money to get them to just a few dozen.  Fortunately for us, there are two great documentaries that you can check out chronicling the Dark Ages of viral recordings with a couple of infamous examples that you may have missed.

The recently-released documentary Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure tells the story of two young guys named Eddie and Mitch who, in the late 80s, created a pop culture sensation after recording the nightly screaming matches coming from the apartment next door.  Their neighbors were an odd couple; a pair of older, anger-filled alcoholics who fought loudly and incessantly, and their profanity-laced, often nonsensical arguments were so jaw-droppingly shocking (and yet darkly hilarious) that Eddie and Mitch decided to record them lest no one believe the stories.  Those sound recordings would be passed from friend to friend until, years later, they would be the source of inspiration for comic books, movies, a play and other culturally-inspired art.

Another documentary—this one from 2010—is called Winnebago Man, and it’s about a former RV salesman named Jack Rebney who, in the 80s, became infamous when the outtakes of a commercial he was filming were passed around, catching him in some notably cantankerous and (again) profanity-filled behavior.  Still alive, Rebney is now a bit of a hermit but just as crotchety as ever, and the filmmakers’ interviews and Rebney’s subsequent confrontation with his cult popularity make for a wholly enjoyable look at an early viral phenomenon.

So, dear patrons, what are some of your favorite viral videos?  What is it about these kinds of videos that make you want to share them with your family and friends?  Curious minds want to know…


And now, a trailer for Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure… 


…and a trailer for Winnebago Man



…and for those who stuck around even after finding out I wasn’t writing about kitties, I’ll throw in a cat video just for you.



Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure

Say Hello to My Little Friend (His Name Is Oscar)

If you love movies like I do, you may have been waiting anxiously for the Academy Award nominations that were announced this morning, which is kind of like opening day for Oscar season.   And if you’re a hardcore fanatic like I am, you try to see as many of the nominated films as possible before the Big Night.  Thanks to the nearby Rave Cinema, which often shows more independent and limited-release films than its in-town competitors, I can often catch many of the nominees in a timely fashion.  But for some of the more esoteric films, I often find myself driving to places like Grand Rapids, Lansing or Ann Arbor, as I have already done this season.  (Crazy, I know, but I did use the word “fanatic” to describe myself.)  For those of you normal folks who’d prefer their cultural horizons to be expanded without breaking their odometer, I thought I would mention all of the year’s Oscar-nominated stuff that you can get right here, right now at KPL.

Four of the Best Picture nominees are available now on Blu-ray and DVD:

The film Hugo had the most Oscar nominations with 11, which included Best Picture, Director (Martin Scorsese), and Adapted Screenplay.  As of this writing, it does not yet have a release date for Blu-ray or DVD, but you can read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick’s Caldecott-winning book upon which it was based.  Howard Shore’s score was also nominated and is currently on compact disc.

Other Best Picture nominees not yet available on Blu-ray or DVD but based on books you can read now include Kaui Hart Hemmings’ The Descendants (5 nominations), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2 nominations), and Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse (6 nominations).

Beyond the Best Picture list, there are plenty of currently available films that received Oscar nominations today:

David Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s mega-popular mystery The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo received five nominations; it’s not yet available on Blu-ray or DVD, but you can read the book, check out the original Swedish version, or listen to Trent Reznor’s score (which was, in my opinion, the Academy’s biggest snub this year).

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy received nominations for Actor (Gary Oldman), Original Score, and Adapted Screenplay.  You can read the novel from spymaster John le Carré, or check out the original British mini-series starring Alec Guinness.

Flight of the Conchords vet Bret McKenzie received a Best Original Song nomination for the amusingly existential “Man or Muppet” track from—what else?—The Muppets.  The soundtrack is available now.  The only other song nomination came from the soundtrack to the animated film Rio.

So there you have it: an exhaustive list of currently available materials from this year’s crop of Oscar nominations, complete with links to the items themselves.  Whether you use it to browse for some ideas, or turn it into a checklist for immediate consumption is up to you.   Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some driving to do.


(Psst.  If your interested in my personal choices for the ten best films of the year, you can find them here.)



Hey College Kids! We've Got Your Friend!

