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Staff Picks: Movies

Queen of Earth

Nobody would ever want to be stuck on a train with a character from an Alex Ross Perry film and yet there’s something jabbing and arresting about his work. They’re pitilessly narcissistic, emotionally impaired individuals who are so lacking in self-awareness and empathy, that audiences are likely to want to leap through the screen so as to shake them from their self-absorption. They also function as absurdist vessels for sly, hilariously dark humor. His newest film, Queen of Earth, is a stylistic and tonal leap from his previous film Listen Up Philip. While Perry is certainly charting his own discrete path in an age of Hollywood re-treads, blockbuster franchises, book adaptations, and sanitized biopics, his newest work feels in many ways like the child of two previously made psycho-dramas, Ingmar Bergman’s beguiling Persona (1966) and Roman Polanski’s unsettling Repulsion (1965).

Elizabeth Moss gives an electric performance as a woman slowly descending toward a psychic breakdown over the course of several days while vacationing at a friend’s lake house. The strained relationship between Moss’ Katherine and her friend Virginia leads to questions which may or may not have answers connected to events during the previous summer. One vicious, verbal battle after another between the two antagonistic women and the peripheral men in their lives drives the film’s plot forward with Moss' character growing increasingly erratic.

With a throw-back score, overwrought but necessarily so, that sounds as though it was taken straight from a 1980’s horror film pulsating throughout the film, Perry juxtaposes the film’s bucolic setting with a murky, sinister tone that works to discomfit viewers and their narrative bearings, throwing them off the trail of what kind of movie they’re watching. Is it a horror film or a comedy or something in between? These are the sort of questions I hope Perry continues to ask of his audiences.


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.


10 Films from the 1940s

It was the decade fraught with world war and its aftermath, the decade that ushered into homes a little box with moving images, the decade that saw the birth of American consumerism, and the decade that gave us cinematic masterpieces like Citizen Kane, Bicycle Thieves, Casablanca, The Third Man, and Double Indemnity. Here are 10 other classic films from the decade worth checking out.

The Philadelphia Story
The Big Sleep
The Best Years of Our Lives
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Maltese Falcon
Lady Eve
Notorious
Black Narcissus
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Rome Open City


Sicario

Denis Villenueve is a director who trades in discomfiting ambiguities and psychic dread. His films function to blur and haze, confuse and de-center the viewer’s grasp of truth and intention. Right and wrong and black and white are erased with an opaque bleakness that doesn’t make for light-hearted viewing of his films. His gripping film Prisoners grappled with the moral implications of revenge and torture. His next film, one even more vague and unsettling, was Enemy, an intense, arty take on the theme of doubling. His newest film Sicario contains the disquieting menace that courses throughout his work. With excellent performances given by Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin, Sicario draws the viewer into the muddy border matrices, nihilism and violence of the drug war between Mexican cartels and the U.S. government.


The Master of Suspense

Later this Spring, a documentary filmed called Hitchcock/Truffaut (based upon the seminal book) will once again draw our attention to the brilliant career of arguably the art form’s most important director. Over the last couple of years, his life and career have been the subject of two different films (The Girl and Hitchcock). His 1958 psycho-drama Vertigo was deemed the number one “greatest” film by a collection of critics in 2012, replacing the once immovable Citizen Kane. Often deemed the ‘master of suspense’, Hitchcock’s influence can be seen in the work of filmmakers as different as Brian De Palma, Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and David Fincher. For the uninitiated, give the following classics a try: Pyscho (1960), The Birds (1963), Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954), North by Northwest (1959), and The 39 Steps (1935).


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.


Fuzzy Memories

Memory loss, amnesia and the human tendency to construct images and establish narratives in the service of making sense of the past has long fascinated filmmakers, writers and artists. The ‘unreliable narrator’ has been employed by many a director and writer to create a world of uncertainty and suspense within the mind of the viewer. I enjoy films that explore the discontinuity and fallibility of our memories in the service of depicting the unstable character of our perception toward others, including our own limitations of understanding of the self. This depiction of the cruelty of unpredictability has found its way inside the DNA of countless films that have dealt with the subject in varied ways, some through the vehicle of a character’s mind and others through a narrative approach.

Hiroshima Mon Amour
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Memento
Away from Her
Total Recall
Trance
Before I Go to Sleep
The Vow
Last Year at Marienbad
The Bourne Trilogy
Dark City
The Long Kiss Goodnight


Best Sequels

From the November/December issue of Film Comment comes the magazine’s always provocative “Film Comment’s Trivial Top 20” list, curated by their contributors. What do you think? 

Best Sequels
1. The Godfather: Part II
2. Dawn of the Dead
3. The Empire Strikes Back
4. Before Sunset
5. The Bride of Frankenstein
6. For a Few Dollars More
7. Toy Story 2
8. Gremlins 2: The New Batch
9. Aliens
10. Evil Dead II
11. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
12. Mad Max 2 aka The Road Warrior
13. A Shot in the Dark
14. Mad Max: Fury Road
15. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
16. Sanjuro
17. From Russia with Love
18. Aparajito
19. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
20. French Connection II


White God

The 2015 Hungarian film White God is part R-rated fairy tale, part coming of age narrative, part allegory, and part revenge thriller. If this sounds tonally uneven, you’d be spot on in your analysis. These seemingly disparate constituents do by the end, congeal to form an interesting if not imperfect film. Set in a city that has banned mixed dog breeds, a young girl hopelessly searches for her pet after her father abandons the dog along the side of the road. Needless to say, the abused and demonized dogs in this town aren't going to take it sitting down and thus the element of getting even courses throughout. The film on the level of directing and dog training certainly deserves the acclaim it has received given the amazing results without the use of CGI.


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.