Sometimes a film just does not hit you in that sweet spot the first time around. You leave the theater disappointed or mulling over what could have been. Maybe it was you all along, your mood, your unwillingness to open up and let the film work its magic. I’ve hated films that I later came to love and respect after my initial dismissal. There are those films that grow on you and seem to get better with multiple viewings. The first time I saw Frances Ha, I moaned about its obvious influences and reference points (Godard, Truffault). The protagonist’s personality was a bit grating and I just couldn’t give in to the film’s cloying repackaging of the classics of the 60’s and 70’s it so self-consciously aped. It simply felt derivative, the kind of film where its style devours its substance. I recently gave it a second chance and have subsequently modified my early misgivings. I think the elements of the film I enjoyed the most were the editing and the choice to convert the digital footage into black and white. It’s quite the looker. Now there are a lot of movies not worth a first viewing let alone a second but sometimes there comes a long a film that deserves a reconsideration.
Le Havre is a wonderful film that I missed seeing when it first showed at WMU’s Little Theater several years ago. Named for a provincial city on the northern, French coast, the film is one of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s most warmhearted and charming. Known for his less is more approach to film making, his works tend to give birth to zany, working class characters whose expressions of both joy and futility come off as droll and darkly peculiar (fans of Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch will appreciate the brand of humor). Le Havre is a simple story: an elderly shoe shiner stumbles into a plot to hide a young, African boy from the authorities who seek his deportation. Ex “bohemian” Marcel Marx has a difficult enough time as it is in dealing with his critically ill wife. His newest project, one that he had not expected, is to safeguard with the help of his fellow townspeople, a young refuge named Idrissa, who is seeking to travel to London. With the authorities hot on his trail, Marcel keeps ahead of the fuzz with just enough assistance from Le Havre’s band of bartenders, rock musicians, and an unlikely detective. It’s a beautiful fantasy as much as it is a political fable about community and humanity.
One of the things I love about Kalamazoo is the Kalamazoo Film Society. Every month for the past 25 years, this great organization has brought a film to Kalamazoo that would otherwise not have been shown locally. The Society recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with two classic films: Federico Fellini's Amarcord, and Ingmar Bergman's Wild strawberries. Those screenings, earlier this month, were the last at the KFS's long-time home, WMU's Little Theatre. Due to the switch to digital projection, and the lack of the necessary equipment at the Little Theatre, the KFS has entered into a partnership with the Alamo Drafthouse, and will continue bringing great movies to Kalamazoo.
One of the things I love about the Kalamazoo Public Library is that we seem to get everything the KFS shows, allowing me to catch up on anything I missed on the big screen. If you haven't seen every single movie they've brought to town over the years, you can find a list of what they've shown that we've got, which at 196 items as of this writing, covers over 16 years.
As rabid a film watcher as I am, time restrictions will forever thwart my capacity to plow through KPL’s stellar movie collection but here is an abbreviated list of some of my favorite films from KPL’s collection, watched over the past year. While we add new releases each week, don’t forget about the diversified depth of our collection. We can’t purchase every movie that is requested or inquired about but we can work toward the goal of having most titles for most of our patrons, most of the time.
Upstream Color: With the exception of the increasingly abstract, fragmented and non-linear narratives of Terrence Malick, there have been few notable American films over the past decade or so that have attempted to remake the kind of Eurocentric, anti-classical/realist/romantic films of the 1960’s and 70’s (think: Godard, Bresson, Tarr, Tarkovsky, Resnais, Warhol, Antonioni). With Upstream Color, a sort of Hiroshima Mon Amour for our contemporary times, one hopes that young filmmakers will continue to take the value of abstraction seriously, reimagining it in new and thoughtful ways.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch: A film that came out (pun intended) way ahead of its time. It’s kind of an absurdist musical that is in-your-face bonkers, but bonkers in the most vital, transgressive and beautifully rebellious way. A postmodern Hair.
Young Adult: Charlize Theron gives a great performance as an unraveled mess of a person that attempts to transition from a life of boredom and narcissism toward a more complete, self-aware state where the adjective ‘young’ can finally wither away.
Sullivan’s Travels: I checked this film out because the great American director Preston Sturges’ name kept popping up in literature on director/writer Wes Anderson (a favorite of mine). This well-written and acted screwball comedy hits the mark and lives up to its acclaim as one of the 1940’s best films.
My Dinner with Andre: A film like few others--this conventions-busting mixture of fiction and nonfiction, storytelling and improvised riffing will either bore you into slumber or thrill you with its originality. We almost forget, due to the strong writing, that the great French autuer Louis Malle was its director.
Insignificance: I’m still not sure I ‘get’ this peculiar film but it was certainly compelling, the way in which a film can unfold as both an irritant and a puzzling enigma.
Hiroshima Mon Amour: Before I saw this Alain Resnais masterpiece about memory, love and loss, I considered Harold and Maude my favorite film. Now it’s number two.
12 Angry Men: Watch this fictional, court room drama and then the documentary The Central Park Five. The very notion of facts, evidence, justice and human objectivity are brilliantly rendered as a hollow collection of outdated concepts with tragic application.
Hunger: Not to be mistaken with Steve McQueen’s first film about the imprisonment of IRA soldiers of the same name but rather the nimble and haunting adaptation of the classic, existential novella by Danish writer Knut Hamsun.
Summer with Monika: Arguably, my favorite film of Bergman’s but nowhere near his best. That distinction belongs to his magnum opus Scenes from a Marriage, a film that should only be approached by the single and the happily married couple.