Every summer, several of my friends and I travel up north for the annual Traverse City Film Festival.  Founded by Michigan native Michael Moore and co-chaired by Hollywood folk like Curb Your Enthusiasm star Jeff Garlin and Borat director Larry Charles, this cinema-stuffed week gives us a chance to soak in all the indie and foreign films, incisive documentaries and beloved classics that our increasingly sore posteriors can handle.  (We also find time to relax and simply enjoy the beautiful T.C. area when we’re not staring at the silver screen.)  One of our most beloved rituals is getting the whole gang together for a midnight movie of choice; these usually consist of foreign or indie horror films that will never see a wide release in the United States.  Several of the ones we have screened have gone on to achieve cult-classic status:  brilliant Swedish vampire hit Let the Right One In; Norwegian Nazi-zombie gore-fest Dead Snow; South Korean rampaging-monster movie The Host.  In the summer of 2010, we had the opportunity to screen another such instant gem—one that, until recently, had bafflingly avoided a distribution deal:  the top-notch horror-comedy Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.

T&DvE is the kind of tongue-in-cheek splatter flick that offers as much joy from satire and humor as it does from excessive carnage.  The story follows the two titular hapless hillbillies as they set off for their dilapidated vacation home out in the woods.  On their way, they have an unfortunate run-in with a gaggle of snobby college kids who mistake their curiosity for threatening redneck menace.  Tensions mount when one of the girls, Allison, has a swimming accident and winds up in the care of a love-struck Dale and an inconvenienced Tucker.  The guys try to let the kids know they’ve rescued Allison, but their methods—which include shouting through the woods, “Hey college kids!  We’ve got your friend!”—lead the suspicious youth to believe she’s been kidnapped.  The college kids mount an assault on Tucker and Dale, but a series of very unfortunate and very bloody accidents (let’s just say bees and chainsaws don’t mix, nor do wood chippers and lunging) result in a body count that only reinforces Tucker’s and Dale’s images as crazed murderous lunatics, while convincing them that the college kids have some sort of suicide pact.

Credit for the success of this film certainly belongs, in part, to first-time feature director and co-writer Eli Craig.  But the lead cast for this film cannot be more perfect:  30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden gets to expand her comedy chops as Allison; Dale is played by Tyler Labine, best known for TV’s short-lived Reaper and the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  But best of all is Firefly/Serenity MVP Alan Tudyk, a talented movie and TV actor whose comedic timing is unparalleled in Hollywood.  He’s simply one of the funniest guys working today.

So if you are in the mood for a great horror-comedy in the tradition of the Evil Dead franchise or Shaun of the Dead, check out Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.  And then, maybe, rethink that backwoods camping trip you were planning for next summer, and come spend your late-July inside a movie theater in Traverse City with me.


Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

Sleuthing for the 21st Century Gentleman, or, How I Know You Are Single by the Number of Scratches on Your iPod.

If you’ve been anywhere near Planet Earth lately, it’s highly probable that you’ve seen some sort of advertisement or trailer for the upcoming Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the latest bombastic, hyper-stylized Guy Ritchie film starring Robert Downey Jr. as the insufferable master of deduction and Jude Law as his exasperated sidekick Watson.  I thought their first Sherlock Holmes was decent enough—the slo-mo action sequences were crowd-pleasing and the two leads had plenty of Vaudevillian chemistry that packed on some quality laughs—I just found it sorely lacking in one of the most essential, elementary elements of a Sherlock Holmes story: mystery.  As in there wasn’t one.  Or much of any.

Thankfully, just a short while later, those with a Holmes jones could get their fix with a far superior take on 221B Baker Street: the 2010 BBC series Sherlock, which drops our protagonists down in twenty-first century London.  Now, modern takes on Sherlock Holmes are nothing new—[cough] paging Dr. House [cough]—but this incarnation really embraces the gadget-y environment of a post-CSI world.  Here, Holmes’ knack for observation is enhanced by technology: he’s as likely to use his smart phone and laptop to help solve a murder as he is his sense of sight.  John Watson is now a traumatized military doctor recently returned from Afghanistan who blogs about his crime-solving adventures.  Visually, the show is dark and arresting, with a nifty habit of flashing clues and phone texts up on screen as both as a reminder of the looming presence of technology and representation of how Sherlock’s brain processes data.

The series consist of three feature-length episodes inspired by the stories and tone of the original Arthur Conan Doyle works (“A Study in Scarlett” is now “A Study in Pink,” thanks to the color coordination of a murder victim).  It features rising star Benedict Cumberbatch, whose deep, powerful voice is a favorite of both my wife and Peter Jackson (who cast him as the voice of Smaug the dragon in the now-filming version of The Hobbit) and Martin Freeman from the British version of The Office  (who is also in The Hobbit, starring as the young Bilbo Baggins).  As Holmes and Watson, respectively, these two leads are as entertaining to watch as Downey Jr. and Law, but their mysteries are far more gratifying.  So feel free to see A Game of Shadows this holiday season, but make sure you check out the top-notch BBC version, truly one of the greatest Holmes adaptations to date.



