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Staff Picks: Movies

The Prestige

Director Christopher Nolan's 2006 film, the head spinning (and very underrated) The Prestige, is comprised of one twist and turn after another. It's both a fun and cerebral film that doesn't compromise its creative integrity for cheap, Hollywood cliches. In fact, there are plenty of philosophical subjects and meta-cinematic ideas that Nolan subtly weaves throughout the knotty plot that features two magicians battling for illusionist supremacy around 1900. Actors Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are turn of the century showman who trade in secrecy and misdirection and so when their competitive relationship turns violently hostile after the death of Jackman's wife, the increasingly ratcheted up tit for tat can only lead toward tragedy, obsession and betrayal.

My Favorite Films--Z

And finally...

( Z) Zodiac

Director David Fincher is to the psychological thriller what Christopher Nolan is to the science fiction genre—a guy who can make thoughtful, well-constructed popcorn movies with wide appeal that don’t surrender artistic integrity or craftsmanship along the way. Aside from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, much of his oeuvre tends to lean toward dark and ominous stories (and that includes his fictional portrait of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network). His 2007 film Zodiac tackles the infamous story of a serial killer who randomly picked out his victims while taunting the media and police in the process. To this day, the mystery of the killer’s identity and motivation has remained unsolved. With strong performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr., Fincher’s Zodiac deserves to be mentioned alongside his other classic films Seven, The Game and Fight Club

'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.


My Favorite Films--T

As part of a series of 26 posts...

(T) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

I first came across The Treasure of the Sierra Madre from reading about some of the cinematic influences of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood. It’s a classic adventure film with dramatic depth and a great cast including a gritty, atypically inelegant Humphrey Bogart. Four desperate men hole up in the Mexican mountains hoping to strike it rich by mining for gold. The claustrophobic working and living conditions and the high stakes strain produced from constant suspicion and personal greed leads to a dramatic boiling point that will likely result in a violent resolution.  


My Favorite Films--L

An ongoing post about 26 of some of my favorite films...

(L) Lone Star

More than just your average murder mystery, Lone Star is one of the best films from indie director John Sayles. Years ago I described the film to a friend as being very "American" in that it depicts the ways in which the nation's historical injustices  continue to inform our present times along racial lines, contested borders, and unacknowledged interconnectedness. 

My Favorite Films--K

Part of an ongoing series of posts...

(K) The Killing

The Killing is one of director Stanley Kubrick’s early films (1956) and while it may not receive the critical attention that his later masterpieces secure (Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining), it holds up as a thrilling, tautly-paced, narratively complex (The great pulp writer Jim Thompson wrote the script) robbery film with an amazing ensemble cast led by Sterling Hayden. What makes The Killing such a noir classic is how the plot cleverly snakes about the amazing dialogue and strong performances, leaving audiences on the ends of their seat all the way to the final scene. Also available to stream through Hoopla.

Movies Within Movies

The newest Coen Brothers film Hail, Caesar! is out now in theaters which got me thinking about other films (and they are numerous) that are essentially films within a film or in some cases films about filmmaking, the industry of Hollywood or that meditate upon the artistic process. Here is a small list of seminal meta-movies that situate the subject of cinema as their primary focus.

Sunset Boulevard
Day for Night
8 ½
Singin’ in the Rain
The Artist
Barton Fink
Mulholland Drive
Get Shorty

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
Black Narcissus
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Rome Open City