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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.


Nothing Is What It Seems

One of the most significant and original British directors of the post-war era, Nicolas Roeg has carved out a unique and influential oeuvre, making radically inventive films that advanced the grammar of cinema. Narratively complex and often puzzling films that work like mosaics, his films tend to have very powerful images and enigmatic shifts in tone that work to foster unease and uncertainty. Known for innovations in plotting, sound effects and editing, Roeg’s most well-known movies are his finest beginning in 1970 with the beguiling Performance, starring Mick Jagger. Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1975), Bad Timing (1980), and Insignificance (1985) have all been deemed by critics as significant contributions to movie making for their adventurous, envelope-pushing qualities. The Criterion Collection has recently released arguably his best and most commercially successful film, the psychological thriller Don’t Look Now, a film so full of misdirection and subtle ambiguities, viewers will want to return again and again to plumb its possible meanings. The film, ostensibly about a grieving couple working through their trauma takes on a more sinister tone when viewers are confronted early on in the film with the possibility that “nothing is what it seems.” An absolute masterpiece without categorization.


God Help the Girl

For fans of the Scottish musical group Belle and Sebastian, it will come as no surprise that the recently released musical God Help the Girl is a film that mirrors the vision, style and conceptual interests of the band’s singer Stuart Murdoch. Murdoch wrote the music and the script as well as directing this charming, respectable first effort. Light on the maudlin and mawkish for a musical, yet a bit heavy on the “yeah right” moments, those who fall for the modish surface of the film and who already enjoy Belle and Sebastian’s tunes will embrace the film’s strengths while likely ignoring the uninspired story that centers on the forming of a pop group.


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.


1950's and 60's England

After a recent binge-watching of the fantastic BBC series Call the Midwife, I decided to explore other British films that were made or set in the post-war era, focusing my interest upon the 1950’s and early 60's, a time when England faced significant social and economic challenges. Many of these films depict the private trials of characters confronted by rigid class divisions within British society as well as the social and personal costs of having to rebuild after the war ended.

The Browning Version

The Horse’s Mouth—Before he played Obi-Wan in Star Wars, British actor Alec Guinness played a highly dedicated painter of loose moral fiber in this 1958 comedic romp.

The Deep Blue Sea—Terrence Davies’ most recent film is a tender, wonderfully acted and beautiful evocation of a married woman’s love for another man and the troublesome conflict between adhering to social norms or following one’s heart (see also: A Brief Encounter).

The Long Day Closes—This quintessential Terrence Davies film that put him on the cinematic map, is a semi-autobiographical portrait of a young man’s difficult and complicated engagement with adolescence. Gorgeously shot, edited and scored, this is Davies dreamy evocation of memory and nostalgia even when it delves deep into the sorrows of growing up during difficult times.

Of Time and the City

This Happy Breed

This Sporting Life

The Loneliness of the Long Distant Runner—A film about an angry young man’s struggle against social norms that tangentially raises critical questions about the legitimacy of authoritarian institutions that mediate relations between the haves and have not’s.

The Hour—Only two seasons long but a great BBC series that like Mad Men, depicts the emergence of an industry (television journalism) as it struggles to develop amid the ever present social anxiety and fear of Eastern Bloc communism. Loads of intrigue and plot twists!


The Remaining

I like rapture movies. Typically they spend the first hour letting you get to know the characters, giving you insight into the people’s lives so when the rapture comes you pretty much know who will be raptured and go up to heaven because they been good and who will remain on earth denied access to eternal life. They then spend 30 minutes showing people gone, typically just their clothes remain and how the people left are dealing with it.

The remaining is different it gives you 15 minutes to meet some people, it actually begins with a wedding and then boom the rapture happens. People just drop over dead, but in this movie the physical body is still here and they have these cloudy glazed over eyes, which gives it a creepy feel. Their souls have been released. The rest of the movie deals with the demons that come to torture those who are remaining. This is deemed a rapture/horror type movie and it lives up to its name. The message for those who remain is that you have to actually believe not just make a show of being religious. They have people left who went to church regularly and they even have a pastor, who was just going through the paces, not actually believing. For the next hour the demons attack the people that remain. Then some people start believing and they still die but they get to go to heaven. Check it out at KPL.


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.  

 


Gloria

Gloria loves to hit the dance floor at the singles club and the act of moving her body to music seems to open her up to both the joy and disappointment of life and that’s where we find her at both the beginning and ending of the movie. Set in Chile, Gloria follows a woman in her late fifties as she painfully twists and turns around the up’s and down’s of single life. Divorced for over a decade and with her adult children living independently, Gloria grows increasingly anxious about the passing of her golden years. She’s alone and looking for something or someone to fill the emotional gaps of her life. She believes that she has found a willing partner in Rodolfo, an older man that possesses the passion she’s looking to embrace. Actress Paulina Garcia puts in a brilliant performance as a woman of a “certain age” struggling to find stability and calm in the second act of her life.


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.