Sherlock: Season One

Staff Picks: Music

New in Town

First off, let me acknowledge that this recommendation is not actually music, but it’s not a movie or a book either, and those are the three headings found in the Staff Picks section of our website, so I’m going with the technicality that this one is found on an audio disc. It’s a spoken work compact disc, so this is where I’m putting it. More specifically, it’s a stand-up comedy album, and one worth checking out.

I was aware of John Mulaney from his frequent appearances on The Kroll Show, and I knew he had been a writer for Saturday Night Live, but I didn’t become a John Mulaney fan until I heard this album, New in Town, from our comedy collection (located in under the Dewey number 792.76 in our nonfiction audio section). His goofball charm and precision joke writing made me an instant convert. He has a terrific new special recently released on Netflix called The Comeback Kid which I encourage you to check out also, but be sure to start with New in Town. He’s had one unsuccessful attempt at a network sitcom, but despite that, I have a feeling you’ll be hearing a lot more from John Mulaney in the future. 

Terrible, Beautiful Things

After being a fan for over a decade, I finally got to see The Decemberists in concert just a couple of days ago. They are touring in support of their seventh studio album, What a Beautiful World, What a Terrible World. If you’re not familiar with the indie folk-rock stalwarts, I strongly recommend checking them out. They specialize in both accessible radio-friendly anthems as well as epic narrative ballads laden with historical or literary references. Beautiful/Terrible eschews some of the more grandiose storytelling for which the band is known, but makes up for it by being one of their most emotionally resonant albums to date. To give you the best of both their worlds, I’ll leave two videos below: “Make You Better,” the lead single off their new record; and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” a delightfully macabre sea shanty that exemplifies their knack for narrative.

The Pumpkins Aren’t Just for Smashing Anymore

When a friend recently told me that he had some free tickets to see The Smashing Pumpkins at the Palace of Auburn Hills and asked if I wanted to go, my first response was "meh."  I love going to concerts, don't get me wrong, but I'm not a big fan of arena shows.  I'm more of a small-to-midsized venue kind of guy; I frequent the Orbit Room and the Intersection in Grand Rapids, for example.  Frankly, there aren't a lot of artists for whom I'm willing to make the long hike to Detroit or Chicago.  And while the Pumpkins were a band I enjoyed during my high school and college years, they haven't exactly done anything that I've cared about for a long, long time.  But my wife convinced me that it would be a fun night, so I acquiesced, and we went with my buddy to see the show.

Now, I'm the kind of guy who has more fun at concerts if I know the music, so I checked out their recent set lists online and discovered that they were starting their recent shows by playing their new album, Oceania, in its entirety from start to finish, followed by selections from the rest of their canon.  I hadn't heard anything off the new album apart from first single "The Celestials."  But not wanting to sit through an hour-and-a-half of music that I wasn't familiar with, I checked out Oceania from this very institution, and set about listening to it repeatedly over the next two days leading up to the concert.

I went in with low expectations; Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness were quintessential 90s masterpieces, but I never got much out of 1998's Adore or 2000's Machina/The Machines of God.  And following those releases, years of clashing egos, infighting, rotating membership, and the overall decline of sales ended up tearing the band apart.  And had that been the end of the chapter, the Pumpkins would have probably been remembered fondly as a band that burned bright and hot and quickly-one that left its mark on music history.  But front man (and driving creative force) Billy Corgan, a notoriously temperamental and grandiose personality, spent the next decade making it hard to love the Pumpkins.  He'd swear off the band and then reform with different members; he'd verbally attack old band mates in the press; he be dismissive of his audience in interviews; he even swore off making albums ever again, having declared it a "dead" format (he claims Oceania is merely a chunk of a planned 44-song cycle that is to be released as individual singles over a span of many years).  It became hard for a fan to separate the Pumpkins name with the megalomania of Corgan.  Much of this could have been forgiven if, say, any of the music that had trickled out over the years had been engrossing.

So it was to my surprise that, after a few listens, Oceania grew on me (the album is pronounced "oh-see-AN-ee-ya, not "o-SHUN-ee-ya" or how "ya'll pronounce it up here" as Corgan scolded at the show; I'm not entirely certain what Corgan meant by "up here," considering Detroit is not that much farther north latitudinally than his hometown of Chicago).  There are several standout songs, my favorites being "Panopticon," "My Love Is Winter," "Pinwheels," and "Glissandra."  The song titles and lyrics may be pretentious, but the music is energetic and, at times, ethereal.  It's easily the Pumpkins' most cohesive and satisfying effort since the late 90s.  And while Corgan seems to remain as frustrating and self-indulgent as ever, if he keeps creating music like he's done with Oceania, perhaps he can also make The Smashing Pumpkins relevant again.



