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Staff Picks: Movies

Chasing Ice

The recently released documentary film Chasing Ice is the story of one of the world’s most renowned photojournalists tackling the subject of global warming by documenting the retreat and loss of glacial ice in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, and Montana due to climate change. This documentary, full of breathtaking images of both sublime beauty and environmental degradation introduces us to the passionate photographer James Balog, who with his team of scientists, techies, climbing experts and field guides set out to document the physical evidence of global warming by setting up cameras in multiple locations to film a particular landscape in order to archive the changes. The dramatic effects of global warming are clearly evident as Balog returns to each site several times a year to make sure the cameras are functioning properly and to review the effects upon the glaciers. The film highlights the emotional up’s and down’s and natural obstacles to such an endeavor but what really is the most striking feature of the film is the awe-inspiring magnificence of the arctic landscapes.

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Chasing Ice
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Chely Wright, Wish Me Away

There are many times in life when we take an action that cannot be undone, and in so doing, head down one fork in the road, never to possibly return to the other path again. I was struck, watching Chely Wright, Wish Me Away, how real that is when someone comes out. Ms. Wright, popular country music singer-songwriter, CMA winner, was raised in a conservative God-fearing home and community. As a young girl, she knew she wanted to be a country music star and she determined to work heart and soul to reach that goal. At the same time, she recognized her crushes on girls and prayed that God would help her somehow overcome her feelings, that God wouldn’t let her be gay.

The documentary incorporates interviews with primary people in Wright’s life (family members, other creative collaborators, people from her hometown,) heart-wrenching homemade videos created by Wright during some of her most despairing moments, plus footage of Wright meeting with her spiritual advisor and, later, her publicist.

Wright’s coming-out process was exquisitely choreographed. The release of her autobiographical book, Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer, this movie and numerous public interviews (with Oprah Winfrey, Rosie O’Donnell and others) were all scheduled to happen one real close together, for maximum exposure. In one interview, Rosie O’Donnell bluntly states: “You’re out, honey….You’re out all day. You’re out forever!”

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Chely Wright, Wish Me Away
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Gandolfini's Sweet Spot

Learning of James Gandolfini's untimely passing, my thoughts turned not to his iconic role as Tony Soprano, but his recent performance in Sopranos creator David Chase's directorial film debut, Not Fade Away, one of the most honest and under-rated movies ever made about rock and roll. Though seeing Gandolfini as a New Jersey businessman, struggling to keep peace in his suburban home with his wife and children, stirs up memories of his better-known TV family man, his film father and TV father lead quite different lives.

Set in the 1960's, the film's focus is on his son, a budding musician who gives up his college education, funded by his father and an ROTC scholarship, as his rock and roll outfit, heavily influenced by the blues-based Rolling Stones, gains increasing local popularity, which leads all the members to believe they can make it to the big-time, despite the many ego clashes and professional miscalculations that derail their journey. (If this sounds a bit like the plot of That Thing You Do, be aware that the dramatic tone of Not Fade Away is much heavier, and, to me, much more realistic. The heightened realism is aided, in no small part, by the soundtrack chosen by the film's music director, Steve Van Zandt.)

All the storied culture clashes that accompanied the '60's rock revolution are on display here in their most intimate manifestations, most poignantly in the relationship between father and son. Gandolfini's character wants his son to take the career direction originally agreed upon, but as his son's ambitions grow, and his parental norms can no longer be reconciled with his son's evolving belief systems, he comes to accept the break instead of denying it, which helps to mend their strained relationship. Such sweetness is not the Soprano way.

An especially close dinner conversation between father and son in the film's third act, as well as a scene late in the film where the father bids a farewell to his son that may or may not be final, pack an emotional wallop that hit even harder now in the wake of Gandolfini's passing. Thankfully, we have this film, among many others (not to mention the now-legendary TV series), to keep his screen presence from ever fading away.

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Not Fade Away
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End of Watch

While End of Watch’s storyline doesn’t break new ground (Cops vs Drug Cartel) in terms of fresh subject matter, the affecting bond between the two LAPD officers and the remarkable performances delivered by the actors Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal are enough to recommend this gritty, police drama, written by David Ayer (Training Day). See a trailer here.

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End of Watch
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The Imposter

One of last year’s most electrifying documentaries, The Imposter will leave an indelible mark, if only to remind you how entertaining (and ultimately sad) the interplay between fact and fiction, truth and fantasy can be when linked to a thriller of a story. One cannot describe this film without spoiling much of the suspense but viewers are likely to be both scratching their heads and muttering such things as “really?”, “no way!”, and “are people really that stupid and gullible?” How does a missing 13 year old boy from Texas mysteriously reappear in southern Spain, claiming he’d been kidnapped by military personnel, tortured and sold into slavery, convince the boy’s family and government officials that he is in fact the missing teen? Well, the answer to that and much more will likely leave your head spinning as you consider the subjects’ motivation and capacity to deceive. Fans of the runaway hit Catfish will find a great deal in The Imposter to like. View the trailer here.

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The Imposter
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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?

 

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Argo
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Beauty Is Embarrassing

Wayne White has worn many creative hats over the years (art director, painter, puppeteer, music video director, set designer, animator, comic book illustrator, and so on) but what is most striking about this incredibly accomplished artist is his enthusiasm for integrating humor, levity and fun into his work, a rare mission for someone who has been embraced by both the entertainment industry (Pee Wee’s Playhouse) and the fine art world of museums and galleries. Like most, I knew nothing of his life or work until I saw the wonderful documentary portrait of this high energy personality called Beauty Is Embarrassing. You’ll learn about White’s humble, Southern origins and about his artistically constituted family (including his wife Mimi Pond). There are also tender moments in between the laughter and absurdity where White discusses his upbringing and the support he had growing up from his parents. This is a great film that will inspire your inner artist and rebel.

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Beauty is Embarrassing
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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?

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Beasts of the Southern Wild
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