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Staff Picks: Movies

Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin

This amazing PBS documentary won more than 25 awards; I’m not surprised. Bayard Rustin was a strong civil rights organizer, peace activist, openly gay man. He lived with pride, refusing to kowtow to those who said he should hide his sexual orientation on behalf of his antiracism organizing. The principles for which he stood are as vital today as they were during his lifetime.

The movie shows several clips of Rustin addressing a crowd. He was powerful and persuasive, whether speaking to Congress, other organizers or young people. I especially enjoyed a scene where Rustin was visiting children overseas. He interacted with them in a joyful, respectful way, teaching them to sing a song. Though they didn’t speak his language and he didn’t speak theirs, they connected, and the kids responded to his kindness and enthusiasm.

The film includes interviews with many people who knew Rustin personally and/or professionally. One of his colleagues on the organizing committee of the famous 1963 March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom, current Congresswoman Eleanore Holmes Norton, talked about how politicians and the news media discouraged the organizers from trying to create the march. Yet they didn’t realize that it just couldn’t fail, with an organizer like Bayard Rustin behind it. “They didn’t know what I knew, and that was that the best organizer on the planet was organizing this one!”

In August, 1963, Ms. Norton volunteered to stay in the March on Washington office till the eleventh hour, answering last-minute phone calls, which meant she had to fly on a plane to the March. “… And If I live to be 500, I will never forget what I saw….” The film then cut to a birds-eye view of the National Mall from above, completely filled with thousands of people marching peacefully.

There are many moving scenes in this film about Bayard Rustin and his influence on social justice across the years. I wrote this above, and I’ll write it again: The principles for which he stood are as vital today as they were during his lifetime.


Not Really About the Civil War

Civil War enthusiasts will be sorely disappointed if they watch the brilliant film Sherman’s March believing that the critically acclaimed, National Film Registry inclusion is about the 19th century war and the union general’s destructive rampage of the South. Ross McElwee’s autobiographical documentaries are poignant, self-deprecating and honest examinations of his life, notably his sometimes troubled relationship with family members, women and the South (he was born in Charlotte, NC). Noted for the humor and candor that he brings to his one-man, low production films about his angst-filled life, McElwee’s significant works are collected in The Ross McElwee DVD Collection. These are personal works that meditate on existential and universal themes: death, birth, love and family.


Becoming Made

We are always pleased at KPL to include in our collections the work of local authors and artists. A recent addition is Becoming Made: The Artist and a Japanese Woodblock Print, a documentary film by local artist—and now filmmaker—Mary Brodbeck. This short but jam-packed film follows the creation of a Japanese woodblock print from start to finish, complete with information about the technique, its history, and Brodbeck’s personal journey toward working in this medium. We learn from Brodbeck’s own Japanese teacher; we are enlightened by interviews with other woodblock artists; we are even inspired by the lyrical thoughts of poet/philosopher Mark Nepo on the idea of slowing down…something that clearly became part of the artistic process for Brodbeck in mastering this technique. And the inspiration she takes from her own personal experiences living near the Great Lakes makes her work particularly appealing to those of us who share that love.

Becoming Made has had several public screenings in Kalamazoo recently. If you had the opportunity to see it already, I encourage you to check out a copy at KPL and watch it again. You’re bound to catch something you didn’t see or hear the first time.

And if you haven’t seen it yet but you have even a passing interest in art, filmmaking, and/or personal transformation and spirituality, I promise there’s something in this film for you.


The Best 10 Films I've Seen Lately

March was a decent month for film viewing as I've finally gotten around to seeing some high quality documentaries like The Pleasures of Being Out of Step. Here are some other highlights for your consideration.

10. Fox Catcher

9. Top Five

8. Force Majeure

7. Boy Meets Girl

6. The Overnighters

5. Life Itself

4. Days of Being Wild

3. The Internet's Own Boy

2. The Soft Skin

1. A Summer's Tale (Eric Rohmer may not be as well known as his French New Wave compatriots Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut but this late film (1996), finally released in the United States, proved his knack for chatty characters on scenic locales could still elicit charming insights about youthful romance and relationships thirty years after his peak.  