Flannel Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

My friend Chad is as fanatical about music as I am, and he and I recently began a tradition where every time we meet, we bring an album from our own collection that we think the other person should give a listen.  Then the next time we're together we talk about what we heard, how we felt about it, and exchange a new CD.  [EDITOR'S NOTE: If you were born in the last decade or so, a "CD" or "compact disc" is something on which old people bought music before the Internet made purchasing tangible objects uncool.]  Swapping music allows us to introduce each other to certain artists or albums that might be of interest to the other, and sometimes it offers insight into our own personal experiences.  Often it sparks great discussions about particular eras of music, as it did recently when we each began trying to assemble a list of the best albums of the 1990s.  [EDITOR'S NOTE:  If you recently learned what a "compact disc" is, then you'll probably need to know that the "1990s" was a decade that happened a reeeeally long time ago.  Just Google "Hammer pants."]

The 90s was a big decade for Chad and I - it's when we "came of age."  [EDITOR'S NOTE:  "Coming of age" means the period of time during which a person matures from being a child into young adult.  Often this involves going off into the woods with your childhood friends to find a dead body and poke it with a stick.]  It was the halcyon days of Gen-X, witness to the birth of grunge, and it introduced to the world to the term "alternative" as a genre (which very quickly became a misnomer).   Music is a crucial part of both our lives, and while I don't have a completed list to show - I'm still working on it - I thought I'd reveal some of the albums that will be making my list.  Perhaps if any of them are ones with which you're not familiar, you could check them out, give 'em a few spins, and let me know what you think.

To start, you can't talk about the 90s without mentioning the highly influential artists who shaped the grunge and alternative scenes.  Of course the poster boys for grunge were Nirvana; Nevermind will definitely hold a high spot on my list, and In Utero will probably be on there somewhere as well.  Pearl Jam were also alt-rock trailblazers; Ten will likely rank higher than its name and Vs. will probably crack the top twenty.  Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream will be highly ranked; Chad's also fond of Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness.  Live's Throwing Copper is a classic, as is Stone Temple Pilots' Purple.  I have a hard time choosing whether I like Alice in Chains' Facelift or Dirt more.

Other popular rock albums that are likely to make my best-of list are Radiohead's OK Computer, Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill, Blues Traveler's Four, U2's Achtung Baby, Collective Soul's Dosage, and the Indigo Girls' Rites of PassageJeff Buckley's Grace blows my mind every time I hear it.  On the heavier side, there's Metallica's self-titled "black" album, Megadeth's Rust in Peace, Queensryche's Empire, and Monster Magnet's Powertrip.

Some of my favorite artists had their best albums in the 90s.  Tori Amos gave us Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink; Our Lady Peace put out Naveed and Clumsy; Toad the Wet Sprocket had Fear and Dulcinea.  Let's not forget the Counting Crows, who had the one-two punch of August and Everything After and Recovering the Satellites.  I can't even begin to figure out how to rank the Dave Matthews Band's Under the Table and Dreaming, Crash, and Before These Crowded Streets.  And, of course, giving them all competition for a top slot is the genius that is Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral.

There are plenty more I haven't mentioned, but if you're not familiar with any of them, I suggest checking them out.  They will be a good starting point for either a trip down memory lane or a music history lesson-depending on whether or not you're from the generation that was born attached to a smartphone.  [EDITOR'S NOTE:  If you don't know what a "smartphone" is, chances are you've wandered away from the home and the nurses are worried sick because you're overdue for your medicine.  How on Earth did you figure out how to use this computer?]  Meanwhile, please use the comments section below to share some of your favorite albums from the 90s.  Chad and I are always looking for exciting music to discuss.




Night of The Hunter

It was the Library & Information Sciences that set me on the path to becoming a massive fan of the progressive metal band Mastodon.  While I was getting my graduate degree, I did an audiovisual purchasing project that involved selecting and budgeting for materials that would be desirable to add to a library’s collection based on such factors as expected demographical popularity, cultural significance, and critical acclaim.  This involved a lot of research and reading of reviews for recent movies and music, and one of the items that kept popping up on my radar was an album called Crack the Skye by the aforementioned sludge rockers.  Feedback for the release was phenomenal, and it was carrying an impressively high average score at critical aggregator site Metacritic.  So when I saw the CD at Target for ten bucks, I snapped it up, figuring my metal-loving ears would investigate the buzz for themselves.

