Staff Picks: Movies
Staff-recommended viewing from the KPL catalog.
Learning of James Gandolfini's untimely passing, my thoughts turned not to his iconic role as Tony Soprano, but his recent performance in Sopranos creator David Chase's directorial film debut, Not Fade Away, one of the most honest and under-rated movies ever made about rock and roll. Though seeing Gandolfini as a New Jersey businessman, struggling to keep peace in his suburban home with his wife and children, stirs up memories of his better-known TV family man, his film father and TV father lead quite different lives.
Set in the 1960's, the film's focus is on his son, a budding musician who gives up his college education, funded by his father and an ROTC scholarship, as his rock and roll outfit, heavily influenced by the blues-based Rolling Stones, gains increasing local popularity, which leads all the members to believe they can make it to the big-time, despite the many ego clashes and professional miscalculations that derail their journey. (If this sounds a bit like the plot of That Thing You Do, be aware that the dramatic tone of Not Fade Away is much heavier, and, to me, much more realistic. The heightened realism is aided, in no small part, by the soundtrack chosen by the film's music director, Steve Van Zandt.)
All the storied culture clashes that accompanied the '60's rock revolution are on display here in their most intimate manifestations, most poignantly in the relationship between father and son. Gandolfini's character wants his son to take the career direction originally agreed upon, but as his son's ambitions grow, and his parental norms can no longer be reconciled with his son's evolving belief systems, he comes to accept the break instead of denying it, which helps to mend their strained relationship. Such sweetness is not the Soprano way.
An especially close dinner conversation between father and son in the film's third act, as well as a scene late in the film where the father bids a farewell to his son that may or may not be final, pack an emotional wallop that hit even harder now in the wake of Gandolfini's passing. Thankfully, we have this film, among many others (not to mention the now-legendary TV series), to keep his screen presence from ever fading away.
Not Fade Away
For many Pixar fans, the original Cars was the least interesting addition to the studio's impeccable feature film canon on its initial release. At over two hours, its length may be a factor in viewers’ disdain, but I’d also guess that prejudices against NASCAR and Larry the Cable Guy play a part. Circle racing’s not for everyone (though neither is French cuisine cooked up by rats – the overwhelming praise for Ratatouille still perplexes me).
No circle racing in Cars’ sequel – it’s been ditched for the fictional World Grand Prix road race, moving the action to some of the world's great cities and their frantic pace, and away from Radiator Springs and most of its inhabitants (and the small-town ideals of the original film’s storyline). The main Cars characters found here – race car sensation Lightning McQueen and his trusty, rusty sidekick Mater – get tangled up in an international espionage plot worthy of the James Bond franchise (Mater’s mistaken for a spy, which causes trouble on and off the track between him and Lightning, until… well, like Bond films, do the plot details really matter?).
Ultimately, Cars 2’s returning characters suffer the same fate as the Beatles in Help! – they end up as extras in their own movie. The similarities between the films is striking – the goofy protagonist (Ringo, Mater) works and plays with friends in exotic locales (the Beatles’ proto-video performances, Lightning and Mater’s racing set-pieces) while unwittingly being pursued by a variety of good and bad guys led by award-winning actors (Leo McKern, Michael Caine). The results are similar as well – anyone not having seen the previous film (A Hard Day’s Night, Cars) may have no emotional attachment to the characters on-screen.
Cars 2 isn’t really a bad film – animation is top-notch as always, and if you’re really into spy flicks loaded with action, you may enjoy it without ever having watched the original. Still, since strong emotional attachment to characters in Pixar films is a primary source of those films’ greatness, Cars 2’s inability to sustain that attachment makes it the least of the studio’s feature film efforts to date.
Produced by Nickelodeon studios – which gave the world SpongeBob and slime – Rango was heavily promoted on Nick’s cable channel (and elsewhere) just prior to its theatrical release last March. Why not? The film is populated by talking animals, its lead character (voiced by Johnny Depp, star of Rango director Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean series) is naively charming and quirky, and, hey, it’s animated! Must be a kids’ flick.
Not so fast. It’s not that kids won’t enjoy Rango – my first-grader did – it’s just that Rango may really be a cult film for adults disguised as a kids’ flick. (Yes, my kid enjoyed it, but didn’t talk about it much past the day we saw it.) While most decent kids’ films in the last decade have plenty of references kids may not get, the entirety of Rango will make the most sense to adults who have grown up with, well, films for grown-ups.
Our hapless title hero, a domesticated lizard who, like Bolt and so many other animated big-screen pets, gets separated from his cushy lifestyle in the film’s opening moments, is thrown into a gritty western scenario more evocative of Anthony Mann than Woody’s Roundup. Townspeople are terrorized by villains who control the town’s water supply (shades of Chinatown), so when the goofy stranger arrives on the scene, they look to him as their last great hope (echoes of High Noon). Nothing here the kids can’t enjoy, but what’s up with that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reference?
Rango’s classic western types are thoroughly engaging characters that should have their audience really caring about their fates, whether or not it cares about westerns. That said, familiarity with the western genre should make the film even more enjoyable. If that sounds like your kind of film, then don’t wait for the kids to pick it up from our collection.
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?