 


The Overnighters

The Oscar-nominated documentary The Overnighters is a deeply entralling work that focuses its sympathetic lens upon one pastor’s complicated mission to serve the needy and “broken” men of a small North Dakota boom town. Confronted with both his zealous need to serve as a Christian and a church and community increasingly frustrated and suspicious of his motivations, Pastor Jay Reinke is forced to engage the truths of his own brokenness and hypocrisy. What appears at first as an examination of the personal and social costs of the fracking industry’s impact upon Williston, North Dakota, evolves into a provocative essay on the thorny relationships between Reinke, the community, his family, and the men he seeks to serve. This is one of the best documentaries of the year and one that plumbs the tragic intricacies of American society’s two most hegemonic forces—capitalism and religion with empathy and nuance.


Life Itself

Roger Ebert was once the most recognized film critic in the United States. From the time he won a Pulitzer Prize for his criticism in 1975 through the conclusion of his successful weekly television program At the Movies (co-hosted with Gene Siskel until 1999), Ebert established himself as the nation's most powerful pundit. Famous for he and Siskel's trademarked phrase "thumbs up", Ebert past away in 2013 after multiple bouts with cancer that left him without his jaw or the ability to speak.

A brand new documentary by Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, provides an excellent survey of Ebert's professional accomplishments while also covering Ebert's colorful personal life, providing intimate details about his complicated relationship with Siskel, his years as a hard drinking journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times and his midlife marriage to Chaz Hammelsmith, who he married in 1992.  


Women's History Month Highlights

March is Women’s History Month and so in keeping with the theme of highlighting the achievements and contributions of women involved with movie-making, here’s a list of writers, directors and some of their groundbreaking works.

Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere, Selma)
Agnes Varda (Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond)
Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty)
Lena Dunham (Girls, Tiny Furniture)
Maya Deren (Maya Deren: Experimental Films)
Penny Marshall (A League of Their Own)
Allison Anders (Border Radio)
Claire Denis (White Material, Bastards)
Chantal Akerman (From the Other Side, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles)
Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher)
Ida Lupino (The Hitchhiker)
Elaine May (The Birdcage, A New Leaf)


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).


Year End Favorites from the Movie Collection

The following were my favorite movies of the past year that are available from the KPL movie collection. Some are classics, many are foreign language, a few are funny, and on occasion, a masterpiece or two made the list. There were also the casual discoveries of pulling a movie from the shelf without knowing that much about it and being pleasantly surprised. Hopefully, there's something for everyone to enjoy. It was a good year to cross off a few from my ever-growing bucket list of movies to watch.

The Funny: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Bull Durham, The Big Chill, Bad Words, and The Trip to Italy

The Masterpieces and Classics: Safe, Rififi, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Vanishing, Persona, Double Indemnity, Eternity and a Day, Autumn Sonata, Pierre le Fou, Down By Law, Walkabout, Brute Force, The American Friend, Johnny Guitar, Ida, Hail Mary

The Surprises: Omar, Certified Copy, The Landlord, Black Orpheus, The Double, Still Walking, Secret Sunshine, Purple Noon, Gerry, Mystery Train, Happy Together, 2046, Captain Philips, Bronson

Documentaries: Black Fish, The Punk Singer, Beware Mr. Baker, Benjamin Smoke, The Bones Brigade: An Autobiography, These Birds Walk, Plimpton, The Armstrong Lie, Cousin Jules, Harry Dean Stanton.     

     

 


The Punk Singer

In 1992 I had the good fortune to have seen the punk band Bikini Kill play at a small club in Chicago. They blew me away with their loud, raw and unfiltered brand of punk rock feminism. Looking back now, I can see how necessary they were at that particular moment, that their commitment to empowering women within the punk scene and raising issues and consciousness was a much needed alternative to the mostly-male dominated culture that existed in the early 1990's. The group’s culture-changing anthems struck a chord (pun intended) with men and women alike (both negatively and positively), especially the lyrics and style of their brash singer Kathleen Hanna. Looking back with fond nostalgia for a time period and cultural milieu that I had experienced firsthand, I was eager to see The Punk Singer, an entertaining film that examines Kathleen Hanna's shape shifting contributions toward changing the punk scene's attitude toward women. Recommended for fans of underground punk music of the early 1990's and those wanting to learn more about the history of the Riot Girl movement.