And love it I did.  Skye is a concept album with seven songs, a couple of which run over ten minutes, and its story has something to do with astral projection, wormholes, Tsarist Russia, and a paraplegic who ends up in the body of Rasputin—exactly the kind of bizarrely ridiculous plot that makes prog rock so wonderfully enjoyable.  I was hooked from the very first opening track, “Oblivion,” through the last note of the last song called “The Last Baron.”  I had heard one or two songs of Mastodon’s before—I think an older single called “Colony of Birchmen” was on Rock Band—but from what I could tell, Skye represented a leap forward in maturity, accessibility, and ambition.  The songwriting was intricate, the guitar work masterful, and each song was a uniquely memorable piece of the overall puzzle.

Mastodon followed up Skye with last year’s The Hunter, an album that I listed as one of the best albums of 2011 right here on KPL’s website.  I’ve been listening to it consistently since it came out, and the more time I spend with it, the more I’m convinced it’s one of the best metal albums in a decade.  The sound is more stripped down than on previous releases and the songwriting is more nuanced.  There’s not a moment of filler on the album, as each track has a distinct ferocity, powerful lyrics, and a rich hook.  My wife and I had the pleasure of seeing Mastodon perform at the Intersection in Grand Rapids this past Saturday night where they played all but one track off the album.  They blew the roof off the place and I was a happy, happy headbanger.

So if you’re a metal fan (or like your alternative rock on the heavy side), check out The Hunter and Crack the Skye.  I’m starting to work my way through their older material now—and loving every minute of it!


The Hunter

Sometimes It IS Easy Being Green

I am a grown man in his thirties with no children and I can unabashedly say that my most anticipated pop culture event of 2011 is the forthcoming movie The Muppets.  Both my wife and I were raised watching The Muppet Show, which aired from 1976 to 1981, and we developed a deep appreciation for creator  Jim Henson’s sense of humor, which managed to cater to both children and adults while remaining cheekily subversive.  Other Muppets projects like Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, Muppet Babies, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth were all enduring, but between the original TV show and the first three feature films (The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan), our hearts belonged to Kermit and the gang.

But after the shocking death of Henson in 1990, quality control of the Muppet brand went downhill.  Suddenly, the Muppets were being plugging into existing stories like A Christmas Carol, Treasure Island and The Wizard of Oz.  These puppet-infused literary adaptations lacked true imagination and creativity—two things the Muppets themselves had long represented.  Ownership of the Muppets changed hands a few times.  During these dark days, it was most certainly not easy being green.

And then, sometime at the end of the 00s, a potential (and unlikely) savior emerged for the Muppets: a comic actor known for his goofy charm and often crude sense of humor named Jason Segel.  The How I Met Your Mother star had just come off the success of the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  Wanting to capitalize on his cachet, Hollywood suits approached him and asked what he wanted to do for his next project.  And of all things, he said he wanted to make a Muppet movie.  Turns out, Segel, too, grew up watching the variety show and missed the days when Kermit and Co. had been relevant and irreverent.  Disney, who had purchased the brand, was more than happy to oblige.  That film, loaded with guest stars and smart humor, opens November 23rd and will hopefully re-launch Henson’s greatest creations back into the pop culture zeitgeist.  I, for one, will be there opening day.

In the meantime, however, Disney has taken a step towards promoting the film by gathering together a group of alternative artists and producing Muppets: The Green Album.  This collection puts a modern spin on some of the Muppets most beloved songs.  Weezer and Paramore’s Hayley Williams perform “The Rainbow Connection,” alt-rock group The Fray pulls off the catchy “Mahna Mahna,” and My Morning Jacket covers “Our World.”  Other artists featured are Andrew Bird (“Bein’ Green”), Matt Nathanson (“I Hope that Something Better Comes Along”) and The Airborne Toxic Event (“Wishing Song”).  But the albums best songs belong to Alkaline Trio’s fast-paced road song “Movin’ Right Along,” Sondre Lerche’s groovy “Mr. Bassman” and the ever-inventive OK Go’s cover of the “Muppet Show theme song.”  (Check out their video below.) 

Green is great for nostalgic fans as well as being a fantastic introduction for a new generation of Muppet enthusiasts.  I can only hope that Segel has succeeded in making the Fuzzy Ones witty and inventive again.  Even though I still have over a month of anticipation before the movie comes out, this album is helping to get me through the wait.



Muppets: The Green Album


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