Rules of the Game: My goal for movie watching this year was to view a handful of those classics considered important to the historical development of the art form according to the Sight and Sound Magazine’s list of 250 Greatest Films; a list created every ten years by an esteemed cadre of critics. Renoir’s masterpiece (rated at No. 4) is there for a reason and its influence can be seen in almost every film made since 1939 that skewers the vacuity of the rich and clueless.
La Jetee/Sans Soleil: Made by maverick film essayist Chris Marker, these two films are quite distinct from one another in both content and style. Both represent the best in avant-garde, envelope-pushing cinema that emerged parallel with the various manifestations of the European New Wave movement.
Picnic at Hanging Rock: This 70’s cult classic by Peter Weir still holds up as a truly original film that tackles the subject of loss, regret and repressed longing, all of which are tied to a mystery that leaves an Australian women’s school in shock and confusion.
Other notable films: L’ Avventura, Stroszek, Bringing Up Baby, Amarcord, The Killing, Neighboring Sounds, Damnation, The Lives of Others, Magnificent Ambersons, Harvey, Pat and Mike, The Third Man, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Searchers, Elevator to the Gallows, As I Lay Dying, Cleo from 5 to 7, Frances Ha, The Silence, Winter Light, Cries and Whispers, Blast of Silence, Through a Glass Darkly, Argo, Shallow Grave, Band of Outsiders, Fanny and Alexander, Mud, Harry and Tonto, Chasing Ice, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
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:
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?
The Guard is a dark comedy set in a small town in Ireland. It's also a throwback buddy film where two cops from different backgrounds work together to fight crime while insulting eachother. It has its tender moments but for the most part, The Guard is all about the genre and complying with the dictates of cliche. The great character actor Don Cheadle plays an uptight FBI agent sent to provincial Ireland to bust a drug ring. Along the way, he encounters the eccentric and verbally unfiltered policeman Gerry Boyle, who has his own method of conducting police investigations. The two bristle at one another’s approach, disliking the other’s personality but like all buddy films, they come to find common ground in bringing the bad guys to justice.
For a guy who insists he’s deliberately “doing nothing” with his life, Greenberg’s title character (Ben Stiller) keeps pretty busy. He’s building a doghouse for his brother’s pet while housesitting for him; he's constantly penning letters to businesses expressing his dissatisfaction with the most minute details of their services; he takes up an offer from women half his age to go on a deep-sea diving expedition in Australia, despite the fact that he’s a terrible swimmer.
From the sounds of it, this quirky, aging slacker’s screen saga – last June's Kalamazoo Film Society selection - might make for light viewing with plenty of laughs, except for one detail – Greenberg’s trying to deal with life outside an institution, from which he’s recently been released after recovering from a breakdown of an unspecified nature. Watching his brother’s house, in a city he left behind years ago, gives him an opportunity to reconnect with members of his old social circle, but since social norms are no longer a constraint for him, the expression of his feelings and impulses can be cause for embarrassment, pain, and alienation, as well as a certain poignancy (and laughs – this is still a comedy). Greenberg’s caught in a vicious cycle of feeling discomfort, which feeds others’ discomfort, which further feeds his own.
Stiller’s pitch-perfect performance – not too wacky, not too angst-ridden – is beautifully complemented by Greta Gerwig’s performance as his brother’s assistant, a woman in her mid-twenties whose impulsive life reflects Greenberg’s own. The two forge a tentative bond that’s constantly tested throughout the film, and one wonders if the bond can possibly last when both people live so in the moment. As with the best character-study films, Noah Baumbach’s latest doesn’t force-feed any resolutions – it’s simply enough to watch these characters try to make sense of their lives, even when they don’t live them sensibly... but who does?
If you have yet to discover our collection of movies that have been shown by the Kalamazoo Film Society you should go and check out the list. Recently I watched The Band's Visit, a short film about an Egyptian Police Band who travels to Israel to play at an Arab Cultural Center opening. The language barrier results in the band taking the wrong bus and they end up in a remote Israeli village with no hotel and no hope of a return bus ride until the next day. What results is an interesting and hilarious night when the tensions between Egyptian and Israeli slip away in favor of semi-romantic dates, roller skating and birthday parties. Both parties not only learn something about the other's country, but also themselves. It was not hard to believe that this film has won over 35 international film awards because it is a lesson in cross-cultural differences.
The Band's Visit
Over the past 20 years, British movie and theater director Mike Leigh has produced a critically praised body of work that artfully investigates the gritty despair and grim lives of his working class characters. His most well-known and admired films include Naked, Vera Drake, Topsy-Turvy, and Secrets and Lies.
His newest movie Happy-Go-Lucky has garnered the positive attention of film critics for the performance of the film’s leading actress, Sally Hawkins. Playing this weekend at WMU’s Little Theater, moviegoers may just find out what the secret to happiness is and whether or not Leigh has lightened up from his usually, serious and bleak depictions of British life.
Many movies are easily forgotten. But some, such as The Lives of Others (originally released in German as Das Leben der Anderen), leave me in a state of quiet astonishment that lingers for a long time. I saw this award-winning work one year ago when it was presented by the Kalamazoo Film Society and I still can’t forget it. Yes, it's that good.
Set in Germany shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, The Lives of Others concerns a playwright and his actor girlfriend and the Stasi agent assigned to conduct surveillance of the couple. You couldn’t find two men more different than these: the passionate artist who has managed to live a full life within the constraints of the Communist system, and the Stasi agent who has no life of his own.
This will be no typical surveillance assignment. As the agent listens in on the playwright and his girlfriend, his life begins to change, a sort of familiarity-bred contempt in reverse that affects the agent’s life and his allegiances and that eventually propels everyone past a point of no return.
A beautiful story that is superbly acted and directed, The Lives of Others is a movie you won't forget.
The Lives of Others